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Pundit’s Mailbag — How Would Founding Fathers Feel About Today’s America?

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, July 6, 2007

Our piece, Declaration of Independence, brought forth this letter by someone who thinks the founding fathers would be disappointed in the way it has all turned out:

I frequently read your articles, and get insight into the produce industry as a whole. Although I sell melons, I want to keep a pulse on the entire industry, and your newsletter provides it.

I was quite intrigued to see your article on the "Declaration of Independence" today. However, after reading it I felt compelled to write you to offer my opinion.

I feel that the current state on America, would have our Founding Fathers turning in their graves. We as Americans don’t have the Freedoms they initially deliberated over. Our government is NOT run by the people, but by special interest groups. Those that contribute to the campaigns get their interest looked after. Just look at the new Bankruptcy law, written by MBNA (a major contributor to the Bush campaign), that was passed. Look at the Gasoline industry, and the “freedom” we have there. I think the time is approaching where we need a new Independence from the current political structure and its “Big Business” partner.

“Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” — for ALL.

— Haikeem A. Nelson
Business Account Manager
Chiquita Fresh N.A.

We appreciate Haikeem’s kind words, and we feel a soft spot for a melon vendor as the Pundit’s family played a big role in counter-seasonal melons for many years.

Yet we must say that we think Haikeem’s pessimism is unfounded.

That the founding fathers would be “turning in their graves” at the current state of America is almost certainly not true.

It is hard to imagine today what tenuous hold on existence the United States enjoyed at the time of the Declaration of Independence. First we had to win a war against the greatest military power on earth. On June 25, 1776, General Howe appeared in New York harbor, having arrived from Halifax with 130 ships. His brother, Admiral Howe, showed up on July 12, 1776 with 150 additional ships. It was the greatest armada the world had ever seen.

The 32,000 men landed by the British were roughly the same as the population of Philadelphia, then the largest city in the colonies and significantly more than the 22,000 residents of New York.

When the signers of the declaration pledged to each other “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” — this was not a figure of speech. And when Benjamin Franklin, upon the signing of the Declaration of Independence, pointed out to his fellow signatories that “we must all hang together, or assuredly we shall hang separately” — he was not making a joke.

This small group of men were committing treason against the King, and they were all prepared to die for their cause. And, indeed, any honest broker would have had to say it was likely they would get the opportunity.

Even if America won the war, the expectation was that we would surely be isolated. As a Republic that had overthrown a King, surely no monarchy would befriend this lonely nation, fearing an example for their own subjects. And from the King of England to the Emperor of Japan, it was a world of inherited monarchies in which prince and potentate ruled with the “divine right” of kings.

If by some miracle we were to defeat the British and make our way in world affairs, surely our own domestic divisions, between north and south among others, would lead to our ruin.

To not think that the founding fathers would look out on this mighty, transcontinental nation, whose Republican government had led to overthrow of all substantive monarchy in the world, is not to realize how unlikely it was to work out this way.

Even on Haikeem’s specific complaints, it is astonishing how familiar our founders would have been with present-day problems of governance. Special interests dominate? That wouldn’t surprise James Madison. In Federalist Number 10 (the Federalist papers were a series of articles arguing in favor of ratification of the United States Constitution), he articulated a unique contribution of the founders to political philosophy.

Up to the American founding, it was assumed that democracy could only be successful in a small population, such as the city-states of ancient Greece. Madison turned that argument on its head. He explained that in a small population, it was easy for the factions to coalesce into a permanent majority by forming an enduring alliance that could be used to oppress the minority. In a large scale Republic, such as the United States of America, there would still be factions, of course, but the large scale and diversity of interests meant that such alliances would be transitory.

And so, prescient as he was, James Madison envisioned our political system with remarkable acuity. We have plenty of what Madison called “factions” — what Haikeem calls “special interests” — but they fluctuate in their alliances.

Look at the recent immigration bill — taken down by a haphazard alliance, including high-tech kingpins looking for more visas and labor unions looking to block guest worker programs.

The new bankruptcy law may have been initially drafted by credit card companies, but it was also hotly debated and deeply opposed by lobbyists for various attorneys among others. Mrs. Pundit is a bankruptcy attorney and worked deeply in the court system. She can assure you that she saw far too many times people maxing out their credit cards at fancy stores and then filing the day after the reach-back period had expired. In the end, as we must do in politics, the interests of different parties were compromised and a bill was passed.

Perhaps our correspondent didn’t like that one, but surely we don’t want to say that any time a law passes we happen to personally disagree that it is a sign of tyranny.

The Pundit confesses to not feeling oppressed by the gasoline industry. To the extent they have pricing power, it is more because of other political decisions — such as environmental rules that make it almost impossible to build new refinery capacity — than because they control the powers of government.

Besides, we all could make a list of laws we don’t like, of things that we could do better. And, as responsible citizens, we hope Pundit readers will always contribute to positive change in our country and the world.

We should not, however, let the best be the enemy of the good. And perfection may be an unreasonable standard to hold up against our society.

This is a country where we can speak our minds, worship the God we choose, pursue any career we are capable of. It is a land of almost infinite numbers of chances for those who have messed up a few times.

Which system of governance is better? Which has produced more happiness for more people? Which has taken in more immigrants?

Maybe the recent immigration debate brought to the fore another lesson: Where do people want to go? We can debate the academics of comparative political systems, but didn’t the recent immigration debate hold up this one truth: we have created a society that, with all its flaws, is so magnetic, so attractive to people all over the world that we have to barricade the gates to keep the numbers of immigrants in the tens of millions?

What other country can say that?

We applaud all who think about making this country a better country and, in that spirit, we thank Haikeem for bringing this subject to our attention.

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