If you are tempted to consider partisanship and gridlock in Washington as a relatively new phenomenon over which you ring your hands and blame the politicians for their fecklessness, I suggest you read any of the biographies or histories of the American Revolution. I have just completed reading Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution, written by Charles Rappleye, (625 pages with notes and index).
Morris was the Superintendent for Finance and Secretary for Marine of the Continental Congress from 1781 to 1784. In effect, he was the first executive of the combined States, who was responsible for financing the patriot forces, the functioning of Congress, and the establishment of credit and payments on the debts. He operated as chief executive without the title. He established the Bank of North America, and created instruments of investment and credit that laid the foundation for Wall Street and the securities industry. He did this in the face of much opposition from his countrymen who distrusted merchants, traders, and wealthy financiers. The divisions between Wall St. and Main St. are nothing new! He had to educate his compatriots about the arcane nature of finance and international trade.
He had to find funds when the Articles of Confederation prevented him from leveling any taxes except on imports, and the Royal Navy had blockaded the ports and brought trade to a standstill. The States retained the power to tax and were reluctant to share any funds to pay for Washington’s army.
Partisanship and bickering between the states nearly lost the war. States took on debt and paper money depreciated in value. Inflation eroded purchasing power. Credit was hard to obtain. France and the Netherlands were the only two countries to provide loans.
The writing and ratification of the Constitution provided the framework for the new country to function but there were still deep divisions between the Federalists and the Democrats. Not least were two contentious issues: where the new federal capital was to be located, and the problem of federal and state debt. After many debates, votes, and late night meetings, Morris and his friends negotiated the great compromise of 1790. The Virginia delegates did not want to assume the debts of the federal government and the other states, but they did want the federal capital. Morris persuaded them to accept the assumption of all state debts by the federal government in return for which the new federal district would be located on the Potomac. It was pure horse-trading.
Debate is essential to a democracy. There will always be differences. Through the process of argument for one side or another, compromise will eventually become possible. Opposition to the majority party, or to the chief executive, is not considered disloyalty or unpatriotic. Maligning the character of our opponents does not help, but it feels good to the vilifier. Read the newspapers published during the American Revolution and you will find all sorts of scurrilous attacks on men who were trying to serve their country. Militias roamed the streets of Philadelphia harassing their political opponents.
Opposition tests the policies that are proposed. In our separation of powers, the checks and balances may slow decisions down, but they prevent the tyranny of one group over another. Unicameral systems, or the dictatorship of a chief executive, are dangerous. Sure, they get things done quickly, but they do so at a tremendous cost of riding roughshod over those who disagree. I would rather have our frustrating system than the tyranny of the majority. Elections have consequences. No doubt the national debate will be continued through the election cycle, and we will have the opportunity to vote for what we consider to be needed. We get the government we deserve.
If you think that we are in the worst of times read some history. If we don’t learn from the lessons of history we are condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past. St. Paul reminds us:
“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 15:4,5)