J. Adams noted that the revolution occurred in the minds and hearts of the colonists. If so, the first stage, the one that led to the war, was by far the simpler. The infractions of the Crown were plain to see and even easier to feel. Taxes kept revenue from reaching the people while taking money right out of their pockets. An ancient Athenian knew that Athens existed wherever Athenians happen to be, but the rights of an Englishmen were to be, so it seemed, exclusively for those residing in England.
It was not the severing with Britain, but after, in raising a new nation that the challenge became quite hard and deep, for a rather improbable struggle and revolution of mind and heart was now being asked of the people. What they had experienced as inflicting injury and insult was now being proposed for them to ordain:they were being asked to approve and stand behind a very strong national government. “Have we fought that revolution against King George just to have an equally tyrannical government afflicting us from even closer at hand?”
Initially and understandably, there was an indignant outcry, rage. There seemed little chance for the survival of the document the Constitutional Convention of 1787 sent to the states for ratification. Nevertheless, Madison and Hamilton and John Jay were going to try. The eighty-five essays of their Federalist Papers were widely distributed… and these farmers and tradesmen could read. Rustics or not, this first generation was the most philosophically-inclined of all the American generations. They would think things through full even if they had first raised those compositions quite sure that they would never say Yea to such a short-shrifting of their resolve. And so, in living rooms across the former colonies, they sat down to a task with a focus of purpose, serious and intent. Their reading was slow and deep and must have included meditating on phrases, and allowing the repertoire of their experience and these essays to meet and mix.
Who were these people? This generation had nothing at all to do with that bizarre later myth of the lone cowboy on the prairie wanting to be left alone, especially desiring for the government to keep hands off. Not at all. There is an important distinction these first citizens readily understood as they read, a distinction between individuality—to be prized—and individualism which cast the individual in an adversarial relationship with the government. These were communitarians capable of seeing the need to moderate privatistic thinking, capable of feeling that one’s desires could not take precedence over the whole. And these were individuals able to take on, to handle and wield, an abstract ideal as their primary identity: citizen of the United States of America, first and foremost, before state and county, and in some regard, self.
The Ancient Athenian citizen felt the polis a parent to be served and loved dearly, for she in turn forged and nurtured and cared for your very identity, inclined you to a life of virtue, giving you opportunity for meaningful participation, offering for your appreciation great theater, magnificent public works, a noble existence. That had not yet come to be in the American nation as she was being born, but there was something of such promise, that potential, a vision one could hear and nearly see in the eyes of the citizens as they called upon their legislators to approve.
Here’s a question then. It has to do with our continued debate, our ongoing wrestling with the issues around a strong national government. Madison had given us a unique government with checks and balances, the three branches, the Bill of Rights, etc. So: does our two hundred and fifty year long, tense debate over our federal government’s power represent a subtle part of those ongoing checks and balances, or does it represent a failure to measure up to what our forefathers and mothers intended? Might they have expected us to be still engaged in this debate, or might they have expected us to have not only accepted the existence of a strong national government, but to have shaped and nurtured her in such a way where we could admire her abilities and talents, and feel her as Friend?
I have heard of this latter possibility, and I suspect they had, too, for it comes from Aristotle, and the state legislators who were readying to vote on this proposed constitution had not only read Montesquieu and Locke, but the Bible and the Greeks and the Romans as well. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses three times of philia: the friendship based on pleasure, which lasts as long as it is pleasurable, the friendship based on utility, which lasts as long as useful, and the complete friendship that obtains between two who want what is good for the other for the sake of the other. It is a friendship in which the friends are on the same page, so to speak, have common cause, not uniformity, for differences will always occur, but a relationship in which the harmony is valued and nurtured. In Aristotle’s view, such a friendship can and really ought occur between the Law or Nation and the citizen. It is a relationship in which each party finds this property of deep friendship, give and take, each desiring and working for the good of the other for the sake of the other. The right kind of nation is capable of encouraging and bringing out the good and virtuous that is within the heart and mind of the citizen, and I can want what is good for my nation for my good nation’s sake.
Perhaps this was not the vision of the original American generation, perhaps they knew and even intended their hesitation and initial balking to work as a check for centuries; but I mention this possibility of acceptance and friendship because realistically it well may have been their hope, the teaching was far from unknown after all, and in their turning to a Yea vote, they were as well expressing the understanding that when the whole flourishes, so do we. As of now though, the tussle continues, and it seems that those against strong government have the upper hand for even the Democrats daring to advocate a strong national government do so with an apologetic sigh, as if to say, “We know it would be better if government basically kept ‘hands-off,’ but what can we do?”
Perhaps that is what was expected. But perhaps we have failed to get past page one… and as of right now, we sure don’t seem headed for any page two. The very word government evokes a nearly unanimous negative response. Most all feel the Federal as enemy. Even if we get goose bumps when seeing the flag, the touch of the Government Hand feels slimy.
There is little doubt that a citizen of Athens would have thought such an attitude not just preposterous, but self-damning and tragic. And at least for me, it is too easy when playing the thought experiment to sense our forefathers and mothers’ tears—even if they would have been too tough to let them go—if they were to know the disdain we, their children, have for this government they had dug deep into their souls to sanction and sanctify.