Archive for the ‘#alternativehistory’ Tag

A Fork in the Road   1 comment

I always considered George Washington to be a principled individual until I read a letter between him and Alexander Hamilton basically plotting the overthrow of the American Confederacy in 1783. It’s what inspired “A Bridge at Adelphia”, an alternative history short story that was published in Echoes of Liberty: Clarion Call 2, an anthology project of the Agorist Writers Workshop.

Image result for image of george washingtonGeorge Washington took office as president in 1789 possessing a reputation of inestimable value. People viewed him as the hero of the American Revolution who, disdaining power, had like the Roman general Cincinnatus returned home to his farm. When he allowed himself, with great reluctance, to be nominated as chief executive, his prestige was unparalleled. Indeed, his reputation was worldwide. When he died,

Napoleon Bonaparte decreed that the standards and flags of the French army be dressed in mourning crepe. The flags of the British Channel Fleet were lowered to half-mast to honor the fallen hero. Talleyrand, the French minister of foreign affairs, … [called] for a statue of Washington to be erected in Paris.1

People of his time were impressed that the indispensable hero of the Revolutionary War did not establish a personal dictatorship upon winning the war. This had to be a good sign for liberty, right?

I now see Washington as a mixed bag. He certainly was a useful figure for showing the world that America could establish a democratic republic and not fall into chaos or depotism, but Washington, though not a principal author of the Constitution, supported calling a convention to revise the Articles of Confederation … in violation of the Articles. Then, at the convention itself, he strongly backed Madison’s plans for centralized control.

On assuming power, Washington soon faced a division of opinion in his cabinet. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was not satisfied with the centralization already achieved by the Constitution. He called for a national bank and a government- directed program of industrial development. Thomas Jefferson raised a decisive objection to Hamilton’s proposal because it exceeded the bounds of power granted the central government by the new Constitution. Hamilton wasn’t fazed by this objection and produced an analysis that granted the central government broad power to do whatever Hamilton thought best. Washington, who had been present during the constitutional convention and surely knew what the Framers had wanted, weighed in on the side of the centralizers, drawing opposition from those who had also been there.

Washinton’s Farewell Address partially redeemed him from a classical-liberal standpoint. He cautioned against America’s involvement in European power politics, with which the United States had no concern. His warning against permanent alliances guided much of American foreign policy in the 19th century; and, in the 20th century, opponents of the bellicose policies of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt appealed to it. Washington’s prestige for once had beneficial results.

So was Washington’s influence was “good” or “bad” for liberty. By whose standard are we judging? I’m viewing it from a classical-liberal perspective in which the growth of government is viewed as an unmitigated disaster and expansionist foreign policy is resolutely opposed. I support “states’ rights” against increases in federal authority, and increasingly, oppose wars, except in cases of exercising self-determination or repelling direct invasion. 3 On the other hand, the goal of classical liberalism is to promote individual liberty, so while I support states rights, I don’t believe states have authority to abuse the individuals that live within them.

Can you name a time in American history … or just about any other country’s history … when engagement in war resulted in more freedom for individuals while the war was being conducted? Of course not, aggressive war shackles us with devastation and restriction of liberty in order to combat speculative dangers.6

The Articles of Confederation established a much less centralized system than the Constitution. Yet because ratification by all the states was required for the Articles to come into effect, most of the American Revolution was fought with no written structure of authority over the states at all. As Murray Rothbard notes,

The Articles were not exactly received with huzzahs; rather, they were greeted quietly and dutifully, as a needed part of the war effort against Britain. One of the keenest critiques of the Articles, as might be expected, came from Thomas Burke, who warned that, under cover of the war emergency, eager power-seekers were trying to impose a central government upon the states. … [t]he Articles of Confederation were not to be ratified and go into effect until 1781, when the Revolutionary War would be all but over.7

So much for the supposed necessity for a strong central government to combat other nations.

Washington held a decidedly different view. In 1783, he wrote to Alexander Hamilton: “It is clearly my opinion, unless Congress have powers competent to all general purposes, that the distresses we have encountered, the expense we have incurred, and the blood we have spilt, will avail nothing.”8

Among the “distresses” of which Washington spoke, one may speculate that personal considerations loomed large. Throughout his adult life, Washington avidly sought land. “His family had first speculated in Ohio Valley land decades ago [before the 1780s], and Washington owned nearly sixty thousand acres.”9

A project that aroused his interest offered a chance to appreciate greatly the value of his land. “If a canal could be pushed over the mountains to link up with the Allegheny river system, then all the future produce of the Ohio Valley could flow through Virginia land, (not coincidentally, past Mount Vernon).”10

A crucial obstacle confronted Washington’s hopes for a Potomac Canal. Under the Articles of Confederation, a state had the right to levy fees on the use of waterways that passed through its boundaries. If the states bordering the Potomac were to do so, the proposed canal might generate no profit for him. Yeah, Washington may have been motivated toward a central government by business concerns.  As Richard Brookhiser notes, “[h]e was drawn to the plan by important private and public interests, and the political steps he took to fulfill it led directly to the Constitutional Convention, if not a canal.”11 Interstate taxation would be eliminated by a strong central government.

I don’t think Washington was only motivated by personal economic interests, but you cannot neglect his personal interests in explaining his policies.

Regardless of Washington’s motives, the fact that someone of his reputation advocated a Constitutional Convention eased the doubts of those who feared centralization. Some Americans figured that if Washington was involved, the proposed convention could not be aimed at the destruction of liberty. Washington was Cincinnatus, who spurned dictatorship when it was within his grasp. Clearly, the Convention could not have bad intentions if Washington had agreed to serve as a delegate to it. Richard Brookhiser puts the essential point well:

Much of the political class was happy with the current arrangements. … Supporters of change would have to make the case that a new government would not threaten liberty. … Washington’s presence would help immeasurably to make that case. He had already held more power than any man in America, and after eight and half years, he had surrendered it. He was the most conspicuous example of moderation and disinterestedness that the nation could supply.12

At the convention, Washington’s primary aim was not to enact a particular plan of government. The need rather was to act immediately, so that centralization could be secured as fast as possible.

During the constitutional debates, Washington insisted that the Articles of Confederation be overhauled quickly. “Otherwise,” he wrote, “like a house on fire, whilst the most regular mode of extinguishing it is contended for, the building is reduced to ashes.” What was needed, Washington thought, was any solid national government.13

Washington was quite willing to push his argument to extremes. So essential did he deem centralization that he contemplated a monarchy for America, should the Constitutional Convention fail. He was not himself a monarchist—far from it. But a letter of March 31, 1787, to James Madison shows that conceivable circumstances might change him into one.

In his definitive study of James Madison’s political thought, Lance Banning summarized Washington’s thoughts in this vital letter:

No one could deny the indispensability of a complete reform of the existing system, which he hoped the Constitutional Convention would attempt. But only if complete reform were tried, and the resulting system still proved inefficient, would a belief in the necessity of greater change begin to spread “among all classes of the people. Then, and not till then is my [Washington’s] opinion, can it [monarchy] be attempted without involving all the evils of civil discord.”14

Which was exactly what most people were worried about when considering a constitutional convention. Were their fears calmed by Washington’s endorsement? Would they have been reignited had they known of this letter? I think it was fortunate for Washington’s reputation that the convention did not fail and the fact that Washington contemplated monarchy remained hidden.

Any centralized form of government, Washington held, was desirable so long as it could be quickly established. This doesn’t mean Washington was indifferent to the type of centralized government established. He soon fell in with the radical nationalism of Madison’s Virginia Plan.

To Madison, Washington’s presence at the convention was essential: It was “an invitation to the most select characters from every part of the Confederacy.”15 Madison reported that Washington arrived at the Philadelphia convention “amidst the acclamations of the people, as more sober marks of the affection and veneration which continue to be felt for his character.”16

Washington’s presence and the presence of “lesser figures of impeccable republican credentials allowed the convention to rebut the charge of being an aristocratic conspiracy while conferring on it the opportunity to behave like one.”17

Strong words, but the details of Madison’s plans bear out the interpretation. Madison and other extreme nationalists sought to entirely eviscerate the power of the states to thwart the will of the nation.

Under the Virginia Plan, which Madison submitted to Washington before the convention opened, Congress could veto any law enacted by a state legislature that it deemed unconstitutional.

It called, as Washington’s summary of Madison’s draft put it, for a “due supremacy of the national authority,” including “local authorities [only] whenever they can be subordinately useful.” … Madison had originally called for an even more sweeping national power over state laws, a “negative in all cases whatever.”18

In fairness to Washington, he did not vote in favor of Madison’s radical proposal of an unlimited congressional veto. But neither did he oppose the plan. Madison noted that

Gen. W. was “not consulted.” How could he not have been consulted? He never missed a session. Most probably, Gen. W. had been consulted privately, and the result of the consultation was that, since Madison had the voters anyway, Washington chose not to take a public stand on an inflamed issue.19

It seems quite clear that opposition by Washington would have at once ended so far-reaching a plan, but it was not forthcoming. Surely then he cannot have been very strongly against it. Had he been, he need only have spoken a word. But why speculate on Washington’s private opinion of Madison’s proposal? Its importance for our purposes is this: Many of those who feared that the convention would strike a fatal blow at states’ rights were reassured by Washington’s presence. But, unknown to them, he was at least a fellow traveler of radical centralism. His image as a Cincinnatus averse to power led many into error. It did not follow from Washington’s personal reluctance to hold office that he was not an opponent of states’ rights, as this concept was understood in the 1780s.

Fortunately, for those opposed to centralism, no version of the congressional veto survived into the Constitution’s final draft. But the Constitution, even without it, was far more centralizing than the Articles; and Washington’s image once again proved useful when the Constitution came up for ratification. Skeptics were reassured by Washington’s image that he would not support a regime that opposed liberty. Thus, in Virginia, opposition to the Constitution was in part disarmed by Washington’s prestige. “Few, if any of Virginia’s revolutionary leaders questioned Madison’s republican credentials. All, no doubt, were comforted by their awareness that George Washington would head the federal government if it were put into effect.”20

Again, I don’t believe Washington’s image sufficed to quell all opposition to the new document. Quite the contrary, in the very passage just cited, Lance Banning maintained that Madison’s skill at argument was needed to win over the recalcitrant. Confidence in Washington was not enough because in 1788, “quite unlike today, few believed that the executive would set the federal government’s directions.”21 Nevertheless, the importance of the “Washington-image factor” cannot be ignored.

The Constitution did not in all respects settle the nature of the American system. What sort of government would result from it? Would its provisions be interpreted loosely, to enable the central government to seize as much power from the states as possible? Two conflicting approaches to government split Washington’s cabinet, one favored by Alexander Hamilton and the other by Thomas Jefferson.

These divergent views have been ably summarized by Forrest McDonald.

In Federalist Essay number 70, Hamilton had said that “energy in the executive is a leading ingredient in the definition of good government.” … In essays 71 and 73, he made his position clearer: “It is one thing,” he said, for the executive “to be subordinate to the laws, and another to be dependent on the legislative body.” In other words, the executive authority must operate independently and with a wide range of discretion in its field, the Constitution and laws providing only broad guidelines and rules.22

Jefferson and his followers saw matters entirely otherwise.

In Jefferson’s view, and that of most Republicans, such discretionary authority was inherently dangerous and smacked of monarchy. … A society would grow better … by stripping social and governmental institutions to the bare minimum so that the natural aristocracy might rise to the top.23

The differences between Hamilton and Jefferson were not confined to abstract argument, but quietly became manifest in practical affairs. Although Hamilton considered himself a student of economics, his views embodied the discredited doctrines of mercantilism.

One of the duties of the federal government, according to the Hamilton philosophy, is the active promotion of a dynamic industrial capitalist economy … by establishment of sound public finance, public investment in infrastructure, and promotion of new industrial sectors unlikely to be profitable in their early stages.

As Hamilton wrote in The Report on Manufactures:

Capital is wayward and timid in leading itself to new undertakings, and the state ought to excite the confidence of capitalists, who are ever cautious and sagacious, by aiding them to overcome the obstacles that lie in the way of all experiments.24

Where the State would acquire the requisite understanding to direct the economy, Hamilton neglected to inform his readers; and Jefferson and his followers were reluctant to take the matter on faith. In particular, the Jeffersonians rejected Hamilton’s plan, as part of reforming public finance, to establish a national bank.

In this opposition they had a seemingly irrefutable argument. Hamilton’s plan for a bank clearly violated the Constitution. Nowhere does that document give Congress the power to charter a national bank. So small a matter did not deter Hamilton from avid pursuit of his scheme.

In response to a request by Washington, Hamilton delivered a “Defense of the Constitutionality of the Bank” to him on February 23, 1791.

The well-known part of the defense spelled out the “loose constructionist” doctrine of the Constitution. The Constitution, said Hamilton, defined only in general terms the broad purposes for which the federal government was created. … If Congress determined to achieve an end authorized by the Constitution, it was empowered by the final clause in Article I, Section 8 [the “necessary and proper” clause] … to use any means that were not prohibited by the Constitution.25

Hamilton’s argument had much further reach than just the bank, though that was no small thing. If Hamilton’s views were accepted, little of limited government could remain. Given the vaguest aims, for example, the promotion of “the general welfare,” the government had the power, Hamilton alleged, to do whatever it thought was needed to attain them.

Faced with so blatant a challenge to constitutional rule, what did Washington do? He accepted Hamilton’s opinion, refusing Madison’s advance to veto the bank bill. Hamilton’s “defense convinced Washington, and on February 25 [1791], he signed the bank bill into law.”26

Once again Washington lent his prestige and authority to the cause of a strong central state. From a classical-liberal perspective, his course of action was a disastrous blunder.

But the record is not all black. Looking at it from a certain angle, Washington seemed an opponent of the libertarian tradition the country was founded on. He used his fame to secure unwarranted credence for a convention that aimed to strengthen the central government. At that convention, he gave the most extreme centralizers at least tacit support. He then accepted an argument that freed the government from all constitutional restraint. Nevertheless, from the classical-liberal perspective, Washington almost redeemed himself.

In his Farewell Address, Washington set forward principles of foreign policy that, if followed, would virtually immunize America from involvement in foreign wars. (The Address was not delivered as a speech. It was a circular published in The American Daily Advertiser, September 19, 1796.)27

In the Address, Washington sharply separated European affairs from those of the United States.

Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence therefore it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificialities, in … the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships, or enmities.28

It can’t be argued that Washington thought that European politics shouldn’t concern Americans at all. He recognized that European aggression could affect America and that we might need to actively prevent domination.

Washington rejected this contention in advance.

Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain in one People, under an efficient government, the period is not far off, when we may defy material injury from external annoyance. . . . Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground.29

Here Washington adopts the much maligned Fortress America stance so derided by critics of isolation. Given the manifest perils of war, Washington suggested a classical-liberal system could take advantage of a favorable geographic position to steer clear of foreign entanglements. Washington’s argument on this subject and, for once, his immense prestige aided the cause of liberty.30

Opponents of American entry into the world wars frequently appealed to the Address. If they were ultimately unsuccessful, at least the fame of the Address and its author helped slow the race toward war and statism. Unfortunately, his assent to the Constitutional system and the modifications in policy requested by Hamilton has slowly, but surely resulted in the vexing situation we have today.

I contemplate these things while I consider expanding upon that alternative history short story. Lai has more things to say about an era of history we seem not to be truly aware of.

 

Posted January 16, 2018 by aurorawatcherak in History

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Alternatives   1 comment

I recently read about an assistant professor at St. Mary’s College outside South Bend, Indiana. He used to live in the Pilsen area of Chicago at the time University Village was undergoing development. Feeling a loss of history and community, he asked for old family photos and learned there weren’t many. Being an artist, he set about to recreate the community he wanted to remember.

Ian Weaver created Black Bottom, an imaginary Chicago neighborhood adjacent to Maxwell Street by drawing maps for its streets, documents for its residents and also creating quilts and other faux artifacts.

“I wanted to create this heroic history that might have been,” he said. “I think of it as a nostalgic wish fulfillment — one with a foot in reality.”

Alternate histories and parallel universes present us with familiar worlds where the details are unfamiliar.

It’s not a new idea. In 1931, a popular history book titled If It Had Happened Otherwise asked scores of historians to imagine the fictitious outcomes of actual events. Winston Churchill was a contributor. He pictured what would have happened if the Confederacy had won the Civil War. Science fiction writers do this all the time – envisioning what a different world we might have lived in if world events had played out differently. What if Hitler had been accepted to art school or Oswald missed JFK.

At its most benign, alternative histories are stories about roads not taken: The lovers in “La La Land” head off on a different path, their future happy and romantic. Then again, if you look at the 2016 presidential election, it sure looks like our everyday world consists of two alternate universes. We seem to live in two side-by-side universes that see things in very different ways.

I hear that classic alternative-universe fiction has made a revival since the election — books like The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick and Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here are flying off the digital shelves over at Amazon. In Dick’s tale, the Nazis won the Second World War and America is an occupied nation, divided between the Japanese on the West and the Nazis on the East. There’s a current series being adapted with more up-to-date themes. It shows an America where people are willing to sell out their neighbors for a promise of security.

The thing that strikes me about this is that viewing who in the current scheme of thing plays what role really depends on which America you live in. We as a national community are more separated by basic ideas that we were in the past. We lack certain common beliefs. Some of us think it’s okay to kidnap and torture mentally disabled men, while others believe it’s okay to murder babies in the womb. On the other hand, there are those who think it’s okay to force other countries to live by our ideals or to force our neighbors to “do things our way” without even exploring what makes “our way” the right way for our neighbor.

Sinclair Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here in 1935 when many social commentators saw the New Deal as a mixed blessing for poor Americans. (What? You didn’t know that. Go read some history. No, seriously. This blog post will be here when you come back to continue this discussion.)

Lewis watched as fascism took over Europe and he worried that the United States might turn to dictatorship. His book features a crass, plain-spoken East Coast businessman who wraps totalitarianism in the flag, demonizes his enemies, and then defeats Roosevelt for the presidency. Congress, bashed by the president and the people alike, doesn’t respond quickly as the President declares war on Mexico. The hero, a complacent Vermont liberal, flees to Canada, but (inexplicably) attends a campaign rally for the erstwhile president-to-be. The violent, race-baiting rhetoric startles him.

Lewis always wrote about the uncomfortable truths of American society. He admired American ideals, but he didn’t like the people of America very much, considering them greedy and ignorant. He was a “blue zone” liberal living in his own bubble, certain that the unwashed masses would destroy the country if allowed to have a voice. You can find the alternative to his vision in The Hunger Games, where the educated elites of the Capital have silenced the unwashed masses to solidify their own power.

When history is a matter of opinion, your version of reality is as good as any other. There’s danger in that sort of belief. But there’s also freedom. Sometimes when we go back to look at history, we find that we’ve been sold a bill of goods by the teachers and the shapers of public opinion. George Washington never chopped down a cherry tree. The US didn’t need to get into the FDR was not as beloved as his biographers made him out to be. Hillary Clinton wasn’t the peace-nic she wanted us to believe. The economy did not heal under Barack Obama’s massive spending. And we don’t know that Donald Trump is a modern-day Hitler. Some of us may suspect it, but that’s not the same thing as having actual evidence.

I am officially a scoffer of multiverses. While I can easily see how a change in a certain point in history could make massive changes to the world as we know it now, I don’t believe that is reality. History is linear. A road not taken cannot be returned to. The concept that everything that ever happened — every chance taken, and avoided — exists somewhere, alongside every other possibility is science fiction and fiction isn’t real. Scientists don’t actually embrace the multiverse theory although some historians do. That might be reasonable.  You can’t read certain documents and not wonder … what would have happened if George Washington’s letter to Alexander Hamilton had been intercepted before the ratification of the US Constitution? How would the world or at least the United States be different?

 

Echoes of Liberty contains several authors’ ideas of how things might be different if one of those roads not taken had actually been taken. A libertarian-themed anthology, it includes “A Bridge at Adelphia” in which I explore what might have happened on the Ohio frontier if that letter had been intercepted. It’s pretty explosive stuff because Washington appears to agree to Hamilton’s desire to anoint him as king and, had that gotten out in the public, the Constitution, which barely won ratification, might never have passed. I suggest it might provide new hope for peace between the settlers and the Indians because … well, power corrupts and the Constitution provided a great deal more power to the government than had previously existed. What if that power had not been available? What might the settlers have done?
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