“What distinguishes the American Revolution from most, if not all, subsequent revolutions worthy of the name is that in the battle for supremacy, for the ‘true meaning’ of the Revolution, neither side completely triumphed.”
This was the observation of author and historian Joseph J. Ellis in the preface to his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.” He was explaining that the brothers’ revolutionary ideology had come naturally to that generation, but consensus on what it ultimately meant did not.
It seems to be a question on the verge of a reappearance.
This time of year, coming upon Saturday’s anniversary of when our fledgling country officially said “enough” to King George III, is always special here. From where we’re writing, one could walk to the site of the Battle of Brandywine. (OK, it’s a long walk, but you could.) The Battle of Germantown, the Battle of Paoli (or “the Paoli Massacre”), Valley Forge, Fort Mifflin -- we flash past these places every day.
So it is that summer reading is usually devoted to now-tattered history books that return us to the days and moments when nothing those guys were doing was certain to succeed. Once they did, they were left to pick up the pieces.
“In its most familiar form, dominant in the nineteenth century, the tension assumes a constitutional appearance as a conflict between state and federal sovereignty,” Ellis writes. “The source of the disagreement goes much deeper, however, involving conflicting attitudes toward government itself, competing versions of citizenship, differing postures toward the twin goals of freedom and equality.”
It wasn’t Ellis’s book we opened up this week, actually. It was the Federalist Papers. (Don’t get the wrong idea: It was either that or the July edition of Salt Water Sportsman magazine.)
What a beautiful mess. Eighty-five essays from Madison, Hamilton and Jay serialized in the press, arguing for true unity at a time when the fighting itself had concluded and, as mentioned above, what all the fighting had been for was still to be decided.
The fight we appear to be reanimating today came rushing up right away in Federalist No. 1, written by Hamilton (our founding generation’s understanding of commas was underdeveloped, and we left the spelling alone):
“Among the most formidable of the obstacles which the new Constitution will have to encounter, may readily be distinguished the obvious interest of a certain class of men in every State to resist all changes which may hazard a diminution of the power, emolument and consequence of the office they hold under the State-establishments -- and the perverted ambition of another class of men, who will either hope to aggrandise themselves by the confusions of their country, or will flatter themselves with fairer prospects of elevation from the subdivision of the empire into several partial confederacies, than from its union under one government.”
This was the postwar debate over whether we should even be a “United” States of America, whether a centralized government should even be entertained -- especially after what we’d just gone through -- even on the state level, let alone federally.
Either way, we have a lot of that now, people and beliefs and politics, and politicians all rowing their own boats.
Hamilton’s essay appeared on Oct. 27, 1787, but here’s a modern look at what “partial confederacies” engaging in “the confusions of their country” he might have been talking about. It will appear to be one-sided, but maybe there’s something behind that. - a House committee’s ban on funding research into gun violence - a pundit saying the Confederate flag represented something noble - a state law that makes it a crime to collect data about the condition of its environment and share it with the state or federal government - the activist group that inspired Dylann Roof and which donated to political candidates - the politicians who want the pope to shut up about his concern for the earth - the forces behind the effort to bust up organized labor, however unctuous organized labor can be at times - the people who want to disenfranchise those perceived to be in lower social orders - those who set about dismantling American manufacturing in favor of expanding access to capital markets with what little money might be left, where we can be and often are cheated - that guy who dreamed up tax inversions - and those devoted to ensuring we don’t get any smarter about any of this stuff
Just how far was Hamilton going in 1787 when he referred to “a certain class of men in every State” who “resist all changes” -- beyond state-crafting, that is? Was he -- were the Federalists -- “progressive” or “conservative”?
The point is not to say which constituencies identified above are right or wrong. The point is that we have been here before. In fact, we were always here. It’s where we began, and it’s where we remain.
“The revolutionary generation,” Ellis wrote, “found a way to contain the explosive energies of the debate in the form of an ongoing argument or dialogue that was eventually institutionalized and rendered safe by the creation of political parties.”
Until the Civil War, that is.
So, on the eve of Independence Day, when it seems like so many external forces want to do us harm but can’t seem to be as successful at it as we are ourselves, we like to remember the words of Benjamin Franklin immediately after the signing of the Declaration:
“We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
Call us hopeful. Happy Fourth of July.