One of the most profound moments in American history came in “the Revolution of 1800.” This phrase refers to the election of 1800 in which Democratic Republicans gained majorities in both the House and the Senate as well as winning the Presidency, effectively wresting control of both the executive and legislative branches of government from the Federalists who had retained it since the Constitution first went into effect. This may not sound like much of a revolution. After all, that is just what the Constitution tells us will happen when an election. They takes over the relevant seats of government, and if that means control government switches from one faction to the next, then so be it. That is how republican government works.
It is one thing to put that plan of action on paper, and it is quite another to put it into practice. The peaceful transfer of power from one party to another is by no means a forgone conclusion, as many people from all over the world can tell you. Those voted out of office, do not always leave peacefully. Sometimes they never leave at all. Given the rancor between the newly formed parties, and the scale of conflict occurring during the Adams administration, it was by no means a forgone conclusion that the plan of the Constitution would be followed. Could those behind the alien and sedition acts really be expected to surrender power to those who had produced the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions? The answer was by no means obvious.
What makes the revolution of 1800 significant is the fact that it took place without violence.
Oh there were plenty of efforts at manipulation to be sure. Lots of games in the counting of the votes. Still more games played in the effort to control the judiciary going forward. At the end of the day, however, the Federalists respected the outcome of the election, and they peacefully surrendered control of American government to the Democratic Republicans.
You can find it all over the net. The quote contained in it is extraordinarily popular in right wing circles. This should surprise nobody of course. It has George Washington singing the praises of private gun ownership as a means of preparing the population for possible war with their own government. The price of freedom, it seems to suggest, is the need to be ever vigilant against one’s own government, to be prepared at all times to rebel against that very government.
If you were to boil down the thinking of the Insurrectionists on January 6th, it might well be this quote right here.
There are different variations of the meme, to be sure, but the quote itself is near and dear to right wing America. They share it with each other, and with the rest of us, on a regular basis. I first encountered it when a friend posted it for my benefit on Facebook. I have seen it there many times since. The quote finds its way onto twitter every day. It certainly found its way into Parler a number of times before that crappy service found its way into oblivion. You can find the quote on Instagram. It’s all over Pinterest, compliments on websites like Zazzle and BrainyQuote. It certainly makes its way around Tumblr. You can find this quote on merchandise at various online outlets, …T-Shirts and such. I could go on, but you get the idea. This quote gets around. It’s popular.
I mean, it’s REALLY popular!
And it’s fake.
To be a bit more specific, the first 11 words of this quote are from the fourth paragraph of George Washington’s first address to Congress. Everything after that has been doctored so as to make it into a talking point for gun owner’s rights.
Here is the fake quote:
“A free people ought not only to be armed and disciplined, but they should have sufficient arms and ammunition to maintain a status of independence from any who might abuse them, which would include their own government.”
Here the original:
A free people ought not only to be armed but disciplined; to which end a Uniform and well digested plan is requisite: And their safety and interest require that they should promote such manufacturies, as tend to render them independent on others, for essential, particularly for military supplies.
So, what happens when you call people out on this? Well, sometimes, folks get the point. Some decent people actually take the correction and get on with their lives. More often, they refuse to believe they are wrong. Some just ignore you. Some sources, I suspect, are bots, programed to simply post this and other propaganda over and over without regards to any efforts to engage them. The most common response, I get, however is to tell me that the quote above is actually a paraphrase of something Washington actually said. Some even provide me with a link to the actual speech. (Whether or not they have read the speech is another question.)
In a parallel development, I have noticed a lot of people taking to twitter in recent years to post the actual quote above. This might well be a response to the fact that some of us keep addressing the fake quotes wherever we find it. Realizing they don’t need the fake quote, they use the real thing for pretty much the same political purpose. In their minds, the real thing is still very much a statement about the importance of the Second Amendment. It may not contain an explicit prescription for revolution-readiness, but at least it makes the case for private gun ownership, ad we all know what that means…
The problem is, it doesn’t.
If you read the rest of Washington’s speech, you can see quite clearly that its overwhelming theme is the exercise of the Federal government’s newly expanded powers. Yes, that’s right, Washington was actively working to expand the powers of the Federal Government, as did many of the founding fathers now celebrated by those whose very definition of evil is encapsulated in the phrase “big government.” One of the powers Washington was most happy to have at his disposal was the ability to outfit a viable military force. THAT is what this paragraph is about. It is nestled in between two other paragraphs that are most explicitly about troops and preparations for war. Keep reading that same speech, and you find Washington speaking quite explicitly about the prospect of war with Indians in the present-day southeast.
Among the many interesting objects, which will engage your attention, that of providing for the common defence will merit particular regard. To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.
A free people ought not only to be armed but disciplined; to which end a Uniform and well digested plan is requisite: And their safety and interest require that they should promote such manufactories, as tend to render them independent on others, for essential, particularly for military supplies.
The proper establishment of the Troops which may be deemed indispensible, will be entitled to mature consideration. In the arrangements which may be made respecting it, it will be of importance to conciliate the comfortable support of the Officers and Soldiers with a due regard to œconomy.
What Washington is actually talking about is the ability to field an army. He sees this as an essential exercise of the powers newly granted to the Federal Government under its new Constitution. He is urging Congress to encourage the manufacture of weapons so that the armies of the United States will not have to rely on foreign powers to arm them in the event of any future war.
Just to be clear, the prospect of such future wars certainly does include the possibility of open rebellion, but Washington isn’t arguing that citizens might need to rebel against their own government. If anything, he is mindful of the prospect that he might need to put down such a rebellion. Remember, it was Shays’ Rebellion that triggered the urgent need for a constitutional convention in the first place. Its purpose was to fix perceived weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation, specifically, the inability of the central government under that plan to tax the population directly so as to give it the means of fielding an army capable of putting down such an insurrection when it happens again. That’s right. The trigger for creation of the U.S Constitution was the need to put down rebellions, and Washington himself was fully down with that very agenda. Lest anyone think this might have been idle speculation, one has only to remember the whiskey rebellion.
When private citizens decided to rebel against the Federal government over taxation while Washington, foreshadowing so many of the themes of modern right wing politics, far from backing the rebels, Washington sent troops to put down that very rebellion.
Now there is an interesting detail here insofar as the troops in question took the form of a militia. I reckon some might say, “See! See, that’s what we are talking about,” but of course that ignores the difference between the actually regulated militias of Washington’s day, and the self-appointed weekend warriors who call themselves militias today. More to the point, it ignores the fact that the militia in the Whiskey Rebellion was not defending itself from “their own government”; it was actually serving as the arm of enforcement for that very government. You see, that Constitution whose powers Washington wants to flex here gives Congress authority over the militia, a provision quite controversial at the time, and arguably one of the inspirations for the Second Amendment still in draft form as Washington made this speech. One of the newly expanded powers of the Federal government Washington is actually trying to build upon in this very speech is power to arm and control the militia.
The enumerated powers of Congress includes the following:
To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;
To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;
Hopefully, you caught the part about “suppressing insurrections.”
Because that’s what Washington actually did on his own watch.
This meme would have us believe Washington would side with the rebels. This meme would have us believe that Washington was hyping the virtues of an Amendment not yet ratified as a means of countering the very power he was actually seeking to build in his First Address to Congress.
This meme is a lie.
It is not a paraphrase of Washington’s actual statement, and it is not (as several folks have assured me) an honest description of Washington’s actual views. It is not an honest mistake; it’s not a different point of view.
One of the most beautiful gifts of the internet is the ability to learn at a glance the wisdom of America’s founding fathers. In fact, one can often find these pearls of wisdom beautifully packaged in nice visuals. They are perfect for a tweet or a quick illustration, and so very informative. Most of all, they are ever so conveniently one quick google away.
Take for instance the warning these men left for us regarding the evils of big government! Thomas Jefferson is particularly valuable in this regard. Why you could almost imagine him to be commenting directly on current affairs couldn’t you? Isn’t Tom just swell?
(You may as usual click to embiggen any of these quotations)
Thomas Jefferson was particularly keen on the importance of political dissent.
Thinking along similar lines, our founding fathers spoke directly to the issue of gun control. I mean, these comments are just so perfect. You’d almost think some of these quotes had been written by folks working for the NRA. Check it out!
More than that! Our great founders were no friends of the nanny state. They were quite clear that people shouldn’t expect too much from government. It’s there to give everyone a chance, but folks really shouldn’t expect any more than that. You read some of these things, and you can’t help thinking it’s almost as if they were actually thinking about the New Deal. I guess these guys were just prescient or something.
James Madison wouldn’t have any truck with this notion of a living constitution. He’d school the modern liberals right quick about that nonsense!
On religion, let me tell you, the founders of our great nation were clear about the importance of the Christian faith!
Oddly, the founders were also pretty damned clear about the evils of Christianity. Apparently, they had strong views on that too.
…It’s just a little strange.
I know this is getting to be a tiresome theme in this post, but the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson is not to be outdone. At times, he could almost seem to be a contemporary motivational speaker. Watch out Tony Robbins!
Not to be outdone, even George Washington carved his legacy into this little gem about taking responsibility for one’s personal mistakes.
Honestly, the wisdom of the founding fathers would seem to be amazing at times. Sometimes their prescience is uncanny. It’s an amazing thing to see just how well-suited their statements can be to present-day matters. Luckily, that wisdom was not limited to the original founders. It was around in the civil war era too. Could anyone possibly be more on the mark than Abraham Lincoln?
At what point does hope of success in world of rigged economic competition become indistinguishable from belief in the rewards of heaven? At what point does hope for a better life in this world become no more meaningful than hope for a better life in the next?
We’ve all heard the old historical narratives about medieval peasants living in the hope of an afterlife. The point of that narrative is usually some sort of contrast with a more open society, one in which upward social mobility is actually possible in THIS life. It’s a tidy narrative, perhaps a bit to tidy.
How many Americans, I wonder, will live their entire lives in trailer courts and small apartments, all the while counting themselves so much better off than those peasants?
Hell! Who could fault anyone for living with hope? Assuming of course that hope doesn’t interfere with their sense of reality, I sure wouldn’t. Unfortunately, the American dream is slipping further and further from our grasp. Ironically, the more distant that dream gets the harder some people fight to hold on to the illusion that it’s still a viable prospect in our current social order.
Heaven forbid a national healthcare system! Damn the welfare queens! The Hell with minimum wage, and let’s privatize Social Security!
I get why some of the economic elites would make such noises, but the every day believer in the free market is often a mystery to me? It seems that such people don’t just want success; they want it on terms which make it incredibly unlikely to ever happen. And in the meantime they reject all manner of public assistance, much of it critical to their own health and welfare. It isn’t even enough to survive; one must survive under the present terms.
In this religion, ‘socialism’ is the Devil, and one of its magic powers is an ever broadening semantic domain. It is increasingly the root evil behind social institutions that have stabilized the American economy for nearly a century. But what makes this rather a-historical devil so powerful in the minds of the average trailer-court Republican? I can’t help thinking it’s in some sense an affront to the just world hypothesis, that vague sense that the world is basically good. If that world is good, then any righteous American ought to be able to make it on his own, so the thinking appears to go. In the end it’s the promise of a certain type of success these folks cling to so desperately, one which is no less fantastic than any waiting beyond the Pearly Gates. The success they hope for is not just paid bills and a good meal on the table; it’s a success that vouches for their own moral superiority, and it is a success promised only in a world that will separate the righteous from the unworthy. It is a success held in the minds of the faithful with all the power and desperation that one could ever find among the faithful of any church. Only a dark force would suggest that this hoped for scenario wasn’t actually going to happen, and only such a dark force could be blamed for the reason it hasn’t so far. The only reason the system hasn’t worked up to this point is that someone, some dark power, has compromised the system. And so people falling further and further behind the great contest for sucess they believe in so much work ever so hard to remove one more piece of the safety net that keeps them in the game at all.
…and in some instances, keeps them alive.
What has me thinking about this was a recent reminder that ‘Democracy’ was one of the great fears plaguing some of our nation’s founding fathers. The fear that the masses would, if given the chance, vote away the privileges of the wealthy and redistribute that very wealth was quite real for the likes of John Adams or even James Madison. I wonder if these men could ever have envisioned a nation of people so content to wait for their boat to come in, so pleased to work away their lives in the hope that the labor would somehow return far more than it ever had before.
If and when the ‘job makers’ ever deem it the right time!
It’s no small wonder that so many who believe in the promise of eternal heaven would also believe in that of Free Markets. It seems that the gods of each work in mysterious ways.