History is a dance with the past, with a phantom or ghost – sometimes well-defined, sometimes mere outline, always mysterious.VJM, 2022
The infant United States of America emerged from its successful Revolution in 1783 far from unified. The Treaty of Paris brought peace with Great Britain and an enormous addition of territory between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River. But it did not bring internal unity. The former colonies had ended the struggle as a loose affiliation of autonomous entities called the Confederation of the United States of America. The poorly funded central government had little power to sway the internal conditions or politics of the thirteen individual state governments.
South of Virginia, there was serious division and social turmoil. In the North, New York had more or less reluctantly accepted the result of the war, with much of its population, especially in the east, having maintained close ties with the British, who had occupied New York City and most of the Hudson Valley since 1776. The British did not leave until 1784 under an agreement to allow those wishing to leave the USA for British territory in Canada or elsewhere to exit via New York aboard British ships. For all who chose this, including some thousands of African-Americans who had fought for the British on the promise of freedom from slavery, the trek to New York was through thoroughly unfriendly country and filled with perils from vengefully-minded Americans.
We will not rehearse the early internal vicissitudes of the newly-minted independent nation on the eastern seaboard of North America. Suffice it to say that it became quickly apparent that the first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, in force since 1777, proved woefully inadequate to knit together such a disparate group of semi-independent states all jealous of their newly-won autonomy, and quite unwilling to surrender any significant part of their freedom to determine their own future. It was also already becoming clear that north of Maryland the states were moving towards eliminating slavery, while from Maryland south slavery was deeply anchored in the economic and social fabric.
A group of zealous patriots could see that unless they found a way to really create unity, the new country would disintegrate. A gaggle of thirteen petty countries would fall prey to European predators, and particularly Great Britain which, with its immense naval and commercial power, was expecting and waiting for its old provinces to collapse in chaos. Mother could then woo some of them, at least, to rejoin the imperial fold.
In 1787, the zealots of unity met in Philadelphia to draft a new constitution. What emerged is the current basic foundational law of the United States. In 1789 it came into effect after all thirteen states ratified it. Many amendments have been added to it since then to deal with critical issues needing resolution over the last 232 years.
Some historians have seen the Constitution as the effective end of the American Revolution. Others have said that the Revolution was unfinished until the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery after the Civil War (1861-65). Some say that it has never been finished; the deepest issues that have divided the American psyche ever since 1789 have never been truly resolved.
When the Constitution took effect in 1789 it had glaring omissions from its provisions. In seeking to strike a balance between democratic freedom and restrictions on freedoms that would prevent the new experiment in equality from blowing up in their faces, the “Fathers” could not or would not tackle such questions head-on. Here are the three most significant: (1) the acceptance of slavery as a sort of normal human condition for the great mass of African-Americans; (2) the exclusion of women from the very notion of equality with men; (3) the complete absence of consideration for Native Americans in any capacity. The consequences of these omissions over the long term would be and remain devastating. In all three cases, only males of European descent were actually considered as being “created equal” as far as the actions of the “Founding Fathers” are concerned.
It is easy to excuse these exclusions as due to the normal conceptions and conditions of society in the 18th and 19th Centuries. But, when we look more closely, we find that awareness of the blatant injustice of these assumptions was certainly circulating. The Quakers, who still had a strong voice and influence in Pennsylvania, certainly made such views (their own) known. As did others. Abigail Adams, now considered a proto-feminist, wife of John Quincy Adams, one of the Founding Fathers and a future President from Massachusetts, gave strong voice to the injustices, as did some other persons. Some of the Constitution’s signatories had private reservations, recognizing that their work was incomplete. But it seemed as if they had taken things as far as they could then go, and resolution of these great questions would have to wait for a more propitious time. Even Thomas Jefferson, a slave-owner and principal author of much of the document, knew that there were glaring insufficiencies in it. But the goal was a compromise of unity, not moral perfection or absolute justice. Even he was not willing to part with his estates and slaves for the sake of moral purity or racial justice.
We cannot retell all the wheeling and dealing that took place to get the thing done and accepted. Numerous sources and studies have shown all this in great detail. But, when it all shakes down, the basic mindset of white male supremacy and right to govern was set in virtual stone. What’s more, the right to dominate and exploit the “inferior races” (African and Native) and “weaker gender” (female) were firmly entrenched, sanctified by a pseudo-religious sanction as being the order of things ordained by the Deity who had blessed the American cause with victory and set America up as a light in the world to proclaim democratic freedom to amazed humanity.
The acceptance of such “preordained” conditions was not universal. A strong and increasingly vocal minority of people, especially in the north, began almost immediately to declare that the preconditions for a future explosion had been laid down – especially on the slavery and race question. People of conscience were also already denouncing the terrible injustices being perpetrated on the Natives as they were being systematically forced out of their ancestral lands with no compensation and no regard for the atrocities being inflicted on them. Greed for access to the unlimited resources of the West, for opportunities to exploit and become rich regardless of the human cost or the impact on the land, became a burning drive and continuous theme in America’s “Manifest Destiny” to win hegemony over all the Americas. Progress and development of the vast “empty wilderness were their own justification, and the right of conquest was the order of things as God had made them.
In the short term, the race to subdue, dominate, and exploit a whole continent rapidly made the United States an economic and territorial phenomenon which all could quickly recognize would transform the “land of the free” into a global great power and a regional superpower. However, the innate internal contradictions which lay in its foundations because of the “Unfinished Revolution” would one day rise to the surface. Many predicted just such an outcome. But as long as the rush to gain the continent’s enormous potential for development could keep them buried, one way or another the problems could be brushed aside and postponed for the sake of power, money, and personal fulfillment.
TO BE CONTINUED
3 thoughts on “The Uses of History, 10 – USA Meltdown, 1”
An excellent and accurate (as far as I can tell from my own studies) overview. It should help to give a perspective on what the USA has been going through over the past decade. Thanks.
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So much injustice integral to the Constitution!
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Always a tricky balance- what is morally right vs politically expedient
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