Tuesday, August 04, 2009

'peace, moderate taxes and mild government'

Being as woefully ignorant as most of my fellow citizens of the history of the country where I've spent all but a few days of my entire life, I was fascinated reading Thomas Paine's eight Letters to the Citizens of the United States, and particularly to the leaders of the Federal faction.

I was vaguely aware of the onerous Alien & Sedition Acts that were passed to suppress free speech, or more specifically the free speech of the Adams administration's political adversaries, but wasn't aware that some folks (like Paine) continued to call for investigation and prosecution of Adams for years after he left office — or that Adams snuck out of the White House early in the morning of March 4, 1800, not waiting to witness the inauguration of new president Thomas Jefferson.

And it seems that many debates we occasionally hear today already were raging when Paine wrote these epistles, in 1802 and 1803 (the eighth letter is dated 1805, but the first seven came in a November-to-April flurry).

Paine accuses Adams of wishing to dissolve the new republic and replace it with a monarchy-style system of succession much like Britain's, where the king's sons or daughters were destined to reign. (That may explain why John Quincy Adams later felt motivated to run for the office his father once held.) A Quasi-War against France was ginned up and Adams' Federalists clamored for the raising of an army of 50,000 men, ostensibly to defend against the inevitable French invasion. Paine felt this standing army was more likely to be used for some other, more sinister purpose.
The suspicion against the late Administration is, that it was plotting to overturn the representative system of government, and that it spread alarms of invasions that had no foundation, as a pretence for raising and establishing a military force as the means of accomplishing that object ...
Of the Sedition Law, which levied a $2,000 fine and two years in prison for anyone who dared write or publish "any libel (without defining what a libel is) against the Government of the United States, or either House of Congress, or against the president ..."
... it is a much greater crime for a president to plot against a Constitution and the liberties of the people, than for an individual to plot against a President; and consequently, John Adams is accountable to the public for his conduct, as the individuals under his administration were to the sedition law.

The object, however, of an enquiry, in this case, is not to punish, but to satisfy; and to shew, by example, to future administrations, that an abuse of power and trust, however disguised by appearances, or rendered plausible by pretence, is one time or other to be accounted for. (from letter VI)
Except for the changes in names and language use, Paine could have been writing after any recent administrations had been put to bed, for it appears the federalists eventually won the argument. It is now common "for a president to plot against a Constitution and the liberties of the people" and to keep the populace generally alarmed over the threat of invasion and all sorts of other alarming notions.

The Revolution had been fought to secure liberty and separate from the violent world and machinations of the British Empire.
It requires only a prudent and honest administration to preserve America always at peace. Her distance from the European world frees her from its intrigues. But when men get into power, whose heads, like the head of John Adams, are filled with "strange notions" and counter revolutionary principles and projects, things will be sure to go wrong ...

The independence of America would have added but little to her own happiness, and been of no benefit to the world, if her government had been formed on the corrupt models of the old world. It was the opportunity of beginning the world anew, as it were; and of bringing forward a new system of government in which the rights of all men should be preserved that gave value to independence. (from letter VIII; Paine's emphases)
It's fascinating to read the thoughts, 27 years later, of the man whose Common Sense framed the intellectual basis for cutting ties with old England, to see how he thought the young nation was fulfilling the dream. He clearly believed that the United States had dodged a bullet and that the election of Jefferson had preserved and re-established the principles of the Revolution.
The characters of the late ad of the present Administrations are now sufficiently marked, and the adherents of each keep up the distinction. The former Administration rendered itself notorious by outrage, coxcombical parade, false alarms, a continual increase of taxes and an unceasing clamor for war; and as every vice has a virtue opposed to it the present Administration moves on the direct contrary line.

The question, therefore, at elections is not properly a question upon persons, but upon principles. Those who are for peace, moderate taxes and mild government will vote for the Administration that conducts itself by those principles, in whatever hands that Administration might be. (from Letter VII)
Peace, moderate taxes and mild government continue to be ideals Americans believe in, judging from the campaign rhetoric that accompanies every election. Although Paine clearly believed Jefferson had delivered the goods in that respect, I can't think of a single modern president of whom the same could be said. Oh yes, peace and moderate taxes and mild government are promised — but the purpose of campaign rhetoric is to get elected, not to deliver the goods, especially not those particular goods.

If freedom were something granted by government, or a constitution, we would be in a heap of trouble. Fortunately we were born free. Governments can and often do obstruct freedom, but they are powerless to absolutely extinguish it. As long as liberty exists in a corner of a free man or woman's mind — and it always will — there's a glimmer of hope that common sense will prevail at last.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home