Election 2016

The Battle Between Populist Sanders and Establishment Clinton Is as Old as the Country Itself

What the political battles of the late 18th century can teach us about people power.

Right now, at both ends of our political spectrum, there is a battle being waged between We, The People, and the rich and powerful, aka "The Establishment." And, while there is a debate to be had about who does or does not represent each category right now, the battle between the people and power is as old as our republic.

One of the early famous “establishment” debates took place between Thomas Jefferson, who believed We, The People should control our own destiny, and John Adams' Federalists, who believed that the “rabble” could not be trusted to govern ourselves. Much like the establishment debate today, our founders disagreed over banks, debt, and corporate regulations.  (For wonks of that era, I wrote part of a book about this, titled The American Revolution of 1800, co-written by Dan Sisson.)

That debate shaped our nation for the next two centuries. And, the outcome is reflected in the Bill of Rights we still hold dear today.

After the Revolutionary War was over and the Constitution was being worked out and presented to the states for ratification, Thomas Jefferson (then living in Paris as our envoy to France) turned his attention to what he felt was a terrible inadequacy in the new Constitution: it didn’t explicitly stipulate the natural rights of the new nation’s citizens, it allowed the army to continue to exist during times of peace, and it didn’t protect against the rise of commercial monopolies like the East India Company.

On Dec. 20, 1787, Jefferson wrote to James Madison about his concerns regarding the Constitution. He said bluntly that it was deficient in several areas:

I will now tell you what I do not like. First, the omission of a bill of rights, providing clearly, and without the aid of sophism, for freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, restriction of monopolies, the eternal and unremitting force of the habeas corpus laws, and trials by jury in all matters of fact triable by the laws of the land, and not by the laws of nations.

Such a bill protecting natural persons from out-of-control governments or commercial monopolies shouldn’t be limited to America, Jefferson believed. “Let me add,” he summarized, “that a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular; and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference.”

In 1788 Jefferson wrote about his concerns to several people. In a letter to Alexander Donald, on February 7, he defined the items that should be in a bill of rights. “By a declaration of rights, I mean one which shall stipulate freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of commerce against monopolies, trial by juries in all cases, no suspensions of the habeas corpus, no standing armies. These are fetters against doing evil, which no honest government should decline.”

Jefferson kept pushing for a law, written into the Constitution as an amendment, which would prevent companies from growing so large that they could dominate entire industries or have the power to influence the people’s government.

On Feb. 12, 1788, he wrote to Mr. Dumas about his pleasure that the U.S. Constitution was about to be ratified, but he also expressed his concerns about what was missing from the Constitution. He was pushing hard for his own state to reject the Constitution if it didn’t protect people from the dangers he foresaw:

With respect to the new Government, nine or ten States will probably have accepted by the end of this month. The others may oppose it. Virginia, I think, will be of this number. Besides other objections of less moment, she [Virginia] will insist on annexing a bill of rights to the new Constitution, i.e. a bill wherein the Government shall declare that, 1. Religion shall be free; 2. Printing presses free; 3. Trials by jury preserved in all cases; 4. No monopolies in commerce; 5. No standing army. Upon receiving this bill of rights, she will probably depart from her other objections; and this bill is so much to the interest of all the States, that I presume they will offer it, and thus our Constitution be amended, and our Union closed by the end of the present year.

By midsummer of 1788, things were moving along, and Jefferson was helping his close friend James Madison write the Bill of Rights. On the last day of July, he wrote to Madison:

I sincerely rejoice at the acceptance of our new constitution by nine States. It is a good canvass, on which some strokes only want retouching. What these are, I think are sufficiently manifested by the general voice from north to south, which calls for a bill of rights. It seems pretty generally understood, that this should go to juries, habeas corpus, standing armies, printing, religion, and monopolies.

The following year, on March 13, he wrote to Francis Hopkinson about continuing objection to monopolies:

You say that I have been dished up to you as an anti-federalist, and ask me if it be just. My opinion was never worthy enough of notice to merit citing; but since you ask it, I will tell it to you. I am not a federalist....What I disapproved from the first moment also, was the want of a bill of rights, to guard liberty against the legislative as well as the executive branches of the government; that is to say, to secure freedom in religion, freedom of the press, freedom from monopolies, freedom from unlawful imprisonment, freedom from a permanent military, and a trial by jury, in all cases determinable by the laws of the land.

All of Jefferson’s wishes, except two, would soon come true. But not all of his views were shared universally.

Shortly after George Washington became the first president of the United States in 1789, his secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, proposed that the federal government incorporate a national bank and assume state debts left over from the Revolutionary War. Congressman James Madison and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson saw this as an inappropriate role for the federal government, representing the potential concentration of too much money and power.

The disagreement over the bank and assuming the states’ debt nearly tore apart the new government and led to the creation—by Hamilton, Washington, and Vice President John Adams — of the Federalist Party.

Several factions arose in opposition to the Federalists, broadly referred to as the anti-federalists, including two groups who called themselves Democrats and Republicans. Jefferson pulled them together by 1794 into the Democratic Republican Party (which dropped the word Republican from its name in the early 1830s, today known as the Democratic Party, the world’s oldest and longest-lived political party), united in their opposition to the Federalists’ ideas of a strong central government that was run by the wealthy and could grant the power to incorporate a national bank to bestow benefits to favored businesses through the use of tariffs and trade regulation.

The powerful Federalists kept the protection from monopolies out of our Bill of Rights, and the rise of corporate power began. Arguably, this helped the wealthy keep control of one branch of government for another century, and it kept Jefferson and Adams debating the issue long after each had been president.

On Oct. 28, 1813, Jefferson wrote to John Adams about their earlier disagreements over whether a government should be run by the wealthy and powerful few (the pseudo-aristoi) or a group of the most wise and capable people (the “natural aristocracy”), elected from the larger class of all Americans, including working people:

The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should be made to prevent its ascendancy. On the question, what is the best provision, you and I differ; but we differ as rational friends, using the free exercise of our own reason, and mutually indulging its errors. You think it best to put the pseudo-aristoi into a separate chamber of legislation [the Senate], where they may be hindered from doing mischief by their coordinate branches, and where, also, they may be a protection to wealth against the agrarian and plundering enterprises of the majority of the people. I think that to give them power in order to prevent them from doing mischief, is arming them for it, and increasing instead of remedying the evil.

Adams and the Federalists were wary of the common person (who Adams referred to as “the rabble”), and many subscribed to the Calvinist notion that wealth was a sign of certification or blessing from above and a certain minimum level of morality. Because the Senate of the United States was appointed by the states (not elected by the voters, until 1913) and made up entirely of wealthy men, it was mostly on the Federalist side. Jefferson and the Democratic Republicans disagreed strongly with the notion of a Senate composed of the wealthy and powerful.

“Mischief may be done negatively as well as positively,” Jefferson wrote to Adams in the next paragraph of that 1813 letter, still arguing for a directly elected Senate:

Of this, a cabal in the Senate of the United States has furnished many proofs. Nor do I believe them necessary to protect the wealthy; because enough of these will find their way into every branch of the legislation, to protect themselves....I think the best remedy is exactly that provided by all our constitutions, to leave to the citizens the free election and separation of the aristoi from the pseudo-aristoi, of the wheat from the chaff. In general they will elect the really good and wise. In some instances, wealth may corrupt, and birth blind them; but not in sufficient degree to endanger the society.

Jefferson’s vision of a more egalitarian Senate—directly elected by the people instead of by state legislators—finally became law in 1913 with the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment, promoted by the Populist Movement and passed on a wave of public disgust with the corruption of the political process by giant corporations.

Almost all of Jefferson’s visions for a Bill of Rights—all except “freedom from monopolies in commerce” and his concern about a permanent army— were incorporated into the actual Bill of Rights, which James Madison shepherded through Congress and was ratified on Dec. 15, 1791.

But the Federalists fought hard to keep “freedom from monopolies” out of the Constitution. And they won. The result was a boon for very large businesses in America in the 19th and 20th centuries, with big companies now even using trade deals like the TPP to expand their monopolies.

Thus began the American struggle to balance the power of corporations and We, The People. From the very moment our founders signed the Bill of Rights to the debates now about the future direction of America, we have witnessed Jefferson's concerns become reality. And we've seen the corruption, undue influence and “mischief” he warned of continue to lie at the heart of our political debates.

Once again we find ourselves on the edge of a possible turning point in the era of monopolistic power, and our decision in the voting booth may well shape the next 200 years of our nation.

Thom Hartmann is a talk-show host and author of over 25 books in print

 

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