Joseph W.H. Lough
I am always bemused during this season of Presidential campaign launches to note how seamlessly one Republican candidate after another announces his or her intentions to run, on the Republican ticket, for the highest office of the land. My source of amusement would have been duly noted and shared by most Americans at the dawn of the twentieth century. All of us would be slapping our knees and chortling uncontrollably. But today? Not a snicker.
So, why the bemusement? Well, as anyone enjoying a grade school education knows, Republican is a fairly direct transliteration of the Latin res publica, which means (and here is the joke) “the wealth we hold in common.” (I will pause to give you a chance to collect yourselves.) Because whatever our republican wannabes are peddling, it isn’t “the wealth we hold in common.”
However, what would happen if republicans, true republicans — republicans who actually believed in securing, advancing and protecting the wealth we hold in common — were to stand up and be counted, lending their support to candidates who, with them, cherish republican values, ideals, and institutions? What would happen?
Whenever I ask this question I am transported back to my own grade school days when I first learned that our present Constitution was not our first constitution. Our first constitution, as the Virginia Plan clearly lays out, suffered from many flaws. This explains why the delegates to the 1787 constitutional convention in Philadelphia selected the Virginia Plan as the working document guiding their debates. So, what, specifically, was so wrong with the first constitution? Don’t get me started.
Here are excerpts from William Randolph’s introduction of the Virginia Plan into the record of the constitutional convention in May 1787:
First, that the Confederation produced no security against foreign invasion; Congress not being permitted to prevent a war, nor to support it by their own authority. Of this [Randolph] cited many examples; most of which tended to show that they could not cause infractions of treaties, or of the law of nations, to be punished; that particular states might by their conduct, provoke war without control; and that, neither militia nor drafts being fit for defense on such occasions, enlistments only could be successful, and these could not be executed without money (Debates May 1787:127).
In other words, because there was no public body to deliberate and execute decisions on behalf of the republic and no authority to tax the public to fund those decisions, there in effect was no republic.
Secondly, that the federal government could not check the quarrel between states, nor a rebellion in any, not having constitutional power, nor means, to interpose according to the exigency.
The same problem. Since each of the states held equal, sovereign powers, but no entity held the superior powers necessary to adjudicate among them. As subsequent debates revealed, of particular concern in 1787 was not only the ever present threat of slave revolts along the southern seaboard, but taxpayer and militia revolts by armed vigilantes in the northern states. Here Randolph offered a notable back-handed concession to the framers of the the first constitution, the Articles of Confederation:
In speaking of the defects of the Confederation, [Randolph] professed a high respect for its authors, and considered them as having done all that patriots could do, in the then infancy of the science of constitutions and of confederacies; when the inefficiency of requisitions was unknown — no commercial discord had arisen among any states — no rebellion had appeared, as in Massachusetts — foreign debts had not become urgent — the havoc of paper money had not been foreseen — treaties had not been violated; and perhaps nothing better could be obtained, from the jealousy of the states with regard to their sovereignty (Debates May 1787:126-127).
Obviously the Massachusetts tax-payer revolt led by Daniel Shays, which caught fire in August 1786 and was not suppressed until February 1787 (a mere three months prior to the convention), was on everyone’s mind. But, its constitutional significance cast a long shadow over all matters under consideration at the convention. How could the republic put down rebellions if it had no authority to do so? How could it pay for a federal militia in the absence of a federal currency? How could there be a federal currency without the authority to “requisition” wealth from citizens? And to what did Randolph and his fellow conventioneers attribute these faults? The jealousy of the states with regard to their sovereignty.
But, Randolph continued:
Thirdly, that there were many advantages which the United states might acquire, which were not attainable under the Confederation; such as a productive impost, counteraction of the commercial regulations of other nations, pushing of commerce ad libitum, &c., &c. Fourthly, that the federal government could not defend itself against encroachments from the states.
The federal government could not defend itself against encroachments from the states? In the 1950s, Republicans performed an astonishing about-face. Until then, of course, it had been the Democrats who had been the fiercest defenders of states rights. Republicans, by contrast, had been the staunchest opponents of states rights. (Remember Abraham Lincoln and that slave thingy that preoccupied him? That was about states rights.) In the 1950s, however, just as northern Democratic candidates were warming up to republican values, ideals and institutions, the Republican Party saw an unprecedented opportunity to ease in on white voters in the south who objected to federal officials forcing their states to integrate. These “Dixiecrats,” who were still smarting from their defeat in the Civil War, were staunch anti-antifederalists. And their anti-federalism created a huge opportunity for the Republican Party. As recently as the late 1960s, when Richard Nixon was elected, there was still a sizable number of Republicans who actually believed in republican values, principles, and institutions and who were therefore deeply opposed to states rights.
So, yes, when the convention met in 1787, one of the delegates’ leading concerns was that the states would oppose the republic — which, of course, they did in 1861 — and that the republic was not empowered to defend itself against these states.
What would happen if the Republican Party returned to its historical foundations? Fiercely federalist and opposed to states rights. Strongly supportive of a strong, centrally controlled monetary and tax authority. Deeply opposed to any and all vigilante groups who jeopardize the ability of governments to collect taxes. Deeply opposed to local militias who threatened the integrity of the republic. And — as we learn later on in the debates — fiercely opposed to the 3/5ths clause that allowed southern states to include slaves in their calculation for representation, but would not permit them to become citizens.
What would happen if the Republic Party fielded candidates actually committed to republican ideals, principles and institutions? Well, of course, it would be nothing short of a political revolution. But, don’t hold your breath. Since no anti-federalist was allowed entrance into the convention, none in the current field of republican candidates would even have been granted entry into Constitution Hall. Each has loudly and boisterously denied his or her republican bona fides. They are the finest group of anti-republicans on the face of the planet.
Which is why I am bemused, and a bit saddened.