Philadelphia Reflections

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

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Geographical Troubles Underlying Small Nation Unificatons

One of the basics of nations is, for the most part, their boundaries were geographical in origin. They follow rivers, mountain ranges, deserts, etc., and consequently are dissimilar in size. Just about the closest to boundaries-by-instrument are those of the United States of America, and those were so dissimilar in size they started all this discussion. At America's Constitutional Convention (in Independence Hall of Philadelphia in 1787) John Dickinson pulled James Madison aside and asked him, "Do you want a country or don't you?", and then demonstrated he had the votes from the smaller states in his pocket. It is fairly reliably told that Ben Franklin invited everyone to dinner at the City Tavern, there unveiling his proposal to give all states two senators in the upper house of the Legislative branch. The analogy to the House of Lords was clear enough for ratification of the proposal, even though Franklin himself had reservations. When asked by Mrs. Powell what they had produced, he famously replied, "A Republic, Ma'am. If you can keep it."

The demonstration was clear; nations accustomed to total sovereignty are fiercely reluctant to accept less than equal power when they attempt to join. No matter how persuasive "One man, one vote" may sound, it is fair to observe that adherence to such doctrine caused both the League of Nations and the United Nations to fail. To insist on a similar arrangement in the European Union for a third time, was utter folly. The powerful large states were so certain to reject unification rather than face further wars; they must have had other reasons.

A nation may be as large as Russia or as small as Luxembourg or Singapore; a large country may be as dense as India, a small one may be as sparsely populated as Bhutan. Nations are collections of people, and population density surely makes some difference, whether caused by mountain valleys or famines. It is not clear that similarities of inhabitants are much related to population density, but constitutional conventions are infrequent events whose effect may seem to subside between political events. One is reminded of the several languages of little Switzerland, and its several religions, as well as the uniformity of these features in China or Latin America. Apparently, these human variations require some sort of augmentation, because there are numerous examples of important Civil Wars and resistances to unification traceable to them. It's hard to say why human influences are so variable, but it is possible to imagine the important human issue is satisfaction with the present state of governance, compared with that of neighbors.

There are enough exceptions to any rule to suggest caution in advancing any universal new constitution while suggesting more praise for our own for being alone in surviving two centuries. The longer it lasts, the more we must applaud its survival, and the more we must attend to its flexibility and brevity. And the more we must urge our courts to examine the careful wording of its penman, Gouverneur Morris.

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Originally published: Saturday, July 06, 2019; most-recently modified: Monday, July 29, 2019