Two Revolutions

Joseph Ellis’ book, The Quartet has an interesting subtitle: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789. The small details of the history of our nation’s founding are easily forgotten, but after the American revolution, the colonies existed as mostly independent entities bound by the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution, which still governs our land, was not adopted at the time of the Revolutionary War, and Ellis calls its adoption The Second American Revolution.

 

Ellis describes the two revolutions at the start of our Nation’s independent history this way, “The first American Revolution Achieved Independence. … The Second American Revolution modified the republican framework existent in the states in order to create a nation sized republic.” The story of the adoption of our constitution is a story of viewing political power and American nationhood in a new light. It required shifting people’s views of the possible and convincing the citizens of each state that they would be better off with a stronger national government to support the independent state governments. At a time when everyone thought of politics as local politics, barely extending beyond the state capital, the Second Revolution was an attempt to convince all of the former British Colonies that they should consider what took place in other colonies as relevant to their own political lives and allow a national government to have sovereignty over their local governments.

 

Ellis continues, “The first phase of the American Revolution was about the rejection of political power; the second phase was about controlling it.” Bringing about the second revolution was not an easy task. American’s had just revolted against a strong central government led by a powerful leader. Convincing the citizens of Maine or Georgia that a political power located far away should have influence and say over the direction of the state was reminiscent of the type of power and government they had recently rejected. The thinking involved in bringing the American Constitution into being was truly revolutionary, and required skillful politics, careful persuasion, and dynamic leadership from a handful of America’s most beloved founding fathers to change the minds and opinions of a diverse group of citizens across the new nation.

American Nationhood Had a Top-Down Start

The human mind seems to be very comfortable with dichotomies, and we are very good at telling ourselves stories to make dichotomies work. We really prefer ‘either-or’ situations and ‘this-or-that’ decisions over settings that are more ambiguous and require decisions between multiple options and interpretations. The way we understand and view history, and how our history has shaped our present moment, is one area where our dichotomous though preferences can arise.

 

In his book, The Quartet, Joseph Ellis looks at the founding of the nation and offers some insight regarding the creation of the Constitution which runs against the vision of our founding that we as a democracy like to believe.  In our country, we like to believe that American democracy was inevitable, a clear preference advocated by our citizenry, and pushed for by all. We look back at the revolutionary war and our founding and picture masses of people choosing freedom and making the right choices to lead our country to prosperity.

 

The reality however, is that our nation was much more fractious at its founding than the stories we live with, and our history is as full of top down decisions as much as it is full of bottom up preferences. From the very beginning, with the idea of a national government, our actual history has run against what we like to believe as a democracy has been the defining principle of America. Ellis writes, “There was no popular insurgency for a national government because such a thing was not popular.” And he explains that our national government was built because, “a small group of prominent leaders, in disregard of popular opinion, carried the American story in a new direction.” It is interesting to look back at our nation and see the role that popular support played relative to the decisions of an elite. When we think about what our nation stands for and how our government should operate and direct our path, we should remember that in the past we have made more decisions based on more options than the often dichotomous choices we try to chose from today.

 

Continuing on the focus of top down versus bottom up support for a national government, Ellis writes, “The obvious alternative explanation is top-down. All democratic cultures find such explanations offensive because they violate the hallowed conviction that, at least in the long run, popular majorities can best decide the direction that history should take.”

 

To me this is a reminder that if I am not personally involved in studying an issue, and only understand it ephemerally from news and short stories, I probably should not consider my ideas or the popular ideas of citizens to be more valid than the views of experts. It is likely that we are not considering the full range of possibilities, and it is possible that what is popular and desired is not truly the best course of action. I don’t think this means I should remove myself from debate, but that I should spend more energy thinking deeply about the perspectives of competing interests. I may never fully understand the choice in the end, but I should not decide, based on popular opinion, that a decision was either right or wrong.

Creating the Idea of the American Nation

The Civil War in the United States changed a lot of things. It brought about the administrative state in the United States and gave absolute sovereignty in our country to the national government, wrestling that sovereignty away from the individual states. Our Civil War occur nearly 100 years after our battle for independence, and it was the Civil War which cemented the idea of American nationhood throughout the world.

 

When our founding fathers created our Constitution they introduced a new idea to our continent, that ever was a citizen of one nation, and not just a citizen of an individual state. Today this is obvious, but at the time of the revolution, at the time of our Constitution’s adoption, and even at the time of the Civil War, this was not clear. American’s thought of themselves first as Virginians or New Yorkers, not as collective citizens across the nation. In his book The Quartet, Joseph Ellis explains this shift in ideology from the actions of Lincoln during the war:

 

“In 1863 Lincoln had some compelling reasons for bending the arc of American history in a national direction, since he was then waging a civil war on behalf of a union that he claimed predated the existence of the states. This was a fundamental distortion of how history happened, though we may wish to forgive Lincoln, since it was the only way for him to claim the political authority to end slavery.”

 

Ellis shows that the idea that each state was part of a larger union, and that the union to which they belonged had ultimate authority over each state was anathema even in the 1860’s. We fought the revolution as a group of united states, but we were not a united nation as much as a collective group of independent governments with aligned self-interests. Thinking back on the decisions made during the Constitutional Convention and at our nations founding requires that we remember that our Founding Fathers did not see our government and our associations as a unified whole, but often as a group of sovereign entities forming a compact. Some of our founding fathers did see the importance of American nationhood, and in his book, Ellis sheds light on the actions of Washington, Madison, Hamilton, John Jay, Gouverneur Morris, and Robert Morris to turn the nation into a cohesive sovereign entity, a concept that was not fully cemented until after the Civil War.

Bringing a Nation Into Being

Joseph Ellis looks at the founding of the nation in stark clarity in his book The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789. Ellis cuts through the ideas and stories we tell of our nation’s founding, and looks at the most pivotal actors that worked to establish a strong constitutional government in the United States.

 

Ellis begins by explaining that a national government was not something that our founding fathers were very interested in and that most people thought of themselves primarily as statesmen (as Virginians or Pennsylvanians) rather than as Americans. He writes, “creating a national government was the last thing on the minds of American revolutionaries, since such a distant source of political power embodied all the tyrannical tendencies that patriotic Americans believed they were rebelling against.”

 

Following the Revolutionary War, the United States operated more or less as independent states, loosely bound by the Articles of Confederation. Ellis suggests that four men in particular were crucial for bringing about a “second revolution” and forming a new more powerful central government across the states. George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay are the four founding fathers that Ellis attributes the birth of our nation to. Without their coordinated actions, Ellis argues, a new Constitution could not have come into being and the idea of “America” would have never taken hold.

 

Our founding fathers were not a unified group of wise sages who knew exactly what was needed to spark a political revolution to bring freedom, prosperity, innovation, and a new nation into being. Our founding fathers were a diverse group who argued constantly and could hardly agree on how the states should relate to one another. The quartet that Ellis identified were instrumental in forming the idea that the states should operate in unison with a strong overarching government, something that felt dangerous given the revolution against central authority that had just been raged. Washington, a Virginian, was the public face of a new government, leading the way to convince the south that the ideas of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay were sound. Hamilton, Madison, and Jay engaged in an effort to convince the states that a unified constitution would be valuable, prosperous, and fair with the writing the Federalist Papers. Their arguments evolved over time and existed as an exploration of their constitutional idea as much as a clearly defined goal for a new nation. Without the actions of these four, the nation may have never gotten going. They created the idea of America and brought about the system of government that we know today.

 

It is important to remember how close things came to not happening. The stories we tell ourselves about our founding make it seem as thought America was destined to become a great nation. We talk about our founding fathers as though they were a unified group of impossibly wise leaders, but the reality was that they were political amateurs, fearful of dissent and tyranny and unsure about a national government to bring them together. Our politics today calls back the founding fathers and argues about their intents, but it is clear from reading Ellis’ book that even our founding fathers themselves were not clear about their own intent.

The Achievement is Not Really Yours

The great thing about an individualistic culture is that you get to own your success and feel great about your achievements. You can feel pride in winning a race, skiing down a mountain, having the best Christmas lights, or getting a promotion. Individualistic cultures treat these achievements as something more than just activities and outcomes. They become reflections of you and who you are, and in many ways your achievements become part of your identify. We show our friends our achievements on Facebook, we hang our achievements behind us on our office walls for everyone to see when they look at us, and we celebrate achievements with shiny objects that sit around on shelves and desktops.

 

Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to take a deeper look at our achievements than we typically do in an individualistic culture. He encourages us to look deeply at the successes in our lives and to ask how we contributed to the success, how other people had a hand in our success, and the role that luck played in our achievements. When we truly reflect on our achievements, we can begin to see that what we my think of as our own achievement was really a convergence of our own hard work and effort with many other factors that we had no control over. The outcome that we call an achievement is often less of something that we directly influence and more of something connected to the larger groups and societies to which we belong.

 

In detail, he writes, ” Recall the most significant achievements in your life and examine each of them. Examine your talent, your virtue, your capacity, the convergence of favorable conditions that have led to success. Examine the complacency and the arrogance that have arisen from the feeling that you are the main cause for such success.”  In my own life, I look back at my achievements and I never have a problem remembering the hard work that I put in to achieve my goals. It is easy to remember the studying and reading I put forward to graduate from college. It is easy for me to think about how much I did to earn my grades, but if I am being honest with myself, I can also see how often I was not serious about my studies and how often I was able to benefit from a nice curve on a test.

 

Hanh continues, “Shed the light of interdependence on the whole matter to see that the achievement is not really yours but the convergence of various conditions beyond your reach.” I received substantial financial support from an uncle during college, and as a result I did not have to work full time and was able to enjoy leisure time. I was able to focus on my studies and had time to be in the library because I did not have to work 40+ hours a week to support myself and complete college. My success academically is directly tied to the support I received from my uncle. I can think about completing my college degree as my own success and as a display of my own virtue, but I relied heavily on assistance from a family member, assistance I can take no credit in receiving.

 

What is important to remember, and what Hanh highlights, is that in an individualistic culture we are often too willing to give ourselves credit for our successes and to view our achievements as entirely our own. When we do this, we artificially inflate ourselves to levels that we do not honestly deserve. It is important that we acknowledge the assistance provided to us from a fortunate birth, our family, random strangers, great teachers, and sometimes from just being in the right place at the right time. Letting go of our achievement as badges of our identities reduces our arrogance and makes us more open to helping others and connecting with those who have not had the same fortune as ourselves.

All Options Policy

What I really liked about Colin Wright’s book Some Thoughts About Relationships is that he focused on more than just romantic relationships. Wright examines how humans interact with each other within all types of relationships from romantic relationships with an intimate partner, to business relationships, to cordial but surface level relationships with the mail man. With so many possible relationships out there, Wright developed a framework for thinking about the multitude of ways that humans can relate to each other. He calls it the “All Options Policy”.

 

About the policy, he writes, “The key to understanding this policy is accepting that there’s no single moral, upstanding, golden model when it comes to relationships. There are as many valid relationship types as there are people, and it’s up to each of us to figure out what unique, specific shape ours will take.”

 

I really like this policy and wish we did more to apply this policy to our relationships and to build similar policies across our lives. I grew up watching too much TV, and I developed certain expectations about life, work, and relationships. These expectations were narrow in scope because they were based on what I saw on TV and were unrealistic because they were less about me and more about a performance for someone else. The way I grew up assumed there was a right way to act, behave, relate to others, and generally live. My mindset was the opposite of the “All Options Policy.” What’s more, this worldview was formed by scripted 30 minute tv segments, where reality, nuance, and true emotions were replaced by spectacle and overblown emotional reactions.

 

When we fail to recognize the variety in human life and experience we begin to force people into set boxes. We make assumptions and we try to live within a narrow range. Expanding that scope the way that Wright does with the All Options Policy allows for more creative and authentic human experience. We all have unique views and perspectives of the world, and we should expect that we will all have the capacity for developing our own ways of relating to the world and to other people. When we allow this to be the case, we can think deeply about what we want, expect, and need from our relationships with others, think about what other people want, need, and expect from us, and find a way to develop relationships with the people in (or potentially in) our lives. If we try to force relationships to be something that we think society, TV shows, or other people want our relationships to be, then we will never experience the rich complexity and individuality of human existence that the All Options Policy reflects.

Completeness

Relationships are complicated and can be approached from many different directions. No matter how you approach a relationship, however, you will be more successful and authentic if you can be a complete version of who you are. I previously wrote about Colin Wright’s views of “The One,” the perfect person who exists for you and exists someplace else in this world for the sole purpose of completing you. Wright explains that this idea is dangerous because it implies that somehow we cannot be happy, complete, and lead fulfilling lives unless we magically find another other person who is a perfect fit for us.

 

Wright closes out his chapter on “The One” with the following, “You are the one. You are the only person in the world who can complete and fulfill you, and ensure your happiness.” Continuing, “You are born complete, you die complete, and you decide whom you spend your time with in between.”

 

If we wait for the right person to come along to improve our life, open new doors for us, and make us happy, we will constantly be unfulfilled. Each person we meet will be judged along impossible dimensions of how well we think that person completes us. We won’t allow them to be complete versions of themselves, and we won’t be happy with the person that they are unless they somehow manage to meet every preconceived expectation we have for a partner who will fill all shortcomings.

 

To recognize that we are complete requires that we become aware of the pressures we put on ourselves, the stories we tell ourselves about what matters and what does not, and the motivations behind our goals and desires. Completeness requires that we be honest about how we spend our time and the choices we make. Without honest self reflection we cannot recognize what in our lives contributes to a sense of wholeness, and what distracts us from achieving what we would like to achieve to feel complete. Building in habits of self-reflection and awareness will help us to be a more authentic version of ourselves, and then we can better connect with others in our lives to have more meaningful and honest relationships where we can both be complete versions of ourselves.