America has had periods in its history when it went to extremes. Usually one extreme period was followed by the opposite extreme. Fortunately for America we had leaders who understood how to soften our tendency for extremism. This pattern of balancing our wild fluctuations was laid from the very beginning of our country and continues to the present.
That first extreme came after the American Revolution. Americans were disenchanted with authority vested in one man – the king of England, and his royal governors. As a result Americans created a government called the Articles of Confederation that lasted from 1777-1789.
There was no executive, only a Congress. The national government had little power; the states had most of it. Congress could raise money and make other major decisions only by unanimous vote of all the 13 states.
Fortunately for the United States, we had 3000 miles of ocean separating us from Europe, allowing us to experiment in governing ourselves. Had we been closer to Europe, some greedy monarch would have swooped in and grabbed parts or our entire nation for his conquest during this period of national weakness.
As it was, because of the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, disgruntled farmers in western Massachusetts, angry over high and unjust taxation by the state government, rebelled. Revolutionary war hero Daniel Shays led them. He formed an army and tried to take over the state government. He failed, but just barely. The national government under the Articles could only stand by; it had no power or authority to intervene.
Because of Shays’ Rebellion, the leaders of each of the 13 states decided to convene in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 to create a stronger constitution. Understanding the swings from fear of tyranny under a strong leader to fears of anarchy as demonstrated by Shays’ Rebellion, they decided on a middle course, balancing authority with freedom, and responsibility with liberty.
During the Constitutional convention the selfish concerns of big states like Virginia clashed with the deep fears of small states like New Jersey who were afraid of being dominated by the large states.
A compromise – the Great Compromise – was agreed to where instead of a one-house congress there would be two houses: Large states would get more representation based upon their larger populations in the House of Representatives, and small states would get equal power in the Senate with an equal number of two senators from each state, no matter what their size.
In addition, representatives being elected every two years, would tend to think in the short term, while senators being elected every six, would give Congress a longer term perspective.
Governmental power would be divided into three parts: Congress, the President, and the Court. Checks and balances would maintain an equilibrium keeping any one branch from getting too powerful.
The reason for the current tug of war between the President and the Republican House over the “fiscal cliff” issue is due to these checks and balances. The President only has the power to persuade and cajole and veto. Congress decides what the law will be.
Another example of checks and balances will be whether the Supreme Court will declare the Defense of Marriage Act regarding gay marriages constitutional or not in its next session.
Additionally, some powers would be delegated exclusively to the states, like marriage and education, while other powers would reside with the national government, like waging war, and regulating trade.
Over the years, the federal government has by virtue of necessity encroached on the rights of the states and of Congress. One example of this has been the need to enforce Civil Rights protections for African-Americans during the 1950s and 1960s over segregated schools in the South.
Another example is the right of Congress to declare war. That provision has only been used five times in our history, whereas there were over 120 conflicts where no war was ever declared. The most recent were the bombing of Libya, and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
As you can see the founders of this nation were very concerned with having a government that had a natural gyroscope where over time the extremes of human nature would be mitigated and adjusted to a changing society.
For all our faults as a nation, this tendency to right itself through a very messy democratic process has served this nation well in the long run. No wonder Thomas Jefferson called the founding fathers of our Constitution demigods for their far-sightedness and understanding of human nature. There’s hope for our polarized
nation in the long term.