The Forgotten Fourth Branch of Government

I’ve often described the citizens of the United States as the fourth branch of the Federal Government. They are irrefutably the most important branch of government in America, and sadly they are also the most forgotten and neglected in governance.

The First part of the Constitution, the Preamble, describes the role of the people in the creation of government.

The First part of the Constitution, the Preamble, describes the role of the people in the creation of government.

The Founding Fathers first described the role of the people in government with the Declaration of Independence. When finished, it talked of the right of All men to establish a government to protect mutual interests, and that when government “becomes destructive of these ends,” it was the Right of the People to establish a new government in place of the old.

The State System of the United States was effected to ensure that local interests were addressed and acted upon by the State assemblies. Thus Massachusetts could enact legislation that suited the interests of a Boston Merchant, but did not become detrimental to the plantation owners of Virginia.

The Federal government, though, could protect the interests that applied to all states, such as foreign trade, negotiations between states, and territorial issues/disputes. Thus, before the Civil War, a common phrase was “The united States are…”

This revolutionary spirit of the rights of Men to focus the direction of government was eventually lost by those thirteen original states that fought for their independence from Britain. I’m heartened to say that later states did keep that spirit in their government. I would like to quote the Colorado Constitution (1876):

Article II, Section 2

“The people of this state have the sole and exclusive right of governing themselves, as a free, sovereign and independent state; and to alter and abolish their constitution and form of government whenever they may deem it necessary to their safety and happiness, provided, such change be not repugnant to the constitution of the United States.”

Thus the Coloradan Constitutional convention understood the spirit of the War for Independence 100 years before, and directly enumerated the rights of Men in self-government. Unfortunately, the Federal government created a hypocrisy with the Civil War, which I will discuss in more detail soon. 

“Americentrism”

A result of the economic, political, and socio-cultural changes of the 20th century in the United States has been an increased apathy for the rest of the world. The majority of modern Americans do not pay attention to the human race. A sad truth (discovered by this blogger) is that primetime news in America devoted on world news amounted to 2 minutes, 30 seconds of a 30 minute broadcast coming in sixth place as most time spent out of 7 (7,34 on advertisements, 5,26 on sports, 3,02 on a dog’s return to its owner, 4,25 on local news, 7,05 on weather).

This lack of coverage of the rest of the globe is not entirely the fault of the media. A safety net has been cast over the nation, helped by our vast size (quite a few countries are smaller than states), our 20th century role as superpower, and the lack of foreign influence on midland America especially. A joke I’ve heard is that two hours will get you into a whole different country in Europe, but only from DC to Pittsburgh in the US.

An observation that is necessary to understand this apathy is that the last foreign attack by a foreign country on the United States was Pearl Harbor in 1941, and before that the Civil War. The united States has had domestic peace for over 70 years. Our position as superpower after World War Two was cemented by our untouched, healthy factories that could rapidly spit out American manufactured goods for the rest of the shattered world.

This peace at home, coupled with the assumption that American might was second to none, made it easier for Americans to believe in the dominance of the United States, where the rest of the world was a satellite to American interests.

This Americentrism was cemented during the Cold War. The head-to-head with the USSR ended in an American victory, showing the superiority of the American military-industrial complex. As a result, many younger generation Americans have adopted this Americentrism, which has strained relations with other nations. Although the French can undoubtedly be a little standoffish at times, their frustration of and with American tourists is a result of American arrogance. I’ve even heard remarks such as “They owe us, we saved them twice from the Germans.” It’s interesting to note that American troops in World War I merely added to the standstill in France.

Relations with non-European nations have suffered greatly as a result of this arrogance. American interests have led to various military actions and coups, regardless of the will of the natives of those countries. Examples include the Shah of Iran (deposed and replaced by a popular government) Ghadafi of Libya (also deposed), and the War in Iraq.

For the first time since the end of World War II Americentrism has begun to decline in areas of the nation, brought on by military defeats by supposed ragtag militias, the defiance of other nations to US interests (think of Russia’s granting of asylum to Snowden, despite the protests of the Federal Government), and the decline in value of the almighty dollar. The world is pushing back at the United States, trying to free themselves of subservience.

The Difference Between History and the Past

Many Americans today are skeptical as to the necessity of History in educational curriculum. They also wonder about its everyday application. The biggest argument I can give is this:

In order to know where we’re going, we have to know where we’ve been. 

The reason we speak, write, communicate, dress, indeed function the way we do is a direct result of the decisions made by our ancestors, who made their decisions based on the decisions of their ancestors. A common theory that has sprouted out of this view of a world changed by decisions made, wars fought, and nations created is that of the Multiverse.

The simplest way to describe the multiverse is to look at a fork in the road. Or in the words of Robert Frost, “I took the road less traveled, and that has made all the difference.” Every decision a human makes can be characterized by a fork in the road under this theory. If you’re making a sandwich and can’t decide whether or not to put mayo on it, you have two choices: Take the road where you do put mayo on it, or take the road where you do not.

Each of these roads will have forks in them, and those forks will have forks, until you have an infinity of forks in the road. Ergo, the Multiverse theory stipulates that there are an infinite number of universes, all created and changed by the forks taken in their path.

Obviously that’s a very generalized and dumbed-down version of the very complex Multiverse theory. You’re probably wondering what does this have to do with history though?

I’m trying to emphasize that where we are today all depends on the forks in the road that our ancestors chose to take. And our descendants will be affected by the forks we choose. Which is why History and the Past are very important.

There’s a very distinct reason why I separate those two. There is a distinction between them, one that is important. I will attempt to explain both using my fork in the road analogy.

The Past

The past can be very simply defined as every event that has ever happened before the current time. In other words, it is the fork that has been chosen. Events of the past have all affected our arrival at the present.

History

History, however, is our perception of the past. It is us explaining why our ancestors made the choices they did. Perception of the past changes daily it seems, and from text to text. Prior to 1900, Western textbooks labeled Native Americans as savages, and a huge emphasis was placed on the superiority of the white race. This perception of the past even trickled in the South until as late as the 1970s.

Perceptions can also be misleading, as they are directly influenced by the beholders beliefs, customs, and society. An often overlooked, but major, example of perception’s role in changing events and world history as a whole can be found in the history of European colonisation of Africa.

By the early 19th Century the world’s continents had been well mapped out by Western powers, the exceptions being northwestern North America, and the entirety of Africa. African tribes lived along the coastline, trading with Western Merchants. But no European was allowed inland. This led to a Western theory that most of Africa was barren, and empty of Peoples. Thus it was Europe’s responsibility to go into this “Empty Land” and bring forth the fruits of its soil.

There were small Portuguese settlements along the bulge of Africa, and Britain had made an inroad in South Africa. As the British expanded north they encountered natives, but shrugged them off as little more than savages. The Empty Land Theory, which conveniently meant that no civilization (other than the Egyptians, who were not considered African) had existed on the African continent.

The theory had a major hole poked into it with the discovery in modern-day Zimbabwe of the ruins of a major city. Through the lens of their Eurocentric views, the British explained it away as an old white settlement that had been abandoned centuries before. Modern archaeologists today have confirmed it instead to be an ancient African society.

 

The perception we have of the Past is our lens through which we see. Modern America has slowly had an effect on the lens, and we do see world history from a less Eurocentric light. Unfortunately, it’s being subtly replace by an Americentric viewpoint. More on that later.

Air Conditioning: A Force For Change

In recent years, people have claimed that the advent of the internet and mobile phones has led to the lack of social interaction with people face to face, and that a rise in overall social awkwardness has happened as a result.

While those two things did make a huge contribution in the isolation of today’s interconnected society, the real culprit must be found more than eighty years ago.

Air conditioning in a general sense of the term has been around for thousands of years. The Ancient Egyptians would moisten palm fronds and hang them from windows, where the gradual evaporation of the water would cool the room. The modern sense of Air conditioning was a product of 19th century industrialization. Employers and Industries wanted a way to keep workers cool so as to combat heat exhaustion from constant exposure to machines.

This idea eventually shrunk down into common home use. By the 1970s a majority of Americans were enjoying mechanically cooled households, thus enabling them to stay indoors on hot summer days.

In the late 19th and early 20th century it had become common for people to spend their afternoons and early evenings resting in the shade of their porch, where a stray breeze could keep them cooler. This led to the societal norm of neighborhood walks, where people were welcome to stop at any home and gossip and enjoy refreshments (this is still the norm in small parts of the Southern United States).

The advent of air conditioning, coupled with the TV and radio, enabled Americans to spend their summer days indoors, enjoying creature comforts. Most of the country gradually let neighborhood walks fall by the wayside, leading to a slightly more anti-social society. This feeling would be expanded with late 20th Century technologies, coupled with an increased self-conscience and societal guilt.

While Americans today lead more relaxed lives as a result of such creature comforts, the downfalls can be seen in social interaction.

The Metamorphosis of the Presidency: 1788-1836

If you walk into the central Rotunda of the Capitol in Washington DC and look up, you shall see an 1865 fresco entitled The Apotheosis of Washington, or Washington’s transformation into a god. While it is probably the work of an imaginative artist, the last 235 years have seen the US Presidency transform from a head of state into essentially a god on Earth, his discretion able to wipe whole countries off the map should he decide to. Why does the President have so much power? And how did it get this way?

The fresco painted on the ceiling of the Capitol rotunda of Washington's transcendence into a God.

The fresco painted on the ceiling of the Capitol rotunda of Washington’s transcendence into a God

The Constitution’s President

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was concerned with having too strong of an executive in their new government. The statesmen present were aware of Britain’s problems under tyrannical monarchs in the past, and did not want their government to fail as a result of such leadership.

While some minorities–like Hamilton–did support a strong executive, maybe even a monarch, the majority of Convention delegates wanted the legislature to be the strongest of the three branches,but not too strong. This careful balance they tried to maintain led to the system of checks and balances each branch has on the other two. The President could not enforce and interpret law without funding from Congress, and his appointments for the Supreme Court had to be approved by the legislature.

The Constitution defined the power and authority of the President.

The Constitution defined the power and authority of the President.

The executive branch of the final draft of the Constitution was designed to give continuity to governance, and cleaned Congress’s hands of the dreary day to day operation of government. The delegates remembered all too well the Continental Congress’s inability to manage the thirteen colonies effectively. The only real power besides enforcement that the President was given by the Constitution was his role as head of the military. This allowed the military to consult with the President and be able to make decisions quickly without having to wait for debate and approval–as Washington’s Continental Army had to do.

The Constitution did give the President the ability to interpret his role as enforcer and how best to implement that. Washington started by creating the Cabinet, and several Departments designed to ease federal responsibilities; War, Treasury, State, and Justice. Presidents since then have increased the number of Departments in the Cabinet.

The Presidency from 1796-1844

Washington in his two terms kept true to the Presidency as defined by the Constitution, and limited his input into the creation of the Executive Branch and how it was going to operate. This included the creation of the Cabinet, the construction of a Navy, and planning the national capital at the request of Congress. 2nd President John Adams briefly expanded Presidential Powers when he signed and approved Congress’s Alien and Sedition Acts, which allowed the President to arrest and deport any who were considered threats to the Country, and to arrest those who spoke out against the government. These came at a time when war with France or England (and potentially both at the same time) was looming. These laws expired in 1808 without renewal.

A major–and permanent–expansion to Executive authority came in 1803, when 3rd President Thomas Jefferson purchased Louisiana from France without the consultation of Congress. The Executive Department was thus transformed into the shopper for the nation.

In 1812, James Madison was able to manipulate Congress into declaring war on Great Britain. He demonstrated the ability of the Executive to present slanted evidence to Congress, and use lobbyists to further his desires. While he claimed eventual victory in the war, in truth the British had the upper hand until the final days of conflict. The war ended as a stalemate.

7th President Andrew Jackson and his strong personality not only expanded Presidential authority, he expanded federal government authority and influenced American ideology of the time period. Many historians agree that Jackson was against large federal government, and Jackson himself stated that view. Yet some of his actions contradict this. With his election in 1828 came his widespread introduction of the patronage system, where federal positions were filled by friends and those loyal to his party. This system is very much in power today in Washington D.C.

Jackson also demonstrated to the states that the federal government was superior in the nullification crisis of 1828-32. Jackson went so far as to threaten military invasion of South Carolina should they refuse recognition of federal superiority. This affirmed the right of the President to raise arms against citizens of a rebellious nature, and he set the precedent that secession was treasonous and not allowed by the Constitution, something that would help on the road to Civil War.

Jackson further changed the nation by his forced uprooting of Native Americans from their ancestral lands, one of many factors that lead to the ideology of Manifest Destiny. Jackson paved the way for American conquest of a Continent.

The Origin of Politics in America

The United States from the start has been blessed–and marred–by politics. Our Constitution was laid out by a conglomeration of politicians and statesmen from the 13 original states. The interests of Southern states conflicted with Northern states, the large states conflicted with the smaller, industrial vs agricultural, etc…

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 succeeded through compromise. Had the statesmen present been unable to find a solution that everyone could accept, the current system of government might not have been implemented.

The Constitution of 1787 improved upon the earlier Articles of Confederation, fixed some flaws of that previous governance, and added new ideas and power to a central government. It allowed for a stronger executive, whose role was to enforce the legislation passed by Congress. He was also subject to Congressional Oversight. Congress was beefed up from one house to two, one being filled with proportional representatives (The House of Representatives, created to give more populous states more power in legislation), and the other composed of two statesmen of each state (The Senate, which ensured that smaller states and their interests would not be lost to the interests of larger, more populous states.)

The Legislature had very loose organization under the Constitution; most of it was created by the first Congress and traditions passed down. The position of Speaker of the House of Representatives was provided for by the Constitution, which also outlined which type of bills originated in which house. A general rule (though not entirely correct) is that the Senate oversaw Foreign and State affairs, while the House dealt with Internal Affairs.

The Judicial System was not entirely equal under the Constitution to the other two branches.The ideal of Judicial Review was not established until Chief Justice Marshall’s tenure. The Supreme Court since has transformed itself into the interpreter of the Constitution, and as such today it only chooses to review cases that deal with Constitutional implications.

The Convention of 1787 was divided into two groups after they presented it to the politicians of the 13 states. The Federalists advocated strongly for the ratification of the Constitution. They saw it as the necessary, obvious next step in American Independence. Those who opposed the Constitution were known as Anti-Federalists, which is a misnomer for the group. They did not directly oppose the Federalists. Instead, they were worried that state sovereignty would be compromised by the Constitution’s central government, and the lack of any provisions protecting individual rights. The majority of Anti-Federalists eventually conceded to support the Constitution when the Federalists promised that the first thing the Congress would do was create a “Bill of Rights.” Those first ten Amendments were passed by the first Congress in 1789.

After the Constitution was ratified and the federal government was organized, the first hurdles of federal-state relations were brought to the front. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was a strong advocate in Washington’s cabinet for the creation and definition of a stronger federal government. He convinced Washington to nationalize the state debts to make them indebted (literally) to the United States Government. Further, Hamilton decided that the success of American politics relied on the creation of a party system.

Several leading statesmen, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and to a smaller extent John Adams strongly opposed the formation of such a system, as they believed parties would lead to deadlock in the Congress and potential political coups like the ones that were common in the British Parliament. With the end of Washington’s second term as President and his death came the death of nonpartisan politics in American government. Starting with the election of 1796, and very apparent in the election of 1800 the US’s government was divided into two camps: The Federalists; and The Democrat-Republicans. Through the first quarter of the nineteenth century these parties organized and fought over Congress and the Presidency.

The Party system was then further transformed into a two-party system, with occasional third parties emerging to challenge this traditional order.

The United States Government of 1789 is vastly different from the US Government of 2013. Originally the President had little power over a variety of affairs. He was subject to the legislation of Congress, and required to enact it. The Presidency as we see it today is a result of previous Presidents’ justification of an increase in power to combat the hardships they had.

The Legislature of 1789 was less democratic than today’s, and to an extent less autocratic too. When the elections of 1788 were conducted, only property owning white males could vote for a Representative in the House, thus severely limiting the number of voters. Senators for each state were chosen by state legislatures, which in turn were typically controlled by the aristocracy of each state. It wasn’t until 1913 that states were required to provide for direct elections of Senators.

The Judicial System of 1789 did have less authority over governmental affairs than it does today. The ideal of judicial review was implemented early on, and the twentieth century Court was able to define its period using the teeth of review.

Why Am I Doing This?

I’ve tossed around the idea of creating a blog for a few months now. I was finally mobilized into doing it today as I was pondering about American apathy. I’ve decided to break this blog down into several sections about various aspects of American society. I’m more than welcome to hear other’s frustrations and/or opinions about these areas. Our country was founded on the right to disagree. 

I’m going to cover political, economic, military, and cultural changes/downfalls in the last century that have led to our precarious position today. This project will be no small task. 

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