Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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...Trying Out the New Constitution
George Washington's first term as President was much like a continuation of the Constitutional Convention, with many of the same participants.

Government Organization
Government Organization

Shaping the Constitution in Philadelphia
After Independence, the weakness of the Federal government dismayed a band of ardent patriots, so under Washington's leadership a stronger Constitution was written. Almost immediately, comrades discovered they had wanted the same thing for different reasons, so during the formative period they struggled to reshape future directions . Moving the Capitol from Philadelphia to the Potomac proved curiously central to all this.

States Rights Confront Civil War

{Dr. Randall Miller}
Dr. Randall Miller

Dr. Randall Miller of St. Joseph's University recently gave the Union League an interesting insight into the non-military upheavals of America by Congress during the Civil War. (Parenthetically, Dr. Miller is the author of Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, which may give him still greater prominence in these columns when it reaches print.) Lincoln and the military get most of the headlines, but the greatest nation-building activities were products of the Congress, not Abraham Lincoln directly; the President was too busy directing the war to take much lead in other matters. The Republican Party of that time was freshly created, still strong in its idealism around elements of the party platform which really meant something to them. Although Senators John Sherman of Ohio and William P. Fessenden of Maine are remembered by history, most of the activity was conducted by members of the Congress who had reached seniority in committees and hence mostly had died off by the end of the War. It seems like one of history's great unfairnesses that a remarkable transformation of the nation was accomplished by people who are now largely unknown.

So Lincoln gets much of the credit by default, and the idealism and grand plans are lost in the current view that the Civil War was about liberating the slaves. That was, of course, part of it, but the Civil War was in fact mostly fought about the Union, and the Whig principles essential to nation-building. And the transformation was the vision of party politicians in offices which we currently regard as being filled by party hacks in safe seats. That wasn't the case at all; these visionaries knew where they wanted the country to go, and cleverly designed a set of programs to make it happen. Lincoln wanted to win the war; these men wanted to have a new nation emerge, after the war.

Civil War

It almost goes without saying that a Civil War over the secession of rebellious state governments from a Union created by the Constitution was going to weaken state power -- and strengthen Federal control -- if the Unionists won the war. That's what the Republicans wanted, and what the Southerners feared. But, strangely, both sides harbored warm feelings for the Constitution, wanting to preserve much of its essence. The Republicans, therefore, realized that many of the laws which were essential for winning the war, would lose their popularity and hence their force, once victory had been achieved. Reconstruction of the South, for example, was going to be unsustainable as soon as the huge Union Army was demobilized. The liberated slaves were unlikely to migrate to the western wilderness, and so the problems of racial readjustment were going to remain Southern problems for decades to come, without an army of occupation to maintain stability, law, and order. In fact, it was largely Southern whites who migrated to the far West, leaving the situation even more unstable back in the old Confederacy. How was a brave new nation to emerge from this mess?

War measures did help. There was no Federal currency until the War, and so a national system of greenbacks and war bonds helped to unify a vast and far-flung continent. The National Banks, fought over and feared for nearly a century, simply had to be created; all of these national rather than local symbols strengthened the national feeling. Putting 10% tax on state bonds was a pretty good indication that the congressional Republicans knew where they were driving things. The telegraph was of great value to wartime communication; it helped create a virtual community, with national news taking the place of local news.

Up until the Civil War, the main source of Federal income was derived from the sale of land; the new nation had a lot more land than gold. After the war, the nation found itself with taxation as the main source of income. The income tax was a step too far, of course, and it was repealed; but a system of national currency organized a system of national taxes which persisted. The country still had plenty of raw lands, but it was distributed by giving it to railroads in return for national transportation, and to land-grant colleges in return for greater uniformity of culture. Notice the hand of Congress, however. This land was to be surveyed land, not the land between this rock and that creek. Surveyors since the time of William Penn and George Washington were the agents of orderliness, law, and peaceful settlement of disputes. To that extent, surveyors broke up the reliance on local clans and territoriality; peace instead of conquest. The leaders of the North, the Republicans in Congress and the cabinet knew what they wanted; it was that the sacrifices of the war would find a reward in the peace that would follow and that reward would be a new nation.

Notice carefully the second section of the Thirteenth Amendment. The first section freed the slaves. The second section gave to the Federal government the charge of enforcing that liberty. The crafters of words and designers of rules, knew exactly where they wanted to go.

{The Constitution}
The Constitution

They did their work so well, that it begins to look as though the next few decades will display a crisis, created by going too far, too fast. In all these idealistic schemes, the state government is the enemy. State governments would interfere with Reconstruction; state governments would interfere with land grants and misuse their undisputed control of local law enforcement. State governments would introduce little strategies for restoring the power to tax and control, and to govern. State governments would slowly remember that the Constitution conferred only a few limited powers on the Federal government, and reserved all other powers to the states. The Constitution would never have achieved ratification without this explicit provision in the XII Amendment. And so, step by step, we have achieved some sort of goal by making the state governments into the weakest, most ineffectual, and yes the most corrupt parts of our national system. California, New York, New Jersey, and Michigan lead the way into what seems a certain disaster of enlisting municipal employees into political machines of the worst sort, and bankrupting the states that permit it. Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maryland and West Virginia are not far behind.

Fanatics could persuade themselves that a solution readily lies in simply going all the way and eliminating state governments. But to do so would destroy James Madison's brilliant insight. The states place a limit on unlimited power from whatever source by offering the citizens a choice: if things get too bad, just move to a nearby state.

Originally published: Tuesday, October 20, 2009; most-recently modified: Sunday, July 21, 2019