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Tag: The Founders

The Founders: Death and Taxes

by on Aug.01, 2011, under Current, History


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The impetus to form a new government to replace the Confederacy was born, majorly, from the fact that the Continental Congress had no power to levy taxes. There were, no doubt, other reasons that are easily demonstrated, but the one that reverberated with those who served through the Revolutionary War both in arms and in Congress was that of direct revenue. The situation near the end of the war echoes eerily today as the states engaged in a war that The Congress was in want of tax revenue to pay for and the debts incurred to do so, both foreign and domestic, threatened to destroy that which so much blood was spilled to gain.

It wasn’t only the money owed in loans, but also that owned in salary to the very soldiers who fought so gallantly and with such self-sacrifice that some worried they would be thrown into debtor’s prison upon their discharge. The salaries weren’t even the worst of it. The soldiers were often starved and froze with no blankets which many of them had to cut up to make clothes. During the winter, their marches could be followed by the bloody footprints in the snow since they often went without even shoes.

Many images of Valley Forge depict a desolate place were the rank and file starved in the dark of winter. However, in reality, the area of Pennsylvania where they were in camp was some of the most fertile soil in the states. The problem wasn’t the availability of food; it was the lack of funds. The farmers sold their goods to the British who were occupying Philadelphia since they paid in Pound Sterling while Washington’s army had only worthless script and I.O.U.s to offer. At one point Washington had to order Alexander Hamilton to take men out to take horses and supplies from the residents in the surrounding area. This was done with tact and records were kept of what was commandeered, however, it was a fretful action in the midst of a war for liberty.

For a time Congress was permitted to print currency but as faith in that currency fell, inflation ran to the extreme and it was rendered effectually worthless. In March 1780, Madison wrote to Jefferson that “Our army, threatened with an immediate alternative of disbanding or living on free quarter; the public treasury empty; public credit exhausted,…”. Once this point was reached, without the ability to directly raise revenue, the Congress could no longer fund the war, though perhaps they never actually had that ability at all.

With soldiers going months without pay even at the end of hostilities with French gold flowing in and loans from other nations secured. Tensions rose and with them fears as Congress’ promises of pensions and empty rhetoric was falling on deaf ears. In 1783, in Newburgh, NY, officers of the Continental Army gathered to discuss a mutiny against Congress. It even seems evident that Hamilton himself played a part in its organization.

When Washington learned of the conspiracy, he addressed the officers in an effort to put an end to it, but his words seemed to have little effect at least until the very end of his speech. In a scene that demonstrates well Washington’s amazing abilities, he paused to find his glasses saying “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”

This stopped the conspiracy, though it wasn’t the end of the story as the rank and file near Philadelphia took to arms and actually marched on Congress in the summer of the same year. At the 11th hour, Congress was forced to flee with temporary homes found in New Jersey, Maryland, and finally New York.

These and other events drove the Founding Parents to build “a more perfect union”, and the power to levy taxes was at the forefront of the reasons for its construction. As to the tax schemes, flat or otherwise, I turn to America’s First Citizen, Benjamin Franklin. In his Autobiography he wrote “…, but insisting more particularly on the inequality of this six-shilling tax of the constables, respecting the circumstances of those who paid it, since a poor widow housekeeper, all whose property to be guarded by the watch did not perhaps exceed the value of fifty pounds, paid as much as the wealthiest merchant, who had thousands of pounds worth of goods in his stores…. a more equitable way of supporting the charge the levying a tax that should be proportion’d to the property”

“…These public quarrels were all at bottom owing to the proprietaries, our hereditary governors, who, when any expense was to be incurred for the defense of their province, with incredible meanness instructed their deputies to pass no act for levying the necessary taxes, unless their vast estates were in the same act expressly excused…”

And on the preparations for defense in the French-English war…

“But the governor refusing his assent to their bill (which included this with other sums granted for the use of the crown), unless a clause were inserted exempting the proprietary estate from bearing any part of the tax that would be necessary, the Assembly, tho’ very desirous of making their grant to New England effectual, were at a loss how to accomplish it. ”

The most amazing result of their efforts, to my mind, is that, in the end, 13 sovereign states essentially capitulated to a newly formed government with the only battles being those of words, logic, and reason. In a time when greed and corruption was as rampant in the legislature as it is today, Hamilton, who is regarded as the father of the United States economy, wrote to Robert Morris that government should regulate trade “so that ‘injurious branches of commerce might be discouraged, favourable branches encouraged, [and] useful products and manufactures promoted.”

What I think is to often quoted without a full understanding is that The Constitution endows the only real power within the people. At that time, the public was largely uneducated and interstate communication was primitive so the delegates to the Constitutional Convention could be forgiven for falling to the notion that only the “landowners” were capable of holding office. Some were even prescient like Elbridge Gerry who said “The people do not want virtue; but are the dupes of pretended patriots. In Massts. it has been fully confirmed by experience that they are daily misled into the most baneful measures and opinions by the false reports circulated by designing men, and which no one on the spot can refute…” Though he was speaking against Democracy, his words served to illustrate a risk that the delegates failed to successfully mitigate.

It was a meritocracy that let a son of a shoe maker and an poor orphan from the St. Croix to join the ranks of the builders of a great nation. Although the framers worked to defeat the notion of monarchy and aristocracy, they failed to firmly set the meritocracy. Through campaign law reform, perhaps we can continue their work in forming a government which will ensure a more perfect union and keep the people as the only true sovereign.

*A Note on Sources: I have not provided sources here as I have come across the events retold again and again in the many volumes I’ve read on the founding of the nation. This reading includes multiple biographies and autobiographies on all of the founders as well as some of their correspondence, general histories, and even both volumes of James Madison’s Journal from the Federal Convention in their entirety.

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Jefferson and Adams; Political Enmity and Friendship

by on Nov.15, 2010, under History


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In this time of division in the nation, interesting stories from the nation’s founding can often lend some perspective.  The fact that people of often very different political minds could work closely together to create a nation for the ages often goes unnoticed today.  In the presentation of The Founders and their times in idyllic stories we loose the truth and, what is to me, a valuable insight which can help guide our expectations as well as enhance our oversight of the people we elect to our government. 

For example, how many people know that three delegates refused to sign the Constitution including Edmund Randolph who presented the first draft?  How many people know that the close friendship of Jefferson and Adams was broken by partisan divisions and not restored until the final years of life?

In her book Dearest Friend; A Life of Abigail Adams, Lynne Withey describes Thomas Jefferson and John Adams as an “odd-looking pair” with different backgrounds.  However, they were both passionately fond of books, both preferred a quiet family life, and the two had been “fond of each other ever since they had worked together on the Declaration of Independence”. 

There are many accounts of the very close friendship of not only Adams and Jefferson , but of Jefferson and Adams ‘ family.  In a letter to her sister, Abigail writes that she and Adams dine regularly with Jefferson and that she “shall really regret to leave Mr. Jefferson; he is one of the choice ones on earth”.  Withey writes further that Jefferson “visited weekly if not more often.  He was the only person in France with whom they enjoyed the kind of casual, intimate social life that they were used to at home.”

Adams and Jefferson passed time together in work and out.  They were frequent companions in Europe and Jefferson wrote to Madison that Adams  “”is so amiable, that I pronounce you will love him if you ever become acquainted with him”.  It seems safe to assume that nothing could break a friendship cast in a cause that built a nation through the trials of war and nurtured by familial love.

But that would not be the case, and with their friendship went the nation.  Jefferson and Adams were members of the opposing political parties and were selected by their respective conventions to run opposed.  Because the 12th Amendment hadn’t passed, and possibly due to some “activity” by Hamilton, for the only time in the country’s history the president and vice-president elected were from opposing parties. 

Even so, Adams tried to stay grounded, even writing of Jefferson at the election that he “ever believed in his honour, Integrity, his love of Country and his friends”.  However,  at the very beginning of the Adams-Jefferson administration, the effects of this partisan in-fighting that started under Washington could be seen in the matter forming the first major rift between the two friends; relations with Europe.  In Jefferson’s diary, The Anas, he recorded on March 2, 1797, that Adams wanted him to help in the diplomatic effort with France but didn’t find it justifiable to send away his replacement in case of accident, “nor decent to remove from competition one who was a rival in the public favor.”  But throughout the men retained feelings of friendship.

During the campaign of 1800 additional strains appeared and here the beginnings of deceitful exaggeration can be seen  as the “Democratic-Republican” party of Jefferson was tarred in violence and anarchy, and the members of the “Federalist” party, including Adams, were branded monarchists.  In another eerie parallel to politicking today, both party camps slandered the other in the media with baseless claims and sometimes vicious attacks.  The Democratic-Republican party took aim calling Adams a “bald, toothless, hermaphroditical character”, and the Federalists (republicans today) went with the fear factor claiming that if Jefferson was elected “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes”.

Despite very different political views and Jefferson’s defeat of Adams in that election, Jefferson wrote to Abigail “I can say with truth that one act of Mr. Adams’s life, and one only, ever gave me a moment’s personal displeasure”.  Continuing “I did consider his last appointments to office as personally unkind.  They were amoung my most ardent political enemies, from whom no faithful cooperation could ever be expected.”  The two friends did not communicate for 10 years following. 

Abigail did not communicate with her friend during that time, with one exception.  The death of Jefferson ‘ daughter, brought forth sympathy and she began writing again letters in which they offered mutual support as Abigail had also lost her eldest daughter Nabby.  But even their shared grief could not keep their disagreements from driving them back apart.  After a flurry of letters, they ceased communication again.

For 10 years Jefferson and Adams ceased writing to each other.  Benjamin Rush, the preeminent physician of the time and signer of the Declaration of Independence tried and failed for two years to bring the estranged friends back together.  It wasn’t until one of Jefferson’s neighbor’s reported hearing Adams speak fondly of him that he decided to renew their friendship.

Jefferson wrote to Benjamin Rush; “But with a man possessing so many other estimable qualities, why should we be dissocialized by mere differences in opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, or anything else?  His opinions are as honestly formed as my own.”  The two men renewed their friendship and reveled in it for the rest of their lives.

The end for both men came within hours of each other on the same day; July 4th, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  From first hand accounts, it is possible that the two men actually fought off death until they reached that day.  Would it have been that the story of their lives and the symbolism of the date of their deaths would serve as a reminder to abstain from the destructive practice of partisan slander, and to act only in the honest debate that might improve the imperfect government they helped form.  The act which might render the Declaration of Independence, as Jefferson wrote of it in his final letter; “the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings & security of self-government. that form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. all eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. the general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view. the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god. these are grounds of hope for others. for ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.” (To General Weightman, mayor, Washington D.C.)

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