The Philadelphia Coup of 1776

US-flag-13-stars-Betsy_RossThe common narrative in the United States surrounding the Declaration of Independence is that everyone was so appalled by the British crackdown in Massachusetts and the lives lost at Lexington and Concord in April 1775 that all the leaders (and the majority of the populations) of the other colonies were swept up in a united front demanding the rejection of British rule (over a year later).

In reality, it was far more complicated than that. Many of the people were largely apathetic toward the whole matter one way or the other. But among those who were politically engaged, there was nowhere close to unity on the issue between the thirteen colonies (and that doesn’t even get into all the other British colonies in North America that flat-out refused to entertain the idea of joining even a conference to discuss recent events).

The lack of support for independence was so strong in coastal Georgia, for example, that the state’s leaders tried to un-sign from the Declaration of Independence and re-join the British Empire during the war. By war’s end, even after the Battle of Yorktown, the Province of Georgia was fully re-occupied by the British until it was handed over by the terms of the 1783 Treaty of Paris that formally accepted U.S. independence. New York City, similarly, was fairly solidly in support of continued British rule (to protect its trade interests and keep the other colonies from controlling its internal affairs) and also remained in British control until handed over by the treaty.

In certain colonies, such as Massachusetts, the local assemblies were suspended by the British or replaced by puppet governments, and they lacked local support — often to the point of having none of the laws followed by anyone. So in those cases, it’s fair to consider the self-proclaimed “Patriot” assemblies to be the more legitimate governments of those colonies for the purposes of declaring independence. But in other colonies, such as New York, the patriot faction was so deep in the minority that even the real local governments representing popular opinion were never going to go along with plans for independence. This being inconvenient, New York patriots simply formed their own assembly when the real assembly refused to send delegates to the Continental Congress.

That’s a bit iffy, to say the least, but it’s nowhere near as questionable as the decision by the Second Continental Congress to take matters into their own hands to impose the same on the Province of Pennsylvania. The elected local government there was insufficiently supportive of the position of a majority of the rest of the provincial delegations meeting at the Continental Congress, so those other states simply voted to “totally suppress” the government of Pennsylvania, to allow themselves to move ahead with plans for an official Declaration of Independence. Read more

Constitutional rebellions

Should constitutions include an official principle of the people’s right to rebel against their governments?

There has always been a bit of (or a lot of) tension between those who believe the right to revolt is natural and inalienable at all times versus those who believe all transitions must be orderly, legal, and constitutional.

As a pressure valve for self-preservation, the latter camp tends to adopt constitutional systems (formally or informally) that allow for regular turnover, either by frequent election or by scheduled leadership changes. Britain’s modern parliamentary system, for example seeks to keep rebellion in check by making it relatively easy to bring down governments that are messing up, via orderly no confidence votes and early elections. In another example with similar motivations, the current Chinese government leadership has five year terms now between internal party elections and has age limits, to guarantee turnover.

The U.S. model tends to release the pressure through a combination of semi-frequent elections (though no early elections for the presidency, ever) and very formalized removal procedures for misconduct. So, civilians can remove other civilians constitutionally from power and transfer the power down an established chain without elections, and it’s not a coup d’état.

Still other systems allow for less turnover but implicitly favor mass demonstration as the best way to express opposition. The various French Republics, descending from the awkward marriage of a powerful central executive (originally the king) and multiple revolutions, managed to arrive at a strange compromise under De Gaulle’s 5th Republic after 1958. That compromise was to have (more or less) a nearly omnipotent president elected to seven year terms (with more than one term permitted), almost no formal way to express opposition (e.g. no early elections, weak parliament, etc.), and then to just continue to let unions, students, and other protesters go wild in the streets (or at least go on mass strikes) when they became sufficiently furious over something. As in all 15 French constitutions, the one implemented in 1958 included a “right to resist oppression.” This compromise setup posed various problems for the 5th Republic, but it’s certainly been more stable and stronger than the third or fourth republics, which basically collapsed under their own inefficacy. (Both the first and second ended in fluid transitions into dictatorship.) Eventually, though, they did moderate it down to five year terms at the beginning of this century.

In the United States, of course, there’s been lots debate since 1776 (or even before) about whether (and when) people can overthrow their governments. Through repeated use of military force domestically by the government, as well as consistent court decisions, the consensus has been achieved that it’s pretty much not ok to overthrow or take up arms against the U.S. government… unless you count that last time when they waged a war of separation against the British Empire and various loyalist populations. So, had any of those later insurrections — whether in Appalachia, Western Massachusetts, the Confederacy, or among the American Indians — prevailed, I guess it would have been a different story. (And indeed, that one uncomfortable, local armed coup d’état in North Carolina in 1898 went largely ignored by the U.S.) But at the very least, it has been made clear that there is no legal or constitutional right to overthrow the government of the United States, even if perhaps there is a Jeffersonian-style “natural” right to give it your best shot and see what happens.

But there’s also a very curious compromise in a number of countries, occupying a middle ground between the “transition must be legal” faction and the “revolution is a natural right” faction. A study by Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, Tom Ginsburg, and Emiliana Versteeg (discussed here after the recent Thailand coup) found that 20% of countries today (up from 10% in 1980) with formal constitutions in effect have adopted constitutional provisions explicitly protecting the right of the people to rebel, revolt, or otherwise topple their governments. Some of them are as vague as the French provision I mentioned above. Others, under the Turkey model, are much more explicit in carving out a role for the country’s military to intervene against the civilian leadership when it oversteps (or is perceived as overstepping) against the people or “democracy” or secularism or whatever.
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Wealthy populism and the real history of the Boston Tea Party

In light of our recent articles on European populism and comparing anti-democratic mass demonstrations in Thailand to the U.S. tea party movement, I was thinking about the latter group once again. I was also double-checking the history of the East India Company for research and stumbled into the realization that the “tea party” part of the name might be more accurate than previously believed.

The common version of the story is that it was a protest against high taxes from Britain — on tea among other things — without representation in parliament. Obviously, this would not be an accurate analogue to anything in the modern United States because the people protesting are represented in the elected legislative body of the national government.

There’s also usually a claim that the colonists were being “forced” by the government to purchase tea from a monopoly. And maybe you could make a case that government policies today are creating de facto monopolies for certain companies (like internet service providers) — mostly through lax regulation. But they generally haven’t been protesting that angle. It’s always been about the original “Taxed Enough Already” (TEA) claim.

So back to the history: in fact, the inciting factor provoking the riot was not some act of increased “taxation without representation” but actually that the British government lowered the tax burden, by allowing the EIC to import tea directly into cities like Boston, without going through British home customs first. Yes the government was still making the EIC the monopoly licensed tea importer, but middle-class colonists had been blatantly ignoring that restriction anyway, in light of the previously high prices on taxed tea imports. Instead, they had been illegally buying tax-exempt tea from Dutch wholesalers brought in by American smugglers.

Those smugglers had become very wealthy, especially in Boston. The problem was that their business only survived by virtue of multiply-taxed East India Company tea being way more expensive than the competing non-British tea. People weren’t buying Dutch tea as a political statement (before the Boston Tea Party), but to get a deal. As soon as EIC became the cheapest tea in the game (not through unfair subsidies, just tax cuts!), everyone was more than willing to purchase legal British tea (including customs duties). And the wealthy business interests running the illegal tea were not happy with being priced out of the market.

Thus, the original Boston Tea Party is less a cry of freedom and more a story of a bunch of rich guys rallying a populist mob to halt the enforcement of government regulation on their illegal business activities and to protest the cutting of taxes that affected average people because tax-avoiding smuggling was how they had become rich. All they had to do was drop some vague buzzwords like “liberty” and rights” to make the case that the money consumers were spending on tea should be going into their own pockets instead of into the royal treasury (which was paying for all the colonial defenses, the debt from the French & Indian War, etc).

So to recap, this current conservative populist “movement” named itself after a protest against policies that benefited common people but negatively impacted wealthy business interests led by flagrant tax evaders. That seems pretty apt actually.

It’s too bad that wealthy interests are so often and so easily able to rabble-rouse disaffected and struggling middle class people to rally against their own interests on behalf of the rich.

Flag of the British East India Company, 1707-1801.

Flag of the British East India Company, 1707-1801.

8mm film clip shows FDR walking at 1937 All-Star Game

Every so often, post-polio FDR made public appearances where he was standing or walking, with support — and in great pain. We know, for example, that his son helped walk him to the lectern in 1932 to become the first presidential candidate ever to accept the party’s nomination in person. But the above clip may be one of the few times captured on film — and possibly the largest number of people he ever walked in front of publicly.

The 8mm footage comes from the personal collection of former Major League Baseball player Jimmie DeShong, who apparently filmed it himself at the 1937 All-Star Game in Washington D.C. The media rarely even showed the president’s wheelchair, let alone his agonizing walking, although he tended not to conceal it when interacting with people in person in small settings. The film has just been donated to the state of Pennsylvania.

You can also see photos of his leg braces, wheelchair, and specially modified car — tools that he used to work with his disability — from the FDR Library website.

Arsenal For Democracy 84: Interview on Nigerian History

Topics: Nigeria, Michael Sam & Jason Collins. People: Bill, Nate, Greg, and guest historian Pilar Quezzaire.

Discussion Points:

– What is the significance and origin of the north-south divide in Nigeria? How did colonialism change the country? Who are the Boko Haram?
– Why “sharia law” is not a unique challenge. What could Nigeria be doing better to combat terrorism and unrest in the regions the Boko Haram dominate? Should the U.S. and Europe treat Boko Haram as part of a global terrorist network or more as a separate, localized problem?
– Arsenal for Nate and Greg Talking Sports: Michael Sam is drafted to the St. Louis Rams & Jason Collins has been playing for the Nets into the NBA playoffs.

Part 1 – Nigeria:
Part 1 – Nigeria – AFD 84
Part 2 – Sports: Sam / Collins
Part 2 – Sports: Sam/Collins – AFD 84

To get one file for the whole episode, we recommend using one of the subscribe links at the bottom of the post.


RSS Feed: Arsenal for Democracy Feedburner
iTunes Store Link: “Arsenal for Democracy by Bill Humphrey”

And don’t forget to check out The Digitized Ramblings of an 8-Bit Animal, the video blog of our announcer, Justin.

Alt-history novelists have got nothing on Cliven Bundy

Cliven Bundy, anti-government rancher and political theorist extraordinaire, has been releasing videos with even more information on his extremely “unique” view of American — and indeed Western — history and the American social contract. Buzzfeed collected some of the “best of” made-up facts from Bundy’s video.

My favorite is:

They [the Pilgrims] had a central government, which was Europe. Was the strongest army in the world. And they ruled with unlimited power. And there was a point that they decided they wasn’t going to live that way any more. And so they had a revolution.

This and others are so amazingly off-base I’m not sure I could have intentionally made up alternative history this great as a joke. (Long-time readers may recall my extensive alt-history-based satire, before this site or SBBS existed.)

To recap: This man — who is trying to argue based on an arcane and incorrect legal theory that the Federal government can’t make him pay to graze cattle on Federally-managed public lands — literally believes the 1620 Pilgrims had a revolution (in 1776? — unclear) and flat-earth-sailed to America, because they needed to escape a totalitarian government that ruled over all of Europe with a massive army. And somehow, despite a total lack of knowledge on the country’s actual history to the point of not knowing facts the rest of us learned in elementary school, he is a “patriot.”

Somewhere in the afterlife, Oliver Cromwell (England’s real-life dictator from 1653-1658, long after the Pilgrims had left and long before King George III reigned) is silently weeping at the thought of how much phenomenal power he would have had in the 17th century Bundiverse.

1651 Frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes' "Leviathan" on the English Civil War and the proper form of government.

1651 Frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan” on the English Civil War and the proper form of government.

The Americanos’ Day (Or: In Defense of ‘Cinco De Mayo’)

Battle-of-Puebla-1862Ah, Cinco de Mayo. The annual day where snooty Americans get to tell other Americans (who are really just trying to drink in peace while wearing face paint in the Mexican national colors) that “actually” Cinco de Mayo “isn’t a real Mexican holiday” and “has no importance or significance” — and then even snootier Americans (like me!) get to tell the first group that the Second French Empire’s defeat in the Battle of Puebla was strategically important to the preservation of the Union during the U.S. Civil War, by preventing Napoleon III from invading to help the Confederacy.

To this day, even though the holiday is not widely celebrated in Mexico (because it was not very important within Mexico as a whole in the long run, since the French won the war anyway at least briefly), it’s important to acknowledge what makes it so unusual in the United States:

1) It’s a rare day where Mexican culture and heritage is openly celebrated in a country that includes the territory that used to be of about half of Mexico. These areas make up parts or all of ten U.S. states now. And the country at large is home to millions of people of Mexican descent. They deserve more than a day. Don’t take this one away!

2) The holiday’s U.S. roots began in the State of California when news of the 1862 victory in Puebla, Mexico reached the Mexican miners in California. Both the United States and Mexico were being torn apart by war at the time. The anniversary of the battle has been celebrated every year since 1863 in California. (1863!) When people say “it’s not a real Mexican holiday,” that minimizes the fact that it’s essentially always been a celebration of Californian Mexican-Americans.

Thus, it’s a great way to celebrate Mexico’s culture and close historical ties to the United States — something that has tragically been forgotten amid the push for bigger border fences and a rising tide of anti-Mexican xenophobia.

And even though Puebla is a southern Mexican state, it is a convenient reason to celebrate the cross-border regional culture of northern Mexico and Alta California/Nuevo Mexico, or the U.S. Southwest.

Mexico has long had many of the same sectional differences that plague(d) the United States. The gross Anglo-American Slaveholders Revolt in Tejas that led to the creation of an independent Texas is a dark mark. But beyond them, a lot of actual (non-U.S.) northern Mexicans wanted out from the rest of the country. Most got it, via the Mexican Cession (though that probably wasn’t what most residents had in mind), but a few states were left behind. They remained close with the United States — often more so than with central Mexico. Until big migration restrictions were put into place, there was a lot of economic activity back and forth in both directions between the American Southwest and northern Mexico, even well into the twentieth century.

U.S. history has long been closely intertwined with Mexican history, both for good and ill. It’s pretty great that a century and a half later, a lot of Americans (including non-Mexicans) take at least one day to acknowledge (however casually, in some cases) that almost a third of the U.S. mainland by area used to be half of another country and that Mexican-Americans still part of both our history and present.


And if nothing else, I just want to reiterate that the “insignificant” battle kept the French intervention force distracted in Mexico long enough for the U.S. Army to regain the momentum and win the Civil War before the Confederates could persuade any European governments to help them.