A feature, not a flaw

Byline: | Category: Economy, Government, Taxes & Spending | Posted at: Monday, 1 August 2011

I live now in Germany; that makes about five years of the last twenty.  So I’m often not surprised when I see how differently Europeans and Americans view how the world works.   Take this recent story from Der Spiegel.

America’s Founding Fathers thought of everything. They wanted to establish several centers of power in Washington rather than just one. They wanted the occupant of the White House to be strong, but Congress was to have the power to check that strength. The friction between Capitol Hill and the White House — a product of this system of checks and balances — was to make the decisions of America’s leaders cleverer, wiser and better.

But the system only works when all branches of government play the role designed for them. For almost 235 years, the system worked reasonably well. But, about a year ago, things started to go wrong in the US capital; the system began to melt down. The friction is no longer propelling the country to greatness, rather it is hastening its decline. Members of the right-wing conservative Tea Party movement, which is well represented in Congress since the last elections, want friction. But at the expense of results.

That highlighted last sentence is absolutely true.  But what would surprise the orderly Germans is that this is not a flaw of the American system, but a feature, designed by the very people who wrote our Constitution to operate in exactly this manner,

Just last month I met a retired British Army Brigadier, who found it all very different how Americans view the role of guns in society.  He seemed a bit taken aback by my response that we hold that view because of our experience with Oliver Cromwell.  It wasn’t just guns over which the name “Cromwell” held sway.

It was 1625.  The tenuous hold on Jamestown, Virginia was established only 15 years earlier.  That first rough winter the Pilgrims faced in the Massachusetts Bay Coloney occurred not 50 months before.  That was the year that Charles I ascended the throne.

[He] began at once to clash with Parliament. When members refused to vote the combative new monarch enough money to conduct his wars with Spain and France, Charles resorted to bullying Parliament and to relying on forced loans. [Does this sound familiar?]

That was the start of a conflict between the King and his people that, inside of two decades, culminated in the King’s beheading.  That, however, was far from the end of the matter.  Oliver Cromwell’s despotic reign which followed was so horrible, that just eleven years after the murder of his father, Charles II was given the throne. 

Historian Dave Palmer* noted that the after-effects of the Charles/Cromwell period more than a century later were so pervasive that years later, in the 1780s, in the nascent United States:

“The ghost participating in the Constitutional Convention was Oliver Cromwell’s. . . The very name was the personification of the evil potential in a soldier grown too powerful. Oliver Cromwell. . . An English-speaking person could hardly have grown to adulthood in the eighteenth century and not have heard the haunting story of Oliver Cromwell.

The English took to heart the lesson that Cromwell was so bad that the monarchy was, as Palmer said, “If it was an evil, it was at least one they understood.”  They opted to return to the King and then limit his powers.  The Americans, rather than deciding upon the lesser of two evils when it came to the choice between dictator and king, preferred to craft a system where neither evil was possible.  The system they devised prevented the rise of kings, whose demise, they well knew, bred dictators to replace them.  And remember what it was that was the first crime of the new king:  “forced loans” over Parliament’s objections to pay for the King’s spending priorities.

Americans are the beneficiaries of a political system whose default setting is neutral.  The predisposition to inaction is designed to prevent us from mistakenly letting a temporary problem (for all the sturm and drang the media dredges up, the inability to spend as much as we would like after Tuesday is but a temporary problem) blind us to the dangers of how despots are born.  They are born in “little” things, like forcing the people to pay for debts unapproved by the people’s representatives. 

The Founding Fathers did, in fact, think of everything.  Everything, that is, except that the Constitution that they wrote might be completely ignored.  Let us hope that never becomes the case.

*Full disclosure, I am a former student of David Palmer’s, but it was in a course which discussed events from the 20th, rather than the 17th and 18th centuries.

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One Response to “A feature, not a flaw”

  1. Owen J Says:

    Great post! This is the first time I’ve read in a blog (or almost anywhere else) about the affect Cromwell had on the thinking the Founding Fathers and their deep and justified concern over the rise of the “Man on Horseback”.

    Europe has never really internalized this lesson, to their cost.

    Well done!