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America Awakens

John Milton was a Latin poet, well-educated, with the ambition to be the best Latin poet in Europe.


    How did the idea of "freedom" evolve, from the picture of arrant recklessness or selfishness, to become the beacon light for a new way of building governance? It began in Italy, where young John Milton visited Galileo, then under house arrest for declaring, based on his experiments with the new device called a "telescope," that the Earth actually revolved around the Sun. Dangerous new idea, declared the Vatican. Galileo warned the young Milton directly: "Don't let this happen in England." Freedom of inquiry was too important to be shut away by edicts or a religion.

At the time, England was in great turmoil—the unpopular King, still battling, had been deposed, replaced by the self-appointed Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. With no elections, the Long Parliament remained seated as the only legal body. Milton wondered: Was it truly better to rule by edict or scripture, thus carefully controlling the accepted ways of doing or thinking — or could there be room for open discussion and even debate about public issues? Even more fundamental than "who should govern" was the underlying question: "How should decisions of governance be made?" How had they ever been made?

With no position of authority except his own encyclopedic knowledge of Greek and Roman history, John Milton began to address one question—censorship. He wrote a 40-page essay in the form of a speech to Parliament (never actually delivered), in which he goes through the catalog of historical instances in various city-states, empires, or duchies from ancient times to his own century, to answer that one question: "Did censorship work?" Milton came to one conclusion. Civic censorship or religious imprimatur on publications or pronouncements had the effect of shutting down discussion, which almost inevitably led to unsatisfactory results. However, open discussion, even conflicting opinions, appeared to air out difficulties before they occurred. He titled it Areopagitica to honor Areopagus, a tribunal hill in Greece.

Milton's little book, never refuted, soon became a cornerstone for deeper thinking on the question of governance. The idea of Freedom of the Press, so vital to democratic life, is founded on this document.

Many who left England for the American colonies were in search of "Freedom," to freely exercise their own religious or other ideas. Although colonial governors were appointed by a King in Britain, the population in general learned to accept, even to welcome new ideas as public discussion became part of each colony's culture. Eventually, this freedom of thought combined with new beginnings in new circumstances formed a new entity on the American continent. Freedom to disagree, yet they all could listen to each other.

Though he never lived to see the colonies flourishing, the proposition that John Milton had set forth in his Areopagitica a hundred years before, established a legal foundation for freedom of the press, freedom of expression—free from censorship by any party including a ruler. Especially a ruler 3,000 miles away across an ocean.

Thomas Paine arrived in the colonies in 1774, and by 1776 published his influential book Common Sense (to come), with facts and figures showing the flaws in the existing colonial trade arrangements with Britain; in other words, making the case for change.

Common Sense (to come)

The end of a longtime relationship of Britain between those largely British settlers (and their descendants) who had chosen to live in the New World two weeks away across the Atlantic finally came to the breaking point. Tom Paine said it plainly in his book Common Sense, when he described the relationship of the two economies as the tail wagging the dog—all the rules (and taxes) were declared on one side, while the consequences fell on the other side. "Think anew!" was his message.

Not all of these colonials agreed with the idea of self-governance—perhaps less than half supported independence. And how could they, thirteen independent colonies stretching over fifteen hundred miles of coastline, even begin to live with each other?

The First Continental Congress arose, with twelve of the thirteen colonies participating, to protest directly to King George, about the onerous Stamp Act and the Coercive Acts— but were called the Intolerable Acts by the American colonists. King George did not budge. After which the colonials fired back a series of Resolutions, starting with "That they are entitled to life, liberty, and property, and they have never ceded to any sovereign power whatever a right to dispose of either without their consent." Which led to the famous cry, "No Taxation Without Representation," referring to the lack of any American colonists seated in the British Parliament. And King George is quoted as saying: "The die is now cast, the colonies must either submit or triumph."

Thomas Jefferson penned this appeal in 1774, to King George: "Resolved, that it be an instruction to the said deputies, when assembled in general congress with the deputies from the other states of British America, to propose to the said congress that an humble and dutiful address be presented to his majesty, begging leave to lay before him, as chief magistrate of the British empire, the united complaints of his majesty's subjects in America; complaints which are excited by many unwarrantable encroachments and usurpations, attempted to be made by the legislature of one part of the empire, upon those rights which God and the laws have given equally and independently to all. To represent to his majesty that these his states have often individually made humble application to his imperial throne to obtain, through its intervention, some redress of their injured rights, to none of which was ever even an answer condescended; humbly to hope that this their joint address, penned in the language of truth, and divested of those expressions of servility which would persuade his majesty that we are asking favours, and not rights, shall obtain from his majesty a more respectful acceptance. And this his majesty will think we have reason to expect when he reflects that he is no more than the chief officer of the people, appointed by the laws, and circumscribed with definite powers, to assist in working the great machine of government, erected for their use, and consequently subject to their superintendance. And in order that these our rights, as well as the invasions of them, may be laid more fully before his majesty, to take a view of them from the origin and first settlement of these countries."

Circumstances soon led to the next step, the Second Continental Congress, which met in September and October 1774. This body assumed the powers of defense and war preparation, appointing diplomats, arranging treaties as a de facto government. Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, and Thomas Jefferson joined the group of 56 delegates. By July 20, 1775, Georgia, the thirteenth colony holdout, threw in their lot with the rest. A committee of five was entrusted with creating a document, and they charged Thomas Jefferson, with the task. He spent weeks on many drafts until he and the committee were satisfied. By July 1776, the now-famous Declaration of Independence was produced and promulgated throughout the colonies. The die was indeed cast.

After a few held back, in the end, all thirteen colonies participated in the Revolutionary War to overthrow British rule; Canada was invited to join, but did not participate. George Washington was assigned to lead the troops, and his persistent generalship in the face of long odds, with sometimes bold moves, won out. The last engagement was won with the help of a blockade by the French fleet.

Now what? was the active question. After some wrangling and false starts, the Articles of Confederation was the first major step toward seeing the various States bound together, at least into a loose confederation with a common destiny. But what was that supposed to look like? Some problems, such as Shay's Rebellion, defied local authorities. Who was in charge? Who was responsible to keep the peace? It took six years, to 1781, to create this document uniting the former colonies:

Articles of Confederation       

As important as the Articles of Confederation had been, just establishing a confederation of the various states (no longer colonies) wasn't enough. It didn't take long for the the weaknesses in the Articles to show up. Shays' Rebellion was a reminder that, with all the safeguards, and no King, the compact itself lacked a strong central authority. What if another country attacked? Or how to deal with a natural catastrophe, or plague, or rebellion? How would general policy be set? Who would lead? The course for independence had been set, and affirmed with victory over the British, to establish a new nation. But more was needed. How do you build a country from scratch, with no hereditary leadership? How could the people decide?

The Idea of a President

James Madison stepped forward. He garnered delegates from various States to meet at Annapolis, but many states never showed up. Some months later, with better communications, Madison gathered a quorum to start what we now call the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. After just a few years, it had become obvious that a central governing body had to be invested with powers to establish standards, conduct foreign policy, perhaps wage war if necessary, and actually run a government. The Enlightenment and British practices had settled on a workable framework for a democratic government with three distinct interrelated functions: Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. Judicial was based on existing law, Legislative would allow debates to effect changes of law, or enacting new laws. The Executive, however, could not be a King. Much of the discussion in those four months in 1787 was to work out how or who should be the presiding official. For most of the sessions, George Washington presided over the meetings. Lacking a better term than "Executive," they settled on "President," and, when elections were finally performed, the almost unanimous decision was to select George Washington as the first President.

James Madison not only organized the months-long sessions, he took copious notes of every speech. To answer the big unanswered question, all the speeches at the Constitutional Convention that bear on the nature of the Presidency: who, how, what powers, what restraints, what relationship to Congress are all found in The Idea of a President. Suggestions flew: perhaps it ought to be three people instead of one, a term of six years, or three, perhaps advised by the Supreme Court, chosen by state governors, or by lot, or (shudder) by the people directly, or …the debate went on for months until a document was drawn up, to be submitted to the States, only to be accepted if nine of the thirteen agreed. And, in practice, it was not "sold" until ten amendments were added, which we now call the Bill of Rights.

The book The Idea of a President incorporates all the speeches at the Constitutional Convention relating to creating a structure for the Presidency (taken directly from James Madison's own extensive notes). The proposals vary from having 3 people at once, to establishing a term of six years, or three, or on a rotating basis as the Confederation had had, or advised by the Supreme Court, etc.) The Idea of a President (also available as an audiobook) is scripted as a radio drama, as if the speakers are speaking now, directly to the reader or listener.

But wait! There's more. That was just the beginning. Each State had to agree to this new document called a Constitution (literally meaning "made up of"). The threshold of nine states ratified it by 1789. However, there was enough pushback that an additional twelve amendments were recommended, of which only ten were appended, ten new personal guarantees, which we now call the Bill of Rights, before States would finally approve the whole document in late 1791.

In the interval before ratification, a series of arguments and explanations published in various New York papers over some months, all signed "Publius," elaborated on reasons why voters should accept this new document. Well over a hundred documents covered every issue of concern.

The first few of the Publius papers were written by John Jay, later to become the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Federalist Papers: Jay (to come)

Jay's major concern was to ensure that the new nation, having fended off the British, would have the standing in the world to deal with other national entities on a sound legal footing; that is, not by hurriedly calling a council with delegates from all of the states as to how to respond, or defend territory, or establish trade. That is, to be a nation among nations. However, after five essays, his health led him to call on two likeminded compatriots to continue "Publius."

Alexander Hamilton, who had started the series, stepped in and contributed the major portion of the eighty-five pieces.

Federalist Papers: Hamilton (to come)

Hamilton's thinking was broad and deep, helping to shape the notion of a new nation, a republic with no king, built on rational principles, and the capacity to change or amend itself as the times might require. These important issues were to be decided within a matter of months, by all voters in all thirteen states— and with the promise of certain amendments to the new Constitution even as it was to be affirmed. Many and complex issues had to be discussed. Hamilton was a thorough thinker; he did not sidestep issues on which not all would agree, but he did insist that, however a vote or issue was decided, that yeas and nays alike would be willing to accept it. That would be the basis of this new republic, this experiment in governance. Here is his opening:

FEDERALIST No. 6 Concerning Dangers from Dissensions Between the States

The three last numbers of this paper have been dedicated to an enumeration of the dangers to which we should be exposed, in a state of disunion, from the arms and arts of foreign nations. I shall now proceed to delineate dangers of a different and, perhaps, still more alarming kind--those which will in all probability flow from dissensions between the States themselves, and from domestic factions and convulsions. These have been already in some instances slightly anticipated; but they deserve a more particular and more full investigation. A man must be far gone in Utopian speculations who can seriously doubt that, if these States should either be wholly disunited, or only united in partial confederacies, the subdivisions into which they might be thrown would have frequent and violent contests with each other. To presume a want of motives for such contests as an argument against their existence, would be to forget that men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious. To look for a continuation of harmony between a number of independent, unconnected sovereignties in the same neighborhood, would be to disregard the uniform course of human events, and to set at defiance the accumulated experience of ages.

James Madison, the third "Publius," had already organized the Constitutional Convention itself, thinking thought long and hard on the task at hand— not just to rebel against the British, but to establish a new kind of government entirely, one that allowed great diversity yet was united enough to stand together as a single nation with its own imprint upon the world.

Federalist Papers: Madison (to come)

Among other issues, Madison highlights the common misconceptions that equate democracies with republics, and makes appropriate distinctions, as in the following passage:

We have seen the necessity of the Union, as our bulwark against foreign danger, as the conservator of peace among ourselves, as the guardian of our commerce and other common interests, as the only substitute for those military establishments which have subverted the liberties of the Old World, and as the proper antidote for the diseases of faction, which have proved fatal to other popular governments, and of which alarming symptoms have been betrayed by our own. All that remains, within this branch of our inquiries, is to take notice of an objection that may be drawn from the great extent of country which the Union embraces. A few observations on this subject will be the more proper, as it is perceived that the adversaries of the new Constitution are availing themselves of the prevailing prejudice with regard to the practicable sphere of republican administration, in order to supply, by imaginary difficulties, the want of those solid objections which they endeavor in vain to find.

The error which limits republican government to a narrow district has been unfolded and refuted in preceding papers. I remark here only that it seems to owe its rise and prevalence chiefly to the confounding of a republic with a democracy, applying to the former reasonings drawn from the nature of the latter. The true distinction between these forms was also adverted to on a former occasion. It is, that in a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic, they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents. A democracy, consequently, will be confined to a small spot. A republic may be extended over a large region. To this accidental source of the error may be added the artifice of some celebrated authors, whose writings have had a great share in forming the modern standard of political opinions. Being subjects either of an absolute or limited monarchy, they have endeavored to heighten the advantages, or palliate the evils of those forms, by placing in comparison the vices and defects of the republican, and by citing as specimens of the latter the turbulent democracies of ancient Greece and modern Italy. Under the confusion of names, it has been an easy task to transfer to a republic observations applicable to a democracy only; and among others, the observation that it can never be established but among a small number of people, living within a small compass of territory.

Such a fallacy may have been the less perceived, as most of the popular governments of antiquity were of the democratic species; and even in modern Europe, to which we owe the great principle of representation, no example is seen of a government wholly popular, and founded, at the same time, wholly on that principle.…

Common Sense     Areopagitica

Articles of Confederation     

The Idea of a President

The Constitution       Bill of Rights

Man Without a Country       

Campus Store Bulk Discounts       

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