~a column by Colleen O’Brien
We are taught that if we don’t learn our history, we’re doomed to repeat it. To the dismay of lots of us, it’s happening; and quicker than we thought possible. After what I was taught as a schoolgirl in the ‘50s and ‘60s of the fascist Axis countries that brought the world to its knees in the ‘30s and ‘40s, I just knew it could never happen again. My youth and inexperience sipped from a cup full of hope; I did not know the cup had a hole in it till years later.
We are a sovereign nation. When we formed ourselves in the late 18th century, we were not the first republic in the world: right here on our continent the Iroquois were a good example of non-hierarchical rule by the people — the men were elected to rule; the women were the only ones allowed to vote.
Throughout recorded history, republics have come and gone. Around the globe many democratically inclined governments are seeing a rise against democratic ways.
When Founding Fathers decided that we would be sovereign, they declared that the people would rule. They introduced their concept of government secured by the people’s rights and run by the consent of the governed. It wasn’t even that popular an idea among the colonists; some still liked Great Britain. It seems that currently it’s not quite as popular as it could be; quite a few people are willing to give democracy away.
I ran across an interesting article in a 1943 “Reader’s Digest” magazine. The subject of rule by the people was addressed by the national president of the Chamber of Commerce, a Mr. Eric A. Johnston:
“It is an error to describe the United States as a sovereign union of sovereign states. It is the people who are sovereign. The people of each state give to their state government what powers they please. They retain the rest. The people of all the states together give to the national government such powers as they please and retain the rest.”
Oh, would that this were true. There are quite a few laws out and about that have been sneaked in during the night. I feel more governed than governing, but I suppose the problem lies with us – most of us who don’t have the time to keep up and often simply want someone else do the hard work of governing. Because of this reliance on representative governing, we often get something we never planned on.
There were all those years and decades after the Constitution was ratified (1787) when some of us were not yet “we the people” because the only folks who got the vote were those mentioned in the brand new constitution – white propertied males. And not even all of them. Along with the un-landed white guys, male Jews, Catholics and Quakers didn’t count until the 1830s when one’s religion and lack of property were no longer a bar to voting. Native Americans didn’t count until 1924, but it wasn’t until 1947 that all states acknowledged this. Blacks didn’t count until1868, although many in the South were and are restricted because of various state and local Jim Crow laws and gerrymandering. One out of 40 people in the U.S. can’t vote because they’re current or past felons. Women didn’t count until 1920.
And the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing women’s general equality with men (pay, job retention, health care, work hours, pensions; in other words, general personhood) was first introduced as late as 1943. This amendment still has not passed in all states (Utah and Arizona and nearly all of the South never passed it), offering a clue to the importance of the female.
Mr. Johnston of the Chamber of Commerce believed:
“This consciousness of and practice of popular sovereignty – of the power to give powers to government, of the power to deny powers to the government, and above all of the power to withdraw powers from government – is the basic political fact of America.”
Many of us were brought up to believe in what he said – government of, by and for the people. It’s fun to daydream about who in government, from city council to the presidency, I could withdraw from power. The major way I can do it is by voting. Or getting elected. Or insisting on new laws. The electoral college, gerrymandering and hanging chads have been known to get in the way of counting every person’s vote.
Johnston asked what we get if we are conscious of and willing to practice popular sovereignty:
“You get an American who acutely questions all centralized dominance in any field, and who is forever conducting crusades to break down private monopolies and public bureaucracies alike…. He regards all powers, whether political or economic, as subject to constant revision….”
Some of us pay attention and are often marching, writing letters to editors, calling Senators, attending rallies. Many of us are too busy surviving, but we do make known our opinions by throwing things at the TV.
There are groups of people in this country who believe themselves sovereign in a way that they don’t have to pay taxes. Members of that political group – Sovereign Citizens Movement — oppose taxation, question the legitimacy of government and believe that they are not subject to the law. That sounds like anarchy to me. Or greed, lack of common sense, privilege, cheating.
Mr. Johnston was hoping to prepare his fellow Americans for life after the Second World War. Things were going to change drastically, not least the likelihood that America would assume the role of world leader.
Our government did take over that job. And we the people still tell the government what to do. The ability of the elected to listen to and act for us constituents moves raggedly back and forth from doing something to forgetting they’re supposed to do anything. We have lost – if we really ever had it — much of whatever power Johnston saw in an individual’s sovereignty of telling the government what it should do.
We are led by politicians bought by money (well, we did start out being governed by only the people with land and money); we have sent young men and women off to the many forms of personal destruction in wars waged without the consent of us (that would be Congress); we fail to help people who need help; radical splinter groups of elected representatives will not compromise with anyone and therefore make for a gridlocked Congress; a hierarchy of corporations who must be members of the Sovereign Citizens Movement themselves pay no taxes; and an increasing number of fascists who hate “the other,” – Black, brown, Jew, Muslim – kill people in synagogues, churches and mosques, as well as in night clubs, movie theaters, concerts and schools from pre-K through college.
Still, the many who are not as equal as white males of property and, yes, plenty of white males with property, continue to believe in the visionary experiment of America where a written constitution was penned on a premise of authority coming from the consent of the people. Why it is that the U.S., a democratic republic like many others, is such a beacon has many answers, one of which is the array of all kinds of people from across the planet who have found not only safe haven here but a chance to work their butts off to pursue a good life.
We’re not yet to the pure ideal of the July 4, 1776 Declaration of Independence….
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness….”
Sounds like insurrection, doesn’t it?
It is. Our own revered declaration which on the morrow we celebrate with a national holiday is a cry of rebellion.
By now we’ve at least let in more voters. How reactive, power-hungry hate mongers weaseled into any kind of power so quickly after we thought we’d rid the world of them via WWII says something about human nature itself…meaning that those power-hungry types get to a position of power by the consent of enough people rallying behind them.
I hope they’re a blip in the history books and that we’re not about to repeat a history of whining blame, exclusion and mistreatment of the other and a litany of horrors from less than a century ago. And that we keep in mind our very own Declaration, our beleaguered Constitution, our thoughtful Bill of Rights that among other things has altered a constitution that needed altering, thus letting in women and slaves as if they are actual persons.
Happy Independence Day