Looking to the Founders: Don't Be Scared of the Boogeyman
In almost every political argument, there comes a point where it devolves into a common theme: "If you'd just read the Federalist Papers, you'd agree with my position..." I've heard this dozens of times, but what I haven't heard is someone directing attention to the collection of works known as the Antifederalist writings.
The Antifederalist writings are an assortment of works that were used as a rebuttal or debate against the formal body of works known as the Federalist Papers. Many of the Antifederalist works were in the form of speeches given before state ratifying conventions. But, there was a common theme: What happens once the federal government gathers too much power?
Considering the current problems we are facing today, perhaps we should take a closer look...
To Henry, the Federalists always maintained three great "bugbears": foreign wars, civil wars, and Indian wars -- all used as an excuse to strengthen the power of the federal government and limit the power of the average citizen. At the Virginia ratification convention in 1788, Henry argued that keeping the population in constant fear only served to fuel tyranny and the growth of government.The man who emphatically stated, "Give me liberty or give me death," was far from a coward trying to avoid conflict. Instead, he believed that the
American Spirit would prevail against any adversary that came against the new country -- that we never had to live in fear of our enemies.
But instead of believing in the American Spirit, our political discourse has become one of "times are different" and "this enemy isn't even human." And while ISIS's actions are like a page taken out of Foxe's Book of Martyrs in brutality, it's hardly original or sub-human in nature, but the result of the very oldest and basest of emotions that make up human nature.
It would be foolish to pretend that ISIS's brutality or ambitions for attacking larger targets isn't real, but it is equally foolish to allow the terrorists to make us live in constant fear or anger.
If anything, ISIS currently "owns" the U.S. public attention because it has become the 21st century equivalent of the boogeyman. Unfortunately we have allowed them to exploit the terror in terrorism, and they are dominating our current political policy and discourse.
While we can't totally ignore ISIS or other boogeymen, they aren't the only issues on our plate. We shouldn't neglect issues at home like our crumbling infrastructure, aging population, and stagnate economy because our focus is solely on our enemies. When we do, the boogeyman has already won.
In a rather scathing review of the Federalist Papers' authors, Samuel Bryan was quick to point out that the hobgoblins' dissension -- even to the point of continual civil war -- was preferable to despotism.Political arguments too often have the flavor of, "Why don't you just get out if you don't agree with us?" Most of the Founders would be quick to disagree with this kind of reasoning; they thrived on
confrontation and debate, and some of them really hated each other.
Our current problems are too often represented by false dichotomies. We correlate and rationalize all issues as either/or problems that can only be solved by either/or solutions.
Comedian Tim Minchin pointed out that politics is often characterized by trying to score with well-placed tennis shots with opponents on two entirely different courts. We need our politicians on the same playing field, actually doing the job they were elected to do.
Honest debate can bridge gaps and build consensus; replaying party jabs and punchlines only serves to fuel the hobgoblins.
William Grayson pointed out that phantoms were not all they were cracked up to be in his speech before the Virginia Convention in 1788. The government, under the Articles of Confederation, was amassing phantoms at every stage -- some were very real, while others were completely imaginary.The government faced an all-out mutiny in the Continental Army in 1783 over back pay and veterans' benefits from the Revolutionary War. While this conspiracy was put down fairly quickly, it highlighted the lack of control the government had under the Articles.
The Federalists were also worried about war (probably needlessly) with the French and Dutch over unpaid loans that the national government had acquired and then defaulted because of the lack of taxation power under the Articles.
Grayson's advice is still sound today when we are facing turmoil and fears: be patient and strengthen the states. When we are too quick to move on solving problems, we often don't fully understand what the problem actually is.
Political inactivity is currently characterized as political weakness. While our leaders need to take a stand on the world stage, taking a moment to really decide if we are doing the right things will only strengthen our position.
Our country was founded with debate and dissent. The Constitution was only signed by 39 of 55 delegates, and it wouldn't have even passed had they not agreed on adding a Bill of Rights. The political process of debate should be one that strengthens us, not one of covering ears and howling trying to shout the opponent down.
We need energy in the political process with candidates that are willing to bridge ideological divides and create answers that benefit through compromise and debate. Only through this will the Congress shake off its stigma as a "Do Nothing" body of self-serving politicians.
Image Credit: Patrick Henry by George B. Matthews, U.S. Senate Collection