CHAPTER 14. THE FEDERAL PERIOD
This chapter shows how the racist-affected regional divisions between North and South paralyzed negotiations for effective government in the thirteen colonies and the new nation. The end result would be the creation of such a weak government that government itself would never be able to redress the racism that poisoned the institution in the first place.
Creation of a New Government: States' Rights
The new nation was an extremely loose confederation of individual states with each state jealously guarding its independence. During the revolution the congress drew up a plan of government known as the Articles of Confederation, which went into effect in 1781. The Articles set up a one-house congress with each state having only one vote. The government had little power other than to make war and peace, run a postal service, coin money, set standards of weights and measures, and manage affairs with the Indians.
Following the Revolutionary War, several events changed a great many minds about the need for a stronger federal government. One was Shays's Rebellion -- a revolt of western Massachusetts farmers against the Massachusetts government in order to forestall farm seizures as a means of paying debts (see Szatmary 1980). Another was the desire to build economic projects, such as canals, that crossed state boundaries. This, obviously, required interstate cooperation. The representatives of six states gathered at the Annapolis Convention in 1786. None of the New England states sent representatives. The poor turnout led Alexander Hamilton to draft a report suggesting that all states send delegates to Philadelphia in 1787. Congress consented and the Constitutional Convention opened on May 25, 1787.
The Mid-Atlantic states with their large landed estates were the most economically insecure. Therefore this region favored a very weak federal government. The most secure region (and the one with the highest proportion of merchants), New England, favored a stronger, but still weak, government. Merchants in the South also saw the advantage of a slightly strong government. A South-New England dynasty pushed the Constitution through (as they had pushed the revolution). It is not surprising, therefore, that all the presidents of early America were either from Virginia or Massachusetts: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe from Virginia and John and John Quincy Adams from Massachusetts.
Several issues had to be resolved before the states adopted a constitution. One issue was the great discrepancy between the sizes of the different states, which obviously reflected the concern over states' rights. The issue was solved by creating a Senate in which each state, regardless of size, elected two senators. It is no accident that the smaller states were among the first to ratify the Constitution. In the House, representation was based on population size.
In countless books the founding fathers have been praised extravagantly. And they were indeed a distinguished group of men. The primary reason for this is that in the limited democracy of those days, only the more fortunate groups voted. They chose privileged men like themselves -- the educated and wealthy. But the limited virtues of the founding fathers have been changed into a myth that covers the inadequacies of American government. The basic problem with the founding fathers (including Jefferson) was that they were men of property and wealth who wanted to restrict democracy severely for the protection of property and who were solid racists and created a weak and ineffective government because they built the slavery-induced regional divisions right into the American system of government. (See Hofstadter 1979 and Beard 1941 for support for these assertions.)
The weakness of the founding fathers illustrates in part the weakness of political elite theory. In one sense, all the leaders who gathered in Philadelphia to forge a new nation were relatively powerless to overcome the great differences between the regions of the nation. And, in fact, they did not (indeed, did not want to) overcome these differences. Instead, they built the differences right into government. The result was a weak government that has been perpetuated to present-day America. With hindsight we see that the states were granted too much power. This became especially apparent when the nation faced the developing North-South division. But the founding of a weak government was one way of avoiding the problem of a regionally divided nation.
Potter (1972:3) writes that "historically the remarkable fact is that, for a century and a half after the South began to pass perceptibly into a minority position in terms of population and for a century after it suffered smashing defeat in the Civil War, the region still was able to maintain an entrenched position in the American political system against political adversaries who outnumbered it more than three to one." Indeed, the South was able to maintain what John C. Calhoun called a concurrent majority. To restrain the power of the northern majority, Calhoun argued that the nation had to give to each region a negative power over the actions of the majority.
American government still has a state and local orientation in national politics that exists even today. Morison (1971:60) notes that one of the things that amazes Europeans is the extent to which American politics are always local politics. To this day congressmen fight for policies not necessarily in the national interest as long as the policies benefit their local areas.
The founding fathers deliberately diffused the power and responsibility for domestic problems. In doing so they gave important interests so many opportunities to block legislation that various groups or regions are able to stop many bills harmful to their special interests from ever getting to Congress. Frankly, the founding fathers were largely working in ignorance with little understanding of how American politics would actually function. They did not understand the class basis of politics and therefore did not understand the need for political parties to represent these class interests. Nor did they understand the impact of slavery on the United States or that the farmers in the nation would eventually decline to around 5 percent of the workforce.
As many of the founding fathers were members of the privileged propertied classes, they did not trust democracy. In one sense this was fortunate, for they built a government of checks and balances based on the assumption that power corrupts and that officials must constantly be monitored. Jefferson's government was supposed to work like a classic laissez-faire system, naturally balancing itself. Jefferson thought a "radical" middle class would elect a radical House of Representatives. This would be offset by a more conservative Senate. The presidency would be protected from the radicals by not being directly elected by the people. Furthermore, the Supreme Court would be another conservative institution enforcing the rights of property in order to protect the upper class.
A possible reason for distrusting democracy was the fact that many of the founding fathers were from the South and had seen some very disturbing characteristics of the southern people. This was especially true of Thomas Jefferson. The Virginian knew the Frenchman the Marquis de Chastellux, a member of the French Academy, and a major general in the French army that fought for the Americans in the Revolutionary War. The Frenchman believed that slavery had corrupted the southern whites into vanity, sloth, aristocratic inclinations, cupidity, and avarice. Jefferson was one of the few men who agreed with the Frenchman. In a letter to the social critic, Jefferson (quoted in Merrill 1976:42) wrote that he found the Virginians "aristocratic, pompous, clannish, indolent, hospitable, and . . . attached to their interest."
However pessimistic Jefferson was about the nature of the common man, he was still too optimistic. Jefferson was critically wrong on the most important point of his theory. The white middle class, concerned more with the lower than the upper class, proved to be conservative rather than radical. This crucial difference in the political character of the white middle class substantially circumvented Jefferson's system of checks and balances.
Jefferson's entire system of government began to stagnate as soon as the white middle class obtained the right to vote. Under Andrew Jackson the government was basically reworked. Instead of having conservative forces balance radical forces, the American government quickly developed three conservative branches of government. The people were conservative, they elected conservative presidents, and in turn the presidents appointed conservative justices. The end result was weak government and virtual dominance by one social class -- the white middle class.
With hindsight we see that the founders made the Supreme Court too conservative. One of the most outstanding weaknesses has been the repeated failure of the Court to protect minorities against prejudice and discrimination. Of course, this is not hard to understand when one considers that the founders did not include property less whites, blacks, or women in their democratic system. The legacy of America's weak government is a highly conservative and slow governmental process, wherein the nation lurches from one crisis to another.
The Slavery Issue
Jefferson's and America's mistake in creating its government stemmed from the refusal to deal with the impact of slavery on white America. The Constitution compromised on the issue of slavery. For purposes of representation, a slave would be counted as three-fifths of a person. The founding fathers also set 1808 as the date after which the importation of slaves was to be abolished. Many of the founding fathers, especially Jefferson, believed that slavery would gradually disappear. He had not counted on a Connecticut Yankee, temporarily working as a tutor in Georgia. Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, which easily removed the seeds from cotton. From 1815 onward, the cotton economy greatly expanded, and southern planters found they could easily meet the rapidly growing English textile industry demand for cotton. Naturally, the slave population increased, and slavery became even more entrenched.
The 1808 cutoff date for the ban on the importation of slaves came and went with little notice. The demand for slaves was so high that substantial numbers were smuggled in to augment the natural increase. So, instead of declining after 1808, slavery actually became strengthened as a system in the South. Slavery spread south and west. This naturally put North and South on a collision course.
Along with the growth in slavery came the belief in the racial inferiority of blacks. White Americans rationalized that blacks were naturally meant for their condition because they were biologically inferior to whites. Southern ministers helped in this justification by finding biblical passages to support slavery.
Early Years of the New Government
The Virginia-Massachusetts dynasty dominated the federal period and the Age of Jefferson. It would not be until the 1828 election of Andrew Jackson to the presidency that both the federal period and the Virginia-Massachusetts domination would give way to the Age of Jacksonian Democracy.
George Washington was the obvious choice for first president of the United States. He was so admired by his fellow Americans that he literally became a living legend. John Adams of Massachusetts became the nation's first vice-president. Early in 1789, the new leaders gathered in New York City, the nation's capital, to begin work.
Washington thought he had a national, nonpartisan cabinet, but he soon found himself arbitrating disputes between Alexander Hamilton (secretary of the treasury) and Thomas Jefferson (secretary of state). The main point of contention was the powers of the Bank of the United States. Hamilton had brought the bank into existence, but Jefferson thought the law setting up the financial institution was unconstitutional.
Out of these disputes arose America's first political parties. Jefferson represented the Democratic-Republicans (the predecessors of the Democratic party), while Hamilton represented the Federalists (related in social class terms to the future Republican party). These developments greatly perplexed Washington because he lacked the understanding to appreciate the inevitability and value of the emerging parties. The great man felt that one should always put the interests of the nation first, above partisan politics.
Washington's second term started in 1793. During this period, the French Revolution became a matter of heated dispute. Hamilton allied himself with England and against France. Jefferson allied himself with France and opposed concessions to England. This question dominated American opinion from 1793 to 1795.
John Adams became the second president of the United States in 1796. His administration was so overshadowed by the coming Jeffersonian revolution that the Adams presidency is discussed in the next chapter dealing with this phenomenon.
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