Sunday, February 07, 2016

Our Rights as Americans

We Americans talk about "rights" all the time. But what are our rights? What do we mean by rights? Where do they come from?

In this and the next few essays, I will discuss our concept of rights and where they come from.

In most other countries, a citizen's rights are either listed in their constitution, if there is one, or in laws either passed by the legislature or declared by the president, prime minister, monarch or dictator. These rights are often very malleable, changing at the whim of the government.

The United States, however, is very different. Our most basic founding document, the Declaration of Independence, defines the concept of "rights" as it applies to the American people. In paragraph 2, it states:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

In this remarkable document, our Founding Fathers declare that mankind has a creator and that this creator granted certain rights, foremost of which are:

  • Life
  • Liberty
  • The pursuit of Happiness

These rights are not enshrined in law. From the deeply religious point of view of our Founding Fathers, there was no need to, since they were granted by the creator of all mankind. For this, they drew their inspiration from the great English philosopher, John Locke, and specifically from his essay Two Treatises of Government which was published in 1689. As this is a long and unwieldly work, an annotated extract of relevant passages from the second treatise may be found here.

They defined "government" as a creation of mankind and, thus, must exist and operate with the consent of the governed. This, at the time, was a really radical idea. In Europe and most of the rest of the world, government was created by conquerers, whether you called them dictator, emperor or monarch, and the governed had no choice. In most of the world of today, the governed still do not have a choice.

In fact, twice in our short history, we have taken this radical step and thrown out one government and established a new one. The first time was in 1776, when we declared ourselves independent of Great Briton. The next government we established was under the Articles of Confederation. When this form of government failed to work well, we tossed it out in 1787, adopting the Constitution of the United States.

This Constitution remains the legal basis for our nation. In the next installment, I will discuss the rights granted in this 225-year old document.

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Thursday, January 28, 2016

Flint, MI Water Woes Redux

Yesterday, documentary filmmaker Michael Moore said something I agree with: that sending bottled water to Flint is not a solution:

While he appreciates the generosity put forth by so many corporations and celebrities who continue to send pallets upon pallets of plastic bottles to the city, it’s not the right fix. It’s a short-minded, short-term solution that doesn’t even begin to approach the real problem (MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, 1/27/2016)
Instead, he proposed that the Federal Government take over solving the water contamination problem in Flint, Michigan. Although his heart is in the right place, his idea creates more problems than it solves.

Yes, the now corroded pipes in the Flint water system need to be dealt with. Safe water must be delivered to the residents. This is not the issue. The big issue is that turning this over to the Federal Government will create a very bad precedent. There are many cities and towns in our country who have failed to invest sufficient funds to properly maintain their water infrastructure. These systems not only leak badly, but are prone to the same corrosion problems seen in Flint. If the Federal Government bails out Flint, mayors and city managers from all across the country will line up at the door of whichever Federal agency takes over the problem. This will force the Federal Government to create a whole new bureaucracy just to deal with these water systems — remember, each water system is unique: there can not be a one-size-fits-all solution. The financial cost will rival Medicaid costs or the Department of Defense budget for several decades while the work gets done. And, just when the work is initially complete, these cities and towns will line up again because they have allowed the problem to recur. Of course, to justify its continued existence, this new Federal water distribution bureaucracy will gladly replace these systems again.

A Federal takeover of Flint's water system is unfair to all of those private water companies and municipalities who have done an excellent job maintaining their systems and to those millions of Americans who draw water from their own wells. Why should these Americans pay for the incompetence, criminal negligence and greed of those who did not maintain their water system?

I believe the best solution is for the Federal Courts to order, with Court oversight, Genesee County and the city of Flint to replace the pipes. To do this, the city may have to raise local taxes or contract its service area or both. Like Detroit and many other "Rust Belt" cities, Flint has far fewer residents than twenty or thirty years ago. Tearing down derelict and abandoned houses and businesses can solve many problems, if done right. Demolition and utility replacement can become a source of jobs and job training for many out-of-work residents – providing them with job skills that are portable to other areas and transferable to other forms of construction. With proper planning, this can be a powerful economic engine for Flint for at least a decade, if not longer.

I also agree with Michael Moore when he says the people, including Governor Rick Snyder, should go to jail over what happened in Flint. I believe that this list should include current and previous elected officials of the City of Flint, Genessee County, the State of Michigan and various Federal agencies who allowed the system to deteriorate, failed to raise "red flags" about how the switch to Flint River water was done, and knew or should have known that contamination by lead and other heavy metals was a possibility.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Water Woes in Flint, Michigan

I guess you heard by now, a state of emergency has been declared in Flint, MI because of their water woes. If you have not, the quick synopsis: the public utility that supplies most of the water to the city of Flint, MI was delivering water with illegally high levels of heavy metals, including lead.

What happened?

Background

I guess a little history is in order here. The water system in Flint is very old, with some of the pipes having been laid in the ground before 1900. At that time, lead was used for joining the cast iron pipes used for water mains and lead pipes were widely used for smaller pipes inside homes and connecting homes to the water mains. In later times, steel was used in homes instead of lead. Then copper replaced steel. Finally, polyvinyl chloride replaced copper. Until a few decades ago, cast iron pipes, caulked with oakum and sealed with hot lead were still used for many water distribution mains.

For many years, Flint bought its water from the nearby city of Detroit. Detroit treated the water: filtering it, chlorinating it, adding fluoride and so forth.

Then the manufacturing jobs moved away, leaving many unemployed, vast empty factories and warehouses and empty houses. This devastated both cities' tax base. The final blow came with the financial collapse of 2008. Both cities were essentially bankrupt. The State of Michigan appointed a state bureaucrat, called a "Special Master," to oversee the finances of each city. Neither of these men had experience in running a city; their job was to find ways to cut spending and increase revenue to balance the city budgets, allowing each to become financially sound, again.

This narrow focus on the part of the Special Masters led to problems:

"They don't listen to nobody," longtime Flint City Councilman Scott Kincaid said of emergency managers. "They don't care about the community. They just care about fixing the finances." Kincaid and others said the managers' tendency to ignore local complaints played a role in the water fiasco, since residents had complained about taste and color of the water. (Crain's Detroit Business, 1/24/2016)

The Special Master for Flint saw a way to cut the cost of water. Prior to buying water from Detroit, Flint had drawn water from the nearby Flint River and processed it in their own water treatment plant. The advisors to the Special Master crunched the numbers and found that Flint could save a goodly amount of money, "between $6 million and $8 million" (Crain's Detroit Business, 1/24/2016), by going back to drawing their water locally from the Flint River.

The Flint River, however, is both salty and acidic. The water requires special anti-corrosive treatment before it is fit for domestic use. However, the Flint public utilities department did not have the expertise to perform this. They did not even know enough to ask the right questions. The result was that, when introduced into the water distribution system, the corrosives in the water began to dissolve the pipes and pipe joints. Water that was clear, but corrosive, changes to this after flowing through Flint's pipes:

What Happened?

There are so many layers of failure in this incident that it borders on the unbelievable! The citizens of Flint, municipal government, county government, state government, the Federal Government, Flint's newspapers and media are all to blame for this mess.

Flint City Government

First and foremost, the blame for this water mess goes to Flint's city government. Over the years, the government has placed political expediency over fiscal soundness. Urban financial crises seldom just "pop up." They are built up over years, if not decades, where local politicians fail to act wisely. For example, those cast iron pipes reached the end of their projected life 50 and 60 years ago – during the days when General Motors was building millions of cars in Flint each year. They should have begun replacing those old pipes then, when they could have raised plenty of money in taxes and water fees from the booming industries.

When tasked with again drawing water from the Flint River, the utilities department should have planned better, hiring experts in water treatment. At the very least, they should have publicly raised red flags over potential problems. Was it shear incompetence, fear of losing their jobs, or criminal negligence that prevented the utilities department from raising red flags?

Genesee County Government

One of the key functions of county government is oversight and coordination of political subdivisions within it. Two departments within the county government should have reacted to Flint's plan: the County Health Commission and the environmental office in the County Planning Commission. Neither raised any red flags.

State of Michigan

The State of Michigan is the proximate cause of this water debacle! By appointing Special Masters whose only function is to force the city finances into line, the other important functions of city government fall by the wayside. The city's first responders, water and sewage, garbage collection and schools are not just "nice to have," they are required and essential services that must be preserved by the Special Master during a fiscal emergency. The municipal government, including the Special Master, must be accountable to the citizens governed.

The state government also has the duty to oversee the operation of the political subdivisions within it. Again, the plan to use Flint River water for domestic use should have raised red flags in many departments, especially the state health department and the environmental protection department.

The Federal Government

The Democrat's nanny state government failed miserably. The change to Flint River water required a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Either the city of Flint never applied for one, in which case they broke Federal law, or the EPA granted one in flagrant violation of Federal law. In either event, the EPA, which is charged in its enabling legislation with the responsibility of protecting drinking water supplies, was derelict in its duty.

Flint's Newspapers and Media

Freedom of the Press is listed in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights:
Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The Founding Fathers charged the press – that is, the newspapers of their day – with the job of informing the People of what the government, at all levels, is doing. From the one-page broadsides of Benjamin Franklin's day to the media conglomerates of today and on to the Internet, that vital function has not changed. Unfortunately, we are better informed by the media about atrocities in Syria or Ukraine or about which celebrities are dating whom than we are about the goings on in our local town hall.

The job of the media is to tell us what we need to know, not just what we want to see or what fits our preconceived notions. I do not begrudge the media for canceling my favorite televisions shows to present breaking news or to even present the State of the Union Address, even though our President and many of his predecessors are not, by any stretch of the imagination, great orators who can mesmerize us with awe-inspiring and informative speeches.

Citizens of Flint, MI

The final blame falls on the citizens of Flint, Michigan. The United States Constitution starts with the words:

We the People...

Our Founding Fathers did this because they believed that the power and authority of government was based on the consent of the governed. But consent is not a one-time thing. We always have the right to say "NO!". To give informed consent, we must be informed – whether by the media, attending town government meetings or asking questions of our elected and appointed leaders.

If the citizens of Flint had kept themselves informed, they would not have been placated by government assurances that the water was safe. People should have taken water samples to be tested. It is not expensive – the US EPA, most public health departments and many universities will do it for free. When the results came back, they should have contacted their city councilmen and women, county officials, state representatives and senators, and the governor and complained loudly and often.

Conclusion

The City of Flint started drawing water from the Flint River in April of 2014. Within days, the complaints should have started rolling in and kept rolling in until action was taken. But instead, what happened? Some complaints rolled in. A press conference was called and government did what it does best: lie and obfuscate.

So, what should we have learned from this?

  • Government, at any and all levels, lies to protect itself from its own mistakes. We should have learned this ages ago. We have seen it over and over again — from the "Indian wars" through the rise of innumerable dictators, through the sinking of the RMS Lusitania which dragged us into World War I, through the Gulf of Tonkin incident which dragged us into Vietnam, through Sadam Hussein's non-existant weapons of mass destruction, to the recent stupidities such as New Jersey's BridgeGate and the Flint water problem.
  • Government, because it wields power, attracts megalomanics – people obsessed with the exercise of their own power, especially the domination of others. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot of Cambodia, and Idi Amin of Uganda are classic examples, but history is littered with thousands more. The media needs to watch our governmental leaders like a hawk watches a rodent and quickly inform the public of questionable actions and out-and-out wrongdoing.
  • Government should never trust other governments. Government does not just lie to us. It lies to everyone!
  • Government should be close to the People. Local issues should be addressed by local government, not by bureaucrats whose offices are hundreds or thousands of miles away. That bureaucrat will have little appreciation for your local problem — it is just a complaint on a form, not something the bureaucrat lives with, day in and day out. Money and rules may come from higher levels of government, but it is the local officials who should bear the responsibility of solving the issue.
  • People must keep themselves informed about what is happening locally. That permit request to open a new supermarket near your neighborhood that dies at the Planning Commission and forces you to drive several miles for groceries instead of one mile will become a big deal when the price of gasoline suddenly jumps to $6 per gallon.

Copyright 2016, Jalapeño Bob

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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Fighting Terrorism

We have been fighting state-sponsored terrorism in the world and terrorism on American soil since before we were a nation.

From 1754 to 1763, the Europeans divided up into two camps – the British and their allies versus the French and their allies – in a pan-European war known to history as the Seven Years War. This little war spilled over the Atlantic Ocean, setting the French colony of Quebec against the British colonies. We call it the French and Indian War. Both sides recruited tribes of Native Americans to fight for their side. The tribes did not follow the style of European armies – marching large armies of men to clash with each other in large encounters. Their style of fighting consisted largely of sending small groups of warriors on "hit and run" raids, where farms and settlements were attacked and burned to the ground. By today's standard, we would call this terrorism.

In the latter half of the Eighteenth Century, the southern Mediterranean Sea had a piracy problem affecting both European and American merchant shipping. Known as the Barbary Pirates, ships from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, under the command of the Dey of Algiers. All of the affected nations were forced to pay large ransoms to repatriate their captured ships and sailors. Each year, more and more ships were captured and more and more money was payed out to ransom them.

In 1786, we dispatched a delegation to London to attempt to negotiate a treaty with the Dey of Algiers. They reported that the Dey of Algiers's reason for the hostilities towards Christian nations was inspired by Islam. According to the Dey's Ambassador, their position

was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every Musselman (Muslim) who should be slain in Battle was sure to go to Paradise. (From The Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States of America ..., Volume 2, page 342)

A treaty was concluded and immediately ignored by the Dey of Algiers and his compatriots. Eventually, the U.S. Marines were sent under President Thomas Jefferson. This little war is commemorated even today in the phrase "from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli" in the Marine Corps hymn and in the Mameluke sword that Marines wear on parade and at formal events.

Not much has changed in 350 years. We are still fighting home-grown terrorism, state-sponsored terrorism and terrorism from Islamic fundamentalists. The names and titles of the terrorists and the names of the nations sponsoring them have changed. Their primary weapons are still the same – the bomb and the gun. With the increasing effectiveness of the gun, they seem to have dropped the scimitar from their arsenal.

Since the Eighteenth Century, we have attempted a policy of appeasement with terrorists and pirates, paying out huge sums of money for the return of our people and their possessions. We learned, or should have learned, that appeasement does not work. It only encourages them. The only language thugs like this understand is spoken at the muzzle of a gun. Attacking terrorist and pirate bases may not save those held hostage, but it may prevent the taking of hostages in the future. As the late US Senator and former Wisconsin Governor Gaylord Nelson said:

The ultimate test of man's conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.

Terrorism, like death and taxes, will always be with us. We must make our peace with this fact and learn to live with it. Many voices are willing to trade our hard-earned freedom and liberty for protection from terrorism. They are deluding themselves if they think this trade will protect them. As Benjamin Franklin said:

PAny society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.

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Thursday, January 14, 2016

More Presidential Politics - The Republican Debate

Tonight, the Fox television network will host a pair of debates between the various remaining Republican candidates for their party's nomination to run for President of the United States. I say "pair" because there are so many candidates, they will not all fit on the same stage at once. The main card contains the most popular candidates, according to nation-wide polling. The second group, all of the other candidates, will appear on the "under card."

Many of the candidates that started the run have dropped out along the way – usually, because they ran out of money and donors to supply money. Let us face it: it is expensive as hell to run a major political campaign in this country.

The Under Card

Just like when you go to a boxing match, the under card is scheduled first, followed later by the main event. On the under card, we will see:

  • Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, if he actually shows up. His campaign staff said he will boycott it.
  • Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina
  • Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee
  • Former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania

I cannot help but notice that most of these names are preceded by the word "former." It makes these candidates sound like a bunch of "has-beens." Is there a fundamental reason why they each no longer hold there former position? This perception creates an uphill battle for my attention as a voter.

The Main Event

In the main event, we will see:
  • Donald Trump, a self-proclaimed billionaire businessman
  • Senator Ted Cruz of Texas
  • Senator Marco Rubio of Florida
  • Dr. Ben Carson, retired neurosurgeon
  • New Jersey Governor Chris Christie
  • Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush
  • Ohio Governor John Kasich

Donald Trump

Personally, this guy scares me. When I listen to his campaign speeches, I am reminded of when I was in school and had to listen to the speeches of Adolf Hitler in history and German classes. You will know what I mean if you read a translation of Hitler's speeches and substitute "immigrants" for "Jews" and "America" for "Deutchland."

Our Founding Fathers feared that democracy could lead to the rise of a demigod. They believed that the popular vote could be swayed by a great orator with malicious intent and, thus, they added the Electoral College to the Constitution to act as a "circuit breaker" to prevent the election of a would-be dictator.

Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz is a Texan of Mexican descent. Questions have been raised about his citizenship although he was born in Canada to an American mother. Under American immigration and citizenship laws, this makes him a native-born American citizen.

Marco Rubio

Marco Rubio is from Florida and is of Cuban descent.

Ben Carson, MD

Ben Carson is the only person of African-American descent running this year.

Chris Cristie

Chris Christie is best known for two things: the "BridgeGate" scandal and the Superstorm Sandy clean-up.

Jeb Bush

Another "former," Jeb Bush is the son of former President George H W Bush and brother of former President George W Bush. He speaks fluent Spanish and his wife is a Latina of Mexican descent.

John Kasich

John who?

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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

President Obama's Last State of the Union Address

Wow!! Last night, a miracle occurred! President Obama said something that I actually and wholeheartedly agree on:

We need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion. This isn’t a matter of political correctness. It’s a matter of understanding what makes us strong… When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country.

As a nation, and as a people, we are currently faced with a large number of challenges. Our forefathers also faced challenges, some very similar while others were radically different. We still have enemies who wish to crush us – just different ones over time. We learned that survival depended upon working together. As Benjamin Franklyn said as he signed the Declaration of Independence, "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately." This we enshrined in our Constitution. President Obama, later in his address:

Our Constitution begins with those three simple words, words we’ve come to recognize mean all the people, not just some; words that insist we rise and fall together.

Those words which begin the Constitution are "We the people".

We, in many ways, behave like a big dysfunctional family. We have our competing interests and needs. We have different likes, dislikes and view points. We argue among ourselves incessantly. But, we also agree on much more than we disagree on. We need to focus on the areas of agreement and downplay the areas of disagreement. It is hard to accomplish goals when we are arguing – but, such is the nature of politics. President Obama, attempting to push our politicians to work together and compromise to accomplish mutual goals, continued:

It will only happen if we fix our politics.

A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. This is a big country, with different regions and attitudes and interests. That’s one of our strengths, too. Our Founders distributed power between states and branches of government, and expected us to argue, just as they did, over the size and shape of government, over commerce and foreign relations, over the meaning of liberty and the imperatives of security.

But democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention. Most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest.

Too many Americans feel that way right now.

If we are to flourish as a nation, we must raise the level of trust. Politicians must avoid rhetoric which divides us and propose ways to compromise and work together. Politicians need to rebuild the level of trust between them and those who elect them. They must rise to the level of statesmen, not wallow in the pigsty of political hacks.
Copyright 2016 Jalapeño Bob

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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The 2016 Presidential Race - What and Why?

Earlier this month, I said I would begin examining the "big questions" of the new year. Today, I would like to start with the political race for the American Presidency. At this point in the process, before the first caucuses or primary elections, there is a whole bunch of candidates. But really, what are they all vying for, besides ephemeral fame, power and posterity?

Let us back up a little. What is the President? This is the elected leader of the American government. This nine word sentence is packed with assumptions. The most important single word in the sentence is "government."

Why Do We Need Governments

First, we are human beings. We believe that we each have certain rights which are fundamental to being human. Our Declaration of Independence lists "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." This makes us a rarity among nations: we believe that each of us should be equal before the law. In some other countries, there is a hierarchy of groups - such as the royal family and lords and ladies of a monarchy, hierarchical social tiers, or a ranking of religious, ethnic, racial or tribal groups - each of which has different rights and privileges before the law.

Second, and most importantly, governments solve disputes. We human beings are a fractious bunch – in large groups, we cannot agree on much. Some might say, we cannot agree on anything! We need a framework, rules and procedures for solving disputes. Government, whether it is a tribal leader, judicial courts or the United Nations, provide this.

Third, if we are to have rules and procedures, we need people to make them.

Fourth, if we are to have rules and procedures, we need people to enforce them.

Lastly, since we are such a fractious bunch, we will never willingly agree to a single, all-powerful government. Thus, we need our government to negotiate with other governments.

History of American Government

Native Government

The first governments in the Americas were created by the Native Americans for their own needs. Most were family groups and multi-family villages. led by a single individual or a small council of "elders." These groups loosely combined to form tribes and tribes combined to form nations. The "glue" was similarity in traditions, customs, dress and language.

Some groups, notably the Mayans, Incas and Aztecs, created and operated highly organized and bureaucratic governments which expanded by conquest and enslavement.

Colonial Government

When European explorers found the Americas, their governments wanted to extend their power to grab the resources of the "new" lands. They needed the resources -- especially gold, silver, iron and timber -- to fuel their petty, endless wars with each other. Different European governments implemented different methods for organizing their colonies.

The British, colonizers of most of the east coast of North America, brought the monarchy, commercial firms and - most importantly - the Magna Carta of 1215. The Magna Carta was, and still is, the cornerstone of how British citizens relate to their monarchy, and by extension, their national government. One key clause from this document reads:

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.

To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

The British colonists tended to be people not wanted in Great Britain. Many came with the dream of getting rich and returning to England. Many others came with the dream of owning their own land - a feat nearly impossible in England. Others came to escape religious persecution and find a place where they could worship freely. Still others came to escape jail sentences or as a part of their incarceration.

Early British colonial government was colony by colony and, within each colony, village by village. All were still subjects of the monarchy. Because of the distances involved, this largely became "self-government." As the years flowed, the colonists became used to electing their own leaders, and writing and enforcing their own laws and judgments, based on British laws, with little influence or interference from the monarchy.

End of Colonial Era

This all came to a halt as European wars spilled into North America. To the north of the British colonies was the French colony of Quebec. To the south were the Spanish colonies of Florida, Mexico and the Caribbean islands. War between Spain and Great Britain led to the chartering of privateers to harass Spanish colonial shipping. War between France and Great Britain in the mid Eighteenth Century required shipping British troops and mercenaries to the American colonies to protect British citizens, lands and commercial interests. This cost money and lots of it and the monarchy was short of money due to its war with France.

Suddenly, the British monarchy was interested in their American colonies. The crown sent British administrators to govern the colonies. They enforced long-ignored English laws and assessed taxes to pay for the new military presence in America and the wars in Europe. Seeing their money siphoned off to pay for a war in Europe infuriated many of the descendants of British colonists.

Time had separated the viewpoint of British citizens in Europe from their American colonial compatriots. Even when they used the same words - freedom, liberty, equality, rights - the very meaning of the words had become different. Traditional British government, based on a hierarchy with the monarch at the top, followed by dukes and barons and all of the lesser royalty and nobility, Parliament, and the citizenry at the bottom, was no longer meaningful to the colonists.

Government Within the Colonies

Colonial Americans were used to governing themselves. The primary government was the village or city government. Almost all government services were provided at the village or city level. People could see their tax money at work. Those too poor to pay their taxes with money could pay with work. Local officials were directly elected, often by open ballot, by the citizens of the village or city.

Next level up was the colony's legislature, which wrote the laws for the colony. These were elected by the colonists to debate colony-wide issues and create new laws to aid the functioning of the colony. From this experience, the American colonists created the concept that government should only exist with the consent of the governed. This concept was radical. President Abraham Lincoln, almost a hundred years later, would summarize this idea in his address at the consecration of the Gettysburg cemetery with the famous phrase: "... government of the people, by the people, for the people ..."

Above the legislature was the colonial governor. Initially, they appointed by the commercial firm that founded the colony. Later, the monarchy decided that it had the right to appoint the colonial governors. The royal governors angered the colonists by ignoring, attempting to disband and sometimes arresting the colony legislatures.

The more the British monarchy tried to assert its rightful control over the colonies, the more angry the colonists became. Having let the genie of self-government out of the bottle, it was finding it impossible to force it back in.

The Move to Independence

As the anger in the individual colonies grew, it became a political crisis for all government in the colonies. One by one, the colonies began to band together. The legislatures of the colonies sent representatives to create a common front. These representatives became the first Continental Congress. They wrote to the British monarch requesting that the colonies be allowed to go back to governing themselves, the royal taxes be repealed and other concessions. The monarch rebuffed these requests.

Again, the colony legislatures sent representatives to meet. This is the Second Continental Congress. The mood this time much more strident. They were not going to ask the monarch for anything. They were telling him that since British government would not work with the colonies, the colonies will form their own national government. Thus, the Declaration of Independence was born.

The Declaration of Independence

Our Declaration of Independence is a remarkable document. The second paragraph and the last paragraph were, at the time it was written, and I believe still are unique in the annals of human government.

The Second Paragraph

The second paragraph begins:

WE hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness — That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive to these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Look at all of the radical concepts packed into this first sentence of the paragraph:

  • "all men are created equal"
  • "endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights"
  • "governments ...[derive] their just powers from the consent of the governed"
  • "right of the people to alter or abolish [their government]"
  • "institute new government"

The Last Paragraph

The last paragraph reads:

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

It is worthy to note that the Second Continental Congress were declaring the creation of thirteen new independent nations.

Articles of Confederation

It was not long before the American Colonies began to feel the need to band together under a common government. Great Britain was still a threat and there was a need for an army and a navy to protect the colonies. In order to secure aid from the other European powers, the colonies needed to present a common negotiating front, as these nations feared that the colonies would fall to bickering among themselves or be conquered by the British one by one.

As a result, the Second Continental Congress, in June of 1776, began attempting to draft a charter for a new "government of governments" which would provide the framework to allow the colonies to act as one. Many of the colonies were very wary of surrendering their newly granted freedom to another master. And speaking of masters, some of the northern colonies, led by Connecticut, objected to slavery. There were also the problem of overlapping land claims because of the way the British monarch granted charters to the original founders of the colonies. It took until November of 1777, almost a year and a half later, that most of the colonies could agree on a single draft. On November 15, 1777, the Second Continental Congress ratified the draft and submitted it to the colonies for approval.

On March 1, 1781, Maryland finally ratified the document that we now call the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union and it took effect. We became the United States of America.

Because of the states' experience with the British monarchy, they were afraid of a strong central government – especially over the long term. As a result, the government established under the Articles of Confederation was weak. It required the consensus of all thirteen states before it could do anything. It did not have the authority to levy taxes, enforce laws, regulate foreign trade or interstate commerce. About the only thing it could do was to engage in diplomacy. And to tie the government's hands further, the central authority was Congress, when in session, or the Committee of the States, when Congress was not in session.

As soon as the British military arrived to put down our little insurrection and disrupt our plan to be our own nation, it became apparent that there were some major weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation. Without the ability to levy taxes, how was the United States of America to raise an army and navy to defend itself against the most powerful nation in the world at the time?

Constitution of the United States

During the war for independence from Great Britain, the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation became all the more glaring. Not only could it not raise the funds needed for General George Washington to fight the war, but it could not stop the states from trading with Great Britain, nor could it quell the squabbles between the states over trade and land. Beginning in 1786, the states met to decide how to remedy the weaknesses. They decided to call a formal meeting to amend the Article of Confederation.

In May of 1787, the delegates from the states met. They quickly decided to scrap the Articles of Confederation and write a constitution for a new government. The delegates chose to exercise "the Right of the People to alter or abolish [the government], and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness" listed in the Declaration of Independence.

The new charter, called The Constitution for the United States of America, acknowledges the Articles by opening with:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

This new constitution proposed three branches of government: Congress, the President and the Supreme Court. Congress is the legislature, writing the laws, the government's budget and levying taxes. Congress also has the power to declare war and to ratify treaties. The President is to enforce the laws, conduct diplomacy and act as the supreme commander of the military. And, the Supreme Court is to adjudicate disputes between the government and the states and among the states. To keep the government responsive to the people, members of Congress and the President are elected to office for defined terms and must stand for election periodically to remain in office.

This brings us back to the original question – what is the President of the United States? The President of the United States is:

  • Our chief diplomat, negotiating treaties with other nations.
  • Our chief executive, enforcing the laws written by Congress and the decisions of the Supreme Court.
  • Our chief military commander, leading all of our military forces.
  • Our chief comptroller, collecting, spending and accounting for the moneys authorized by Congress.

Copyright 2016 by Jalapeño Bob

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