Looking to the Founders: The Vote of the Town Mouse and the Country Mouse

It seems almost crazy to bring up an Aesop’s fable in a series about the Founding Father’s legacy to America — but the fable of The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse really exemplifies many of the problems the Founders faced when drafting a Constitution that served the whole United States, not just one aspect, demographic, or region.

Examining this can give us very good insight into the modern political dilemma, and shows us that the Founders faced the same voting issues that the parties scandalize today.

Aesop’s fable of The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse highlighted the differences between country and city life — and the fact that neither mouse really understood the lifestyle and problems of the other one. The same was true with the Founders, but the generation of the Founders has been idealized into one of demi-gods, where everyone “got along” just fine, without hardship or discord.

The reality was that the U.S. was a young nation that was deeply divided. A little more than a year after George Washington took office, the first census of the United States took place — key to the apportionment of future representatives for the states.

America of this time period has been portrayed as one of rural America, with everyone owning their own piece of land and self-sufficiency. However, this ignores the results of the first census:

population density

 

Areas like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Richmond, and Charleston were all key to boosting their respective states’ population, proving the fears of many members of the Constitutional Convention that the urban nature of early America was driving population.

Some of it was economic. Rural states didn’t like the problems associated with international commerce — like the need for a standing navy or army to protect shipments.

Herein lies another of the myths we have built around the Founders -- that the smaller states were the ones that needed protection.
But at the same time, bigger states felt gypped by building up the infrastructure of the smaller, less populous states. However, for the most part, this was an argument about power and control of the new government.

The least populous states, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Georgia, all feared unequal representation in the new Congress. Rhode Island and Delaware were both dense with population, but small in size geographically. Georgia was, by far, the largest of the colonies geographically, but had a tiny population density.

Fears that the big states could “run things” was a legitimate concern.

The big states, like Virginia and New York, were unhappy with the way the Continental Congress and then Congress of the Confederation were set up. Each state, regardless of how many delegates they sent, had only one vote, meaning that the least populous state had the same voice as the most populous.

Herein lies another of the myths we have built around the Founders — that the smaller states were the ones that needed protection. In fact, the loudest of the dissent came from the larger states demanding more representation and influence in the new government, with the smaller states just wanting to maintain things the way they were.

A little known founder had to come up with a plan that pleased everyone (or at least ensured that no one state got the upper hand). This is where founding father Roger Sherman made his mark on history.

At the Constitutional Convention, New Jersey offered a plan that basically continued the status quo of the continental government and the Confederation. Each state received one vote with equal representation in the unicameral government. Under the Articles of Confederation, federal laws were almost handled like treaties, with state legislatures having to approve each measure and then in turn instructing the representatives how they would vote for the state.

The larger states wanted to depart from this system, with Virginia offering a plan that gave representation proportionate to state population. Their complaint was obvious: it was unfair that the smallest states had the same standing as the largest. Also, the larger states would point out that under the system of the Confederation, adding states to the union would be done at the cost of diluting a state’s power in the Congress.

They had a point, under the Articles of Confederation, no new states were admitted into the union, yet within 6 years of the Constitution, there would be three more states added — Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

It was Roger Sherman who came up with the solution. His proposal, called the Connecticut Compromise, had a bicameral legislative branch. The upper house was still selected by the state legislatures with equal representation. The lower house was selected by the voters with membership based on population.

There was nothing really ingenious about his plan, other than the fact that he took the best parts out of the other two plans. Also, coming from Connecticut, which was a medium-sized state, he was in a position to negotiate without each side feeling as though they had to cave in to the other.

Benjamin Franklin fine tuned this proposal. First, he suggested that the upper house no longer block vote according to the wishes of the state legislatures –meaning that senators would have free will in their voting. Second, to appease the larger states, Franklin suggested that all appropriations bills had to originate from the House of Representatives — the control of the purse gave the House a slight edge in power.

The city-rural divide continued in the generation of the Founders, with many of the issues leading to the creation of the Democratic-Republican Party. We still face the city-rural divide in the United States today — we most often see it in presidential elections.

As stated in my overview of the American voting system, the 2012 presidential election highlighted this phenomenon. Obama clearly won the popular vote by over 3.5 million votes, he had a slight edge in the state count by carrying 26 states, and won a super-majority of the electors (61.1%). By all the measures that “matter,” Obama had a clear victory.

However, on the flip side, Romney won 77 percent of the counties nationwide and 51.9 percent of the congressional districts.

In America today, the Republicans can almost always win the country vote, while Democrats win almost all the city vote. A recent poll showed that only six of the cities with populations over 250,000 were strongly conservative — three more were just barely right of center. This puts the Republicans in excellent position to always retain the house, while the Democrats have a strong edge in senatorial and presidential elections.

There’s a common sense appeal to this — to live in urban areas requires a substantially larger amount of acceptance of outside beliefs and practices in order to live together peacefully. Even so, like the era of the Founding Fathers, urban areas were the most rife with crime, which only fuels the divide between the city and country.

It is a very common theme in American politics — that we have a culture war between the conservative and liberal ideologues. Most of the battles of this culture war have revolved around the “three G’s of politics,” God, gays, and guns. People can also add abortion and drugs to the list of hot button issues.

Other than guns, it is hard to see how these fit in to a city-rural divide, and the outcomes of many of these battles have shown that they don’t.

Even the most conservative of groups have conceded recently that the war against gay marriage has failed in the courts, but they neglect to accept that it has also failed in the court of public opinion, with over 51 percent of Americans having a favorable opinion of gay marriage. Coupled with the portion of the poll that had no view at all, the anti-gay marriage campaign has been a colossal failure.

The liberals are having to face a similar loss on abortion, with pro-choice support at its lowest levels since Roe v. Wade at 41 percent. Those under 35 become even more staunchly pro-life.

Liberals are winning the battle on legalization of certain drugs, mainly because Americans have become tired of the endless “war on drugs” that hasn’t seen any progress in over 40 years. But circumventing federal laws with state and local laws will probably only backfire in the end.

Conservatives are winning with their crusade for the evangelical Christian God, but at a huge potential risk considering that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the United States. The laws passed to protect one religion applies to all religions.

Jack Hunter, co-author with Rand Paul on The Tea Party Goes to Washington, has stated that conservatives need to be more careful in picking their battles when it comes to the culture war. When you wage an all or nothing campaign against (or for) something, you take the risk of coming up with nothing. The liberals should probably take note of this as well.

There are plenty of hot button issues along the city-rural divide: urban sprawl, infrastructure allocation, education, resource allocation (especially water), funding endless wars, and immigration to name a few. But I have the feeling that guns will stay at the top of the list for many more years to come.

If Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the NRA, has his way, guns will become the all out issue for the rest of the Obama administration. Perhaps the conservatives will win this battle, but I’m not sure what will happen if they come up empty again, especially with as resounding of a defeat as they were handed with their attempt to protect “traditional marriage.”

Both parties need to get used to the idea that the Founders didn’t intend for one faction or another to come out ahead, but built a system that required compromise. Insisting that your way has to win only sets you up for failure.

Image: Roger Sherman