Where did we come from?


Today’s the Fourth of July
Another June has gone by
And when they light up our town
I just think
What a waste of gunpowder and sky…
–Aimee Mann

Cynical? Who, me? Murel, my next-door cubicle neighbor, asked me a question today that made me wonder, is what this country is today worth our founding fathers risking their lives for?

That’s assuming anyone knows anything about them these days. Which leads me to the question my coworker asked.

“Dave, you’re the resident history buff. What political party did Thomas Jefferson found?”

Why, the Democratic-Republicans. I thought everyone knew that.

“And what party does that correspond to today?”

Most directly, the Democrats.

Murel asked that question because he’d just read an editorial talking about “The Evil Republican Slave-Owning Thomas Jefferson.” I rolled my eyes at that.

“Abraham Lincoln was a Republican!” Murel said.

He’s right. Though that plays into another misconception. The Civil War wasn’t about slavery. That’s what the Politically Correct crowd wants to say, but that’s not true. Fundamentally, the Civil War was about a number of things. One big, forgotten issue is that of tariffs. The industrial north wanted protective tarriffs. This made American goods cheaper than foreign goods, encouraging people to buy American. Plus, in those days, there was no income tax, so tariffs were a major source of revenue.

The rural South didn’t want tariffs. Tarriffs increased the prices they paid for goods. Plus tarriffs made it more difficult to sell cotton and tobacco abroad. In short, what was good for the North’s economy was bad for the South’s economy.

You can see the other big issue by looking at the forms of government each side chose during the Civil War. The North maintained its centralized government, while the South chose a loose confederacy. The South valued states’ rights much more than the north did.

Where does slavery fit into all this? Well, it was an issue of states’ rights. But, truth be told, only a small number of southerners actually owned slaves. Everyone today seems to think the typical Southern family had a slave as a sort of live-in butler or something, because that’s how Hollywood portrays slavery. You had to be wealthy to afford slaves, so the majority of slaveowners were plantation owners. The majority of southern farmers weren’t large plantation owners. They may or may not have been pro-slavery. The issue certainly didn’t directly affect them all that much.

And the North was hardly a haven for escaped slaves. The North had experimented with it and found it cost too much to literally own your workers. So they abandoned it. The majority of northerners probably didn’t care one way or the other. Slavery wasn’t an issue that affected them. There were militant, outspoken anti-slavery activists, and they were loud, just like today’s activists are. That’s why they’re remembered. Slavery gets more people worked up than tarriffs. There are probably a lot of people who don’t even know what a tarriff is.

So why was there a war? Simple. The North was more populous than the South, so the only way the South was going to get what they wanted was by walking out the door.

And Lincoln’s goal wasn’t to abolish slavery. Lincoln’s goal was to preserve the union at any cost, with or without slavery, and he is widely quoted as having said so.

The irony here is that Lincoln was willing to consider abolishing slavery. And he was in favor of high taxes. Sounds pretty liberal. The only resemblance to the Republicans of today is the protection of big business.

The Republican party as we know it today didn’t come into being until after the Civil War, and its history as the party of big business and lower taxes is hardly consistent. Although Teddy Roosevelt was more conservative than his cousin FDR, he was running around busting up businesses at the turn of the century.

But I’ve digressed a lot. Murel talked about the failings of some of the Founding Fathers that have come to light in recent years and cast a shadow on their credibility. We’re horrified to find they had flaws. (Though somehow it doesn’t bother us that Bill Clinton and Jack Kennedy had flaws.) I disagree. The Founding Fathers were human. They were very forward-thinking and insightful and wise, but human.

But worthy of respect. Remember why they were here. European aristocrats were old money. When you couldn’t get land, you moved. So these were men whose ancestry had come across the Atlantic and started over. Yes, some of them were spoiled brats. John Hancock and Samuel Adams come to mind. But Alexander Hamilton was the epitome of the self-made man. Benjamin Franklin’s beginnings weren’t as humble, but he arrived in Philadelphia with little more than his pocket change and his training as a printer and became a tycoon.

These were men who knew what they wanted and knew how to go get it. They knew their interests and England’s interests weren’t the same and they weren’t going to get what they wanted from England, so they headed for the door.

The country we have today doesn’t bear a whole lot of resemblance to the country they fought to create. Political correctness is the rule of the day. You can’t let the facts get in the way of what’s politically correct. Nor can you let your constitutional rights. Freedom of speech, the free press, and freedom of religion are all in danger. (And you thought I was going to say something about guns, didn’t you?)

I won’t go to the extreme of calling Independence Day a waste of gunpowder and sky, because it makes sense to celebrate what we do have. We’re still a whole lot more free, than, say, Red China.

But most of us don’t know why. And as a result, most of us really take it for granted.

One thought on “Where did we come from?

  • July 4, 2001 at 6:15 pm
    Permalink

    Says something that Jefferson Jackson Day Dinners don’t come to mind for people around the office -cultural literacy fading or parties fading as politicians become independent contractors looking for a job in government and issues are replaced by personalities?

    Speaking of causes seems to me philosphy not economics was the bigger difference between Jayhawkers and Redlegs.

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