Archive | January 23, 2007

Boston or Baghdad? Philadelphia or Fallujah?

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

I just saw Senator Lindsey Graham, as part of the televised post-mortem on Bush’s blather, downplaying the lack of progress in Iraq by saying (wording not exact), “Well, we had our revolution in 1776, and we didn’t have a constitution until 1789.”

Sorry, no. The United States’ first constitution was adopted provisionally in 1777, and formally ratified in 1781. What is conventionally called “the” U.S. Constitution was the second one.

(I’m also not sure why Graham picked 1789 as the date of the (second) constitution. The minimum number of states needed for ratification of the second constitution was either nine (according to the second constitution) or all thirteen (according to the first); the former number was reached the year before 1789, and the latter the year after.)

And if Graham is suggesting that the level of civil chaos in Iraq today is comparable to that of the United States in the 1780s, I think the historians among us might venture a dissent.

Paine and Burke I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that 1780s U.S. was more peaceful and orderly than Iraq because it had a functioning constitution. On the contrary, the American colonies were pretty orderly during the complete suspension of governmental institutions, as Thomas Paine relates:

For upwards of two years from the commencement of the American War, and to a longer period in several of the American States, there were no established forms of government. The old governments had been abolished, and the country was too much occupied in defence to employ its attention in establishing new governments; yet during this interval order and harmony were preserved as inviolate as in any country in Europe. There is a natural aptness in man, and more so in society, because it embraces a greater variety of abilities and resource, to accommodate itself to whatever situation it is in. The instant formal government is abolished, society begins to act: a general association takes place, and common interest produces common security.

And Edmund Burke, Paine’s archenemy, confirms Paine’s point:

Pursuing the same plan of punishing by the denial of the exercise of government to still greater lengths, we wholly abrogated the ancient government of Massachusetts. We were confident that the first feeling, if not the very prospect, of anarchy would instantly enforce a complete submission. The experiment was tried. A new, strange, unexpected face of things appeared. Anarchy is found tolerable. A vast province has now subsisted, and subsisted in a considerable degree of health and vigor for near a twelvemonth, without Governor, without public Council, without judges, without executive magistrates. How long it will continue in this state, or what may arise out of this unheard-of situation, how can the wisest of us conjecture?

So the early United States didn’t really need a constitution. But anyway, need one or not, they had one (and in many ways a better one than the second one). Senator Graham’s strained analogy between Iraq and 1780s America won’t work. (Maybe he should have tried a different tack: “After our revolution we still had slavery ….”)

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