Today’s Courier Herald Column:
On the Fourth of July, we celebrate the birth of a nation. We also celebrate and remember the wisdom and courage of our founding fathers. They are men who gathered together to put into place a nation where the power and freedom ultimately lies within the individual. They also cobbled together a system of government that has managed to last well into a third century despite great social, technological, and economic changes.
Their accomplishments were great, especially as measured by America’s ascension to dominance in military and economic power. Their framework has allowed a people without a common heritage to melt together as one. Their success has led some to put them on a pedestal and impose super human traits on the men who were certainly wise and pillars of their community, but were neither monolithic in their beliefs nor infallible in their execution.
While the declaration of independence was signed on July 4th, 1776, the path to our constitution was neither easy nor quick. It was not drafted until 1787 and the first Congress and George Washington were not sworn in to begin our current form of American government until 1789.
The period between the declaration and the implementation of our Constitution involved the Revolutionary war, and government under Articles of Confederation. Even after the war was won, the Articles proved to be too loose to allow for an effective government, even for the very limited government desired by the founding fathers and the citizens who had just fought to shed themselves from oppressive government control.
The fact of the matter is that the first attempt of the founding fathers to form a workable federal government was a failure. Failure is OK, as it can reveal the needed path to success. The fear of a federal government found in the Articles of Confederation revealed the need for a strong federal government for certain functions that are found in the Constitution.
Under our initial government, Britain would not honor the terms of the treaty that ended the Revolutionary War. Spain would not allow American farmers to use the port of New Orleans. States printed their own currency under different standards making it difficult to trade even between the states, much less internationally. For matters of trade, treaty, taxation, and national defense, a strong central government was proven to be necessary for America to truly become a nation.
The period of the Articles of Confederation and the process of adopting the Constitution also shows the founding fathers to be anything but uniform of thought and opinion on the proper role and function of government and the execution of its powers. Thus it is a continued source of amusement to watch certain armchair constitutional scholars cherry pick quotes for individual statesmen of the era as if that represents the definitive purpose or motivation for our government.
It is roughly akin to folks that choose to selectively pick versus from the book of Leviticus to explain the entire intention of the Bible. The results are overly simplistic and less than comprehensive.
The fact of the matter is that the founding fathers were a great big group of compromisers. While that word is the equivalent of blasphemy today, it was not at the time. The founders, especially after the experience with the Articles of Confederation, understood the value of compromise to get to what was actually important. They put the big picture ahead of petty squabbles, the end goal above heated personal and regional rivalries.
The end result of the compromises was not failure, but the greatest country in the history of the free world.
The key to many of the compromises was establishing clearly what the role of the federal government would be, and what it would not. There are defined roles for the federal government. All other powers are left to the states or to the people.
Ultimately, it is the people that decide what this country means and what it will be in the future. It is the people that decide to preserve their powers or to relegate more and more to a federal government. For those who choose to wish to return to the will of the founding fathers, perhaps a deeper study in their ability to compromise as a method of securing their principles rather than to abandon them is needed.