Sunday, January 27, 2013

On Thomas Paine, the Bringer of Light

He was a “disastrous meteor” according to John Adams, a “star of disaster.” These descriptions did fit Thomas Paine – but Adams saw only a potential for destruction, and history shows us an irrepressible figure who feared nothing and was prepared to give everything to the cause of liberty (source). 

Engraving by Honore Daumier. “If single-mindedness is too focused, it will not allow “the chance observation falling on the receptive eye”
— S.E. Lauria

Physician and Founder Benjamin Rush had published attacks on the institution of slavery, but when this action angered his clientele and nearly ruined his medical practice, he asked Thomas Paine to take his place, which Paine happily did. He soon became a founding member of the first abolitionist society in America (source: Thomas Paine, by Craig Nelson).

There were other words that Dr. Rush dare not speak in 1775. The political climate was too precarious to utter the words “independence” and “republicanism.” Paine understood this too: “It was a point of time full of critical danger to America, and if her future wellbeing depended on any one political circumstance more than another it was in changing the sentiments of the people from dependence to Independence and from the monarchial to the republican form of government; for had she unhappily split on the question, or entered coldly or hesitatingly into it, she most probably had been ruined.” Of course, this did not deter him from using the words. 

Paine’s most famous work, Common Sense, appeared as a pamphlet – pamphlets at the time were inexpensive to mass produce, and as the biographer Craig Nelson points out, were meant to persuade the educated and be read aloud to the illiterate. Historian Bernard Bailyn called Common Sense a “work of genius,” adding “one had to be a fool or a fanatic in early January 1776 to advocate American independence. Everyone knew England was the most powerful nation on earth … Why should one want to destroy the most successful political system in the world, which guaranteed both liberty and order, under which American had flourished? … There is something extraordinary in this pamphlet and in the mind and imagination of the man who wrote it, something bizarre, out-sized, unique (cited in Nelson).” 

As Nelson points out, these are the lessons contained in Common Sense

  1. There is no divine right of kings,
  2. England’s king / Lords / Commons balance of power was nothing but a pantomime, designed to convince the English people that the political system was fair and equitable, when it was in fact corrupt and oligarchic,
  3. It is immoral to limit suffrage to wealthy, land-holding citizens,
  4. The allocation of voting districts kept English suffrage firmly in the hands of the monied elite,
  5. It is a blessing and duty to engage in the struggle to bring greater freedom to future generations,
  6. The common people, acting in concert, are the most powerful political force in the world,
Thomas Paine wrote, “Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices … Society is in every state a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer!” 

Once a printer was found who was bold enough to accept the job, Common Sense instantly became enormously popular. Paine decided, soon after, to forswear royalties, and donated his profits to George Washington’s Continental Army, to provide the ranks with mittens. He surrendered his copyright, and allowed all printers the opportunity to publish it. 

John Adams reported (ruefully, no doubt) that Common Sense had reached Europe, and was “received in France and all of Europe with rapture.” Paine became America’s bestselling author. As Nelson observes, “By the end of that year of 1776, between 150,000 and 250,000 copies were sold, at a time when the American population stood at three million – the equivalent in per capita of selling 35 million copies of a single title today.” 

George Washington reported that, “The sound doctrine and unanswerable reasoning contained in the pamphlet Common Sense will not leave members [of Congress] at a loss to decide on the propriety of separation … [It is] working a wonderful change in the minds of many men.” And when war broke out between the British Empire and the colonies, Thomas Paine offered encouragement with a series of letters known today as the American Crisis. At dusk on December 23, 1776, General Washington had his troops gather into small squads and read aloud to them Paine’s words,

These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.
Washington’s army would soon after reach Trenton, where they discovered a mercenary force. The mercenaries had hunkered down because of the blizzard conditions, and canceled its patrols. Thus, they were taken completely by surprise when three American battalions descended, and as the colonial troops charged with bayonets, they cried out, “THESE are the times that try men’s souls.”
Paine did not rest. Turning his eye to European affairs, he wrote The Rights of Man as a defense of the French Revolution and an indictment of British monarchy. As he did in Common Sense, he argued that, regardless of what their rulers may claim: 

I. Men are born, and always continue, free and equal in respect of their rights. Civil distinctions, therefore, can be founded only on public utility.
II. The end of all political associations is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man; and these rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance of oppression.
III. The nation is essentially the source of all sovereignty; nor can any INDIVIDUAL, or ANY BODY OF MEN, be entitled to any authority which is not expressly derived from it.
He declared that a country represented by a true Republican government will rarely if ever go to war, because wars occur when the interests of the rulers differ from the interests of the people. “Man is not the enemy of man, but through the medium of a false system of Government. Instead, therefore, of exclaiming against the ambition of Kings, the exclamation should be directed against the principle of such Governments; and instead of seeking to reform the individual, the wisdom of a Nation should apply itself to reform the system.”

At a time when the newly independent United States of America enjoyed few social divisions on the basis of wealth and position, Paine saw in England the continued rule of aristocrats and oligarchs. In condemning this undemocratic feature of British society, he spoke specifically to the question of commercial charters and corporations. “They do not give rights to [the corporation], but they make a difference in favour of [the corporation] by taking away the [rights of the people], and consequently are instruments of injustice.” He added, “This species of feudality is kept up to aggrandise the corporations at the ruin of towns; and the effect is visible. The generality of corporation towns are in a state of solitary decay …” 

“Ah!...the comets..., that always signals some great misfortunes!”

The contrast of affluence and wretchedness continually meeting and offending the eye, is like dead and living bodies chained together.

-          Thomas Paine

Of the corporation, Paine asked, “What right has it to a distinct and separate representation from the general interest of a nation? The only use to be made of this power (and which it always has made), is to ward off taxes from itself, and throw the burthen upon those articles of consumption by which itself would be least affected.” That is, the corporate interests will always seek to reduce taxes on their own properties, and shift the burden of taxation to the poor. “Their residences, whether in town or country, are not mixed with the habitations of the poor. They live apart from distress, and the expense of relieving it. It is in manufacturing towns and labouring villages that those burthens press the heaviest; in many of which it is one class of poor supporting another.”

In publishing The Rights of Man, Paine risked being imprisoned in England. In defending the French Revolution, he put himself at odds with the views of mainstream Americans, who were shocked by the bloody aftermath and became alienated from their one-time sister in revolution. And in his sharp criticisms of religion, he would eventually become a nearly universally despised and shunned figure, considered a friend no longer by George Washington and attacked tenaciously and savagely by John Adams, and would die a painful death in poverty.

Friday, January 25, 2013

On the Militia, and Tyranny

In previous posts, I’ve attempted to shed light on what the Founders intended when they ratified the 2nd Amendment. Some people believe that the 2nd Amendment applies only to “organized militias”; other people believe that the 2nd Amendment guarantees that every American has the right to own a gun. I will admit to a bias in favor of the former interpretation, but further investigation – as well as insightful comments from readers of the New Independent Whig – has inspired me to adopt a more circumspect position.

In the wake of the unspeakable tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, many Americans have become more fervent in their desire to place some sort of restriction on gun ownership. Other Americans have noted this movement and have become more fervent in their desire to defend their right to bear arms.

The result has been yet another repetition of the poisonous, partisan spirit of our times. Advocates of gun control mock and belittle the views of gun rights advocates, and gun rights advocates have churlishly thumbed their nose at their opposition by parading about town wearing assault rifles.
In truth, gun rights advocates deserve recognition. Unlike the stupefied masses, they understand that we are no longer living in the Republican society that the Founders envisioned. Instead, we are living in what the Founders would consider a tyranny. 

Proposition: The United States is a Tyranny 

Richard Price drew a contrast between good government and tyrannical government in these terms: "Legitimate government ... as opposed to oppression and tyranny, consists ‘only in the dominion of equal laws made with common consent, or of men over themselves; and not in the dominion of communities over communities, or of any men over other men.’” In more contemporary language, tyranny may be viewed as domination: that is, “the ability to arbitrarily interfere in the affairs of others without being constrained by their interests or stated preferences (source).” And a good society is that in which non-domination prevails. 

If you believe any one of the following statements to be true, then you also believe that the United States is a tyranny by the standards of Classical Republicanism:

(1)    Wall Street financiers and CEOs have a greater influence over government policy than ordinary working Americans,
(2)    Government agents, by spying on law-abiding Americans, will eventually create an environment in which Americans can no longer and should no longer feel at ease when exercising their freedom of speech whether they are lawfully protesting or communicating by phone or by Internet, 
(3)    Political leaders break their campaign promises with impunity, with no explanation, and no shame,
(4)    The American people are compelled to pay taxes but have little say over how the money is spent,
(5)    Leaders in Washington prosecute rash, expensive, and unproductive wars in foreign lands and do so without the consent of the people. 

Tyranny does not refer solely to the actions of government. If, in a society, some are armed and others are not, the armed members of society can tyrannize the unarmed members of society. Granted, all Americans could arm themselves, but if this were to happen, the more skilled marksmen would prevail over the less skilled; the more callous would prevail over those who hesitate before firing; those who band together in mobs would prevail over those who prefer a solitary life. 

The shooting death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman is an example of tyranny of a man over another man. The reader may have heard only partial accounts of this case. On Fox News, the only portion of Zimmerman’s account starts when he is allegedly punched by Martin, but the incident began several minutes earlier. As Martin walked home along a street, Zimmerman followed the boy in his car, by his own account keeping the boy under continuing surveillance, until the point came where Martin was acutely conscious of the fact that he was being followed and began staring back at Zimmerman. This, by Zimmerman’s account, eventually led to a confrontation. Zimmerman approached the boy and evidently accused the boy of criminal intentions (although Zimmerman saw nothing in the boy’s behavior to suggest that a crime was in the offing).  

By attending to Zimmerman’s own words, we can safely conclude that he had alternatives -- other than the use of lethal force – that would have ensured his own safety. If he had simply notified the police of a suspicious person and left it to them (and he did call the police and the police did say to leave the matter to them), the outcome would have been very different.

                                     Zimmerman's Account

Some have speculated that race may have been a factor. Had Martin been white instead of black, walking along a street in this gated Florida community, he might not have aroused Zimmerman’s suspicions and, even if he had, Zimmerman might have been less frightened and less likely to pull a gun. Again, these are matters of speculation. It is very likely, though, that Zimmerman would have been less aggressive in his surveillance activities or in his verbal confrontation with Martin if he did not have a gun in his possession, and it is certainly the case that Martin would be alive today.  

The death of Martin is assuredly an instance of vigilantism. Zimmerman acted as judge, jury, and executioner and denied Martin’s right to the due process of the law. Vigilantism is the tyranny of one man over another. Lest we forget our history, there was a time when southern lynch mobs executed people found guilty of belonging to an abolitionist movement. Vigilantism is as dangerous to the welfare of the American people as a tyrannical government. 

The Founders’ Idea of a Militia

The Founders did not advocate a form of government that would encourage vigilantism. Instead, they ratified a Constitution that prescribes the due process of law and the right to a jury of one’s peers.  They envisioned a society in which the rights of life, liberty and property were ensured. This is not the same as a society in which these rights are tenuous and are only sustained for as long as citizens can keep up an armed defense against those who would seek to take their lives, liberties, or property.
The meaning of “well-regulated militia” is not well defined in the Constitution. However, a case may be made that there was a common understanding among 18th century Englishmen of what the term meant. According to one historian, 

A militia which derived from the Latin miles and the old English and French milice indicated ‘the obligation of every able bodied Englishman to defend his country.’ It implies the obligation that all citizens … have to serve in the armed forces of their nation. In the American colonies the transition was made from English common law to the law of the colonies.  The federal Constitution made certain that any national obligation did not preclude service to the state which was primary and original. Initially the enrolled militia (or organized militia) included those select or specially trained militia enlisted by the colonies or states. Early select and enrolled militia were occasionally called Trained Bands.  The minutemen of New England were select or enrolled militia (source).
Cesare Beccaria was among the authorities esteemed by the Founders. He believed, “A government of citizens, where the commonwealth is equal, is hardest to be conquered [because] ... such citizens, being all soldiers, or trained up to their arms, which they use not for the defence of slavery, but of liberty, [are] ... the vastest body of a well-disciplined militia, that is possible in nature.” This implies that members of a militia have some form of military training and discipline. James Madison described militia members as being “trained to arms.” 

In the various state constitutions there are also references to military knowledge and military discipline. In Virginia’s Bill of Rights, a well-regulated militia is said to be “composed of the body of the people, trained to arms (source).” In Benjamin Franklin’s revisions to the Pennsylvania Declaration of Rights (1776), he wrote that “the People have a Right to bear Arms for the Defence of themselves and the State, and as standing Armies in the Time of Peace are dangerous to Liberty, they ought not to be kept up: And that the Military [i.e., militia] should be kept under strict Subordination to, and governed by, the Civil Power.” 

Simeon Howard, writing in Boston in 1773, said that a militia was, “the power of defense in the body of the people . . . [that is], a well-regulated and well-disciplined militia. This is placing the sword in hands that will not be likely to betray their trust, and who will have the strongest motives to act their part well, in defence of their country.” This implies that there is some means by which local authorities can decide which citizens can be entrusted with the responsibility of bearing arms.

In the U.S. Constitution itself, the term "militia" is defined: “The Congress shall have Power . . . To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.” [Article 1, § 8.]

It is clear, then, that militia members were expected to be well disciplined, trusted, and of sound judgment. By discipline, what is meant is the kind of training that enables a person to remain in control over his or her emotions during threatening situations, and not shoot in a moment of panic or doubt. This training would instruct the militia member on the evils of vigilantism and the virtues of a society that is ruled by laws enacted by the American people.  These are appropriate qualifications for anyone who is to be entrusted with lethal weapons and – by implication – the responsibility for deciding when it is appropriate to use lethal force. (The interested reader may wish to read of a historical incident in which the militia were dispatched against vigilantes here).

The Supreme Court

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929 refers to the gang-related deaths of 7 men. Submachine guns were used to commit this crime, and public outrage led to the enactment of the National Firearms Act, which required that automatic weapons, sawed-off shotguns, and other potent weapons be registered at a federal agency. The law was protested and the case eventually made it to the Supreme Court.

In the Miller vs. United States decision of 1939, the court decided to uphold the National Firearms Act, and explained the intent of the 2nd Amendment as follows: 

To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions; To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress (source).
The Miller decision pointed to several legal cases from the 1780s in which the nature of a militia was discussed. The Virginia General Assembly required that, in a militia, “Every officer and soldier shall appear at his respective muster-field on the day appointed, by eleven o'clock in the forenoon, armed, equipped, and accoutered.” This indicates that the militia is an organized body of men. A subsequent decision, Lewis vs. United States, upheld the Miller decision: “the Second Amendment guarantees no right to keep and bear a firearm that does not have some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia (source).” 

The District of Columbia vs. Heller decision of 2008 dismissed the Miller decision on the basis that it did not provide an explication of the 2nd Amendment. As noted in a previous post, the Heller decision is tainted by the fact that gun industry interests influenced the outcome. It certainly violates the principle of stare decisis. Violators of this principle are sometimes accused of “legislating from the bench.”   

Tyranny: A Reprise

There is a strong case to be made that the 2nd Amendment’s “well-regulated militia” referred to an organized body of men, under military discipline, and answerable to the state. The National Guard is a modern-day equivalent of a militia, and it is safe to conclude that the 2nd Amendment guarantees National Guard members the right to bear arms. I remain, however, skeptical of the idea that the 2nd Amendment provides an unconditional individual right to gun ownership.  

The U.S. Constitution, as originally written, denied the federal government the power to maintain a standing army, and if our goal is to recall the wisdom of the Founders, the advisability of allowing the federal government to keep a standing army is worthy of fresh consideration. This is particularly true in light of the misuse of the standing army by recent administrations. I support the Whiggish principle that the National Guard should be answerable only to state government, and be protected against federal abuses of power.

Concerning the question of what Americans ought to do in response to the tyranny that our government has become, the Founders provide an example to follow. The Founders did not entertain the idea of armed revolution until every effort had been made to persuade the Crown to recognize the rights of colonists as British subjects. Community leaders assembled to deliberate on the issue of British abuses of colonists’ rights, consulted the law, and eventually arrived at a carefully-reasoned, detailed list of complaints. They printed educational pamphlets. They petitioned the Crown. They organized boycotts. They created a democratic process of electing leaders to represent their cause. This work required patience and a commitment of time, money, and effort. It required leadership. The Founders are worthy of our veneration because they behaved in a conscientious manner: they did not ignore the reality of tyranny, nor did they resort to mob tactics, nor did they content themselves with Jeremiads.
The modern, NRA-inspired reading of the 2nd Amendment is at odds with the example set by the Founders. Instead, this modern reading, “... takes social disunity as a given. It empowers people to respond to that disunity not by building new consensus, but by shooting those who would threaten them. In other words, the new mythic landscape [i.e., how the 2nd Amendment is now perceived] fundamentally assumes that a world of violence and fragmentation is inevitable (source).”

Sunday, January 20, 2013

On Martin Luther King Jr

On this year's observance of Martin Luther King Day, Americans are still roiled with anger and sorrow over the deaths of innocent schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut. And, in an affront to America’s anguish, there are some who have chosen to host Gun Appreciation Day only weeks after that massacre. 

Today, our country is divided by partisan antagonism. Americans vent their bitterness and frustration on their fellow countrymen. They mistake their natural allies for enemies. Reverend King would have said to this, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.” 

We no longer have the luxury to content ourselves with ridiculing and ostracizing those who have different beliefs than our own. That is the path many of us have chosen: we sit behind a computer screen or television set and express our contempt toward our ideological adversaries. We talk past one another. Hate is nurtured by darkness and solitude, but love can only flourish if we step out into the light and listen to one another.  

“From time immemorial,” King said, “men have lived by the principle that 'self-preservation is the first law of life.' But this is a false assumption. I would say that other-preservation is the first law of life. It is the first law of life precisely because we cannot preserve self without being concerned about preserving other selves.” It is human nature to put one’s own interests first. And yet, paradoxically, when we retreat from society and set ourselves against society, we are making society that much more dangerous. The point will come when our society has become such a threat to individual life, liberty, and property that no single individual can build walls high enough, or purchase weapons powerful enough, to ensure his or her personal safety. “Nothing would be more disastrous and out of harmony with our self-interest,” the Reverend King said, “than … to travel a dead-end road of inordinate selfishness.”

The Reverend King reminded Americans, during the divided and traumatized decade of the 1960s, of the values that had originally created this country. King belongs to a tradition of dissenting preachers stretching back to the 1700’s. Christianity, according to one historian, “joined with Whig political views to give a resonant core of love of liberty and courageous resistance to tyranny and corruption to a great moral and political cause as the heartbeat of the American community (source).” This was not the kind of Christianity which leads to clannish, sectarian disputes. Instead, it was the purer Christianity which teaches that we are all brothers and sisters, the Christianity that has earned the respect and love of Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and people who hold other faiths or no religious faith at all. 

To illustrate King’s place within this tradition, consider the similarities between his own beliefs and those of the 18th century preacher Reverend Richard Price. 

As most of the evils which have taken place in private life, and among individuals, have been occasioned by the desire of private interest overcoming the public affections; so most of the evils which have taken place among bodies of men have been occasioned by the desire of their own interest overcoming the principle of universal benevolence: and leading them to attack one another's territories, to encroach on one another's rights, and to endeavor to build their own advancement on the degradation of all within the reach of their power (source).
The Reverend Price is one of the forgotten Founders of this country. He was a personal friend of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, John Jay, and Thomas Jefferson.  In a letter to Price, Jefferson said, “the American war seems first to have awakened the thinking part of this nation in general from the sleep of despotism in which they were sunk (source).”  

What is it that causes a people to ignore the loss of their freedom? And what is it that awakens a people and inspires action?

Nothing can be more friendly to the general rights of mankind; and were it duly regarded and practiced every man would consider every other man as his brother, and all the animosity that now takes place among contending nations would be abolished ... Why are the nations of the world so patient under despotism? Why do they crouch to tyrants, and submit to be treated as if they were a herd of cattle? Is it not because they are kept in darkness, and want knowledge? Enlighten them and you will elevate them. Show them they are men, and they will act like men. Give them just ideas of civil government, and let them know that it is an expedient for gaining protection against injury and defending their rights, and it will be impossible for them to submit to governments which, like most of those now in the world, are usurpations on the rights of men, and little better than contrivances for enabling the few to oppress the many (source).
An enlightened public, not widespread ownership of guns, is the surest protection against tyranny. But it is easier to build oneself a personal arsenal than to educate oneself, and give expression to one's convictions.
An ad from Remington.

The principle of other-preservation, of benevolence, of concern for the public good – this was central to the thinking of Reverend Price. And it was also the core of Reverend King’s philosophy. King used the term agap­e: taken from the Greek, the word refers to brotherly love, as distinct from erotic love or the affection one person has for another. King said, 

Agape is not a weak, passive love. It is love in action. Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community. It is insistence on community even when one seeks to break it. Agape is a willingness to sacrifice in the interest of mutuality. Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community. It doesn't stop at the first mile, but it goes the second mile to restore community. It is a willingness to forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven to restore community.
Speaking in Memphis, King said, “If a man does not have a job or income, at that moment you deprive him of life. You deprive him of liberty. And you deprive him of the pursuit of happiness." He described a “dangerous unselfishness” that will bring change to society if it inspires people to give up their frightened dependency on self-interest and begin to think about improving the lives of others. He spoke of the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the Levite who saw the injured man by the side of the road and did not stop. King conjectured, “the first question that the Levite asked was, 'If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?' But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: 'If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?'”

The day after he said this, a man with a gun took his life.