Rope of Sand

The creed of States’ Rights is a myth, one that only exists in the selfish vacuum of political rhetoric. If exploited as the only answer to the country’s problems, remember States’ Rights never solved a thing. Not in America.

Ours is a federal system of concurrent powers, where centralized authority layers with state and local governments simultaneously. This system has been functioning for over two hundred years.

The most lethal challenge to centralized authority erupted in the Civil War. But that bloody conflict was certainly not the first confrontation.

Years earlier, American representatives, in an attempt to unify the fledgling states, drafted a national blueprint called the Articles of Confederation.

Much like assembling a car while driving down the road, political leaders in 1777 tried to forge a national government to function through the uncertain, and perilous era of the Revolution. But this initial model to link the original 13 States proved rather feeble in practice.

The fatal flaw woven into the Articles was leaving too much power in the hands of the states. Each delegation mistrusted any form of centralized power that could coerce deference, even in the face of British invasion. In fact, the Confederation Congress could not even gather enough votes to ratify the document until the end of the Revolution.

The sticking point holding up cooperation concerned vast western land claims. For example, states like Virginia and New York, refused to give up one acre for the war effort. Potential profits from the sale of these lands would have helped offset mounting expenditures. And Congress, nearly bankrupt, with no real clout, could do little beyond promise to help Washington’s Army.

Poorly clad, poorly armed, suffering from desperate scarcity, the General admitted privately he believed “the game was nearly up.”

Drifting, rudderless, Congress fretted, begging for loans from abroad, and printing worthless paper money.

Worse, states such as New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, preferred transactions with the coin-rich Brits, filling their personal coffers in pounds and shillings. As prospects for America’s victory looked grim, each state dug in, defending their own interests first.

Historians often use the term “rope of sand,” to describe the deficiencies and impotence of this early attempt at self governance. Lacking any real prestige, inevitable bloodshed quickly ensued among the thirteen quarreling fiefdoms. Navigation rights, interstate trade, and clashes over currency exchange, nearly dissolved the fragile union.

In that critical moment Alexander Hamilton and James Madison jointly called for a new convention to “revise” the Articles. In reality, both men intended to completely dump them for a new, stronger plan.

A recently retired George Washington chaired a new convention assembled in Philadelphia the summer of 1787. This Constitutional Convention remedied many of the ills of the struggling nation.

This lesson from the past remains relevant. We are better together than alone. My state, for example could never bear the seasonal cost of road construction, nor of fire fighting. Recent Covid-19 policies have proven the futility, and folly of every state grasping for themselves.

The events of January 6, 2021 raises a similar question. Do we come out of this unrest a weakened and vulnerable rope of sand? Or does this Constitution sustain itself in this moment?

E Pluribus Unum

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available on Kindle or at http://www.river-of-january.com.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Endurance

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Three early American documents are often lumped together in our collective memory, though each is quite different from the others; The Declaration of IndependenceThe Articles of Confederation, and the enduring US Constitution. Citizens generally know something of the Declaration due to a certain celebration we observe each summer. The Articles of Confederation are a bit more elusive, and not nearly as recognized. The third, the US Constitution is revered, but its beginnings, and purpose is also shrouded in time. 

Here is a quick explanation of each missive, particularly the sequence, and the significance of each.

The Declaration of Independence: July 4, 1776. A product of the Second Continental Congress, this revolutionary document was ratified as an instrument of rebellion, after all other measures to avoid war with England had failed. In reality, the shooting had begun a year earlier in Lexington, Massachusetts, but the Declaration formalized hostilities. Debated and delayed, this document was finally adopted in July of that year. Congress made crystal clear their reasons and resolve to free themselves from King George’s arbitrary rule. Penned by Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration began with a guiding statement about “Natural Right’s” shared by all humanity, and that people had the obligation to free themselves from unjust tyranny. The rest of the epistle read as a legal document condemning the King and his despotism. This document is the first of the three in forging the United States of America. 

The Articles of Confederation: September, 1777. The Articles provided America’s first national charter of government. Approved by the same Second Continental Congress in 1777, the Articles attempted to unify the original states under one government. Through this document, Congress sent diplomats abroad, including Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, to (beg) obtain financial support from European powers. However, at home, this framework failed miserably. More a Confederation of independent principalities, Congress had to plead for money and men from each state, who often said no. There was no power to tax, no centralized currency, and the Articles weren’t even ratified by all 13 states until a month before the war ended at Yorktown. Each state jealously guarded its own interests over any unified cooperation. Congress could do next to nothing to aid General Washington and his army. Chaos ensued after the war ended, as well. Trade wars flared, disagreements among the states spilled over into violence, and rebellions within states promised more turbulence. The ability of America to govern itself appeared doomed. The English were sure America’s failure was imminent, and they could, once again, swoop in.

The United States Constitution: May to September, 1787. Born from an earlier 1786 meeting between Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in Annapolis, MD, the Constitutional Convention was organized and slated for Philadelphia in May. Both founders understood that without persuading Washington to attend this new Convention, any success was remote. Washington, tending his home at Mount Vernon, was hesitant, and tired. However, when news reached the General of an uprising in Western Massachusetts, (Shays Rebellion), Washington agreed to attend. Fifty-five delegates from all the states except Rhode Island, reported to the Pennsylvania Statehouse in Philadelphia. Most were lawyers, sprinkled with many Southern slave holders. Virginian, James Madison came prepared with a plan to replace the feeble Articles of Confederation. Much of Madison’s Virginia Plan became the basis of the Constitution. Designed for endurance, this new charter vested authority in the Central government, and the states. Termed Federalism, powers under this frame of government are shared between both authorities simultaneously. The tooling of the document, employing separation of powers, and checks and balances is brilliant, and worked well until 2016.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” both on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Peer Review #2

Strutting through the broad, gilded doors, bearing the black and gold insignia of his building, the President acknowledged well wishers, reporters, and staff. Happy to be back in New York, he looked forward to his familiar apartment and comfortable bed. The President felt it a hardship to live in such an old structure in Washington, though the prestige made it tolerable.

He aimed directly toward the elevator, his closest aides and Secret Service agents in tow. The Chief Executive marched into the lift, with a triumphant gait, gracing photographers with a last thumbs up, as the golden doors silently sealed.

Soon enough, the elevator car slowed to a silent halt, the opening doors revealing an opulent penthouse. His entourage emptied first into the golden rooms, Secret Service staff sweeping for any dangers that might threaten the Commander in Chief. After the officers cleared the master bedroom, the President loosened his tie, slipped off his suit jacket and kicked off his designer shoes. Exhaling onto his grand bed, a sudden movement caught his eye.  

A tall man, of regal bearing stood by the window, surveying Midtown from on high. Attired in a blue uniform, trimmed with buff lapels and cuffs, the man’s hair looked powdery white, and was bound in a queue at the nape of his neck. 

Stunned, gasping at this extraordinary vision, the President froze, too astonished and frightened to speak.

“I’m very fond of New York,” the officer began. “During the War for Independence I remained in the vicinity waiting to reclaim it from British occupiers.” He glanced at the frightened man, now burrowing under his bedclothes. “As Chief Executive, I served both terms of office here in New York.”

The President could hear his heart pounding, and idly worried about his blood pressure.

“I, too, struggled with temptation,” the officer continued. In my youth I pined for the advantages of wealth that surrounded me.” The apparition glanced at the President. “Land, military rank, social standing, . . . these were the empty ambitions I embraced as valuable.”

The President slowly began to feel his heart rate slow, the adrenaline somewhat dissipating, and found the courage to speak. “Ho, . . . how did you get in here?” 

But the soldier did not reply, turning again toward the view of Manhattan. 

“Over time, particularly once the war commenced, I discovered my assumptions slowly crumbling. The sacrifices endured by the fine men in my command taught me that there were more important ideals than fleeting treasure,” the apparition sighed, emotion emphasizing his revelation. “You must realize,” the officer turned again toward the President, eyes blazing with conviction, “all a man truly possesses is reputation. In the end, that is all that matters.” 

Dread again filled the President, clutching tightly his golden comforter, finding no comfort. He wished the specter gone, praying with all his might that a staffer would hear and rescue him.

“You must understand,” the visitor continued, “I, too, struggled to master my avarice and envy. It was through a determined practice of self-restraint, a mastering of my baser desires, that I learned to be of service to more than myself.” The soldier paused a moment, studying the frightened man grasping his bedding. “Did you know that Article Two in the Constitution was written for me?” 

Hearing this, the President forgot his fear for a moment. 

“For you?” he managed to murmur. 

“When I relinquished my command after the war, and returned to my home in Virginia, Congress judged my character upright. In truth I was weary, lonely for my family, and yearning for a peaceful life,” the General smiled sadly. “However, when I gave up power I earned honor, trust—a good name—and contentment.”

“Why are you bothering me? You should leave,” the President moaned, wishing he had flown instead to Florida. But his visitor seemed not to hear. 

“When the Constitutional Convention set to work, only one day was devoted to defining the role of president. One day,” the visitor repeated. “You see, the delegates wanted no more of arbitrary rule, believing only those of good character would occupy the office.” The apparition looked directly at the President,”

“Please go,” the President whimpered. “I’ll call my men . . .”

The General interrupted, “they are not yours, Sir. And therein lies the problem, and the purpose of my visit.” The soldier frowned deeply. “These deputies work for the American people, as do you, sir. The presidency is a position of service and trust.” He paused. “We have all noted your general deficiency in this aspect.”

“We all?” gasped the President, concerned with his pumping heart.

The General approached the vast bed, the President shrinking deeper with each step. “The President is entrusted with formidable powers, that must not be corrupted. In this you have fallen short.”

“As I am remembered in the annals of America for quiet dignity and fidelity to country, you will only be recalled as a cynical moneychanger who profited from foreigners and plutocrats.”

A knock at the bedroom door startled the cocooned President, breaking the spell. His elaborate, golden bedroom was empty.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both are available on Kindle or in hardcopy at http://www.river-of-january.com.

gailchumbley@gmail.com