Saturday, November 21, 2009

Their Sacred Honor: The Personal Hardships of Members of the Second Continental Congress

[This paper was written during the spring semester of 2006. It was largely meant to be a refutation to the idea that the Founding Fathers were not willing to risk their own well being, implied by Howard Zinn in his People's History of the United States. His argument is that the Founding Fathers did not lead a true "revolution" because they only sought political independence, not a true shaking up of society with the socialist dream of removing the rich and giving to the poor. While this is true, the Founding Fathers made incredible sacrifices for the sake of this nation, sacrifices they knew they would be making at the onset of the conflict. That they did not create a French style revolution here is actually a testament to their wisdom, not their greed.]

The Continental Congress is renowned by historians and political scientists for its ability to bring the thirteen colonies successfully through the American Revolution. As a political body, this Congress faced innumerable political, economic, and military challenges that academics still marvel over to this day. In the shadow of these challenges the Congress faced as a body are the personal hardships and sacrifices made by many members of the Congress as individuals. It is important that historians understand that the Founding Fathers were not only fathers of our nation but were fathers of their own children, real flesh and blood instead of almost mythical legends. It is too easy for the modern historian to imagine men like Samuel Adams, John Jay, and Richard Lee as being modern politicians who more often than not gain by being in office. To understand the personal losses of the Continental Congressmen for the cause of American Independence helps us to better understand the true nature of the challenge laid before these intrepid men.

At the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin is commonly believed to have quipped “Gentlemen, we must now all hang together, or we shall most assuredly hang separately.”[1] Though possibly apocryphal, Franklin’s words have been commonly quoted to portray the significant threat each member of Congress shouldered by ascribing his name to the Declaration. High Treason carries the punishment of death, a fact that every signer must have been acutely aware of as Charles I, the King of England himself, had been beheaded on charges of treason in 1649, barely 125 years prior to American independence. Thomas Jefferson famously closed the Declaration with an oath by the members of the Congress that for the sake of independence “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” This was not merely a perfunctory statement.

Colonial Politics And Politicians

The Continental Congressmen lived in an era scarcely imaginable to modern Americans. These differences were far from trivial. Communication over distances was most commonly done by letters, a slow means that also limited the amount of information that could be conveyed. Traveling was slow and often dangerous, especially as the fastest means of transportation was by boat along the North Atlantic. These transportation and communication problems plagued both sides during the American Revolution, but were particularly problematic for the colonials as they did not possess a centralized government to counteract these limitations.

The similarities and difference between the members of the Continental Congress and modern politicians in Western democracies is important to establish and understand. Like modern politicians, the Founding Fathers generally came from wealthy families (we have our Bush’s and Kennedy’s, while they had their Adams’ and Lee’s). Politicians from both eras generally came from a professional field of work before entering politics. Of the 342 men who served with the Continental Congress during the war years (1775-1783), 151 were lawyers, 53 were merchants, and 27 were physicians. The political world of both eras can claim a large number of graduates from the nation’s top universities (in the Continental Congress, 31 graduated from Princeton, 26 from Harvard, and 24 from Yale, all during an era when most colonials never stepped foot inside a purely academic building).[2] The Founding Fathers were generally well educated, well read, and upper class.

There are significant differences between the members of the Continental Congress and our politicians today. Women were never considered to be representatives for the colonies in the Congress, nor anyone who was not northern European. Of the 342 men who served in the Congress, sixty eight were planters, farmers, and landed property owners. Many of these representatives were slave owners whose wealth depended upon being able to maintain extensive areas of farmland. The Southern colonies’ economic dependence upon slavery would help spark a form of sectionalism that we do not have in our modern nation. Early signs of this sectionalism can be seen in the debates of the Continental Congress over the issue of taxation, and region a delegate represented clearly played a role in whether that delegate would vote to support or weaken slavery.

Our modern assumptions about life and government make understanding the situation of the Founding Fathers very difficult. One such assumption a citizen who was born and raised in the United States would have is that these early politicians were working within a well defined, time tested model of national government. Such a citizen would need a very vivid imagination to be able to put him or herself into the Founding Father’s predicament. The Continental Congress was merely an advisory board and had no legal power.[3] In fact, the thirteen colonies would fight the bulk of the war without a national government that had explicitly granted powers as the Articles of Confederation (the constitution of this nation’s first national government) would not be in force until March 1, 1781, a mere eight months before General Washington’s victory over Lord Cornwallis in the Siege of Yorktown.

The lack of a central government with the authority necessary to command the men and resources of the thirteen colonies in an effective manner was a critical problem for the colonial bid for independence. A major source of headache for both American civil and military leaders was a chronic shortage of currency. Nearly everything a military could conceivably need to be successful is purchased with money. Gunpowder, guns, cannon, ships, food, and men to fight are all procured by funds provided by the government, and the Continental Congress’s lack of currency assured that the Continental Army and Navy would always be shortchanged on the materials and men they needed. Governments procure money by three means: taxation, foreign loans, and fiat money (merely printing off new currency bills without having the necessary specie to back up its worth).[4]

Congress could not tax the colonies for many reasons. The war itself was in many ways a war against a far away government’s attempt to tax its citizens, and the Continental Congress could not afford to lose support by diminishing the moral difference between itself and Parliament. The Continental Congress also lacked the political authority to directly tax the citizens of each colony. This is just as well, as the Congress did not have a bureaucracy comparable to our modern Internal Revenue Service that could handle the process of taxing potentially millions of citizens. Foreign loans were also not an option early on as neither France nor Spain would consider tangling with the British military unless they were fairly certain of victory.[5] The colonies would need to prove their viability on the battlefield before foreign aid would appear.

With the two best options for financing the war off the table early on, the Congress was forced to resort to creating currency by fiat. This came in the form of paper money, called the Continental Dollar, which was backed by specie that would be repaid through taxation at some point in the future.[6] Fiat money is extremely unstable because it was a financial gamble. If the colonies lost the war, the Continental Dollar becomes more worthless than the paper it was printed upon. Investors quickly lost trust in the Continental as the war dragged on, defeats mounted, and the Congress was forced to defer repayment, creating a 10000% inflation rate between 1776 and 1781.[7]

Defeats devalued the dollar, which in turn lost its value to potential recruits, creating manpower shortages that threatened future defeats. The Continental Congress had an incredibly difficult time recruiting new members into the army. War, then as now, means leaving behind one’s family and occupation, and there is no certainty that a soldier will return to either when the war finally concludes. This is a very risky proposition, not least of all in terms of economics. Congress desperately needed some form of compensation for its soldiers in order to both promote recruitment and stem desertion rates. Soldiers threatened to mutiny in May, 1780, after months of not receiving pay and the equally poor prospect of being paid in nearly worthless Continental Dollars.[8] The decentralized political system of the colonies was mirrored by the military, creating further problems for recruitment in the Continental Army.

Worse yet, the lack of hard currency severely hampered efforts to secure adequate provisions for the armies in the field. This problem nearly broke General Washington’s force at Valley Forge. The Continental Army went days without bread or meat and stripped bare the surrounding counties for provisions. Writing to Congress, Washington reported:

I am convinced, beyond a doubt that unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place in that line, this Army must inevitably be reduced to one or other of these three things. Starve, dissolve, or disperse, in order to obtain subsistence in the best manner they can; rest assured Sir this is not an exaggerated picture.[9]

The Continental Congress found itself in a most precarious position. The population surrounding Valley Forge was already disgruntled about having their livelihood taken away to support the army (and being paid in Colonial Dollars). The alternative was to let Washington’s men continue starving and risk having the entire army mutiny. Ultimately, Congress would again use coercion against the local population, enough to allow the Army to survive the winter of 1777-78.[10]

In December 1776, over a year of fighting and a number of stinging defeats had created discontent against the war effort in the colonies. To counter this, Thomas Paine would write The American Crisis. The first of these pamphlets began with the famous statement “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot may, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” Members of the Continental Congress knew all too well how daunting the challenge was before them. The problems they faced in organizing and operating a functional government and armed forces were enormous enough on their own. To make matters worse, they faced Great Britain, what was arguably the most powerful nation on the planet. King George III and Parliament were not ready to tolerate mutiny, and to quell the rebellion Britain sent forth 34,000 soldiers to North America, the largest expeditionary force that nation had sent to any colony up to that point in time.[11]

These problems, and Congress’s ability to eventually overcome them, have made legends of these men. Considering the Herculean effort it required to bring the thirteen colonies through to victory, it is easy to forget that the Founding Fathers had important and very pressing concerns other than preserving the nation. These concerns are common to almost every human being, which can make them appear trivial historically. However, these common concerns are also those which are generally closest to our hearts and play an important role in our decision making process. It was no less so for the Founding Fathers. These men made sacrifices of their families, reputations, and personal finances for their nation, but they made every effort to mitigate the losses and constantly worried over what was at stake.

Financial Problems Faced By Members Of The Continental Congress

Men of wealth (with the talent, resources, and connections that come with them) are not generally prone to support rebellions. With wealth generally comes prestige, and with prestige, power. Those in the highest positions in society seldom have an inclination to tear down their society. Revolutions are very risky propositions. Victory is never assured, and this was especially true during the American Revolution as the colonies faced Great Britain, the superpower of the 18th Century. Even if independence is won, the aftermath can be even worse. History is full of revolutions won on the battlefield and lost in the aftermath, whether the state falls into civil war like Ireland after 1922, into tyranny akin to Spain in 1936, or into basic anarchy reminiscent of many African states after their overthrow of European colonialism. Those who have an elevated position in society have a strong preference towards political stability and are hence reluctant to support revolution.

Robert Livingston of Kingston, New York was an excellent example of this sort of man. Livingston was a fourth generation member of this illustrious colonial family that had dominated the political and economic spheres in the Hudson Valley since the late Seventeenth Century.[12] Prior to the Revolution, the Livingstons were generally considered to be politically moderate, attempting to influence Parliament to keep property taxes low but always keeping a weary eye on the lower social orders at home as well. Democracy, the rule of the people, was not a philosophy the Livingstons openly supported.[13]

In the years leading up to the Declaration of Independence, it is not surprising that Robert Livingston was prominent among those who called for caution regarding the colony’s relations with Great Britain. Elected as a representative of New York in the Continental Congress in early 1775, Livingston represented an area still very loyal to the Crown.[14] His trust of the common people (and in particular his own farm’s tenants) was not particularly strong, especially after a tenant revolt on his lands in 1766.[15] But at the same time, Livingston’s trust of Parliament was weakening. Taxes on foreign trade he could tolerate; direct taxes on matters like property he considered to be beyond the right of Parliament. Acts like the Quebec Act of 1774, a land act that moved property from the Ohio region into Canada’s jurisdiction, frightened land owners like Livingston.[16]

Livingston’s conversion to the rebellion was a slow and agonizing one. For nearly a year after the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, he held out hope that reconciliation was possible and the preferable option to war. The Prohibitory Bill, passed by Parliament on December 22, 1775, ended this hope, as London made it very clear that British troops would be sent to quell the rebellion. In effect, it declared that the colonials had two options: unconditional obedience to the crown or to be crushed under the weight of the British military.[17] This ultimatum would place Livingston firmly in the hands of the colonials, though his fear of political and social turmoil made him very reluctant to call for outright independence. In an odd twist of fate, however, Robert Livingston was chosen as a member of the committee of five to draw up the Declaration of Independence, though his role was marginal at best.

The British military kept its promise to attempt to crush the rebellion by force, and Robert Livingston’s fear of financial distress as a result of the war would be realized not long after the signing of the Declaration (oddly enough, though Robert Livingston was on the committee to create that Declaration, he was not present to sign it; his cousin, Philip, represented the Livingston family in declaring independence). Though New York would join the other colonies in declaring themselves free from British rule, much of the Hudson Valley region remained in the Loyalist camp, and Livingston’s family and home was right in enemy territory. Patriots were occasionally shot at and a plot was formed to kidnap Robert Livingston, a plot which was only discovered the day it was intended to be carried out.[18] A year later, in October 1777, British General John Vaughan lead an expeditionary force up the Hudson River to Kingston. Vaughan ordered that Livingston’s mansion be burnt to the ground (though he did allow the family to leave). Livingston’s reaction was stoic; he originally intended to keep the property as Vaughan left it, but later decided to give much of the property to the citizens of Kingston. Gouverneur Morris wrote to Livingston soon after and suggested the following inscription be used for the ruined property:

To perpetuate the Pleasure he received from British

Barbarity this Pillar is erected by

Robert R. Livingston

Who would have blushed to be exempted

From the calamities of his country.

The Revolution would be the beginning of the end of the dominance of the Livingston family in New York. Robert Livingston was now homeless and short on hard currency. When he was offered a position as a diplomat to France in 1779, Livingston refused out of fear that the mission would bankrupt him.[20] By 1780, he was selling his horses just to be able to afford his taxes. In asking Governor Clinton to reduce his tax assessment, Livingston closed his letter by mentioning “I need not add to this the unremitting endeavors I have exercised to promote the freedom & happiness of my country or the heavy losses I have sustained by the ravages of the enemy.”[21]

The case of Robert Livingston was not unique during the American Revolution. A major cause of personal concern for all delegates (and nearly every businessman in the colonies) was the hyperinflation of the Continental Dollar. One victim of this hyperinflation was James Madison, who first entered the Congress in 1780 after five years of war. During his first six months in office, Madison incurred over $30,000 worth of expenses, including a very hefty board bill of $21,373. Madison’s bill far exceeded the compensation paid by the commonwealth of Virginia, which forced Madison to go deep into debt. Other delegates, such as Dr. John Witherspoon, would have to take extensive leaves of absence because they no longer had the funds to serve in the Congress.[22] Some, like Henry Laurens of South Carolina, would have the strange misfortune of losing thousands of dollars to both Great Britain and the United States. To London he lost over a thousand pounds sterling worth of slaves; in 1792, Laurens was still seeking repayment from Congress for ten thousand bushels of rice he provided to the Continental Army in 1777.[23] For many delegates, the war was a financial disaster.

Family Concerns

A major concern for the members of the Continental Congress was for the welfare of their families. Though a few lucky Pennsylvanian representatives were fortunate enough that the Congress met in Philadelphia for most of the war, most representatives had to travel hundreds of miles in an era when a trip of ten miles by land could easily take a full day. These men dearly missed their wives, daughters, sons, and other family members, and the feeling was almost always reciprocated. Their concerns would be greatly exacerbated by news of illness or encroachment by the armed forces of Great Britain, or even by extended periods without communication.

The letters of John Jay, President of the Continental Congress between the years 1778-79 and later famed Federalist author and diplomat, reveal Jay’s great concern for his own family and that of other members in the Congress. On May 29th, 1776, Jay wrote a letter to Robert Livingston, explaining his disappointment over his upcoming “solitary ride to Philadelphia” to join the Congress. Mrs. Sally Jay was to join her husband, but she had fallen ill and decided against taking the trip on the advice of one Dr. Bard. His wife’s illness was of great concern to Jay and was only compounded by the fact that his parents (for whom he had the greatest respect) were ill at the same time. Jay was certainly not self centered, however; in the same letter, he informs Livingston that James Duane would be leaving the Congress for a period of time to visit his home, “and considering how long he has been absent from his family, I think him entitled to that indulgence.”[24] These words were penned a year into the war; little did anyone realize that peace would be seven long, bloody years into the future.

Sally Jay’s illness soon passed on, but the separation of husband and wife continued. John’s affection for his wife appears never to have wavered, but neither did it cloud his judgment. In a beautifully touching letter to his wife in 1777, Jay wrote:

When I consider that one of the reasons assigned for the creation of woman was, “that it is not good for man to be alone,” I find my present situation condemned, not only by my own feelings,but by divine authority. I assure you, I am tired of it; and, were there not many reasons to conjecture that the enemy will bend their course this way, we should not remain much longer separated; but, as it would be cruel to expose you to scenes of anxiety and distress, I must endeavor to bear your absence at least with patience, and to please myself with the expectation of shortly seeing the return of those happy days…”[25]

Jay would go on to explain that it would be inappropriate for him to leave his post, especially as Pennsylvania had become the center of the enemy’s activities.

Those happy days the lovers longed for would return, but only after incredible hardship. Communication between husband and wife had to be decent and bare of any information useful to the British, as it was not unusual for letters to be intercepted.[26] Loss of letters was an inconvenience; the loss of his newborn daughter Susan in 1780 was a tragedy that could only be compounded by the fact that John was in Philadelphia at the time, leaving Sally to grieve alone.[27] Only a few months later, in April 1781, John’s parents were robbed (though not physically harmed). This robbery produced an interesting proposal from John, that “a tax upon avoidable pleasures, amusements, and luxuries, will produce a little fund that may and shall be useful to you [his father, Peter Jay].”[28] This tax was not upon others but upon him, as Jay would forgo any unnecessary pleasures in order to help out his parents (who, he mentions, have suffered enough from ‘the enemy, and the depreciation of the paper money…”).

The desire to see family members (and in particular wives) again was a common complaint among the letters of Continental Congressmen. Samuel Adams reported to his wife in July, 1778, that a “Mr. H” (probably John Hancock) had “obtaind the Leave of Absence and is going home on Account of his ill State of Health & the Circumstances of his Family. He tells me his Wife is dangerously ill.”[29] “Mr. H” was fortunate in that he had enough contact with his wife to know she was ill; Mrs. Betsy Adams was less open in revealing her illnesses. In September, 1778, Sam wrote a letter to his daughter Hannah Adams, letting her know that he had received his daughter’s letter concerning Betsy’s illness. Betsy was loath to inform her husband of her sickness and tried to convince her daughter to convey the best possible message to Sam. Of course, this was all out of love, and Sam understood that his wife was “exceedingly loth to give me the least Pain.”[30]

Like many representatives in the Congress (but quite unlike our own), Samuel Adams desired to leave public life as quickly as humanly possible without abandoning his duty to his nation. There were many causes for this desire to leave politics, and a wife who desired her husband home was certainly not least among them. Betsy Adams clearly let her intentions be known to Sam, who wrote to his wife “Your wish that I would resign the Office of Secretary perfectly coincides with my own Inclination. I never sought for that or any other Place. Indeed I never was pleased with it, for Reasons which you are not unacquainted with.”[31] Though it is unlikely Betsy was forceful in making this suggestion, her desires were clear.

Samuel Adams, in December 1778, wrote to Betsy informing her that he had been reappointed as a delegate to the Continental Congress for 1779, and that while he was honored by the people’s confidence and would fulfill his duty faithfully, he hopes that by April he will be relieved of the position so that he may return to his family.[32] However, this was not meant to be. By March 1779, Adams had spent five years in the service of his nation and out of the presence of his family in Boston, still pining away for “the Pleasures of domestick Life.” On the same day, Adams confided to James Warren that he “sincerely hoped” that the General Assembly of Massachusetts would appoint a replacement delegate in the near future. His own personal health is cited as a reason for replacement, and Adams still clung to the idea of being home by May.[33] Neither health nor home would come to him quickly, as by April 29th Adams was writing to John Pitts from Philadelphia, apologizing for not writing recently due to his illness.[34] And well over a year later, in November 1780, Sam in Philadelphia would be writing to Betsy in Boston making sure his wife had adequate supplies of firewood for the upcoming winter.[35]

John Adams, second cousin of Samuel Adams, and his wife Abigail also experienced difficulty with their long separation. Adams was a member of the Congress since its inception in 1774, but neither John nor Abigail ever became accustomed to being apart from one another. Husband and wife constantly worried about the safety and well being of one another, and not without reason. Representative Adams’ hectic lifestyle while in Philadelphia (the result of playing a prominent role in keeping the American government in order) took a toll on his health, as well as the health of many other representatives.[36] As the war progressed, their financial situation became very grim, mostly because of the devaluation of the Continental Dollar, which Abigail feared “will soon be as useless as blank paper.”[37]

Lack of recognition by the Continental Congress by not receiving a extension on his foreign appointment to France put Adams into a mild depression during the early months of 1779. This led him to neglect communicating with his wife, who quickly noticed to decline of letters from her husband (between April and September of that year, she received a mere two letters from John). When she chided her husband about this, Adams responded by writing four letters to his wife; the first three he burned for being too angry, too sad, or too cheerful. The fourth letter reminded his wife of his “unalterable tenderness of heart” but begged that she “never reproach me again with not writing or with writing scrips. Your wounds are too deep.”[38]

This long period of separation (and in particular while Adams was in Paris) of husband and wife nearly exhausted Abigail’s patience. To help herself deal with the loneliness, she confided her feelings with a close friend, James Lovell. Lovell, however, was not interested in merely being Abigail’s friend. He was another representative of Massachusetts from Boston, but though he was married with children, he had several love affairs with the women of Philadelphia. Lovell wrote letters to Abigail, calling her “Portia” (which was her husband’s pet name for her) and putting notions into her head that perhaps her husband was not being faithful while abroad. Abigail enjoyed the attention she received from Lovell, but she remained faithful to her husband.[39]

Though separated from their wives, who resided in British occupied Boston, Sam and John Adams was fortunate in that the enemy treated the city respectfully. Illness was always a concern, but mistreatment by the British never seems to have been an issue. In this respect, the Adams were fortunate. The destruction of homes and property by the British created great amounts of stress and worry for those Congressmen unfortunate enough to fall victim to such destructive acts. Men like Robert Livingston were forced to relocate their families afterwards, often weakening their commitment to political duties.

Others were even more unfortunate in that they or their loved ones fell into the hands of British authorities. Robert Stockton of New Jersey has the odious honor of being the only signer of the Declaration of Independence to recant and break the famed sacred vow. Captured on November 30, 1776, only a few months after he signed the Declaration, Stockton was treated as a common criminal. Months passed by with the Continental Congress utterly bewildered by the disappearance of one of their own. His fate became clear in March, 1777, as Stockton left prison after taking an oath of allegiance to the King. It is uncertain what convinced Stockton to recant. Possible reasons include physical abuse (Stockton did not recover his health fully for nearly three years) and the lack of success of the Continental Army may have convinced Stockton that the cause was doomed. Either way, he returned to discover his Princeton home vandalized by British soldiers.[40]

Another Congressman to find himself an unwilling “guest” of British hospitality was Henry Laurens of South Carolina and former President of the Continental Congress. Laurens’ misadventure was preceded by the fall of Charleston and the capture of his son John (though, fortunately for both, he was quickly paroled).[41] Less than a month later, on September 3, 1780, Henry Laurens, on a mission to France, was captured by the H.M.S. Vestal. Papers captured on Laurens would be used as proof by the British government of Holland’s alliance with the United States and would be used as the pretext for a declaration of war on the Netherlands.[42]

Laurens would spend the next year in the infamous Tower of London. His treatment while incarcerated depended upon the warden but was generally fairly generous considering the prisoner was being held on charges of high treason. He was housed in the home of James Futerell when the latter was warden, but received very little medical attention during his year long stay in London. Unlike Stockton, Laurens’ never gave up the cause, writing letters to London papers decrying his imprisonment and the traitor Benedict Arnold.[43] Negotiations between Edmund Burke and Benjamin Franklin nearly lead to an exchange of prisoners, the American congressman for British General Burgoyne, who was defeated at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. By the time the exchange was carried out, however, the British would receive a different general, Lord Cornwallis, who had been defeated at Yorktown in 1781.[44]

Francis Lewis of New York suffered the kidnapping of his wife by British officials in 1776. A British officer named Colonel Birch failed to find the rebel congressmen at his home, and, angered by the fact that he could not bring back such a prominent traitor to meet a traitor’s fate, took Mrs. Lewis into custody instead. Her imprisonment lasted a few months until she was returned after General Washington had two wives of British officers imprisoned as retribution. Lewis’ would receive a leave of absence from Congress three years later to tend to his wife, who was still recuperating from her imprisonment.[45]

Revolts against the government are particularly divisive matters, as both the rebel and the loyalist will claim their cause is truly patriotic while the other is mislead or ungrateful. Unlike wars between nation states, where most citizens support whatever government they have lived under for most of their lives, civil strife requires individuals to judge whether their government is worthy of power or whether a new system needs to be created. Different individuals will come to different conclusions, and unfortunately those differences can run deeper than family ties. Benjamin Franklin’s relationship with his son William is a tragic example of the animosity caused within families by the American Revolution.

At the beginning of the Revolution, William Franklin was approximately forty five years old (neither William’s birthday nor his mother is known for certain).[46] Despite being illegitimate, William found in Benjamin a providing father and close friend for the four and a half decades preceding the war. As a youth, William was provided with the best education possible during the period, having a personal tutor by the age of four. Benjamin pulled strings to have William educated in the field of law and helped his son earn positions in the British Empire’s postal system.[47] William Franklin would go on to gain the position of royal governor of the colony of New Jersey, a fairly remarkable position for an illegitimate son in an era when such issues were still strong political hindrances.

Outside of politics, Benjamin’s affection for his son could not be doubted either. William was the only other soul who knew of his father’s famous kite experiment during its preparation. While Benjamin was in England for nearly a decade prior to the battle of Lexington, he provided a parental figure for William’s son, William Temple.[48] Both were intensely loyal to the British Empire; Benjamin could “scarcely conceive of a King of better Dispositions” than George III, and William, who learned much of his understanding from his father, naturally followed in kind.[49] This loyalty to King and Country would be the undoing of the ties between father and son.

Benjamin Franklin’s falling out with the Crown occurred in January, 1774, only a year before violence erupted between Britain and her American colonies. Disturbances like the Boston Tea Party in December of the previous year were proving embarrassing for the government, and Benjamin became the scapegoat. Franklin was accused of being the mastermind behind the uprisings in Massachusetts. Two days later, he was removed from a rather lucrative job in the empire’s Post Office. These insults turned a once dedicated subject of the government into a fierce supporter of American independence.[50]

Though Benjamin’s loyalties had changed, his son’s remained firmly with the government in London. William suggested to his father that the loss of the job could be a blessing, as Benjamin could come home after a decade away from North America to spend his final days in quiet retirement.[51] The son was certainly not about to resign his governorship and join what he saw to be a foolish rebellion against the most powerful state on the planet. When the war finally came, father and son found themselves to be very active participants on opposing sides (Benjamin would become one of the United States most celebrated diplomats; William would be imprisoned for two years by the colonial government for his support of King George III).[52]

The end of the war would not bring reconciliation. William would never renounce his course of action, writing to his father after the war that “If I have been mistaken, I cannot help it. It was an error of judgment…and I verily believe that were the same circumstances to happen tomorrow, my conduct would be exactly similar to what it was heretofore.”[53] Benjamin wrote back once, saying that he was glad his son had decided to start up dialogue between father and son again, but even here he could not help but reproach his son: “there are natural duties which proceed political ones, and cannot be extinguish’d by them. This is a disagreeable subject. I drop it.”[54] Neither would ever speak to the other again after this exchange. Shortly before his death, Benjamin removed William from most of his inheritance, saying “The part he acted against me in the late War, which is of public Notoriety, will account of my leaving him no more of an Estate he endeavored to deprive me of.”[55] The war had destroyed one of the greatest relationships this representative of Pennsylvania ever had during his life.

Social and Reputation Problems

The American Revolution was based on a fairly revolutionary concept: that the people, through representatives chosen by each section of the country, should govern the nation. A democratic republic has many celebrated advantages: it allows people to direct the course of the nation; government serves the people and not vice versa; rights, in particular the right to speech, are greatly enhanced. There are, however, important drawbacks, and the Continental Congress was not immune to these inherent flaws in representative government. As we have already seen, representative bodies lack the speed and efficiency of monarchies because of the need to debate and vote on every particular issue, whereas a king or queen only needs to convince themselves. Representative government also lacks the stability of monarchy, as new representatives are brought in more frequently than monarchs, creating more shifts in political and personal agendas.

Among the most destructive properties of deliberative bodies is the tendency to create factions among the representatives. James Madison, himself a member of the Continental Congress towards the end of the war, would as an author of the Federalist Papers dedicate an entire paper to the subject of factions. In Federalist 10, Madison wrote, “The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.”[56] Though Madison may have held these ideas prior to his service in Philadelphia, there is no doubt that the political backstabbing and partisan bickering over sectional and personal feuds reinforced his apprehension of faction politics. These quarrels, much like today, involved a representative versus his constituents and conflicts between different representatives.

By the late 1770’s, two major factions had formed under the leaderships of Silas Deane and Arthur Lee. Though Deane was from Connecticut, most of his supporters came from the Middle and Southern colonies. These areas were distrustful of their allies in New England, whom they viewed to be too radical in their views. Deane’s faction was more willing to compromise with France over fisheries in order to gain French military support, especially as British forces marched through Georgia and South Carolina with impunity by 1779.[57]

In opposition to the Deane faction was the Eastern faction headed by the Lee family of Virginia. Allied with the Adams’ of Massachusetts, this faction was strongly committed to preserving the purity of the Revolution. Compromise, whether of fisheries, territorial rights of Florida, or access to the Mississippi River, was not acceptable. France would enter the war on their terms or not at all (this attitude made the French ambassador to the colonies, Conrad Alexandre Gerard, a firm supporter of the Deane faction).[58]

The differences and disagreements between these two parties went beyond politics. This was a very personal feud between the Lee’s and Silas Deane. Both Arthur Lee and Deane had been foreign emissaries in 1776, Deane to Holland and Lee to France. Deane was transferred to Paris to join Lee in 1777, and though he was a skilled diplomat (it was Deane who encouraged the Marquis de Lafayette to join the Continental Army with the rank of Major General[59]), he held himself in very high regards and was not the most pleasant person to work around.[60] Deane’s tendency toward professionalism and lack of personal chemistry with Lee led to the latter writing Congress urging Deane’s removal.

Deane was informed of his removal in March, 1778, but was not aware of the reason behind his recall. The letter he received from the Continental Congress said that the body should “at this critical juncture be well informed of the State of affairs in Europe,” which lead Deane to believe this was nothing more than a political report. Not realizing this was a permanent recall engineered by jealous congressmen, Deane hurried back to the United States without putting together a full account of his expenses while in Paris.[61] This would prove to be a fatal mistake for his political career as the Lees and their faction were quick to exploit Deane’s inability to account for thousands of dollars of Congress’ funds.

The Lee family was relentless in their attacks on Silas Deane. Richard Henry Lee, brother of Arthur, was obsessed with the subject. In a letter to Deane, Richard Lee blasts Deane for having the unanimous support of all Tories in the United States, for trying to bankrupt Congress by hiring French engineers at exorbitant prices, and for using public funds to furnish two sailing cutters that should have been delivered to the United States but were instead used for Deane’s personal pleasure.[62] In a letter to Henry Laurens, dated July 25, 1779, Lee writes “there cannot be so much depravity as to pay Mr. Silas Deane any money under the idea of defraying expenses, until he has settled a fair and full account—I will protest against it in all circumstances and in every situation.”[63] A week later, again writing to Laurens, Lee wrote “…the public has, I greatly fear, suffered a deep wound, the healing of which will not, in my opinion, speedily take place, without a remedy…I mean a proper censure of Mr. Deane…”[64] Even after the war, in November 1784, Lee wrote to Samuel Adams about conspiracies between Silas Deane and Benedict Arnold, especially since both were living in England after the war.[65]

Deane’s career and reputation would never fully recover after this feud, but he was not the only politician to be tarred over this dispute. Members of both factions began to eye key positions (almost always foreign diplomatic missions) held by members of the opposing side. A notable near victim of this kind of political wrangling with no regard for talent was Benjamin Franklin, ambassador to France during the years 1776-83. In 1779, Franklin’s career was put in jeopardy by the Deane-Lee factional disputes. Though Franklin never openly joined either faction, his tendencies leaned towards Deane, mostly as Arthur Lee was jealous of Franklin’s celebrity status throughout the Western world.[66]

This general neutrality did not save Franklin from a recall attempt. The factional dispute had become so great that a general recall vote was taken for various foreign ambassadors, among them Arthur Lee, William Lee, Ralph Izzard, and Benjamin Franklin. William Lee and Ralph Izzard both lost their commissions in this recall attempt, while Arthur Lee and Franklin survived this political challenge.[67] Oddly enough, the only congressmen to vote for Franklin’s recall were solid Deane partisans. Many politicians, including Richard Henry Lee, understood that “the plan was to recall them all to make room,” meaning opportunities for ambitious congressmen who wanted foreign posts.[68] Franklin escaped the attempt by individuals jealous of his foreign post only by the opposition party’s desire for stability to protect their own member’s foreign commissions.[69]

As with all truly democratic systems, the political war between the Deane and Lee factions generated intense feelings among ordinary citizens concerned with politics. Public opinion, just as now, weighed heavily upon the representatives, and the people made sure their views were understood by their congressmen. Samuel Adams of Massachusetts, a staunch ally of the Lee’s, was informed of the public opinion by his communications with his wife Betsy and by friends. In the fall of 1778, Boston citizens were upset over the actions of French Admiral d’Estaing, whose failure to land a large number of French troops in Rhode Island lead to a tactical draw instead of victory at the battle of Rhode Island in August, 1778. Adams was more distressed by the uproar than the lack of military success, saying that “Even if his [d’Estaing] Conduct was thought to be blameworthy Prudence I think would dictate Silence to us.”[70] The alliance with France was too shaky to be risking serious public disapproval of French military actions.

Adams had a love-hate relationship with the people of his native Boston. He always wished well upon the people of his nation and of his home, hoping that with the end of the war these people could live in peace and liberty. The people he served, however, were not always so gracious towards him. As in all times, politics produces calumnies, and Adams was not immune from them. Writing to James Warren in March, 1779, Adams mentions how many in his own home city would like to see the representative “recalled with Disgrace”, and how only a year previously these same people had spread rumors of Adams and General Washington being personal enemies so as to “render me odious to the People.”[71] In a letter to Warren in September, 1778, Adams did his best to shrug off his critics:

I heartily despise those small Dealers in Politicks who are propagating idle Stories to injure me. Little Insects will be forever playing about the glimmering Light of a farthing Candle. It is out of their Power to disturb the peace of my Mind. You took too much Pains, my dear Friend, to stop their Clamor…I am however obligd to you for your kind Intention.[72]


Even extraordinary men like those who served in the Continental Congress during the American Revolution cannot ignore their own well being indefinitely. As the financial and familial pressures became too much to handle, members would either ask to be removed from the Congress or just stop showing up altogether. Absenteeism would become a major problem for the Congress. In 1776, fifty six men representing the United States were present to sign the Declaration of Independence; less than a year later, only twenty five delegates representing the colonies would be present.[73] Men of great talent, such as Patrick Henry and William Livingston, would choose to represent their people in state governments much closer to home instead of making the trip to Philadelphia. Richard Henry Lee, writing to his brother Arthur in February, 1779, would say that “my family suffers immensely by my absence, and I have now 7 children and another coming to take care of.” He would resign his commission shortly thereafter.[74]

The declining number of representatives present would put more pressure on the men who did appear, men whose energies were already overtaxed coordinating a war by thirteen sovereign states with their ability of persuasion being their only tool. The health of these individuals was often very poor. Men like Silas Deane (before his mission to France and the subsequent political nightmare) would rise at six in the morning, go to bed at eleven, and spend nearly every moment in between working with the Congress or on one of its committees.[75] Samuel Adams was constantly in ill health and many of his letters would begin with an apology for not having written in months, as his work load had precluded him from tending to his correspondence.

The challenges overcome by these remarkable individuals are a testament not only to their political skill and determination. These gentlemen made incredible personal sacrifices for the sake of their nation, the likes of which have never been matched by subsequent generations of American politicians. Though the ordinary soldiers who gave their lives for the cause rightly deserve the highest recognition, the personal losses of the Founding Fathers must not be forgotten in their shadow. This generation pledged their lives, fortune, and sacred honor to the United States. Samuel Adams beautifully summed up the sacrifices he and his colleagues made and the reason they stayed true to their cause:

Our friends at that distance may be in their graves before one may even hear of their previous sickness. You cannot wonder then that I am in Anxiety every moment. Upon this consideration alone, the publick service so far from one’s Family, must be conceived to be a Sacrifice of no small value. The man who has devoted himself to the service of God and his Country will cheerfuly make every sacrifice.

[1] Esmond Wright, Franklin of Philadelphia (Cambridge, 1986), 247.

[2] Lynn Montross, The Reluctant Rebels (New York, 1950), 249-50.

[3] Ibid, 8.

[4] Charles W. Calomiris, “Institutional Failure, Monetary Scarcity, and the Depreciation of the Continental,” Journal of Economic History, 48 (1) (1988), 55.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 56.

[7] Ibid, 57-58.

[8] Edmund Burnett, The Continental Congress (New York, 1941), 453.

[9] Burnett, 271-72.

[10] Ibid, 277.

[11] Montross, 89, 168.

[12] George Dangerfield, Chancellor Robert R. Livingston of New York, 1746-1813 (New York, 1960), 25.

[13] Clare Brandt, “Robert R. Livingston, Jr.: The Reluctant Revolutionary,” Hudson Valley Regional Review, 4 (1) (1987), 10.

[14] Dangerfield, 73.

[15] Ibid, 20.

[16] Ibid, 58.

[17] Ibid, 72.

[18] Ibid, 87.

[19] Ibid, 104-5.

[20] Ibid, 111.

[21] Ibid, 117.

[22] Montross, 10.

[23] David Duncan Wallace, The Life of Henry Laurens (New York,1967), 426-7.

[24] William Jay, The Life of John Jay With Selections From His Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers (New York, 1833), 5-6.

[25] Ibid, 13.

[26] Ibid, 33. Writing to General Schuyler, Jay notes that two letters to his wife had apparently be intercepted, but that they contained “nothing that would give me uneasiness if published.”

[27] Ibid, 80.

[28] Ibid, 87-88.

[29] Harry Alonzo Cushing, The Writings of Samuel Adams (New York, 1968), 41.

[30] Ibid, 56.

[31] Ibid, 129.

[32] Ibid, 94.

[33] Ibid, 137-39.

[34] Ibid, 147.

[35] Ibid, 220.

[36] David McCullough, John Adams (New York, 1001), 144.

[37] Ibid, 171.

[38] Ibid, 211.

[39] Ibid, 216-8.

[40] Frederick Bernays Wiener, “The Signer Who Recanted,” American Heritage 4 (1975), 23-25.

[41] Wallace, 357-8.

[42] Ibid, 359.

[43] Ibid, 364-6.

[44] Ibid, 387.

[45] James L. Flynn, “Francis Lewis: Long Island Jacobin,” The Journal of Long Island History, 1 (1973),36.

[46] Sheila L. Skemp, “Benjamin Franklin, Patriot, and William Franklin, Loyalist,” Pennsylvania History, 1 (1998), 35.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid, 36.

[49] Ibid, 37.

[50] Ibid, 41.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid, 42.

[53] John M. Taylor, “The Prodigal Son,” American History Illustrated 1 (1987), 11.

[54] Ibid, 12.

[55] Skemp, 35.

[56] Benjamin F. Wright, ed. The Federalist (New York, 2004), 129.

[57] H. James Henderson, “Congressional Factionalism and the Attempt to Recall Benjamin Franklin,” William and Mary Quarterly (2) 1970, 248.

[58] Ibid, 247-8.

[59] Shirley A. Bill and Louis Gottschalk, “Silas Deane’s ‘Worthless’ Agreement with Lafayette,” Prologue (special issue) 1994, 19.

[60] Wallace, 306.

[61] Wallace, 307-8.

[62] James Curtis Ballagh, The Letters of Richard Henry Lee, vol. 2 (New York, 1914), 11-15.

[63] Ibid, 91.

[64] Ibid, 98.

[65] Ibid, 294-5.

[66] Henderson, 249.

[67] Ibid, 252.

[68] Ballagh, 50.

[69] Henderson, 267.

[70] Cushing, 62.

[71] Ibid, 140.

[72] Ibid, 53.

[73] Montross, 198.

[74] Ballagh, 35.

[75] Montross, 103.

[76] Cushing, 206.


Primary Sources

Ballagh, James Curtis, ed. The Letters of Richard Henry Lee, vol. 2. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1914.

Cushing, Harry Alonzo, ed. The Writings of Samuel Adams. New York: Octagon Books, 1968.

Jay, William, ed., The Life of John Jay With Selections From His Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers. New York: J&J Harper, 1833.

Wright, Benjamin F., ed. The Federalist. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2004.

Secondary Sources

Brandt, Clare. “Robert R. Livingston, Jr.: The Reluctant Revolutionary” in Hudson Valley Regional Review, 1 (1987), 8-20.

Burnett, Edmund. The Continental Congress. New York: The Macmillan company, 1941.

Calomiris, Charles W. “Institutional Failure, Monetary Scarcity, and the Depreciation of the Continental” in Journal of Economic History, 1 (1988), 47-68.

Dangerfield, George. Chancellor Robert R. Livingston of New York, 1746-1813. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960.

Flynn, James L. “Francis Lewis: Long Island Jacobin” in The Journal of Long Island History 1 (1973), 29-37.

Henderson, H. James. “Congressional Factionalism and the Attempt to Recall Benjamin Franklin” in William and Mary Quarterly 2 (1970), 246-267.

McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Montross, Lynn. The Reluctant Rebels. New York: Harper, 1950.

Skemp, Sheila L. “Benjamin Franklin, Patriot, and William Franklin, Loyalist” in Pennsylvania History, 1 (1998), 35-45.

Taylor, John M. “The Prodigal Son” in American History Illustrated 1 (1987), 10-21.

Wallace, David Duncan. The Life of Henry Laurens. New York: Russell & Russell, 1967.

Wiener, Bernays Frederick. “The Signer Who Recanted” in American Heritage 4 (1975), 23-25.

Wright, Esmond. Franklin of Philadelphia. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1986.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Education Reform

The educational system in the United States is driven by misguided beliefs founded on impossible goals for both the educators and for the educated. What I am about to say will shock most of you; in order to be reasonable, you need to get past your shock and consider what I have to say. We err in believing every youth in America needs to go to college; we even err in believing they need to finish secondary school. Our system is currently pushing students through a system that does not benefit them, which costs us money, and which prevents the students from finding a more productive use of their time while holding back students who will actually make use of a modern day liberal education. I propose we do the following:

  • Drastically reduce government funding for tuition.
  • Remove students from high school who have no aptitude for it.
  • Offer students incompatible with higher education a chance at learning a real work related skill, often in the form of an apprenticeship.
  • Increase the workload for students who remain; higher achieving students can do much better than they are doing now once the bar is set high.
1. College is becoming a great drain on our society. It has become "common knowledge" that everyone should try to obtain a college education; what nobody asks is why. Unless a person is entering a field that requires additional years of education, such as becoming an educator, a doctor, lawyer, accountant, etc., the four years spent on a bachelors degree are truly wasted. If you doubt what I say, find workers who possess a four year degree not focused on a particular profession and ask them if they could perform their job without the knowledge they gained in college. I am willing to bet very few college graduates actually gained useful skills in their college experience, whether applied to their work or to any other aspect of their lives. The four years may have been fun, but they were not useful, and the $50,000-100,000 of debt that costs is often crippling to the finances of many young Americans.

Why do we bother with such a wasteful experience, then? Why do we insist upon it? A college education has become egalitarian; everyone is expected to have one. This means it is no longer a mark of distinction. If you do not possess such an education, it is indicative that you are the bottom of the barrel, but having one does not indicate you are any better than the millions of others who possess a degree. In order to be egalitarian, however, a college degree must be fairly easy to obtain; the bar must be set low enough that just about anyone can trip over it. Setting the bar that low comes at the cost of each student gaining almost nothing. As I said, unless a student is working towards a degree focused on a particular profession or happens to be very driven and really makes the best of their time in college with an eye towards a future job, college becomes a four year party putting millions of students tens of thousands of dollars in debt each without any real gain.

How do we fix this problem? For starters, parents need to steer their children towards a successful career rather than a college degree. A degree is no longer a ticket to success. Businesses want to see skills and experience, not a B+ in Sub-Saharan Feminist Thought. As a society, we need to stop funding this madness. A vicious cycle currently exists between students, the government, and the universities. Universities charge far more than students can afford; students, their parents, and those in the universities demand the government make more money available to the students; when the government does so (it is politically expedient to be seen as helping to fund education), the universities raise their tuition as new funds become available. Once again, it becomes too expensive for students, who again ask for more government assistance, who again give it, which again leads to more money to the colleges who again raise their tuition, etc. etc. Government assistance needs to be limited to those who can actually make use of a higher education, i.e. the cream of the crop. Very few classes in the liberal arts provide anything resembling useful knowledge; if we cut off funding, potential students will have to find work instead. What do they really lose in this exchange beyond $50,000+ of debt?

2. Considering their own experiences with college and the argument against burdening young adults with huge sums of debt for no tangible result, I think most people will agree with point 1. This second issue is going to be more controversial, but I ask you to hear me out. The uselessness of our educational system is not limited to obtaining college degrees. High School (grades 9-12) is often as useless because of our misguided one size fits all attitude toward education. Anyone who works within a secondary school can tell you there are students who have no real business being there, save for the fact that there is a law requiring them to attend. We mistakenly believe that every student "deserves" a liberal education covering the basics of many different fields (social studies, math, science, English, a foreign language). Ask yourself, though: how much do you recall from your high school classes? How much do you actually use? And how much do you think your classmates recall and employ on anything resembling a regular basis? If you are anything like me, you will be astonished for how little we gained over those four years.

It is not politically correct to say this, but there are many children who just do not have any place in an academic society. A very small percentage of any class is going to grow up to become a doctor, lawyer, politician, professor, teacher, business executive, judge, engineer, etc. The majority are going to go into fields that do not require a liberal education: mechanics, janitors, clerks, etc. Why, then, do we force so many students who have no use and no desire to learn the information presented to them to attend four years of this "education?" They have little to nothing to gain and they know it. Their time could be better spent learning useful skills for their future careers, helping them be employable and eventually self-reliant. Apprenticeships in fields that catch their interest or in which they have talent for could be a great way for these students to not only learn job related skills but also appropriate behavior and responsibility while perhaps even creating income. These kids need motivation but either lack the long term view of the future or understand that they are not the material from which higher salaried professionals are cut from. A chance at a respectable career, tied in with decent money in the very short term, can help these kids become productive members of society.

Again, my next point will not be politically correct, but sometimes we need to address issues and find the correct version sans adjective. Students who are academically fit do not have much to gain by having their academically lesser peers dragged along with them. With such a wide range of academic abilities in their classrooms, teachers currently have to err on the side of slowness lest most of their classes get behind on the material. A class intentionally retarded for the sake of heterogeneity does not benefit the lesser academic minds (they do not care anyway) or the more academically fit (they become bored). We are slicing the baby in the middle and calling it moderation.

In my fantasy education world, where those less apt for academics are hooked up with businesses to learn useful skills and a useful paycheck rather than preparing to be overburdened with college debt for no marginal gain, the more academically skilled students also stand to benefit from more challenging courses. In many schools, we already have something resembling this practice in the form of Advance Placement classes. With my system, high school would become an Advanced Placement school on steroids. Teachers could focus on pushing students who want to be there even higher instead of dragging along students who would rather be anywhere else. The advanced students win by having more challenges and teachers who can give them more of their attention; the less academically advanced students win by gaining useful skills and a paycheck; the teachers win by having a more positive environment where students see school as an opportunity rather than as a pseudo-prison. I am sure my critics will be able to point out some disadvantages, but on the whole I believe the benefits far outweigh any costs to our sensibilities concerning the "need" for a liberal education through 12 grades and college.

The true thorny issue here will be in determining who are gifted enough to continue and who should be put into the career apprenticeship plan. A standardized test would be highly inappropriate in this situation for a number of reasons. For starters, one can be an excellent test taker and yet not particularly motivated, or at least not enough to handle the rigors of an advanced classroom. Others who may be excellent students may not be great test takers; the pressure of such a life changing exam would exacerbate that problem. A more holistic evaluation would be necessary. A three year transitional period from 7-9th grade, instructed by teachers trained not only in the content but with special training for this particular evaluation, would be more accurate in determining who can truly hack it and who would be better prepared in the apprenticeship program. Determining the actual criteria for who would be accepted is a complex matter that I am not prepared to tackle here. Who will be accepted will largely depend on what the curriculum on the advanced school would look like; students who excel in one particular field but are average or below in others might be accepted in a school whose curriculum focuses on one content area but not in another school that expects above average results in all areas. As I said, that discussion is for another time; right now, we need to agree that the one size fits all approach to education does not benefit the academically challenged or average or gifted as much as a tailored approach would.

Reform can only occur once we move past the politically correct view that all kids need to be provided with an equal opportunity in the form of identical education. Not only is this egalitarianism misguided in terms of egalitarian thought (students may be given the same education but their backgrounds differ widely, creating different abilities to use the identical education), but the egalitarianism itself is misguided. We need not try to make everyone happier and better by the same quantitative measure; our goal needs to be to equip each and every student with the tools and skills that will help them make the most of their individual lives. The heterogeneous nature of human beings require many different solutions; forcing all down the academic pipe clogs up the pipe for those of an academic nature while being a hell for those who do not belong. Equality in a most literal sense rarely works in practice, however nice it may be in some people's philosophy. Until we overcome this mental and moral hurdle, students will continue to receive an inferior education leading to an inferior future.

[UPDATE] After speaking with a bright friend who teachers secondary education and having spent some time in schools myself, I believe the best way for choosing who would take the academic route or the more apprenticeship style approach would be to let the students and their parents decide rather than the school or state. Most students have a pretty good idea by that time whether they have the ability and the drive to make it in a challenging academic environment or whether there is a particular subset of skills they really want to enhance. This method also puts responsibility for the success or failure of the choice on the student and parents, which will give them added incentive to make the right choice whatever that may be for them. Being as I doubt the state or school's ability to choose for us in any aspect of our lives, I'm rather shocked and embarrassed this solution to not appear to me in the first place. Kudos to that smart friend for bringing this solution to my attention.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Review of Posner's Not A Suicide Pact

Not a Suicide Pact
Richard A. Posner
Oxford University Press, 2006
171 pages

The first time I remember coming across Richard Posner's work was in grad school when I read Frontiers of Legal Theory. Posner, a sitting judge on Seventh Circuit, is a renowned academic famous for his economic analysis of law. I picked up this particular book because Posner's positions on various current issues are almost unpredictable and certainly beyond categorization in traditional political labels. This particular book, Not a Suicide Pact, deals with the balance between demands for security and the pressure to protect constitutional rights in the post 9/11 era. While I believe this book would be an interesting and thought provoking read for anyone concerned with this subject, Posner's reliance on a rational choice analysis for legal theory is not a convincing criteria for judicial decisions.

Posner does an excellent job summarizing the problem at hand: we are in a conflict with a non-state force that legally neither our criminal law nor our regulation of interstate war is capable of handling. Terrorists pose an existential threat to our nation, something even groups like the Mafia, the Ku Klux Klan, and national gangs do not. On the other hand, they are not focused in any area of the world, do not have an infrastructure, do not represent the people they live with, and are often in our midst, disguised as one of us. The Bush Administration had the unenviable duty of finding a legal pattern to work with in respect to terrorism while being under a perceived imminent threat of another attack.

Generally, Posner agrees with what the Bush Administration has tried to do, taking issue with a few legal niceties (the Unitary Executiy Theory in particular) but generally believing the Executive has not overstepped its appropriate bounds. Posner takes the view that we should maximize both liberty and safety via rational choice theory: the moment a decrease in liberty does not bring about an equal or greater increase in security is the balance we should aim for. This a dynamic, not a static, point: after 9/11, we clearly needed an increase in security even at the cost of some liberty. Civil libertarians, who argue no decrease in liberty can ever be justified, do not take the terrorist threat seriously and fail to recognize that the greatest threat to liberty in this nation would be another terrorist attack and the subsequent security measures taken.

While a number of hot button issues relating to security and liberty are discussed (the "rights" of people detained without trial is particularly interesting), I want to focus quickly on Posner's view concerning intelligence gathering. Many people took issue with the Bush Administration using wiretaps on Americans being contacted or contacting individuals outside of the United States, claiming this is a violation of the Fifth Amendment. This is only true if the information is used against a U.S. national in a conviction. The President, as Commander in Chief, needs to be able to collect information about our enemy, a power that has never been seriously questioned. Given the massive amount of communication that needs to be sifted and analyzed, obtaining a warrant in every situation is basically impossible. This is not gathering evidence for a criminal trial; it is gathering military intelligence, a power the President has sans warrant. If the government abuses this power for political or other non-military ends, so many people of so many political ideologies are involved that a leak to the current 24/7 media is almost inevitable, with devastating consequences to the administration abusing the power. Enough leaks of legitimate government programs existed under Bush to prove this point.

Richard Posner's book is certainly worth reading for these interesting and novel ideas concerning the balance of security and liberty and which aspects of our government should be handling them during and after an emergency. As I said at the beginning, though, I find Posner's rational choice approach too impermanent and vague to avoid an abuse of power. Posner treats the Constitution almost as a list of suggested ideas rather than as hard and fast boundaries between the government and the branches of government versus one another. This line is blurred enough as is. The Supreme Court's "interpretation" of the Constitution has lead to a great many restrictions that were not included by the Founders; agreeing with Posner, we are now having a hard time dealing with this straight jacket, but leaving the division of power to actors who have motivations outside of the good of the nation is not the answer. I had a hard time determining exactly what it is Posner proposes for us to do, what criteria he proposes for us to follow to know when the line has been crossed outside of a subjective opinion on when the function of liberty and security has reached its maximum (see the first two reviews in the "What Others Have Said" section to view two opponents of Bush disagree as to where the line should be drawn in a cost-benefit analysis). Given all, I would recommend reading this book because of the unique (at least to me) views he gives on free speech, interrogation techniques, and intelligence gathering, but it is not a must read.

What Others Have Said:

"Not Just Because Bush Says So", Washington Post, 2006

Judge Posner's "Not a Suicide Pact, Concurring Opinions, 2006

"Conservatives" cheer on Judge Posner's highly un-conservative defense of federal police powers , Glenn Greenwald, 2006

"Pragmatism Trumps Suicide", New York Sun, 2006

Monday, October 26, 2009

Thoughts Concerning Roe v Wade

ROE v. WADE, 410 U.S. 113 (1973)

Argued December 13, 1971
Reargued October 11, 1972
Decided January 22, 1973

Roe v Wade is arguably the most famous and controversial case ever decided by the Supreme Court. It touches on a number of issues that will likely never be completely settled, such as when life begins, when rights begin, and the flexibility of interpretation of the Constitution. The question at hand is not whether abortion should be allowed or not; the question is, can the state bar women from having this procedure? While this Court declared the states could not, I maintain that the Court did not base this decision on the Constitution, that the Constitution clearly leaves this power with the states, that abortion is not a fundamental or explicit right protected by the Constitution, and that this was a political decision the Court had no right to make.


I intend to summarize only the aspects of the case dealing with the final argument. Other sections of the case will not be summarized, though to avoid the pitfall of waiving off anything inconvenient as not relevant, I will explain why particular sections are not worth going into detail.

Sections I-IV of the majority's decision deal with whether the plaintiffs had standing on this issue, ruling that Roe does while another plaintiff, "Doe", does not. I do not see a controversy worth discussing herein these sections as they state that the plaintiffs can indeed bring this case to court, something I do not disagree with. They have no bearing on the actual decision, however, and are therefore not relevant to this discussion.

Section V states the plaintiffs claim, that abortions are a protected right under the 14th Amendment or "in personal, marital, familial, and sexual privacy" that was supposedly "discovered" in Griswold v Connecticut (a case worth discussing in its own right at another time).

Section VI is a strange section in that it details the history of legal and moral thought on abortion going back to Greek times. It constitutes a large portion of the case's text. Unfortunately, it does not deal with the Constitution; while this information may be interesting, it is not indicative of whether there is a Constitutional right to abortions. This is, in legal terms, called obiter dictum. It has no place in this decision as it in no way informs us as to how the Constitution should be interpreted on this issue. This section, though verbose, is irrelevant to the actual discussion at hand.

Section VII resembles section VI but focuses on reasons used to justify abortion bans in the United States. However, as the Court explicitly makes this section the basis for its decision, it needs to be summarized. Three particular reasons are put forth: Victorian concern over "immoral conduct," the medical aspect for the mother, and the protection of prenatal life. The State of Texas did not choose to defend the first and was dropped. The second reason was supposedly used during an era when such procedures were dangerous but states still need to regulate such procedures. The third argument stands if the State has an interest or duty to protect life or the potential for life.

Section VIII is the heart of the issue in that it attempts to find a Constitutional basis for a right to abortion. The Court explicitly acknowledges that "The Constitution does not explicitly mention any right of privacy"; however, the Court argues that rights discovered in the penumbras of the Bill of Rights include a right to privacy. They conclude that "This right of privacy, whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment's concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, as we feel it is, or, as the District Court determined, in the Ninth Amendment's reservation of rights to the people, is broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy." However, the Court also recognizes that the State has a duty to protect life at some stage, so an unlimited right to abortion does not exist.

Section IX deals with objections made by both parties to this middle ground decision. The Constitution does not state when life begins; all mentions of "persons" appear to be postnatal. The Court also acknowledges that the woman's "right to privacy" is murky since it involves another living being, the fetus, which the state may at some point protect. Again, prenatal beings have never been accorded the full rights of law according to the Court's history.

Section X acknowledges the State's progressive interest in protecting prenatal life as the pregnancy continues. States have a "compelling" interest at "viability." Texas' law was too broad and therefore was unconstitutional.

While Section XI claims to summarize the case, it actually points out something new: "For the stage subsequent to approximately the end of the first trimester, the State, in promoting its interest in the health of the mother, may, if it chooses, regulate the abortion procedure in ways that are reasonably related to maternal health." Abortions prior to this point cannot be regulated.


The Court's decision is based exclusively on the concept of "privacy." However, as the Court itself admitted, there is no Constitutional provision for a "right to privacy." I find the argument that such "rights" can be found in the "penumbras" of legal terms rather frightening. Their argument can almost be summarized as "I claim such a right in this murky legal region; dare prove me wrong." A great many horrible things can be defended with a similar argument. How do I know a right to rape does not exist in those "penumbras?" Sounds ridiculous, but try proving it is not there. Our legal theory needs to be based on more solid ground.

This decision was based primarily in 14th Amendment to the Constitution, along with the 9th. This Amendment consists of five sections; 2-5 deal with the right to vote for representatives, judicial and executive functionaries, Confederate debt not being a responsibility of the United States, and Congress' ability to enforce this Amendment. Only the 1st section has relevance today. It states:

"All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

The supposed right to abortion is not going to be found in the first sentence concerning citizenship. The privileges and immunities of the citizens of this nation are laid out in the Bill of Rights and following Amendments; none of them say abortion is a right, so this does not apply, either. In theory, this law could apply to men if they could become pregnant; that there is a biological difference between men and women is not a violation of the equal protection clause.

The only part of the 14th Amendment that could relate to abortion is whether the State is depriving the pregnant woman her life, liberty, or property sans due process. Punishment of abortion could take any of those forms (capital, imprisonment, or fines). The question is, are laws restricting abortion in accordance with due process? The procedural aspects are hard to challenge: this issue is not one delegated to the Federal Government; no Amendment or provision in the Constitution explicitly prohibits this law; the law was created by a republican form of government guaranteed by the Constitution. Where, exactly, was "due process" violated in banning abortions?

The actual impact of having to take a baby to term is that the woman cannot remove the infant from her body until nature chooses to do so. This might be seen as the State violating a woman's liberty in controlling her own person. However, this is not a punishment; the State did not impregnate her. In the vast majority of cases, the woman had an option to have sex and exercised it, an act of liberty which carries repercussions the woman may not pawn off. Those concerning rape are a different matter; I am not certain the State cannot prohibit abortions there, either, as again it is not the State inflicting a punishment. The 14th Amendment does not, in any way, shape, or form, defend a "right" to an abortion.

What about the 9th Amendment? It states: "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." This is a problematic Amendment, along with the 8th, that I believe the Founding Fathers erred in including. However, it is still the Supreme Law of the Land and has legal force...if it can be understood. And so I pose to those who use this Amendment to defend any case, what are the "rights" mentioned in this case and how did you discover them? How does a proposed "right" become valid under this Amendment while the ridiculous "right to rape" does not? Until a sound theory is put forth for determining what rights this Amendment speaks of and how we shall know them, I propose we employ the 10th Amendment, which reserves all powers not expressly delegated to the Federal Government to the States and to the People, who may give such powers to the States as they see fit via republican forms of government. That being so, the people of Texas gave the power to restrict abortions to the State. The Constitution is actually fairly clear here: this is a power reserved to the States to deal with as they see fit and the Supreme Court has no jurisdiction to overrule the People of Texas or any other State that may choose to restrict abortions.

Note the distinctions between my opinion and that of the majority's. I am capable of citing the Constitution without resorting to magical hidden realms of penumbras. I take the areas supposedly protecting such a right and analyze them word for word.

In terms of shear reason, this case was a disaster. The Court actually claims that after the 1st trimester abortions can be regulated but not before. Where in the Constitution does the Court find this? It doesn't even claim such a foundation, but rather than the dictum explaining the past of abortion. Even if that history is accurate, the Court does not have any right to impose its views on the people. Such decisions are left to the democratic institutions that represent the people. The Court has a right and a duty to step in when the Federal Government exercises powers not delegated to them; when the State Governments exercise powers delegated to the Federal Government; and when either violates express rights protected in the Constitution. Outside of that, however, the Court performs an illegal and tyrannical legislative function that the Constitution does not give it legitimacy to perform. This is clearly such a situation.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Political Apathy: Ignorance is Bliss

(This is a paper I turned in December 10, 2007, for the Philosophy-608: Machiavelli, Arendt, and Democratic Theory graduate class at Binghamton University. I have not yet taken the time to edit this work to correct any potential grammatical and spelling mistakes or to update my argument, but I still believe the main argument stands true. Participation in democracies can be detrimental if those participating are ignorant or have no respect for the rights of others, while the lack of egalitarianism in our sources of information is almost inevitable and likely beneficial to the masses. Unrestrained populism is a greater danger to this nation than the upper class's political or economic ambitions. In retrospect, I am glad to have had the opportunity to write this paper on political philosophy for a class of philosophy students not familiar with the literature in political science, as this required me to explain arguments I might have otherwise assumed the reader already knows.)


One of the great concerns of democratic theory in the United States is the perceived lack of political participation by the vast majority of citizens. This concern stems from fear that the elites in our society wield a disproportionate amount of power and influence, which they will use to further their own political, economic, and personal interests at the expense of the mass public. While it is certainly true that we desire not to be ruled by an oligarchy, I am not convinced that the apparent apathy shown by most citizens concerning politics is harmful either to the individual citizen or to society as a whole. Rather, the elites and the mass public form a symbiotic relationship where both groups stand to gain by this imbalance of power and influence within our democratic nation.

In order to make a normative judgment on what levels of political interests the mass public should take, an understanding of what they do know and care about concerning government is important. The field of political science has given scholars amazing empirical insights into the political behavior of citizens. Voting is one of the most important and common ways for Americans to participate in politics. During the 1950’s, the first empirically driven effort to understand voting behavior, called The American Voter, was published, revealing many important trends about how Americans think about politics. One of the greatest predictors of whether a citizen would vote or not was his or her sense of political efficacy, which is whether or not the citizen believes their vote will have much of an impact on the outcome and whether or not it matters which party gains political power. Not surprisingly, those with a high belief in the importance of the outcome of an election were very likely to vote, while those who were indifferent to the results stayed home.

What, then, determines whether a citizen will care? Two interrelated concepts seem to be the answer: the strength of party identification and the level of development of their political ideas. The stronger one’s attachment is to the party, the more one will want to see that party win (much like how intense fans of a particular sports team will be more likely to be at a ballgame than a less rabid fan). The more educated a person is about their own political beliefs, the more likely they will find a difference between the candidates running for office and identify which one holds policy preferences closest to that voter.

The authors of The American Voter were able to categorize Americans into four levels of political sophistication. Level A, or those with clear ideologies, includes those who are able to absorb “some of the ideological abstractions of our day, and are able to put them to use in their political evaluations” (227). Only 12.5% of the population possessed this level of political sophistication. Level B, while not employing political abstractions, could identify party position mainly by identifying which groups that party tended to support. For example, a respondent would be classified in level B if they charged the Republicans with supporting big business or Democrats with big labor. This group was by far the largest, containing 40% of the population. Level C based their political decisions on how the times felt to them at a gut level. These individuals escaped the bottom classification merely by making any vague reference to a political policy and constituted 24% of the population. The final category, level D, made political decisions without any reference to political issues and were largely basing their vote on the characteristics of a candidate. This final category contained a little more than 20% of the American public. Over 40% of Americans made their decision to support a candidate without a strong reference to ideology.

Philip Converse, one of the authors of The American Voter, conducted an independent study on the level of political sophistication in the general public and in the elites of society. The elites in society (in general, the well educated), have a high level of political sophistication and “constraint.” Constraint, as used by Converse, is using a person’s ideology to predict their likely position on a particular policy. For example, it might be expected that a pacifist who abhors all killing in war would be influenced by his or her hatred of killing when it comes to the death penalty debate. A conservative who openly despises judicial activism should oppose judicial activism even by conservative judges. This kind of ideological sophistication requires a high intelligence and time devoted to learning the issues thoroughly. Elites tend to be consistent in their political preferences, while the masses take their cues from the elites without considering the philosophical implications for other policy areas, leading to a greater level of contradiction in that individuals ideology.

The average American, then, seems to fall into one of two groups: those who care enough to think about politics in a serious manner, and those who do not find politics worth their time to understand. The former tend to vote; the later are more apt to stay at home. Those who have the mental capacity and willingness to understand politics tend to be a very small portion of the population, however (only 1 in 10 reached Level A in The American Voter’s political sophistication scheme). While political theorists seem to wonder at the lack of voting participation in the United States, at least when compared to other Western liberal democracies, political scientists are puzzled why anyone would vote at all. John Ferejohn and Morris Fiorina (1974) explain the voter’s paradox and attempt to find a solution to it. Voting is not a costless action. In order to vote, a citizen must first take the time to get registered; that citizen must take at least the amount of time to flip a coin to decide between the candidates; that citizen must actually go the polling station and wait for their turn to vote, in whatever weather. These costs, admittedly, appear small, but what does the citizen gain that overcomes even this minuscule cost? Even most local elections are won by more than a hundred votes, while most state and national elections are determined by thousands or millions of votes. Adding one more vote has absolutely no impact.

This is the rational choice analysis of voting, where the rational decision is to stay home because the expected utility of voting is smaller than the expected utility of not voting. Ferejohn and Fiorina note that political scientists have been stumped by this question, because it implies that nobody should be voting (or that those who do are irrational, making a scientific inquiry into their actions impossible). In order to overcome this imbalance in favor of not voting, political scientists have tried to add a benefit to voting, mostly in the form of a good feeling for having done one’s civic duty. The authors rightly find that this explanation is not particularly good, and so they try to present a different explanation of the same paradox without the civic duty kicker. They argue that voter’s do not make their decision based on a rational choice of choosing the option with the highest utility, but rather that they apply a minimax strategy, whereby they vote because the cost of voting is smaller than the agony the citizen would feel if their preferred candidate lost by a single vote. How many American citizens actually think like this is unknown, but this explanation from over thirty years ago has not stymied debate on why voters vote. It is clear that the cost of voting is higher than the cost of not voting on average.

Most of our voters are not well informed about politics, but they still receive enough information to make a decision. This is where the role of elites comes in as a positive force for American democracy. Elites are in a position to send cues to the public about how to think on any particular issue. Since elites rarely work in harmony, but rather have conflicting political goals, the public will be able to take cues from the leaders it prefers and give their support (whether it be the vote or monetary contributions) for a cause they support without needing to become informed, preserving the legitimacy (or at very least the perceived legitimacy) of the system.

This process of elites cuing the populace has found significant support in both the game theoretic and empirical political science literature. In An Economic Theory of Democracy, Anthony Downs points out that gaining political information is not a costless process. In terms of dollars and cents, the cost is small, flipping on the television, reading a newspaper purchased with a dollar, opening mail sent by political candidates, etc. The real cost comes in terms of time and energy. After working an eight hour shift, individuals feel tired and want to relax; they certainly don’t want to analyze the pros or cons to the Democrats or Republicans of whatever bills came before Congress and their state governments that day. This hypothetical worker certainly doesn’t have time to go out and do the investigative research. As we have already seen in terms of the voting paradox, the cost of gathering and analyzing information only increases the cost of voting for a benefit that is likely to equal zero. This leaves the citizen in a state where he or she gains information in a passive manner, where elites (such as the media, interest groups, political parties, etc.) select the most crucial information to them and present it in the clearest possible terms to their audience. There is a clear trade off here. The condensed news and information is subject to the biases of those doing the reporting and clarity comes at the expense of in depth knowledge. More detailed and harder to process information which may be important is left out, but if it was included the average citizen will likely ignore it altogether, leaving the masses even less informed than if the media had just presented the simplified version of events.

This process leaves citizens’ opinions remarkably easy to mold. John Zaller, in his book The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, uses survey responses with the same respondents over a number of years to show that people’s opinion of any particular issue is not necessarily fixed but rather wobbles over time. These wobbles can be caused by a number of factors, most of which are cues given by various sources of authority believed by the individual. People spend remarkably little time thinking out their opinions on even salient issues, and when questioned about their opinion their response will be based on whatever happens to be salient to that individual at that particular time (77). While the most obvious source of cuing when determining peoples’ opinion is the poll itself, Zaller finds that media coverage also plays an important role (155). Not everyone is equally susceptible to political cuing, however. Those who have thought out their own political preferences are less likely to be swayed by cues, either because they already side with the cuing party or because they strongly belong to the opposing position. While moderates are more likely to be swayed by a message, they are also the group that follows politics the least and are therefore least likely to actually receive the cue in the first place (148).

Political cues come from sources outside of the media as well. One important source of cues is interest groups. Interest groups tend to get a bad rap due to their overt partisanship and their inordinate amount of influence compared to the average citizen. However, interest groups are an important aspect of the political process. David-Austen Smith and John R. Wright (1994) find that lobbying by interest groups is an important part of informing representatives in state governments and Congress about the public’s assessment of an issue. Political issues that are salient enough to generate an interest group almost always generate groups both in favor and opposed to that interest. Groups will be forced to be truthful (or at least not blatantly lie) if there is another, opposing interest group that will point out the falsehoods to the representative. In this way, information is provided to the representative at the cost of the interest groups.

A possible objection to interest groups from a democratic point of view is that they generally are composed of large numbers of people who support that interest groups policy, but the group itself is run by a small number of highly influential people. However, Mancur Olson in his book, The Logic of Collective Action, shows that egalitarianism is not conducive to an effective interest group. Interestingly, group members tend to be less interested in the conduct and less willing to make sacrifices for large groups rather than of small groups (48). In the large group, members can enjoy the benefits brought by the group without having to make a contribution, while the survival of small groups requires everyone’s participation. Only the most motivated (those with the most at stake, generally the well to do) will be willing to sacrifice their time to the advancement of the large interest group, and so their personal interests will be reflected more than the more numerous, less active population.

Another important, though much maligned, group with a disproportionate amount of influence is political parties. Elections would prove incredibly difficult without the existence of political parties. As noted in the review of The American Voter, voter identification plays an enormous role in determining who a citizen will vote for. Voter identification is very similar to the idea of a brand name: even if a citizen cannot name their representative in Congress, if they know which party their representative belongs to, they can make an accurate assessment of what the representative stands for on a variety of issues. Parties, therefore, find it extremely important to maintain a measure of unity on salient issues and to keep their party image as positive as possible.

This need to maintain the issues which define party identification leads parties to reward and punish their members in government as they feel is needed. In order to keep members of a party voting for an issue the individual might not want to comply with (whether because the representative is personally opposed or believes it will hurt their chances of reelection), the party must provide incentives that overcome the individual’s desire to defect. John Aldrich, in his book Why Parties, argues that parties provide important resources for reelection that a candidate cannot live without, such as party identification, money, access to community leaders, and the time and energy of the party’s workers. Gary Cox and Mathew McCubbins, in Legislative Leviathan, show that Congressmen have personal and political reasons for wanting positions on the various committees of Congress. Committees have the power to forge or prohibit legislation that passes their jurisdiction, making the score of Congressmen on that particular committee as powerful as the whole House. Positions on committees are determined by party leadership, which strongly encourages its members to tow the party line.

These committee posts are important to Congressmen as they must be able to convince their constituency that reelecting the Congressman is in their interest. David Mayhew, in Congress: The Electoral Connection, argues that the behavior of Congressmen can be explained by their strong desire to be reelected. Placement on a committee allows a Congressman the opportunity to initiate legislation that will be beneficial to the constituents back home. The Congressman can claim credit for that legislation which he or she could not do for bills that the Congressman plays no role until he or she becomes one of 435 votes on the floor (52).

As we have seen, voting, one of the least costly forms of political participation requires not insignificant amount of time and energy that proves too costly for a great many citizens. Other more active forms of participation, such as writing letters to the editor and actively taking part in elections, political parties, and interest groups, requires an even higher investment of time, energy, and money, which predictably lowers the percentage of the population who are willing to take part in these activities. In a study on resources impact on political participation, Henry Brady, Sidney Verba, and Kay Lehman Schilozman (1995) find that individuals with more money, time, and civic skills participate more in these higher forms of participation. Lack of time and money are well known detriments to political participation, but the novel result of this study was that those who have experience and skill in areas like writing, public speaking, and organization tend to be more active. While the upper class tends to gain more of these skills in the workplace than the less advantaged in terms of socioeconomics, those in the lower strata are still able to gain these skills by participating in church related functions.

Empirically, it has been shown that elites play an important role in keeping the American populace involved in the political process, even if not to the extent that many political theorists would like to see. Information is not cheap and most Americans do not see the results of elections, petition drives, or protests as worth the cost of participating in these events. The normative question we must now ask is whether either the citizens as individuals or the society as a whole stands to gain anything by having a better informed citizenry and how this could be achieved. It is my position that society does not stand to be significantly improved by a more politically active society and that therefore it is not in the interest of the apathetic citizen to become more politically aware.

An important distinction must be made between the concepts of actual influence and potential influence. These concepts come from Robert Dahl’s classic work, Who Governs?, a case study on the rule of power and government in New Haven, Connecticut. By and large, the citizenry of this country is, while maybe not enthusiastic about our government, at least content enough with the situation not to bother making an effort to change it. Should the government abuse its powers to the extent that it negatively affects the lives of many people, they will make their objection known in the next election. Those in government can use that position to further their own ends but they also must make efforts to placate the hoi polloi. Failure to do so leads to electoral defeat and the loss of all special power invested in the office.

Unless the actions of the government are severely and adversely affecting the life of a citizen who otherwise is apathetic, that citizen gains little by becoming more active in politics. A thorough understanding of the various elements of politics requires knowledge of a vast number of areas, from understanding the formal institutions; the relationship between those institutions; the political theory behind why our government is designed the way it is; understanding the policy preferences of various political figures; following the votes of political actors at the national, state, and local level; and critically evaluating one’s own political ideology to insure a measure of consistency. In order to gain this kind of understanding of politics, a citizen would need to dedicate hours every single day gathering and analyzing political information in addition to the other aspects of their lives that require attention. Most people who already have such an understanding of politics find, for whatever reason, politics to be a field of interest, much like how a Boston Red Sox fan finds baseball worth following whereas another person could not muster enough willpower to follow a single baseball season. For most people, politics is just not a subject that can hold their attention for more than a half hour of news coverage. So long as the average apathetic citizen continues to enjoy the benefits provided by government (protection from outside powers, protection from criminals, courts to settle disputes, infrastructure, etc.) without grievous loss, they will remain blissfully ignorant.

The apathetic citizen gains little by adding the burden of understanding politics to his or her already hectic lifestyle, but does society as a whole stand to gain enough from more political participation to offset the loss to the individual? The answer is likely no. To date, there is no evidence that a significant portion of apathetic citizens would belong either to the right or left of the political spectrum. In terms of voting, less apathy would lead to a higher turnout rate but not necessarily a change in who would be elected or by what margin. While some may see a higher turnout rate as increasing the legitimacy of the new government, this is not necessarily the case. The legitimacy of government at almost all levels in this nation is not seriously questioned by the population. Non voters understand that their apathy is not a vote against the system but a quiet acquiescence to the choice made by the more politically cognizant portion of the nation.

Legitimate democratic government does not require an egalitarian system. There is no doubt that political power and influence are not spread evenly throughout the population of this country, but the less politically active still have an open door to changing the policies of this nation if they should see fit to do so. That they do not, that they are content not to participate, is not an indictment against the system or its claim to be democratic. Elites play an important role by providing information cheaply to those who want to participate but do not have the resources to investigate the political world themselves. While theorists may desire to see a more egalitarian system, the average citizen is content to have a stable world providing a high quality of life, real effects that heavily outweigh academic abstract concepts.


Alrich, John H. 1995. Why Parties? The Origin and Transformation of Political Parties in America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Austen-Smith, David and John R. Wright. 1994. “Counteractive Lobbying” in American Journal of Political Science, 38 (1), 25-44.

Brady, Henry E., Sidney Verba, and Kay Lehman Schlozman. 1995. “Beyond SES: A Resource Model of Political Participation” in American Political Science Review, 89 (2), 271-294.

Campbell, Angus, and Philip E. Converse, Warren E. Miller, and Donald E. Stokes. 1960. The American Voter. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Converse, Philip E. 1964. “The Nature of Mass Belief Systems” in Ideology and Discontent, ed. David E. Apter. London: Free Press of Glencoe.

Cox, Gary W., and Mathew D. McCubbins. 1993. Legislative Leviathan: Party Government in the House. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dahl, Robert A. 1961. Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Downs, Anthony. 1957. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper Collins.

Ferejohn, John A. and Morris P. Fiorina. 1974. “The Paradox of Not Voting: A Decision Theoretic Analysis” in American Political Science Review, 68 (2), 526-536.

Mayhew, David H. 1974. Congress: The Electoral Connection. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Olson, Mancur. 1971. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Zaller, R. John. 1992. The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.