Because some things remain constant, they can serve the self-interests of people in positions of power and wealth to the disadvantage of the very people who are unable to change.
I have as of late been caught up, so to speak, in the pages of history. Having just about finished my read of Richard Beeman’s great historical account of the men and events that surrounded the 1787 Constitutional Convention, “Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution”, followed by a review of Ken Burn’s 9 episode Civil War documentaries through my Netflix account, I have discovered a common thread that exist throughout this 230 plus year period.
There has been little changed in the ideologies of those referred to as the Antifederalist of the late 18th century period, those dissenters who supported secession in the mid 19th century, and that mindset carried forward into the 20th century as the civil rights opponents fought against social justice for the poor, elderly, women and minorities, especially blacks in this country. The sentiments of such people then can be soundly heard even today in those mix of people in right-wing fringe groups, where most seem to coalesce around the modern day Tea Party.
It’s a voice that originally arose out of the need to break from the shackles of suppression from the very real wealthy and powerful autocratic rulers of a bygone era most often referred to as kings, emperors and czars. These forms of governance arose over man’s long evolutionary expanse from small cave dwellers to vast ancient cultures. Always a part of this evolution was the strong urge to protect one’s self-interests.
In the beginning small groups always gravitated around the individual who showed the greatest combination of strength, wisdom and courage and the weakest among them were supported by all. But as civilization expanded and societies developed beyond the small clans of earlier times, the concept of a strongman ruler took off in a direction that tended to forget the needs of the weakest elements in society but always retained a strong sense of self-interests
The strongman ruler concept became intertwined with the religious views of a culture and thus became a positioned supposedly ordained by God himself. But increasingly over time men began to think outside this box and with the writings of great social thinkers like Hobbs, Rousseau, Burke, Mills and Hegel, notions of democracies and republican forms of government were explored in the hopes that those common people who had always been subject to the whims of monarchies and tyrants could in fact have greater control over their own lives.
For so long ingrained in the minds of people and the writings regarding autocratic rule, personal freedom was something that few fathomed possible. But once achieved it persisted heavily in some to the point that any notion of “authority” was viewed as bad or potentially evil. This was the mindset of most of the men who met at Independence Hall in Philadelphia that summer of 1787.
They came together, many thought, to tweak the Articles of Confederation that would allow the separate states to act more in unison on some issues like trade and defense. Others though, like James Madison of Virginia, James Wilson of Pennsylvania and even Charles Pickney of South Carolina came to form a more centralized authority. There was great virtue in the need to form a “more perfect union” of states but to many, like Luther Martin of Maryland and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, there was that ingrained fear that certain liberties would be lost and lead to a slippery slope back into the abyss of one man rule.
Though many in the South saw the need to centralize authority they did so only after they had gained exemption for their use of slaves and the provision that export taxes would not be levied on the cotton, rice and tobacco products that were economic staples for this region. Their self-interests were in control of any higher notion of free and equal status for all people and much of what was offered to create this government from all the delegates centered primarily around property and wealth, especially that of those who already had much of it.
So determined were those states to preserve slavery and the equal determination of some in the Northern states to abolish it that had their not been some sets of compromises to tap dance around this critical issue, the document that is the law of the land today for us may well have never come about. By kicking this can down the road however, feelings would mount so strongly on both sides that Southern plantation owners, and by default, almost all white people in the South would feel threatened by Northern abolitionists. So strong was this fear that it overflowed into a demonization of all people in Northern states. To most any white Southerner then all “Yankees” were to be despised, not just as agents of anti-slavery movements but as everything personified that would take from them their liberties and their very way of life.
It was this latter feeling about personal freedoms being lost again that became inculcated and eventually became expressed in forms of animosity that often exceeded rationale thought. It was to become a hot button so sensitive that just the mere mention of it would rile people to action that often ended with property destruction or death for some.
James Wilson, one of the Convention delegates from Pennsylvania, felt this wrath in 1779 from local militiamen because he dared defend some of those people who were viewed as “royalists”. A crowd attacked his home and killed an associate who was there to help with his defense. According to the account of the incident by Richard Beeman, “a melee of confusion, gunfire and bloodshed [ensued] that only ended when the president of the state government, Joseph Reed, appeared at the head of the city’s elite militia unit, … and moved in to quell the riot.” In the end 4 militiamen died and 14 others were wounded, including some of those who came to Wilson’s aid.
Skip forward 75 years later and the same kind of hostility exposed itself on the floor of the U.S. Senate. After referencing several senators who supported slavery as the issue was being debated in Congress, Norther abolitionist, Charles Sumner was attacked by Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina, who had a history of violence, beating Sumner severely with his cain until his colleagues could pull Brooks away. In 1861, Edmund Ruffin, an ardent advocate for states’ rights, secession and slavery, is said to have fired the first shot at Fort Sumter that started the Civil War. He hated the yankees so deeply that when Lee surrendered 4 years later, he killed himself and left a note saying that with “my latest breath, I here repeat, & would willingly proclaim, my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule—to all political, social and business connections with Yankees, & to the perfidious, malignant, & vile Yankee race.
Today, this hate that manifest itself often in violent action towards perceived threats to one’s way of life is aimed at liberals, gays, “godless” abortionist, illegal aliens and the federal government. The states’ rights mentality that threatened the lives of James Wilson, Charles Sumner and Union soldiers at Fort Sumter lives today by the likes of those who shoot policemen, abortion doctors, and judges who make rulings not to their liking. But the bigger sin lies in the fact that many who would pretend to be upset over such hostile actions are secretly supportive of such animosity
On the surface it appears that each time there was social change pushed in this nation that those who held the wealth and political power were most likely the ones who felt threatened by it and thus put their financial strength and social status on the line to fight it. To win people over to their side the notion that states’ rights and personal liberties were being threatened would be invoked by these people. This strong sense among many that there are those out there trying to destroy their way of life is often used by those who are merely guarding their own self-interests, especially those wealthy individuals that fear mob actions, unless of course it is turned against those who would diminish their vast fortunes.
These special interests have organized and created astroturf organizations to appeal to this base instinct of violence. We see them motivating this reactionary force in America to cover their need to denigrate those who would impose legislation and restraints on their power moves. They have bought out major media sources and diminished them to corporate message boards that not only flame the fires of anti-government, anti-gay, and anti-liberal ire but condition viewers to consume junk that floods our landfills and adds to the contamination of air, water and good farmland.
The images of hateful Tea Party types today, exploited by corporate self-interests, have their roots in the vitriol of many states’ rights advocates in early U.S. history. During the process of ratifying the U.S. Constitution, former delegate to the constitutional convention and avid anti-federalist, Martin Luther, falsely claimed that some of those founding fathers that framed the constitution were in favor of a “kingly Government”. John Mercer, who would later become Maryland’s governor also falsely claimed that convention delegate John Langdon of New Hampshire was eager to crown George Washington “despot of America”.
This type of misinformation is alive and well today on right-wing talk shows and especially in the commentaries of many FOX News pundits. It’s intent then as it is now is to create straw man arguments and a smoke and mirror environment to prevent a unity amongst citizens today that would hold the feet to the fire of those who continue to capitalize off of the special interests of so-called entrepreneurs.
This isn’t about the evils of the profit motive. Profits in and of themselves are not evil. It is about those whose industries threaten human health and well-being - from the adverse effects of fossil fuels and bogus financial products to the control of health coverage that promotes profits over people – by spending too much of their profits to sustain their harmful ways.
Their efforts to battle those changes that seek to correct the abuses they have imposed on the general public include the tactics and fear that come from an era when such practices seemed more justified than they do today. The new despotism however is not monarchy but corporatism and it battles it’s rival, a government “of the people” by suggesting that we all have the same self-interests and share the same risks; something we all know deep within ourselves isn’t true but which many cannot come to admit openly.