Saturday, June 13, 2009

Centralization Begets Disharmony

One of the themes that runs through the writings of most of the Founding Fathers is opposition to political party. The opposition is found not only among the Federalists, who were the majority, centralizing party of the 1790s, but also among the Democratic Republicans, who were the opposition party in the 1790s and became the one dominant party in the "era of good feelings" after 1800. Both Hamilton and Jefferson disliked parties. In the Federalist Madison argued that faction posed a threat to liberty. Part of the opposition to political parties was the interest in harmony. References to classical history, such as the overthrow of the Roman republic by the centralizing Julius Caesar, who established an empire in place of the Roman republic, and to Athens. As well, more recent sources such as Bolingbroke and Trenchard and Gordon's Cato's Letters, were influential. According to Richard Hofstadter in Idea of a Party System (University of California Press, 1972, p. 14) Trenchard and Gordon were quoted more frequently than Locke in the Founding Fathers' writings. As well, Hofstadter argues that Washington may have seen himself as a non-monarchical realization of Bolingbroke's "Patriot King". Bolingbroke was a Tory, not a Whig, yet the Founding Fathers valued his ideas. In America, the Federalists were the equivalent of the court or Tory Party and the Democratic Republicans of Jefferson were the equivalent of the country or Whigs. Note that in the Federalist 10 Madison attacks "faction", a term which in those days referred to parties, or a more intensive, self-interested form of party. It did not exactly mean special interest group as it might today, although the meaning was close.

In part to understand the context of Bolingbroke and anti-faction libertarians like Trenchard and Gordon it is necessary to refer to de Juvenal's 1945 On Power, about which I have just been blogging. Understanding of medieval history was not so strong in the 18th century. Although Montesquieu's Spirit of Laws was a path breaking source on the subject, the Founding Fathers, like most Europeans, had a better understanding of classical (Greek and Roman) history than of the Middle Ages. Europeans did not have a firm understanding of their more recent tribal history or of the relations among the three estates, clergy, nobility and commoners. The concept of the great chain of being that dominated medieval thought was still smoldering--witness the property requirements for voting that were adopted in America. Nevertheless, the historical context preceding the 15th century was not utmost in their minds. But that history, as de Juvenal points out, were critical to understanding the more recent past, especially the English Civil War, a major factor in the 18th century's dread of party and faction.

Prior to the Tudor Kings in, the 15th century and earlier, Europe was considerably more decentralized than it is now. The barons, dukes and lords who were tenants of the king, had considerable power. In many cases their ancestors had been soldiers and officers in the invading barbarian armies, and their inherited rule originated in conquest. Much of medieval history involved the kings' wresting of power from these local rulers. The decentralization was overlaid not only by the king, who frequently had very limited resources, but also by the Church. Thus, the king's power was considerably restricted not only by decentralization and the nobility, but also by the Church. Moreover, there were considerable customs inherited from the barbarian codes, Roman law, local custom and Church law that limited the kings' power. The Hapsburg's' Holy Roman Empire, for instance, was dotted with various local duchies and dukedoms that had widely varying rules for how kings might comport themselves. Although the Hapsburg's were the most powerful family in Europe, they had limited power in their various holdings. The fact that they held a multiplicity of titles is evidence of the various restrictions on their power.

Henry VII and Henry VIII took a variety of centralizing steps in England. Among the most important was that they abolished the affinities of the English nobility, that is, the nobility's armies with which they could threaten the king. As well, Henry VIII took control of church lands, abolished monasteries which were a source of independent local power and granted considerable power to court officials like Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Moore. He brutally suppressed Protestants as well as taking control of the Church. The court officials like Wolsey and Moore, early versions of state bureaucrats, could give out offices and favors. This included employing commoners as court officials. De Jouvenal emphasizes that the European kings in general, not just Henry VIII, gained considerable power between the 12th and 17th centuries by playing the commoners against the nobility. This meant establishing bureaucracies that gave employment to commoners, who in turn fought the nobility for power. This was accelerated in England during Henry VIII's reign.

Attendant upon Henry VIII's centralization of power was the move from Catholicism to Protestantism. Henry VIII assumed the mantle of the Pope, accruing additional power to himself and removing the historical limits that the Church set on kingly power. However, not everyone agreed on religious questions, and there ensued more than a century of bitter violence, strife, warfare and murder concerning religion, culminating in the English Civil War of the 1640s.

Viewed in large perspective, Henry VIII's centralizing steps contributed to the way the religious disagreements were mishandled. The Founding Fathers recognized this in separating Church and state. However, the Constitution was in the centralizing tradition, uniting the 13 colonies under a federal government that had more power than it had under the Articles of Confederation. The fear of faction had the same source as the interest in separation of church and state, but the Founding Fathers took a somewhat more particularistic approach in that they allowed private decision making with respect to religion but not with respect to other issues that might create factions such as the establishment of a central bank and tariffs. How far should unification go? The history of centralization was largely the development of totalitarianism. The first modern mass murders occurred under Cromwell's treatment of the Old English Irish Catholics and in the following century 16,000 Frenchmen were killed in the French Revolution.

Centralization begets conflict because if the nation is to function in harmony there must be agreement, and by uniting disparate localities and cultures into a single nation the kings and then the centralizing republicans were bound to create disagreement.

To the extent that the central government aims to manage conflict, it has to take one of four conflict resolution steps:

-Ignore the conflict by downloading decision making to the or localities. This was the basic federalist approach, which permitted a new way to look at decentralization. The medieval approach was tenancy and feudalism overlaid on manorial farming and often serfdom. The American approach, which reflected a centralizing move from 13 more independent states under the Articles of Confederation to 13 states under a stronger federal government under the Constitution with a free citizenry with inalienable rights largely composed of freemen farmers
-Compromise. By compromise I mean split the difference. This was the approach taken with respect to slavery. Limits were put on the slave trade (abolished in 1808, I believe) and over time the spread of slavery through the various compromises you study in high school, the Missouri Compromise, etc.
-Forcing, i.e., warfare or the threat of warfare. This was the outcome of the failure of the compromises concerning slavery
-Collaboration, finding creative solutions to apparent disagreements.

The point is, to the extent that the centralizing theme of Federalism was to take hold, the amount of conflict was bound to increase, and conflict was bound to become more prevalent, subverting the aim of harmony. If disagreement was to be suppressed, as it was during the Civil War, then freedom (at least for the non-slaves) was to be restricted. Compromise also led to a restriction on freedom because compromise amounts to splitting the difference. Collaboration is always the best way to solve problems, but how could the nation have found a collaborative solution concerning slavery? One idea that has been suggested would have been for the North to buy out the slaves. The combined cost of the Civil War for both sides might have covered a large share of the cost of buying out the southern slave holders. As well, it would have probably limited the bitter racism and resentment against the freed slaves.

Thus, the reason the founding fathers feared factions was the English Civil War, which in turn was the product of several centuries of medieval centralizing by the English (and European) kings. The opponents of faction and party, such as Bolingbroke and Trenchard and Gordon, were reacting to the recent history of the English Civil War, which had been preceded by religious discord, which in turn was the product of the kings' eagerness to centralize power.

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