The Founding Fathers never thought the American republic would last very long.
They were good historians, the product of an age and culture that valued the lessons of the past – the actual past, rather than the hallucinatory wish-fulfillment fantasies masquerading as the past that are so popular these days – and if there was one undeniable fact about republics it was that they were not known for their longevity. Indeed, depending on your definition of republic, at the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 the American republic may well have been the only one in the world. The Founders certainly thought so. As far as they were concerned, they looked out from their outpost on the western fringe of a broader trans-Atlantic civilization to find themselves alone, all of the previous republics having lived their brief candle-flicker lives and guttered out, leaving only a residue of monarchies, tyrannies, empires, and anarchies.
There are a lot of reasons for this, of course.
For one thing, republics are complicated things.
To check power and preserve liberty requires sophisticated political machinery, while most of the other alternatives simply require somebody with the power to order people around. There will always be people willing to order people around, and there will always be people willing to be so ordered. “The historian,” said Brian Tierney, “cannot fail to discern that the normal story of human government is indeed one of alternation between different forms of tyranny, with occasional interludes of anarchy.” Tyranny and anarchy are what we do as human beings, because it’s easier than the alternatives.
For another thing, republics require virtuous leaders.
“Virtue” didn’t mean then what it means today. We regard virtue as a private quality, one that more or less equates to “without sin.” Or at least as close as one can get to that. Call it “avoiding sin” or “rejecting sin” if you want, which is close enough in this fallen world. We also regard it overwhelmingly as a female quality for some reason, possibly because the concept was sexualized in the 19th century and became a synonym for virginity.
The Founders would have been greatly puzzled by this definition. For them, virtue was a masculine characteristic – it comes from the same root stem as “virile,” after all – and it was a public quality or it was nothing. For them, virtue was the ability of a man (and it was, pretty much by definition, a man) to put aside his petty private interests and work for the public good. Private virtue was a contradiction in terms.
Few men could handle that kind of moral burden even then, and they were easily identified and eagerly sought. But eventually a republic would run out of them, or simply not have enough of them at a critical time, and the whole thing would come crashing down. Leaders would succumb to the temptation of their own private interests, power would run amok, and liberty would die.
We live in an age that worships private interests, one that regards the entire idea of the public good as suspicious and, in some loud and vulgar circles, un-American. The GOP worships private interest in a frankly idolatrous manner – openly so – and while the Democrats tend to temper it with at least some nods toward the larger community, they don’t really contradict the basic point. We are Lockean liberals, not republicans, and private interests and private virtues are the cornerstones of our world.
For a third thing, republics depend on well-informed and active citizens.
A republic needed citizens who could understand the issues at hand and act on them in appropriate and timely ways. This is where the entire notion of a liberal arts education comes from, after all – the arts appropriate for a free citizen rather than a slave, the education of one who has earned and would keep his liberty. For my dissertation research I read almost every issue of almost every newspaper published in Philadelphia between 1787 and 1801. It was an era of vitriolic rhetoric and often violent disagreement. Dueling, remember, was still legal in many places and rarely condemned even where it wasn’t. And the one issue where the Federalist and Democratic Republican newspapers would reprint each other without snark or disapproval was their calls for public education, to create exactly the citizens necessary for the survival of the republic.
“Let the education of children become a common charge,” wrote Benjamin Franklin Bache – the editor of the Democratic Republican Aurora and General Advertiser and a man named after his grandfather. “If a man has property and no children, still he should be taxed to pay for the education of other men’s children. The more knowledge, the safer his property. It is better protection than armies.”
It took until well into the 19th century for this to become common, but the seeds were there from the get-go.
We have done our best to dismantle this over the last few decades, however. Public education is being systematically starved of funding, money which is diverted to charter schools which by every statistical method are either worse or at best no better at educating students, and education is once again on its way to becoming the province of a small elite. Teachers are vilified – we’re the new welfare queens with part-time jobs that pay six figures annually while the good people of the nation go beggared and starving, if half the accusations I have had thrown at me here in Wisconsin by the government supposedly representing me are to be credited. I live in a state that has taken more than two billion dollars out of k-12 and university education since the Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) came to power. They’ve also taken money from libraries, public radio and television, and pretty much any institution that might create the well-informed and active citizens the Founders understood were critical to the survival of the republic. One begins to see an agenda, after a while.
The Founders understood this would happen. They knew that republics were fragile, ephemeral things. They had hopes that this one would outlast its predecessors, that it would flourish and provide a beacon for liberty in a benighted world at least for a while (and if they did this in a nation economically dependent on race-based chattel slavery, well, irony is a right bitch isn’t it?). But they knew it couldn’t last.
“Can it be supposed that this vast country, including the western territory, will one hundred fifty years hence remain one nation?” asked Nathanial Gorham, a representative to the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
No, his colleagues would have replied. Obviously not. Not united. And not a republic.
Demogogues – unvirtuous men who flatter the fickle Many into giving them absolute power, pandering to their worst instincts and promising them that only they could magically solve every problem and make things great again – would arise and the republic would fall. That was how it would be. The only question was when, and the Constitution was written in an attempt to forestall that eventuality as long as possible.
This week I have thought long and hard about whether our time as a republic will continue.
Thanks to the intricate and unwieldy system of selecting presidents that the Founders put in specifically to ensure the selection of a virtuous leader for that most important office, the United States will soon be in the hands of the most grotesquely unqualified person ever to take the oath of office – a wannabe petit-Fascist with precisely the wrong set of personal attributes and political skills necessary for good governance and continued safety, and by any definition of the term an unvirtuous man. The fact that he lost the popular vote and still won the election – the second time his party has benefited from this particular quirk in our system in sixteen years – is not relevant. He’s the next president.
A disturbingly visible percentage of Donald Trump’s supporters have already gone on rampage, emboldened by the hatred he spewed across the American political landscape. I’m sure they’re not the majority of his supporters, but they are the ones making themselves known the most, and I am inclined to take them at their word. They have harassed and threatened those who are not straight white men and scrawled Nazi graffiti across the land of the free, seventy-five years after this country fought in the biggest war in human history to eradicate that ideology. They have promised to undo a century of reforms and lead us back to an age when American citizens were treated as subordinate creatures based on their race or gender or specific religious beliefs. They have confirmed every stereotype, every accusation, every fear from the campaign, and they seem to be glorying in it. Like Vandals at the gates of Rome, they slaver in anticipation of the destruction of what they cannot understand or control.
And then they get pissy about why the rest of us aren’t just falling in line and uniting behind their candidate. Given that a) these are the same folks who spent the last eight years fanatically and often subversively opposing the current president (a man who has twice actually won a majority of the popular vote – the first president to do that since Reagan), b) these are also the same folks who were threatening violence and revolution two weeks ago if their candidate didn’t win, and c) they were the ones promising violence and discrimination against anyone Not Just Like Them and have now demonstrated that they intend to carry out those promises, well, they can just continue to wonder because if they can’t figure it out there is no help for them.
This isn’t about right or left. Not really. Not particularly.
Had John Kasich or Marco Rubio or Jeb! Bush or even Rand Paul won the presidency, I’d be unhappy but resigned. Had Ben Carson or Governor Teabagger of Wisconsin (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) or that raging narcissistic theocrat Ted Cruz won, I’d be horrified but still not worried about the republic long term. But neither of those things happened.
Donald Trump and the forces behind him represent an existential threat to the survival of the American republic. He is a classic demagogue – the precise reason the Founders knew the American republic would not last – and he is shortly to be in power.
The Founders knew this would happen.
It took longer than they thought it would, and for that I suppose we should be grateful.
I am a pessimist by nature. I’m from Philadelphia – it’s my birthright. I can always hope I’m wrong here. I make no claims to infallibility when it comes to forecasting the future. Trust me – I’m a professional historian. It’s hard enough to know the past.
I suspect it’s going to be a long four years for the republic, however.