“Confidence in Government Was Abysmally Low”

“The rump end of the Continental Congress still wobbled along in New York City, where it had met since 1785, but it hadn’t achieved a quorum since October. Its secretary, Charles Thompson, buttonholed members on the street, when he could find them, and dragged them into his office so that he could claim in his records that they had technically, “assembled.”

The people had elected a President, but nobody was sure what the man was supposed to do. People from Pennsylvania considered people from New England to be their enemies, and the feelings were mutual. Southerners trusted no one except themselves. The states didn’t want to work together, not that this seemed especially likely given the “the yawning listlessness” and “over-refining spirit in relation to trifles” exhibited by Congress’s first members. Apart from a few clerks, the Federal government had no employees. And almost no money. There was no Supreme Court, and there no lower courts. There were more than fifty different currencies in use, plus plenty of counterfeit currencies. There no political parties, but there were Federalists, who believed in the potential of a powerful central government, and Anti-Federalists, who did not. The Anti-Federalists were ready to take apart the new U.S. Constitution and start over, this time favoring these States, not a unified nation.

And we’re only a dozen pages into the book, “First Congress” by historian Fergus M. Bordewich. As a modern reader, the dysfunction is almost beyond comprehension. Not only was nothing much done in preparation for operating a nation, there were almost no likelihood that  the First Congress would accomplish anything in particular. And the only guy who could pull the whole country together—George Washington—expressed tremendous apprehension about becoming the President, or the King, or whatever the leadership role might be called. George had his doubts, but he really, really wanted the job and needed to be careful about seeming too anxious. (Ron Chernow, who wrote the biography “Hamilton” on which Broadway musical is based, also wrote a great bio book called “Washington: A Life” which is heavy on George’s constant internal conflicts. Bordowich does not as deeply here because he has other territory to cover.)

So it’s James Madison—whose story ought to follow “Hamilton” as a Broadway musical—who convinces George to man-up, and run the country. Hamilton is also in a leadership role, convincing Congress that the new country ought to set up a bank, assume the states’s debts, and establish a meaningful credit rating. But everything in those early days seems more like an informal startup company than the beginning of the richest nation on earth. “There was also John Jay who ran the Confederation’s Department of Foreign Affairs from his law office, and Henry Knox, who presided over the War Department from rented rooms at a Water Street tavern.”

Look into his eyes. This is James Madison, a politically savvy man who convinced George Washington to lead the new nation.

Look into his eyes. This is James Madison, a politically savvy man who convinced George Washington to lead the new nation.

Eventually, they got to work. Madison was the first congressman to propose a law so that the new country would have some revenue, and control its coastlines. And then, everybody argued, and protected their regional interests. And besides, nobody was clear on how these new rules could possibly be enforced.

With or without proper tariffs, Vice President John Adams “tirelessly repeated that Europeans would never take the United States seriously unless its chief executive was endowed with the trappings of sovereign grandeur…At minimum, he considered His Highness or His Most Benign Highness as the barest acceptable forms of address for its president. He…scathingly dismissed President as appropriate for ‘Fire Companies & of a Cricket Club.’ Any member of Congress willing to settle for less he considered a ‘driveling idiot.” Everything was new, nothing was settled, and everybody carried a strong opinion of how things must be done. Still, they were not without humor: Ben Franklin, who was always good for a laugh, called Vice President Adams “Your Superfluous Excellency,” while others looked at his widening girth and favored, “His Rotundity.” (I found Franklin’s comment on the web, not in the book).

Did the First Congress get anything done?

The surprising and overwhelming answer is “yes!” In surprising chapter by chapter, Bordowich leads us through one astonishing accomplishment after another. Congress establishes itself as a powerful legislative body. They manage to keep the government running at a time when it appears as though George Washington will not survive an illness. They worked out the Bill of Rights. They figured out where to place the new nation’s capital—a  major political accomplishment because of the many competing interests. While busy complaining about how little they understood about finance, they did not stop Alexander Hamilton from establishing the U.S. as a viable financial operation—a capitalist one at that. They worked on a reasonable solution for slavery—but failed in the attempt. They—and Adams gets much of the blame for this—managed to make the Vice President an ineffective leadership role. They invented the President’s Cabinet and its various departments—and convinced a very reluctant Thomas Jefferson to leave his lovely Paris mansion and lovelier lifestyle to return home and establish the State Department. They learned to deal with lobbyists (Quakers were the first lobbyists).

“Men who had seen themselves primarily as citizens of their individual states had now mostly come to see themselves as the common citizens of a nation and embraced their new government as their own in a way they had never done before.”

“Public opinion now mattered. Newly emboldened newspapers brought the doings of government to the door of every citizen, including the illiterate , who gathered in urban taverns and frontier hamlets to avidly hear reports read to them by their literate neighbors.”

A new nation had begun.

Save the Country!

In our hearts, we know what’s wrong, and we know that it’s not about Democrats or Republicans. It’s about the money that flows into political campaigns, the revolving door between industry and agencies that should be regulating without industry influence, the political bashing that obscures the real issues, the real reasons why our food is unsafe, our cellphones were never properly tested to assure that they do not produce cancer, why our financial system collapsed, why the jobs went away and people lost their houses while the big banks and the big car companies somehow made out okay.

Sometimes, it takes a smart professor to parse the issues, and present them in a way that makes logical sense. Here, the professor is Lawrence Lessig, well-known for his work in the synchronization of copyright issues with the realities of new technologies. Lessig has shifted focus. In his new book, Republic, Lost, Lessig explains how and why we have accomplished the decimation of our democracy, and what we ought to do about it. This is not a book about politics. Instead, it’s a book about economics, foolish decisions, and fundamental thinking about what a country ought to do, ought to be.

The fundamental problem is relatively simple. Special interest groups, including big companies, big industries, unions, and others with vast money to spend, now control the agenda, and the decisions, made by our legislators. This is accomplished by funding political campaigns that now cost so much money, candidates are unable to raise the funds in any other way. Money is distributed not as bribes, but within a “gift economy,” in which lobbyists control the flow of funds, favors, and even the words in legislation that few legislators ever manage to read before voting. The size of this gift economy is spectacular in its size and influence, resulting in a sustained distraction for even the best-intentioned legislators whose time and decision-making processes are, according to Lessig, dominated by this system.

Where Lessig is clear about what the problem is, why and how it has gobbled up our representative form of government, and how much money is involved, he is less wonderful when it comes to solutions (which is to say, Lessig is clear thinking and often quite brilliant in his assessment of the current situation, but even his big brain struggles with what the heck we should do now). Still, he does present several seemingly sensible ideas.

Of course, the first solution is the simplest: let’s eliminate large contributions, and instead, share the burden with many small contributions. (In this regard, Obama had the right idea.) The Grant and Franklin project would allow each person in the U.S. to contribute $50 (Grant) of their Federal taxes plus $100 (Franklin) more to one or more individual candidates, or to their favorite political party. No more PAC or political party funding–candidates can receive a maximum of $150 per person. Here’s the kicker: for candidates, this would be voluntary. That is, each individual candidate would decide to follow the Grant and Franklin path–and those who do not, well, the American people would know who they are. Lessig: “If a substantial number of candidates opted into this system, then no one could believe that money was buying results.”

Then, the “clever lawyer” part of Lessig kicks in with an idea that’s intriguing, if not altogether practical (why should we rely upon practical ideas?–this is nation built by dreamers!). Lessig again: “Here’s a quiz. What’s required to be elected to the House of Representatives? You’d think that one requirement is that you be a resident of the district from which you’re to be elected. All the Constitution requires is that at the time fo the election, you be ‘an inhabitant of that State in which you shall be chosen'” And with that, Lessig is off and running…

Why not, he asks, run one candidate in several districts with a flash of anarchy in his or her midst. The only reason he or she is running is to force the other candidate to “publicly commit” to the Grant and Franklin approach. And for those candidates who do manage to get elected (inevitably, some will), he or she commits to: holding the government hostage until Congress enacts a program to remove the fundamental corruption that is now the rule in our government, and once that program is enacted, he or she will resign from office.

Lessig goes further: he wants a constitutional amendment.  Here, he enters a deeply analytical, harshly critical approach to his own idea, using his legal powers to define a path that could make an amendment possible. And, he reckons, some rich and powerful people are likely to come along for the ride.

He’s better on describing the cause and current situation than he is on prescribing the proper solution, but it’s unreasonable to expect one person, however smart, well-educated and clever, to define a plan to rebuild the republic. But he has taken the first step: he has clearly detailed the current situation and analyzed it in ways that break through any specific political dogma or belief system or party affiliation. And I know that his thinking has affected my thinking, and, presumably, some tens of thousands of other people’s thinking, and that’s a start.

So here’s the question from my side: I buy the analysis, and I want to be part of the solution. My starting place follows Lessig’s suggestion: I need to spend some time visiting a few websites, and figure out how I might insert myself into the process. His suggested websites:

Call a Convention

Public Citizen

Voters First Pledge

Fund for the Republic


BTW: The publisher is Twelve Publishers. It’s an imprint of Hachette, a larger publisher, but Twelve is delivering on a small, powerful idea: publish a dozen important books each year.  And make them count. I like their approach enough to include it here:

  1. Each book will enliven the national conversation.
  2. Each book will be singular in voice, authority, or subject matter.
  3. Each book will be carefully edited, designed, and produced.
  4. Each book will have a month-long launch in which it is the imprint’s sole focus.
  5. Each book will be nationally advertised.
  6. Each book will have a national publicity campaign.
  7. Each book will have a digital strategy.
  8. Each book will be worthy of the attention of discerning book reviewers.
  9. Each book will have the potential to sell at least 50,000 copies in its lifetime.
  10. Each book will be marketed and distributed by the Hachette Book Group, the company with the best hit ratio in the American publishing business.
  11. Each book will be promoted well into its paperback life.
  12. Each book will matter.
%d bloggers like this: