In Columns, Features, Pieces to Peter's Puzzling World by Peter Webster

In case nobody’s noticed, it’s election time. I just sat through the Democratic National Convention. In a few weeks I’ll do the same with the Republican production.

Don’t get me wrong: even though both events are stage-managed down to the last falling balloon and raised sign, these conventions are extremely important. Our nation’s continued survival depends on them-and on us, paying attention to what’s being said and who’s saying it.

So, lately, I’ve been thinking about the rhetoric, both current and past. Clear back to the Declaration of Independence. Like:

The “fight against tyranny and taxation” in the Declaration of Independence. The people who wrote that were a group of men, many of
them wealthy and many of them merchants and planters.

The merchants realized the value of having a country where they didn’t have to pay taxes to overseas (many of them were already involved with smuggling, so it wasn’t like they were being pauperized); a country that they designed–and ran–could
best reflect their own interests.

The planters-plantation owners- were familiar with many of the classics; they spoke of freedom and spirit, principles
handed down from Cato and Cicero. They often, in fact, named their slaves after those great Romans and Greeks.

Freedom was very important for the ones who wrote about it. For the others, bondsmen, indentured servants and slaves, freedom was a crime. It was a crime that was brutally punished, and remained so for a long time.

Here’s what the planters did.

The Constitution gave representation on the
basis of slaves being counted 3/5ths of a person. This meant that the south, where the majority of slaves were owned, had strong representation in Congress.

The slaves, of course, couldn’t vote; but the slave-owners could, and they would–and did–vote for people who best represented
their interests. Those interests did not include ending slavery.

The south–and slave-owning interests–held the balance of power in the national
legislature. The south still holds immense power in Congress and government in general–out of the last four presidents, three have come from the south.

The Constitution is a pretty good document, well thought out, and remarkably practical. It was written in terms of the Eighteenth Century world; we are now in the Twenty-first Century. Things are very different.

Jefferson couldn’t foretell what would happen when there was no more land out west; he couldn’t see that massive amounts of money would be used to buy, sell, and rent politicians on a daily basis. He didn’t know airplanes and rockets were going to destroy the supposed isolation of America. He didn’t even know that slaves were going to be freed.

Too bad for us. Too bad, too, that the Constitution is enshrined in a light as though shining down from Heaven…

The American Revolution-which was a revolution in terms of the structure of
government, rather than of one class triumphing over another class-is
something else I’ve been pondering.

If you think about it, it wasn’t that American soldiers really won the
Revolutionary War; rather, the British lost it by bad generalship, a lack of support in Parliament, and the difficulty in maintaining supplies.

There were and are brave soldiers in our history. No one is going to argue that. It wasn’t like as if they all were courageous.

George Washington complained over and over about the untrained and unreliable militias he had to use. They’d go home when they felt like it,sometimes in the middle of a battle. Fortunately, for us, we had a
powerful ally.

Once the French Navy came in on our side, the jig was up for the Brits. The newly independent Americans, to show that they could let bygones be bygones, chased out of the country their fellow Americans who hadn’t supported independence, burned down their homes and took their property.

Ideological cleansing, you could say, as opposed to the ethnic cleansing that went on during the Indian Wars.


It was too bad the high-minded people who drafted the Constitution didn’t
act on their ideals of freedom and abolish slavery. Eighty-odd years after the Revolutionary War, hundreds of thousands of American soldiers were killed and maimed fighting each other over that issue.

The country still is working out the aftermath of slavery, though on a lower intensity. We still don’t have a solid number of the Native Americans who were killed during the movement west to the Pacific Ocean. Or the number of Mexicans
killed or dislocated during the taking of the South West.

Our history is good, but not perfect. Of course it isn’t perfect: history is made up of people, just like us, really. Perfection is a word that shouldn’t be applied to reality. Perfection is an abstraction, existing only in people’s minds.

Like “freedom.” It’s too bad the founders of
America couldn’t remember the distance they were from the perfection of the idea of freedom. Maybe then they could have done something more about it.
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