How We Got Here: The Debate II

March 9, 2011 | By | Reply More

To continue…

The Whiskey Rebellion more or less blew up in Alexander Hamilton’s face.  The tax he pushed through congress on whiskey that triggered the entire affair was shortly thereafter repealed and it was a while before the federal government tried to impose internal taxes.  One of the stated goals of the revolution was to end taxation without representation, but in practical terms this meant an end to taxation, period.

The federal government used tariffs and land sales to pay off the debt incurred by the revolutionary war.  Jefferson’s purchase of Louisiana was still done by a combination of the two plus borrowing.  Generally, tariffs were kept low, to encourage volume of trade.  Some high tariffs were employed in the 1820s and 1830s as protectionist measures to level the field with Britain, which was in the midst of its “workshop of the world” period.  The South hated these tariffs because it raised the price of manufactures and shipping, which impacted on their trade which was almost entirely agricultural.

It was different in the states.  Property taxes early became a source of state revenue.  The definition of “property” for the purposes of such taxes stretched far beyond the bounds we would recognize or accept today and under Jackson came to include just about anything a person owned.  Local reaction to such impositions varied by city and state, but rarely rose to the level of rebellion.

Federal internal taxes did not come into play until the Civil War.  The need to raise revenue in huge amounts and quickly necessitated the creation of the first income tax, among others, including a vast array of excise taxes and licensing.   There were special corporate taxes, stamp taxes for legal documents, and inheritance taxes.

Most of these were phased out after the Civil War.  Interestingly, the Republicans—a new party formed just before the Civil War which became the second national party, supplanting the archaic Whigs—kept two elements of the new tax system: high tariffs and taxes on liquor and tobacco.  High tariffs were protectionist measures.  The excises on liquor and tobacco were not greatly challenged because they coincided with the growing Temperance Movement, which was becoming politically significant.

(Also interestingly, calls for reform led to a new income tax in 1894.  However, the Supreme Court, in Pollock vs Farmers Loan and Trust Co. ruled it unconstitutional.  The income tax became a popular movement and led to the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment, legalizing a federal income tax, which was ratified and passed in 1913.)

With World War I, taxes were passed for the first time on corporate income and taxes on wage earners were rejected.  The balance seemed then to be in favor of taxing wealth.

So what changed?

Let’s back up for a bit and look at the aftermath of the Founding Generation.

With the election of Thomas Jefferson as president, Federalism seemed to be in retreat.  The swift program inaugurated under Washington, by Hamilton, and continued under Adams of centralizing national affairs in a strong federal government was denounced and Jeffersonianism embraced.  Federalists were seen as partners with industrialists and corporations, the party of money, in opposition to the small freeholder.  After the debacle of the Whiskey Rebellion, internal taxes on the federal level were seen as tools to corral independent artisans, farmers, and small merchants under a corporate umbrella and establish a tyranny.  New lands opening to the west gave the impression that no one need bow to central authority, not even on the local level, if they had the wherewithal to pick up and move.

During this period, two things were going on that fed directly into the American obsession with wealth.  The first one is easy enough to understand—the relative ease with which it was possible to make a great deal of money here, because of the complete absence of legal class boundaries.  That and the extremely open economic policies of the early republic—laissez-faire capitalism, which suffered no government constraint.  Among the positive effects of this, of course, came down-sides, namely the rise of speculation, initially in land deals through various companies with their roots back before the French and Indian Wars.

Speculation was then and continued to be a scourge, and yet it seems to be ineradicable, mainly because it’s tied inextricably with our ideas of market freedom.  Nor is it always a bad thing.  Speculation can concentrate attention, organize work, and produce a desired effect by calling attention to a project that needs funding and supporters.  But it just as often destroys individual aspirations, damages communities, and artificially creates divisions which can sometimes linger for generations, especially when it comes to land.

Arguments and court fights over claims for tracts of land almost defined the migrations into the Ohio Valley and Kentucky, then later into Georgia and Alabama.  Settlers moved into lllinois in such numbers that almost 75% of it was claimed by squatters, making it a fait accompli that took decades more to undo.  Federalist jurists favored large, single landowners who could then sell small tracts and generate profits that could be used for further expansion along lines that fell into step with Manifest Destiny sentiments.  It was in the interests of the federal government to unload land to large purchasers rather than get into the business of becoming a banker for thousands upon thousands of individual buyers, many of whom might find it difficult to pay in specie.  Questions of currency from state to state and in the territories complicated any such arrangement and in this the federal government became collusive with speculators for perfectly understandable reasons.  The federal government was using the sale of tracts to augment funding sources and for that a reliable payment schedule and solid currency was required.

But the principle of “Improvement” was very much at the fore in everyone’s mind and this is what drove national policy even from the earliest Colonial days.  It was the idea of Improvement that determined the fate of the native peoples.  Improvement was bound up with Christian principles of moral behavior and fed into the second of the two trends I’m examining in this essay.

The idea of Improvement was the conviction that a moral man should take wilderness and turn it into productive land, for the good of the family, the community, possibly the country, but also because this was the charge given by God to Adam.  Wilderness was viewed as a test, as the raw material to build a christian community.  To find yourself in the midst of wilderness and do nothing to “improve” it—cut down the trees, put the land to the plow, build houses, roads, etc—was sinful.  Hence the native Americans were viewed as “fallen” because they didn’t improve the land.

(A good deal of missionary work was done all through the Colonial and into the post-Colonial period to teach Indians how to do this and there was considerable success.  Many tribes, seeing the writing on the wall, quite ably adapted themselves and built towns and turned to intensive agriculture.  That these efforts were mostly ignored and later destroyed—the worst example being what happened to the Cherokee in Georgia and Alabama—is the consequence of whites refusing to admit that simple Improvement was ever the point.  If the money did not flow into white hands, if the power remained vested in the townships, then the work had to be denied and eradicated.  Proof that the Indians could do what they were told was expected of them had to be denied at every turn.  Their inability to adapt was maintained, even in fictional form, as evidence that whites had to have the control.  To be sure, this did not simply fall on the Indians—many small, isolationist white communities ended up similarly destroyed by syndicates and large-scale speculators when these tiny efforts stood in the way of large-scale profiteering.)

The land companies formed before and after the French and Indian War were vested in moving Indians off the land and selling it to settlers.  The federal government became the “owner” of these lands and sold huge parcels to these companies or even to individual speculators.  Local battles staged by individual settlers or groups of settlers who could afford to hire attorneys raged against these essentially absentee landlords and various accommodations were made based on varying degrees of improvements.  One basic complaint was the right of the person living on the land and working it in opposition to the man who simply “owned” it on paper.  This evolved eventually into fights between individuals and cartels, fights we still see playing out today.

But in this way, speculation and the federal government grew into a symbiotic relationship that proved awkward at times but maintained a momentum throughout much of the 19th Century.  Andrew Jackson belatedly tried to disrupt this relationship with his war on the United States Bank, with the result that the one good thing the bank was doing—stabilizing currency—was ended and whole regions of the country slipped into depression due to an inability to maintain stable currency on their own. Jackson was an opponent of the centralized role the government was playing in dispossessing small landholders through support of blanket policies favoring big concerns, banks primarily.

It was during this period that sectional conflicts began to grow into serious threats to the Union.  Morality aside, this went directly to the matter of property.  Slavery had been a subject of intense division from the very beginning, the north largely opposed to it, the south claiming it a necessity.  Southern states had threatened to leave the Union should any move be made to outlaw slavery—which could only be done federally if the states were not willing to do.  Some states did ban it, but mostly such states had not relied much on it for labor in the first place.

Using the rhetoric of individual liberty, southern slaveholders became more and more strident in their denunciations of northern “interference” in the presumed rights of property owners in the south.  The fact that the south was engaged mostly in plantation agriculture complicated matters, because this type of farming—mostly for cotton—was incredibly debilitating to the soil.  As the soil was exhausted, plantations had to move west to new fields.  The question of how new states would enter the union—slave or free—became an issue of life and death for southern plantation owners and fueled the conflict.  As western lands were opened by the federal government to more settlement, small landowners were faced with the prospect of competition from large slave-owning concerns that could potentially outcompete them (in the short run) and buy them out.  (Something similar happened later in the range wars over cattle.)  Also, most new settlers, who were buying land from speculators in the north, carried with them a religious conviction that slaveholding was wrong.  The companies selling them the land were anxious to assure them they would be settling in land that would be free, otherwise land values might plummet.

All this was further exacerbated by the railroads that were getting tremendous quantities of federal land as leeways, which often cut through communities or just as often bypassed them, which lent another layer of life and death to the equation.

In every respect, the federal government drew some fire from just about everyone.  Washington favored the railroads over and above settlers’ rights.  Washington was becoming aligned with the north against the agrarian south because of industrial influences that challenged southern economies and controlled shipping costs.  Washington supported slavery because it refused to do anything legislatively about it.  In just about all viewpoints, Washington was in the center of what was wrong.

What was wrong was simply that the industrial revolution and capitalism were gaining irresistible momentum and eventually the nonindustrial south would find itself isolated, bought out, and dominated by Yankee corporations.  The only tool they possessed to fight it was through Congress and the only advantage they possessed was the five-eights rules which allowed slaveholders to vote their slaves as representing five-eights of a man each (which included the women, coincidentally, making a profound irony in a country that still denied free women the right to vote).  The south fought every national project that came before Congress, seeing such things as blows against them.  They lost as often as they won, but the lines were drawn.  It was becoming increasing difficult, though, to move legislation through Congress and the south’s position threatened infrastructure projects.

The south saw itself as the proper heirs of the revolution, the Jeffersonian version.  But the yeoman freeholder had grown into bloated plantation owners who not only lorded it over their slaves but also made it very difficult for the true individual landowner to make a living.  Even so, southern politicians successfully drew a connection between plantations and small farmers to make the case that all of their lifestyles were in danger from northern aggression, making the impoverished southern farmer a patriotic ally to the master of Tara in confronting Washington federalist domination.

In this were the seeds of modern anti-federal sentiment.  When the Civil War broke out, these sentiments grew into deep philosophical resentments, which Reconstruction cemented in place.  Washington D.C. became evil incarnate, to be fought at every turn, and the fiascoes of Reconstruction congresses fed the divisions with continually filibustered legislatures and the presumed corruption under Ulysses S. Grant.

But if the Civil War was the flower of national unity in action on behalf of the citizens—and to large extent it was—then what happened to eventually turn even the north against the federal government?

Well, it didn’t happen right away.  After the Civil War and with the completion of the transcontinental railroad, private enterprise and federal policy marched in lock-step as never before until the end of the Gilded Age and the days of Teddy Roosevelt’s trust busting.  It was after WWII that the problems began again and to understand that we have to look at the Second Great Awakening and the “christianization” of wealth-building.

The fervor with which assaults on liberalism are launched of late possess a zealotry difficult to understand in any reasonable sense.  There is a religious element to it, a battle of ideologies that seem to leave the precincts of fact, data, and logic very quickly, often on both sides.  The inability of Left to talk to Right is the equivalent of the sectarian babbling between any two apparently irreconcilable religious groups, both of whom insist on their point of view being not only correct but the only one.

After decades of more or less rational political discourse in this country, many people have been caught completely by surprise at the level of bitterness that, upon examination, seem unsupportable by the issues (with the possible exception of abortion—but even that is ramped up far more than it ought to be given the middle ground of contraceptive use).

Where did this come from?

Once more, we look back to the early republic.

When claims are made that this was established as a Christian Nation, such claims are both right and wrong. Wrong in that the structure of law and institutions created in the aftermath of the revolutionary war are the most secular such governmental constructs ever created. The establishment of the United States as a nation is not Christian or any other religion, and this was done very intentionally. More, perhaps, as break with all European traditions in which religion was politicized and churches were arms of the government, conjoining common faith with political hegemony, but nevertheless those who claim that the United States, in the form of the Constitution and the subsequent offices and conduct, was established as a Christian edifice are flat wrong.

However, the fact that this was a country of Christians is undeniable and the fervor of religious embrace was profound.

The old grade school lesson that the first colonists came here to escape religious persecution is mostly true.  It doesn’t go quite far enough, though, and explain that these religious exiles were themselves probably more religious than the states from which they fled, states where religious observance was akin to a loyalty oath.

Which is, of course, how you get debacles like the Salem Witch Trials where you might expect a more rational approach.  The Enlightenment veneer that overlay the revolutionary period and informed the political philosophy that manifested in the Constitution was pretty much just that—a veneer.  City-bound for the most part, once you got out into the hinterland, on the frontiers, religious sentiment was a living, breathing reality that was as if not more important than any political principles in currency at the time.  For many Americans of that generation, Liberty meant the freedom to worship God without a bishop or priest telling you where, when, or how.

Coming to North America must have been a surreal experience for these people.  They had come from a crowded, dirty place—just about any city in Europe at that time—where they had constantly to worry about the next upheaval that would require a realignment of political (and sometimes religious) affiliations.  Disease, high mortality, sometimes opulent wealth within walking distance of soul-crushing squalor.  But for the most part a world that had become and was becoming more urbanized.  Making landfall in the New World must have been like time travel, taking them back to a primeval land of myth.  No buildings, no roads, nothing to indicate human beings had ever been there, huge, dense forests undisturbed by the axe.

Many brought with them a full suite of superstitions about old forests and just trying to live here must have required unbelievable courage—or unimaginable desperation.  But they made a go of it, cut some trees down, built the first villages, and after a hundred years the east coast was beginning to look a bit like the world they had left.

But in pushing back that frightening forest they had clung to their faiths and relied on it hourly.  Many early colonists believed Satan lived in those forests, and certainly many of the encounters with the near-naked natives who didn’t seem to know the first thing about God or Jesus did nothing to dissuade them of that idea.  Pushing that forest back was not only consistent with their belief in Improvement but necessary to keep the devil a little further away.

By the mid 18th Century, The Great Awakening gripped the colonies, a series of revival movements spurred by open-air preaching based on emotional reactions to arminian accommodations embraced by the seaport cities that were becoming comfortable with material success.  In a way it was a repeat of the movement that caused early pilgrims of Presbyterian and Calvinist theologies to cross the Atlantic in the first place.  The daily struggle against the unknown happening in the rural frontiers was poorly served by churches that preached a moderate, calming theology with a God that seemed less and less concerned with sin in the face of worldly success.  What happened in the hinterland evoked comparisons to the “heretical” movements of the Middle Ages which the Catholic Church worked to subdue and ended up with in the massive splits of the Reformation.

In his examination of the market phenomena that defined much of the early Republic, The Market Revolution,  Charles Sellers writes:

“Our secular mythology renders almost incomprehensible the religious mythology that organized experience for early rural America.  The gnostic cosmology and stoic resignation of peasant forebears, who likewise lived at the mercy of nature and invoked its fertility with daily labor, sacralized the behavioral norms demanded by the subsistence mode of production…for centuries peasant animism had magicalized the patriarchal Christian God who reconciled Europeans to hazards of weather, terrors of plague, and exactions of fathers and rulers.  The Protestant Reformation revitalized this magical patriarchalism to cope with the Old World market’s initial surge.  The awesome Jehovah proclaimed by Geneva’s Protestant theologian John Calvin was brought to the New World by uprooted emigrants and preached from Congregational meetinghouses of New England Puritans, the Presbyterian kirks of the Scotch-Irish, and the Reformed churches of Germans, Dutch, and French Huguenots.  Calvinism’s thrilling promise of divine encounter sacralized deep springs of animistic magic and mystery to arm rural Euro/Americans with invidious power against capricious fate.  The more vividly they felt Jehovah’s omnipotence, the safer they felt in a hazardous world.”

Preachers like George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards took the Message to the wilderness, creating a surge of revivalist meetings that poured from New England southward, sweeping rural populations into the fold of highly emotional religious experiences, complete with swooning, ecstasies, visions, possibly glossolalia, all of which offended the stabilizing, order-hungry seaboard churches which reacted both from the pulpit and legislatively, fueling the growing political embrace of strict separations of church and state.

By the time of the revolution, although the revivalist movements had fractured and splintered into numerous disputatious denominations, a basic sympathy existed informing all of them with the idea that God was not the property of the government, that in fact God disapproved of governments that interposed law between individuals and what they perceived as the natural right to encounter creation without intermediary or interpretation.  (This latter sentiment came to inform the idea that the government should, in fact, say nothing whatever, pro or con, regarding religion, and ought to remove even the appearance of favoritism toward either specific faiths or religious experience in general.)  A tremendous pool of resentment toward the government on this issue rippled beneath the surface of all other resentments that combined to cause the break with England.  The colonial governments were often seen as collusive with the King’s government in this regard and there was no doubt an expectation that this would be redressed once independence was achieved.  (It took a while—direct state sponsorship of certain churches did not end for some time, although the federal government had removed itself from such connections.)

It was the Second Great Awakening, which began after the establishment of the United States and ratification of the Constitution that created the odd coupling of capitalist zeal and religious fervor.  Competing traditions, old and new, sought to achieve dominance in a rapidly expanding nation that quite obviously embraced worldly success as a natural right, one of the chief goals of the revolution.  In Europe, the established churches, as arms of the state, muffled themes of denouncing the world and its attributes, a trend that could be trace all the way back to the first establishment of Christianity as the dominant religion of Rome.  Governments did not wish to discourage wealth-building because this was a source of political power.  The older churches had long since found accommodation with attention to money and rarely preached against self-improvement, at least among the merchant classes.  This same trend was taking place in America where seaboard financial dynasties were emerging and the class-free society that had been in place in practice if not legally for a long time promoted wealth-building across all social lines.  Interest in salvation appeared to wane with the rise of temporal comfort.

The successors of Edwards, Samuel Hopkins and Timothy Dwight in particular, wrestled with the fact that mercantile growth was inevitable and followed the frontier like a wave, and with it a, to them, diluted religious apprehension known as Deism.  Deism was an Enlightenment accommodation which greatly diffused religious experience, rendering it almost a wholly philosophical matter rather than one of spiritual rebirth.  It was Deism that permitted the Founders to avoid the question of a national religion in drafting the Constitution—a movement hard to argue with given the antipathy of the rural settlers to any state sponsored church—but which the inheritors of Calvin found spiritually troubling.  They feared an abandonment of Christianity as worldly success and comfort grew.  The Second Great Awakening restarted the revivals, took them further west, and south, as a firebreak to a perceived ambivalence to spiritual matters in the east.

The central difficulty of keeping religious ethics in the face of successful nation-building affected both traditions and the older churches, in New York and Boston, adopted some of the rhetoric of what was called the New Light, and took advantage of the new printing technologies to create the first wide-spread Bible and Tract Societies.  For a time, Bibles were the largest selling book throughout America because they were the cheapest, along with the tracts accompanying them.  Mass printing drove the price per copy down drastically and endangered all other forms of popular publishing except newspapers.

The battle was between Enlightenment rationalism—which was concerned with man’s rights in this world, now—and the emotionalism of Millennarian religious experience, which proclaimed that the concern must be on the state of the soul for the next world.  In Europe a similar confrontation was occurring which would result in the rise of Romanticism—a more or less secular embrace of emotionalism over rationality—while here is resulted in an entrenched Evangelicalism, centered not on the primacy of sentiment and emotionalism concerning the self and the world but on the emotionalism found in a rebirth in God.

The accommodation that emerged was one that coupled all the driving ambition of worldly success with a strict self-abnegation—temperance, chastity, and a severe scrupulousness in business—that made the only sanctified outlet of worldly ambition the very success in business that had a generation before been seen as the biggest threat to spiritual matters.

This engendered a reversal of certain themes—for instance, the Millennium, the return of Christ to Earth, now became something that had to happen before Jesus came back, not when—but the success of this led to half a century of expanding church attendance and the growing influence of religion in political movements, i.e. abolition and temperance.

What this meant for our present examination is that a pool of religious sentiment tied to Millennarian anticipation, rejection of rationalism, and an embrace of antinomianism (the belief that one can be so possessed of grace/salvation that manmade laws no longer apply) became a popularly maintained constant.  The antipathy against government is fed by this select exceptionalism to give this group a belief in the rightness of their cause from a source irredressable in secular institutions.

The 19th Century is littered with small groups of religious isolates who chose westward migration rather than life under a growing secular government.  Most failed, but some became notable successes—the Mormons for one—but by and large all these groups have been partially absorbed into mainstream American life.  They bring these traditions with them, of course, just as any other self-identified group does.

What effect this has in practice is a manifestation in the belief in a higher law that overrides the legislative, judicial, and common law and seeks to challenge institutions on the basis of what could be seen as a “natural law” position.  At almost every turn, with a few prominent exceptions, this has been a defense of status quo not politically so much as culturally.  (On both sides of the slavery issue we find strong, entrenched religious sentiment dictating moral positions.  While abolition can be seen as revolutionary, at base it was very much a defense of the doctrine of voluntary salvation and the denigration of “worldliness” by people from a Congregationalist-Puritan-Quaker tradition.  However, the net effect was revolutionary.)

I’ll go over what this means to us today in the next part.

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Category: American Culture, Civil Rights, Culture, Current Events, Economy, History, Law, law and order, Politics, Religion, Social justice

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

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