When the English expanded overseas, they brought their style of governing with them. Each of the British colonies in North America was a little England that imitated the power structure back home. In a typical colony, the ultimate, absolute authority was held by the royal governor representing the king. A local parliament represented the collective will of the colonists. The upper house of this legislature, the council, was appointed by the crown from among the leading citizens of the colony for advice and discussion; the lower house, the assembly, was elected by men of means to vote on laws and policy. The legislature met maybe once a year to approve laws and allocate funds for local matters. Then they went home and left the day-to-day administration to the governor.
Despite having a superficial appearance of self-government, the colonial legislatures mostly acted as advisory bodies, and the royal governors took their orders from the crown. By the mid-1700s the colonies were halfway into a second century of existence but all power was still in the hands of the British government across the Atlantic. Then a particularly exhausting colonial war against the French and Indians ended in 1763 with Britain in control of everything east of the Mississippi River - and also in a lot of debt. The crown tried to shift some of its defense costs onto the colonials. As a precaution against another outbreak of war, the British stationed thousands of fresh soldiers in American cities. To support these troops, the crown unilaterally imposed fresh taxes and often housed the soldiers in private homes.
However, by now, the colonists had decided that with the French gone, there was no longer any reason for them to support the crown’s expensive military-industrial complex. The colonials invoked the ancient English traditions that private property cannot be seized without proper legal procedures, and that all new taxes had to be approved by representatives of the people first.
For the next decade, Americans and English shoved each other back and forth in their debate over money. First the crown slapped a new tax on sugar, then one on legal documents. Colonists protested. New taxes were imposed on imports. The colonists organized boycotts. Parliament created a monopoly on tea to prop up the East India Company. Colonists in disguise seized and dumped a cargo of tea into Boston Harbor. A riot between townsmen and soldiers at the Boston Customs House left five civilians dead. Eventually the crown just closed the port of Boston to teach the colonials a lesson. By now, anger was on full boil and the colonists were forming secret militias to challenge the crown if it came to that.
In September 1774, representatives of twelve colonies gathered in Philadelphia for a month to try to work out a coordinated plan of action as the First Continental Congress. There were actually twenty British colonies in North America, but five to the north and three to the south were less inclined to challenge the crown, mostly because their colonial populations were too small to be self-sufficient, either economically or militarily; The discontent was strongest in the big stretch of large settlements running down the Atlantic coast from New Hampshire to South Carolina. These were feeling more rambunctious and willing to follow their anger to its logical conclusion.
Most colonial governors blocked their legislatures from meeting to gripe about the latest outrages, but this only drove them to meet elsewhere, deeper inland away from royal meddling. Forced out of the official capital at Williamsburg, the Virginia legislature met illegally in Richmond in March 1775, where, amid heated discussion, Patrick Henry rose to deliver an impassioned and stirring speech that no one wrote down. A few days later James Parker of Norfolk wrote to a friend that "You never heard anything more infamously insolent than P Henry’s speech. He called the King a Tyrant, a fool, a puppet & tool to the Ministry, Said there was now no Englishmen, no Scots no Britons, but a Set of Wretches Sunk in luxury, they had lost their native courage and (were) unable to look the brave Americans in the face.”
That is the only contemporary eyewitness account that’s come down to us. Forty years later, long after Patrick Henry was dead and surviving witnesses had grown forgetful, a highly fictionalized biography of Henry reported a more refined and quotable version based on one old man’s recollection:
“… Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”Ⓐ
In April 1775, the governor of Massachusetts sent royal troops of the regular army from Boston to arrest the noisiest troublemakers and seize the colonial militia’s stockpile of weapons before things got out of hand. The colonials got wind of it and sent riders overnight to warn the militia of the governor’s plan, so by the time the regulars arrived at Lexington, local troops were waiting for them. Both sides exchanged shots, and the outnumbered militia fell back. At Concord, a larger rebel force was waiting, and this time the regulars were driven back. Being unsupported deep in enemy territory, they retreated to Boston, harried the whole way by rebel snipers.
Colonial militia soon arrived from up and down the Atlantic seaboard and surrounded Boston. Congress picked the tallest person they could find to command the Continental Army - George Washington, a wealthy Virginia planter with an impressive bearing and combat experience against the French. The colonial troops under Washington occupied the high ground around Boston and resisted attempts to drive them away. When they finally manhandled cannons into strategic positions overlooking the British lines, the royal troops abandoned Boston and sailed away.
That wasn’t the end by any means. The British navy was able to drop new armies anywhere on the American coast without much trouble. The rebels might scramble to react to each new threat, but usually too late and without much success. The British took New York in 1776, Philadelphia in 1777, Newport and Savannah in 1779 and Charleston in 1780; however, George Washington managed to hold the Continental Army together through all its ups and downs. Whenever the British marched inland the Americans could usually get ahead of them (or behind or around them) and score some decisive victories. The British quickly found it unwise to linger inland for very long.
The Second Continental Congress (now representing thirteen colonies since Georgia decided to join them) had been meeting in Philadelphia since May 1775. After a full year of fighting between the crown and the rebels, there was too much bloodshed behind them to forgive and forget. The colonies would have to see it out to the end, so on June 7th 1776, Richard Henry Lee offered Congress a resolution of independence to consider. The final vote was postponed a few weeks while Thomas Jefferson was asked to draft a public declaration, and all the delegates wrote home for instructions from their states. Meanwhile, Samuel Adams, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin frantically tried to scrounge enough votes to finalize independence.
Every Fourth of July, Americans whoop and shoot their guns in the air to celebrate their freedom, and woe to any pedantic historian who dares to tell them they’ve got the wrong day, but the vote for independence actually occurred on July 2, 1776 when Lee’s resolution passed Congress. On the evening of the Second of July, the Pennsylvania Evening Post reported, “This day the Continental Congress declared the united colonies free and independent states.” On July 3, in awe at being present for such an occasion, John Adams excitedly wrote home to his wife:
"The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America…. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more."Ⓑ
A couple of days later, Congress approved Jefferson’s list of grievances that explained to the world why they were taking such a drastic step. Because this Declaration of Independence was intended as an open letter to all mankind, it argued eloquently and persuasively about the inalienable rights of man. Generations of Americans have studied it as deeply as holy scripture -- and with that extremely memorable “In Congress, July 4, 1776” emblazoned across the top, that’s the day everyone remembers.ⓒ
That’s just the first quibble. As countless rebels have learned throughout history, merely declaring independence doesn’t make it so. It wasn’t until Britain relinquished control and signed the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783 that the United States became a fully accredited member of the community of nations.
It took a lot of fighting to get to that point, but by capturing one large British army in 1778 deep inland at Saratoga, New York, the Americans finally convinced the rest of the world that they were indeed a viable nation. The French had been enemies of the English from time immemorial, so they had been happy to supply guns and money to the rebels right from the start if it hurt the British. Now that the Americans looked like they could actually win, the French were willing to commit soldiers and warships as well. This turned the tide. After one large British army marauding in Virginia withdrew to the coast at Yorktown for resupply, the French fleet chased away the British fleet, which allowed French and American troops under Washington to close off the landward side and bring the British army under siege, forcing it to surrender in October 1781. The loss of yet another army convinced the British that they’d never be able to gain the upper hand across a wide enough stretch of territory to crush the rebellion.
During all these years of conflict, King George III had kept the war going with steely determination against growing opposition in Parliament. The king consistently supported and coordinated war policies with Lord Frederick North, Prime Minister of Great Britain since January 1770. The liberal wing of the Whigs had always been in favor of a more conciliatory policy toward the Americans and was horrified when the crisis spun out of control into a shooting war; however, it never could mobilize enough votes in parliament to enforce its disapproval until after the defeat at Yorktown. With the loss at Yorktown, Lord North was finally forced out by a vote of no confidence in March 1782 (the first time in history), signaling Parliament’s determination to end the war.
The United States of America now emerged as a free republic, the first of its kind, based solidly on the principles of the Enlightenment.
The very first government of the United States operated under the Continental Association of 1774 which simply set up a mechanism for coordinating the colonial response to the developing crisis. When independence became a real possibility, the Articles of Confederation were drawn up in 1777, and ratified in 1781, creating a permanent national government, although the United States were still organized as a conference of independent equals with the loosest possible bond between the states. Every state delegation had a single vote in Congress. The delegates had to be reelected each year and they were expected to vote as their state government instructed. The continental government existed mostly for the purpose of coordinating foreign policy, and the president only acted as the chairman of Congress. Whenever the government needed to actually do something like buy guns or regulate imports, they created ad hoc committees for that purpose. Think of them as the United Nations instead of the United States.
It didn’t take long for everyone to see problems with the system. Federal action required nine of the thirteen states to agree, and even then, the federal government had no real power to keep the states in line. Cooperation with national policy was almost voluntary. State governments were doing whatever the local voters wanted without regard for their neighbors – printing stacks of unsupported paper money, canceling war debt, taxing trade with other states, settling discharged veterans on western land that didn’t actually belong to them. Meanwhile, the British and Spanish were encroaching on America’s western territory, and the federal army was too small and underfunded to chase them away. Almost everyone could see the need to strengthen the federal government in some way.
Delegates gathered in Philadelphia in May 1787 to restructure the American government. Chaired by George Washington, the Constitutional Convention was expected to produce a conservative blueprint since so many radical populists were busy elsewhere. For example Patrick Henry was home as governor of Virginia and Thomas Jefferson was away as minister to France. Also the general public was kept out and the proceedings were kept secret to avoid too much pressure from the mob. The final draft of the new constitution was released in September and sent around to all the states for approval. It took a lot of debate, discussion and dissection before enough votes were gathered in enough state legislatures for the new constitution to be ratified in 1788.
Keep in mind that, at this point in history, unrestrained democracy was seen as a historic failure. Both Greece and Rome has collapsed in fire and blood, replaced by mob rule and tyranny. Of course, this skips over the fact that democracy in both Athens and Rome had been rather successful for many years before that. However, in the minds of most Eighteenth Century statesmen, the ancient democracies were failures that should not be imitated. The ruling class would only approach popular rule with extreme caution. Liberal philosophers tried to assure everybody that, this time, they could install safeguards to make it work. This was the philosophic backdrop when the Americans tried to set up their government. You can see it some of the more arcane provisions of the Constitution, such as the Electoral College.
Even though the Framers studied several previous republican experiments, the new constitution didn’t stray too far from the familiar structure of the British government with its single chief executive, separate judiciary, and bicameral legislature elected geographically. From the Romans, the Framers took the idea of keeping power spread out across many hands while giving each branch of government the tools to stop abuses by the others.
The Constitution created a federal government that could act independently of the states, even against the states if it wanted. Each state had two senators in one legislative chamber and several representatives in another who were allowed to use their own judgment and vote however they saw fit instead of getting their instructions from the state government. The Constitution empowered the president to administer a permanent executive branch.
Everyone agreed that the legislature should be apportioned fairly and not according to accumulated quirks of history like the British parliament. Beyond that they disagreed. The big states obviously wanted voting strength in the national legislature to be determined by state population so their bigness would count extra. The small states wanted each state counted identically in the legislature so small size would not be a handicap. The Constitutional Convention compromised by having both. They set up two distinct chambers, one for each preference. The Senate represented the states equally and the House of Representatives represented the populace proportionally, and they both had to agree before anything could happen.
The new government certainly wasn’t democratic in the Athenian sense. It wasn’t even as democratic as the Roman Republic. In fact, they consciously tried to avoid the tendency of previous democracies to descend into mob rule by keeping power away from the people. Of the three branches of American government (Executive, Judiciary and Legislative), two full branches and half of the third were chosen indirectly, by other elected officials, at least one step removed from fickle popular opinion. Federal judges were the furthest from popular reach; they were appointed by the President and approved by the Senate, neither of whom was elected by the people either. The President was chosen by the Electoral College, a small ad hoc body of citizens selected by the states, equal in size to their congressional delegations but containing no federal officeholders of any type. Senators were selected by state legislatures. Only one half of the Legislative Branch (the House of Representatives) was chosen directly by the people.
The Framers also tried to buffer the government from popular whims by establishing long terms of office without limits, giving them plenty of time to settle in and get comfortable. The shortest term (two years in the House of Representatives) was twice as long as a Roman consul or any officeholder under the Articles of Confederation had served. Under the Constitution, judges served as long as they could draw breath, and senators only faced reelection every six years.
Because America had the modern world’s first republican constitution, right from the start it incorporated several notable innovations for good governance that theorists had been talking about for years. It made provisions for patents, bankruptcies, a post office, a national capital and a census. The capital was expected to be a small town where the legislature would briefly meet, discuss and vote before returning home. To avoid getting congressmen mixed up in local politics, the capital at Washington D.C. was not placed inside a state nor given its own government. Instead, the capital district was carved out of the borderlands of two states and placed under federal jurisdiction so no state could bully Congress as the volatile mobs of London, Paris or Rome were known to do with kings and popes. It was also planted in the middle of slave states so that southern representatives could freely bring their servants along.
Slavery was already turning up as a potential problem, even in something as simple as counting the population of each state in order to fairly allocate seats in the House of Representatives. The northern states argued that southern states should not get extra votes in congress simply because they had all those slaves. The voting strength of each state should be based on the number of people they actually treated as people. The southern states argued that population is population, and a state’s representation in Congress should be based purely on the number of inhabitants – men, women, and children, slave and free, citizen and foreigner -- most of whom didn’t vote anyway. In the end, the Convention compromised by counting slaves as three-fifths of a person in the finally tally of population. Because of this compromise, the South lost, for example, around 6 seats in the 1793 House and 11 seats in 1812. The slave states were willing to accept this reduction of their voting strength largely because it also reduced their federal tax burden, which was also determined by population.
Counting each slave as a less than a person looks really bad nowadays, but everyone misunderstands it. Most people now seem to think that black people only got 3/5 of a vote or 3/5 the pay. Maybe black people only got 3/5 the protection under law, and white people only received 3/5 of the punishment for victimizing them. But no, it’s nothing like that. The 3/5 rule only applied to slaves, and they had no votes, no pay and no protection under the law. Three-fifths would have been a welcome improvement. The issue was whether slave owners got to cast extra votes on behalf of their slaves. The three-fifths rule was a significant victory for the antislavery factions because it reduced the influence of the slave states by saying they could only cast votes for 3/5 of their slaves, not all of them.
Nowadays, we tend to consider the protection of human rights to be the cornerstone of a proper democracy, but rights were an afterthought to the Founding Fathers. The weeks of debating, writing and rewriting in Philadelphia dealt only with the structural distribution of power, so the American Constitution was passed without a guarantee of individual rights. Only after the Constitution was offered to the states for approval did anyone notice the absence of human rights. Radicals refused to ratify the document without some sort of guarantees. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, the principal advocates for the Constitution, tried to explain that a government responsible to the people would not, as a simple practical matter, be able to curtail liberties. Any abuses would be punished at the ballot box. The anti-federalists, however, insisted on a Bill of Rights, so Congress stapled ten human rights amendments to the end of the Constitution, protecting life, liberty and the pursuit of big game.
The first Electoral College unanimously elected George Washington as the obvious choice to be the first president under the 1789 Constitution. The Founders blamed the fall of the Roman Republic on the rise of factions and coalitions, and they certainly didn’t want to see that sort of thing in America. They hoped everyone in government would work together for the good of the nation. Adhering to this principle, President Washington brought as many diverse viewpoints into his government as possible. For the only time in American history, there was no organized opposition. Opponents sat next to each other in the cabinet. Soon, however, leaders began to disagree in regular, consistent and predictable ways. Despite everyone’s best efforts, factions began to coalesce around Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.
The new partisan split mostly divided federal from state interests, with businessmen largely favoring a strong central government that would create a stable and consistent commercial environment all across the country (Hamilton’s Federalist Party), while farmers favored leaving decisions in the hands of state governments which were more responsive to local interests (Jefferson’s Democrat-Republicans). At this point in history, most communities limited voting to men of property, so neither party represented the average working stiff.
Washington stepped down as president after 2 terms (8 years), which was probably his greatest contribution to American democracy. As we will see later, most founding fathers of new countries never go away.
For a while, the presidency got passed along the A-list of Founding Fathers roughly in order of seniority. George Washington was followed by John Adams (Federalist) who was followed by Thomas Jefferson (D-R) who was followed by James Madison (D-R). Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration as President of the United States in March 1801 represented the first time in modern history that democratic leadership was peacefully passed to the opposition party after a free election. At the time, many people were actually surprised that it went so smoothly, or indeed, that it happened at all. Nowadays, this is usually considered to final test of a nation’s democratic commitment, so it’s worth noting that it took the United States 25 years to get there. We should remember this in later chapters when it takes new democracies a few years to get the hang of it.
Even so, there were plenty of crazy days until the American Republic found its footing. The original plan for electing the president made sense on paper but almost immediately failed in practice. Every member of the electoral college cast two votes for any two people he wanted; the man with the most votes overall became president, the man with the second most votes became vice president. It was assumed that one vote would be a throwaway to placate the elector’s state government, while the other vote would be the elector’s real preference. Those votes should vary according to the level of nationwide respect felt towards individuals. In practice, votes were cast according to party preference with both members of the team receiving the same number of votes regardless of their individual popularity or home state. This soon led to a tie where the vice presidential candidate (Jefferson’s running-mate Aaron Burr) was almost elected president by accident in 1800. This threw the election into the House of Representatives, and required many shady deals to straighten out. The process was quickly changed to fill the two top posts via separate ballots after this.
Because no one knew how long the American Experiment would last, the new nation was also vulnerable to adventurers, malcontents and rivals picking away at it. After an escalating political feud sparked by the 1800 electoral mess, Vice-president Burr shot and killed Federalist Party boss Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Then Burr skipped town and tried to detach the western territories as his private empire. Meanwhile, James Wilkinson, the commanding general of the United States army and first governor of Louisiana Territory, was a spy on the Spanish payroll. Farmers on the frontier rose up in arms against the whiskey tax, and all the while, Indian wars and slave revolts kept the new country nervous.
The new republic kept testing the possibilities of democratic governing, and leaders quickly devised neat new ways to game the system. Although Americans had begun by hating party politics, it didn’t take long for them to realize the advantages of organizing their particular side into a coordinated voting block and then scheming to twist the odds in their favor. In 1812 Elbridge Gerry, the Democrat-Republican governor of Massachusetts and future vice-president, figured out that he could boost his side’s voting strength by drawing crazy district boundaries that squiggled all over the map, packing a strategic majority of his supporters into his district and cutting out his opponents. When someone noted that Gerry’s new district looked like a sprawling salamander, the term Gerrymander was born.
Ⓐ Stephen Olsen, “Patrick Henry’s Liberty or Death Speech: A Study in Disputed Authorship”, in Thomas W. Benson (ed.) American Rhetoric: Context and Criticism (SIU Press, 1989) pp.19 et seq.
Ⓑ Spelling and punctuation modernized
Ⓒ Technically speaking, the Declaration of Independence does not have legal authority. The Supreme Court pointed out in Cotting v. Godard, 183 U.S. 79 (1901) "Such declaration of principles may not have the force of organic law, or be made the basis of judicial decision as to the limits of right and duty… In all cases reference must be had to the organic law of the nation for such limits," In other words, although the Declaration is brilliant as philosophy, it's not actually The Law. Cases cannot be decided on the Declaration unless Congress passes a law that says the same thing. Or, as the slaves discovered, the phrase "all men are created equal" doesn't really mean that "all men are created equal".
Copyright © August 2017 by Matthew White