I make no bones about it — I love this land of ours. I am proud to be a part of it and what it stands for. That’s one reason I read so much history. When you read history, it is impossible not to be proud of this nation.
We are the first nation of our kind; an ever-continuing experiment in self-rule. We have made mistakes. We are no doubt making a few right now. We will no doubt make more as the centuries careen by, but one way or another, this blessed republic will survive, slowly evolving over the years.
The history books we see in schools are fine as far as they go — filled as they are with names, dates, places, and events, our children learn from them. But something is missing. In the primary grades our children are taught about our Revolution and about the brave people who fought it, but after those early grades, our history classes focus too little on the human face of history.
Too bad. Our children miss out on a critical chapter of our nation when that happens. They do not learn how fragile was our new-forged freedom. They do not learn of the powerful forces that threatened to tear it apart.
Even today it takes but a glance to see revolutions ending not in more freedom, but in less. Around the world people who longed to be free and fought to be free ended up under the heel of a dictator. Elsewhere people fought to wrest their freedom from a dictator and ended up ruled by a one-issue party that cares nothing for liberty.
The question is why? How?
Our history classes, proud of what we have achieved, of the nation we hewed out of an untamed continent, sometimes treat the chronicle of our land as inevitable, something that had to be. It wasn’t. Had it not been for the fact that certain events were occurring overseas as we fought for our freedom we might very well not have prevailed. Other colonies rose up against the British Empire, you know, and were soundly trounced. Other patriots called for self-rule and died for it. We won, but we might have lost.
More importantly, our history classes often fail to point out that when men and women come together in a common cause they set aside their differences and fight as one people, but when victory is at last achieved those differences rear their heads again, separating those who fought shoulder to shoulder into clashing groups which threaten to undo everything they fought for — freedom without license, liberty in unity and equality without sameness.
With that in mind, let us step back and take a look at the birth of this nation, to an event which truly deserves our closest attention: The Miracle of 1801.
In any land, there is a natural tension between the common people and commerce. People fight for individual rights. Commerce fights to maximize profits. Neither is wrong. Neither is entirely right. If either were to prevail we would lose, not gain. We would have something we do not want, something that would be anathema to a free land and a free people — a land with a fixed viewpoint.
So it has been as long as human society has existed.
That natural tension results in constant friction between those who see a large, powerful central government as a bulwark against the reduction of individual rights, and those who see a smaller and less regulated government as a necessary condition for free enterprise and enrichment of our nation and people.
Common sense tells us that those two viewpoints are both correct, and both natural, and that our past was, our present is, and our future will forever be, a rebalancing of the equation where needed. The experience of centuries tells us we must expect contentious argument to surround that rebalancing. Wisdom tells we must always strive to move forward, keeping in mind that it is unity and balance which are important, not a final victory for either point of view. For such a victory would destroy what we created in 1787 — a nation of free people who must forever strive to overcome natural differences so their nation can continue.
Our nation is based on a written Constitution created in recognition of those facts. A primary purpose of that Constitution is to balance two equally moral and equally valuable viewpoints, providing an arena in which neither can ever entirely prevail.
When the Revolution ended, and we achieved our freedom after years of struggle, the result was the immediate end of the unity that allowed us to gain that freedom. Instead of joining together as a nation, the 13 original states created a weak, loose, confederation with each state jealously retaining its own powers.
It soon became evident that a loose confederation of 13 weak, separate nations, instead of one powerful, unified nation would not long survive in a world where power ruled. But changing it was no easy task because of the natural conflict between those who favored a strong central government and those who did not.
At last, however, a federal Constitution was written, but only with the addition of the Bill of Rights was it ratified. Even then, however, the two opposing forces did not fade away. During the time between 1790 and 1799, the party of Washington, Hamilton and others — the Federalist Party of strong federal government — ran the newly created republic. In opposition stood the Democratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and an equal number of strong-willed men who had also fought for liberty and who thought the Federalists had it wrong.
Washington served two terms, from 1789 to 1797. He was followed by John Adams, who easily defeated Thomas Jefferson and his Democratic-Republican Party. Adams, who saw himself as the natural “successor” to Washington, served a single term from 1797 to 1801, but was defeated by Jefferson in the 1800 election.
And then came March 4, 1801, the day for the passing of the baton of liberty from one strong-willed group to the other. All of Europe held its breath, certain there would not be —could not be! — a peaceful transfer of power from a party that believed in a strong federal government to a victorious party, which held the opposite view. Predictions were dire: a battle for supremacy; a veritable blood bath; a dissolution of the union; formation of two separate nations from our southern and northern regions.
Any of them was possible. None of them happened.
Instead, we remained one people, united in our fundamental beliefs, but separated by our natural differences.
May it ever be so, Johnny. May it ever be so.
It is the only way we will continue to survive.