Tuesday, July 04, 2017
I audited a colleague's course on the American Revolution this year. It made me revisit some attitudes I had taken for granted, probably since elementary school. As an American today I am a patriot. I strongly support republican government. When I was in Britain and someone offered a toast to the queen I discovered just how visceral my loathing for monarchy is.
I was raised a Quaker in the originally very Quaker town of Plymouth Meeting, PA. The Revolution was fought in the territory around where I lived. And Quakers, as pacifists, were mostly opposed to the war. So what would my position have been if I had been, say, 16 in 1776 (as I was in 1976)?
I probably would have opposed the American Revolution.
Since my 20s I have been a Presbyterian. Of all the American denominations, Presbyterians were the most responsible for promoting the Revolution. If I had been 26 in 1776, I would have been more moved by the arguments of republicanism. But as a meliorist, I would have thought the arguments for achieving a republic by immediate revolutionary war were dangerous. I expect I would have pointed to the the bad effects of a previous revolution, the regicide of Charles I and the gross excesses - Presbyterian excesses - of the Commonwealth.
I probably would have supported the aims of independence, but opposed the revolution.
If I had been 56 in 1776, I would have been more confident that justice requires changing the culture, as well as changing the laws. I would have supported a movement for gradual, negotiated independence from Britain. But in the negotiation we would firmly push for liberty for all. Using the power of the crown on the way to an American republic, the United States of America might not have emerged until a generation or two later - without slavery.
Sunday, July 02, 2017
I recently read a claim that we will look back on Senator Mitch McConnell, the current majority leader and power broker of the Republican Party, the way we now look back on John C. Calhoun. I do not think this is the right comparison. Calhoun was a committed ideologue from beginning to end. Senator McConnell, by contrast, has no real commitments except staying in power. This is why his signal achievements have all been obstruction.
I think we will look back on Mitch McConnell the way we now look back on Boies Penrose. This means:
a) We will think of him primarily as a skilled manipulator of the machinery of politics - a politician, in the pure form; but
b) No one but politics nerds will remember him.
I would guess that very few of my readers will have have ever heard of Boies Penrose. He was a powerful U.S. Senator of a century ago, the head of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania. In the words of The American Heritage, he was a "boss" of the gilded age kind, who, "having acquired power, wanted simply to hold on to it instead of parlaying it into something else. ... Among these Boies Penrose of Pennsylvania stood out. ... he was the biggest boss of his day."
What was notable about Penrose was his cynicism about politics, politicians, and, especially, ordinary voters. "Their tastes are very simple;" he said, "they dearly love hokum." And he supplied it to derail reformers and good government leaders. He stayed in power for more than a quarter of a century, spiting his enemies until death took him.