Oct. 9, 2008
When we became we
By Edwin Cooney
As America this past week decided whether or not to “bail out Wall Street” or “rescue our economy” (whichever you prefer), it had at its disposal numerous tools to avert the looming crisis. These tools included the “free market”, taxpayer-sustained government, an established currency system and the international financial community. There was a time however, when none of these tools existed (including a firmly established government) and yet not only did we endure, we blossomed.
The year was 1787 and the 13 colonies weren’t cooperating with each other. There was no solid currency to purchase the necessities of life. Nor was there an adequate banking system through which to pay debts. The newly freed United States was vulnerable to foreign invasion or attack. Our very fate was in our own hands. So, we found the following solution. We created a document that begins:
“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessing of liberty for ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Okay, so that’s where it all began. It was stiflingly hot in Philadelphia throughout that historic summer of 1787. The 55 men who attended the Constitutional Convention were under strict orders to keep their deliberations secret. Hence, the windows of the Pennsylvania State House were closed to even the smallest breeze. At the close of each day, George Washington, president of the convention, collected all notes and working papers for storage overnight.
When the convention ended that Sept. 17, only 39 men agreed to sign the final document. Ratification of the constitution was by no means secure. Some powerful and influential men with names such as Patrick Henry, George Mason and Roger Sherman were against its ratification. No one knew where either Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, or John Adams, perhaps our finest jurist, stood on a possible new governing body. Jefferson was serving as our Minister to France and Adams as our Minister to England.
Yet, as difficult and uncertain as the future seemed to be, as different as were the approaches to government by some of the most prominent politicians of the day, there was an underlying determination to unite the 13 colonies with all of their cultural and religious differences. Additionally, two brilliant men, little James “Jemmy” Madison and the elegant Alexander Hamilton, joined forces to explain and advocate for the adoption of the Constitution. One believed in states’ rights and the other believed in the formation of a strong central government.
Their vehicle was a series of newspaper articles known today as “The Federalist Papers.” Thus, as time went along, the 13 colonies began ratifying the finest (if imperfect) legal document that has ever been created. Many historians will say that the key to the constitution’s passage was a general consensus that a “Bill of Rights,” which would adequately spell out the rights of the people, would eventually be added to the original document.
Thus, with all of our misgivings, we were willing to become one people. The key ingredient to that enduring bond was that we were willing to become “we” — not “us and them,” but “we.”
A perusal of the companies of men that made up the colonial army shows that many of the officers and men were members of the same family, of the same neighborhood, and all were fighting and dying for the same cause. The constitutional crisis of the 1780s was solved by men who, with all of their differences and even personal jealousies, possessed a very different idea of reality than we do today.
Today, it seems, our national leadership encourages us to take pride in our differences rather than in our commonality. We’re conservatives, liberals, blacks and whites, spiritualists and human secularists rather than Americans. “Got yah!” is more fashionable than “agree with yah.”
Back in the earliest days of our Republic, for example, men reluctantly left home to serve in Washington, but proudly left Washington for home. They served as state officials without a political blemish. Today, anyone who is anybody must move onward and upward.
Not all Americans were ready this week to assist Wall Street, however much it could cost them. Thus we heard and read the delineation of “Main Street vs. Wall Street.” Republican and Democratic leaders were on both sides of the “save or sink Wall Street” question.
Uncomfortable as it has been, I think this crisis has been good for us. The reckless advance toward privatization appears to be, at the very least, under serious review. Wall Street, no less than Main Street, needs umpiring as much as baseball players do. Today in this world of fear of terrorism and insistence on our individual and national moral righteousness, we appear to have lost that sense of oneness that was the key to who and what we became at our noblest as a society.
We will regain our national momentum when everyone’s crisis is everyone else’s concern. Even more, we will insure our national birthright when we include everyone and we refer to ourselves as “We the people.”
Only when we are “all” and “all” are we, will our union make strides toward that elusive but worthy effort for perfection that is, after all, our finest inheritance.
Edwin Cooney is a national political and historical columnist.