Friday, December 30, 2005

Why did the maestros Cha-cha?

The oldest delegate to the Philadelphia convention that “revised” the Articles of Confederation was Benjamin Franklin. At 82 and in frail health, he needed help to sign the final product, the Constitution of the United States. As the delegates gathered in front of the Pennsylvania State House when the convention ended on September 17, 1787, Franklin was approached by the wife of the mayor of Philadelphia and curious, she asked: “Well, what we have got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A republic, madam. If you can keep it.”

Why was the wise old man quite tentative?

The constitutional convention came about under a specter of anarchy within about 10 years since America’s colonial struggle for “national liberation” from the British Empire which culminated in the American Revolution. There have been historical viewpoints to the effect that the conflict was less of a battle between two armies than a contest over “hearts and minds” of the population which the insurgents won. And unlike the French Revolution, the ferment in America was rather a creeping one, or an “accelerated evolution” wherein the populace was not seriously disturbed even during the actual clashes but went on doing their chores with many communities not even knowing a war was going on. When British defeat was however at hand, a substantial number of America’s elites loyal to the British crown opted to exit thus creating what today may be called a “brain drain.” Triumphant, equality became catchphrase among the “citizens” in the fledgling nation. Egalitarian thinking began to challenge ideas about society and government, and groupings that clung to any aristocratic posturing were looked upon with disfavor. However, with the common cause of the revolution gone, hopes for establishing a regime that would last were dimmed even as the infant republic labored to plod on.

Indeed, aside from the looming national economic disaster, individual states were engaged in boundary disputes at times punctuated by minor skirmishes. But what scared out of the wits of the Patriot elites was the staging of an uprising in Massachusetts by some revolutionary war veterans. The rebels, led by Captain Daniel Shays, were losing their farms through foreclosures and tax forfeitures. With “mobocracy” almost the temper of the times, the propertied class somehow became nostalgic for a strong monarchy.

Alexander Hamilton, the 31-year New Yorker and possibly the brightest among the delegates, could not hide his aristocratic bent in a convention speech: “All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and the wellborn, the other the mass of the people . . . The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine the right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second, and as they cannot receive any advantage by change, they therefore will ever maintain good government.”

The foregoing were the backdrops against which Franklin conveyed his infamous line. In fact, some historians believe the Shays’ mutiny in effect “founded” the Constitution of the United States.

It was not the venerable Benjamin Franklin but another thirty-something delegate, James Madison – credited with contributing so much (with his partner Hamilton) to the crafting of the Constitution - who was called the “Father of the Constitution.” I would however consider the ideas of Hamilton and Madison as the progenitor of democratic elitism in American political system.

On the other hand, fiery and populist revolutionary leader, Thomas Jefferson, who was then sojourning in Europe, missed the heated closed-door debates in Philadelphia. But a couple of months after the convention (of “demigods,” as Jefferson so appreciated the caliber of the delegates) had produced a constitution, Jefferson wrote: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” He also insisted: “A little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical . . . a medicine necessary for the sound health of the government.”

Revisiting at this juncture the American experience in nation-building and drawing certain parallelism from it should give Filipinos pause on being too hard on themselves.

As a relevant side note today, I suppose Philippines’ national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, was in some ways Hamiltonian. Rizal publicly denounced “the criminal methods” of an “absurd” and “fatal” people’s armed uprising for Philippine independence. As Hamilton, Rizal believed “that reforms, in order to be fruitful, must come from above, that those that come from below are shaky, irregular, and insecure”; whereas certain political observers, mostly Americans, think of Ninoy Aquino as a Jeffersonian democrat. But, if fortunate enough to have full opportunity, which one of Filipinos’ two icons would have led the nation keeping a true republic?

18 Comments:

Anonymous Major Tom said...

Hi. This is an insightful take on American history. I hope we can learn much from it.

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