Densic: Lessons from the losersWritten by Robert Densic | | email@example.com
History is written by the victors, according to the age-old axiom. Whether in war or in debate, this truth remains. But one must ask if there are lessons to be learned in defeat and from the defeated. Should we not study the history of the Weimar Republic and a young leader who would later come to be known simply as Hitler? Should we not also study the history of a fledgling colony of Great Britain in a far and distant land which would later rise to claim its independence? British Statesman Edmund Burke said, “Those who do not know history are destined to repeat it.”
Let us focus on the founding of a nation. What can we learn from our own history? There are many lessons, beginning with some of the first Spanish settlements in Florida in the mid-1500s, but if we wish to learn from the losers, we can find no better example than those known as “The Anti-Federalists.”
Following America’s Declaration of Independence, representatives of 13 independent states met to discuss providing a very loose framework for some “continental” services. Their discussions and debates produced the Articles of Confederation. These articles retained “the sovereignty, freedom and independence” of the new states while setting in the minds of all the need for alignment of purpose. The articles made provisions for mutual defense from foreign invaders and made the first attempt at providing equal protection of the law, regardless of citizenship.
Within a decade, the infighting between the independent states had taken a toll on the confederation. A new document was proposed: The Constitution of the United States of America. While we often take this document for granted (or ignore it outright), the mere proposal of this document led to loud and boisterous arguments, hot-tempered disagreements and, in a few cases, armed conflict.
During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, delegates from 12 of the states sent representatives with the intention of amending the Articles of Confederation to address many of the issues facing the confederation. To the surprise of many, a completely new Constitution was proposed. This so alarmed many that they withdrew from the convention to seek input from their various state legislatures. New York in fact withdrew all of its delegates. Over the concerns and objections of many, the Constitution was written, voted upon and sent to the states for ratification. Before the ink was dry, the battle lines of this debate were set between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists.
Samuel Bryan, aka “Centinel,” struck first. His review of the proposed Constitution noted, “The power of taxation enforced with a standing army is the grand engine of oppression.” He further warned “through the science of government, … men of the greatest purity of intention may be made instruments of despotism in the hands of the artful and designing.”
Bryan was not alone in seeing the potential dangers of the proposed Constitution in the hands of those who sought to “govern the masses, rather than lead through example of character.” George Clinton in New York published his concerns under the pseudonym “Cato.” “The world is too full of examples which prove that to live by one man’s will becomes the cause of all man’s misery,” he wrote.
Cato warned of the separation of the representatives from those they served. “It is a very important objection to this government, that the representation consists of so few; too few to resist the influence of corruption, and the temptation to treachery.”
Robert Yates, aka “Brutus,” reminded fellow New Yorkers, “Many instances can be produced in which the people have voluntarily increased the powers of their rulers; but few, if any, in which rulers have willingly abridged their authority.”
Thomas Jefferson laid the cornerstone of this debate when, upon reading the freshly signed Constitution, he said, “I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.”
Patrick Henry agreed, saying, “The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people; it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government —lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.”
Daniel Webster, a well-versed student of history, opined, “Our destruction, should it come at all, will be from another quarter; from the inattention of the people to the concerns of their government.”
Knowledge may be gained through memorization of names, places and dates, but often those are written by the victors. Wisdom is gained in understanding the causes of the winners and the losers of the debate. The debates surrounding ratification of our Constitution serve as the highest examples of this.
As Aristotle said, “Wisdom is the knowledge of causes.”
Email Robert Densic at firstname.lastname@example.org.