Home Book Review Ruled or Governed?

Ruled or Governed?

Shoshana Bryen Fall 2020

Are Americans ruled or governed? Before you get to the excellent Young Patriots by Charles Cerami (published in 2005 and still definitely a book for 2020), read the fictional, but very real, A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007) by Khalid Hosseini. Readers follow the (mis)fortunes of two Afghan women from the time of King Zahir Shah through his overthrow by the communist Doud Khan through the bloody Soviet occupation through the bloody mujahidin (holy warriors) through the bloody Taliban and into the Americans. Always ruled, never governed. Each time the government changed, some people were sure it would be better, and others were sure not. The “sure nots” were mostly correct; but no one ever asked their or anyone else’s opinion. When the Americans came, things looked pretty good for the people. For a while. Then the war started again, and the Americans mostly left, and the people of Afghanistan are pawns again – or always were.

Therein lies the difference between ruled and governed.

Ruled is when someone tells you what to do because they think they know better or God tells them or they have more money or the right color skin or more weapons or less compunction about stealing, beating, or killing people who don’t conform. [Slaves of any color in any country in any historical or present-day context; Jews; Uighurs; Tutsis; Armenians; women and others have experience with this.] Governed is when people are periodically vested by the voters with the authority to represent the needs and wishes of their constituents in the laws they pass. Governed well is when the laws they pass protect the people they serve – including from the government. The operative words are “represent” and “serve.”

The great genius of the United States is that the Founders believed two things: that governing was better than ruling and that the nature of the American people and their government would evolve toward better. They did not believe in perfection. 

The question of who knows best what others should do is the setup for Young Patriots, the story of James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and the creation of the United States Constitution. Benjamin Franklin said as he signed the document, “I expect no better and I am not sure it is not the best.” Never missing an opportunity to tweak the pompous, Franklin told the delegates to “overlook their own infallibility.” 

Cerami, an economist and former editor at Kiplinger Washington Publications, was the editor of A Marshall Plan for the 1990s: An International Roundtable on World Economic Development. But his avocation, it seems, and his great love is American history. His books include Benjamin Banneker: Surveyor, Astronomer, Publisher, Patriot; Jefferson’s Great Gamble: The Remarkable Story of Jefferson, Napoleon, and the Men Behind the Louisiana Purchase, and Dinner at Mr. Jefferson’s: Three Men, Five Great Wines, and the Evening that Changed America.

Although the book is nominally about Madison and Hamilton, Cerami creates a full picture of a great many delegates with their foibles, fears, and brilliance, as well as compelling and thorough treatment of the issues with which they struggled. 

The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 and the war with Britain officially ended in 1783. By 1787, the Articles of Confederation were failing to hold the young country together. States took on the attributes of countries, including being individually courted by England and France, and no one was paying taxes owed to Congress. Shay’s Rebellion made some states question the ability of other states to manage their business – including slavery. And even the determination that the new country would be a republic wasn’t certain. A British observer noted:

They can never be united into one compact empire under any species of government whatever; a disunited people till the end of time, suspicious and distrustful of each other, they will be divided and subdivided into little commonwealths or principalities, according to natural boundaries.

And he was a friend! He wrote as well:

As to the future grandeur of America, and its being a rising empire under one hand, whether republican or monarchical, is one of the idlest [Ed. in the sense of impractical] and most visionary notions that was ever conceived even by writers of romance.

Was it? Is it? Cerami takes the reader deep into the minds of the delegates – those you have heard of and those whose names are less familiar.  Gouverneur Morris, Robert Morris, William Livingston, Charles Cottsworth Pinkney, John Routledge, William Samuel Johnson, and Roger Sherman share space with better known, but not necessarily more important people.

James Madison – the brainy but less-attractive hero of the book, who far outpaces the handsome, Broadway musical-worthy Alexander Hamilton – was a revolutionary. If the Articles of Confederation aren’t working, get rid of them. Oust the government! Power to the People! 

Thomas Jefferson believed in power to more of the people – promoting universal education and the vote for people other than landowners. To those who worried that creating more voters risked mob rule, Madison responded that the more people who became Americans and were educated and could vote, the less likely a ruler could claim despotic powers. Madison and Jefferson feared despotism above all. Interestingly, while the question of slaves and slavery was very much on the table, the question of women voting was never considered.

Hamilton was an elitist or maybe actually a royalist. He agreed that the Articles of Confederation weren’t working, and that a stronger central government was necessary, particularly for fiscal reasons. But he also believed in an upper crust ruling the common man. In fact, Hamilton agreed to a president, but thought a life tenure might be good – or even that a president could be able to pass the seat to an heir. George Washington – who in any event, had no heir – deeply disagreed, but he was already irritated with people who didn’t agree with him and didn’t actually plan on attending the Convention. He wrote to Henry Knox, “It is not my business to embark again on a sea of troubles; nor do I suppose I would not have much influence with my countrymen, who know my sentiments and have neglected them.” Happily, he was prevailed upon.

Cerami delves deeply into the arguments about representation and the Electoral College, differentiating the House of Representatives from the Senate, and both from the Executive and the Judiciary, as well as arguments about the power of the national government to override decisions and laws made in the States. And the size and shape of the capital city – should one be needed. Jefferson’s reaction to the draft (he was Ambassador to France and thus not present), The Federalist Papers, European Romanticism, and “The Truth about Rhode Island” get chapters of their own. Some of these put you back in high school history class, albeit with an excellent teacher.

The discussions about slavery will satisfy no one. Every “compromise” was made on the (literal) backs of African and Caribbean people even if no one defended slavery as an institution. George Mason didn’t sign the Constitution out of his opposition to compromises on slavery. But the prescient Madison foresaw the horror of the Civil War to come. “Every master of a slave is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven on a country. As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, they must be in this.” He believed that if the southern states refused to join the union, their new, independent country would be a slave-based country forever. Only with a union could the end of slavery even be imagined. Oddly, South Carolina’s Charles Pinckney agreed, as did several other southern delegates. And so, the south stayed long enough for abolitionists and anti-secessionists to build enough support to go to war in 1861. 

As I said, the discussion will satisfy no one – but this book is for understanding the Founders, so understanding the arguments matters greatly. And it is worth considering the seriousness with which the delegates took the possibility of losing the country they had only so recently established. Washington, as he often did, captured a moment: 

Let us look to our national character and to things beyond the present period. No morn ever dawned more favorably than ours did; and no day was ever more clouded than the present! Wisdom and good examples are necessary at this time to rescue the political machine from the impending storm…Without some alteration… we are fast verging to anarchy and confusion!”

In Philadelphia in that sweltering summer of 1787, the Founders did, indeed, create a Constitution to “rescue the political machine.” But that was only step one. The ratification of the document was left to the States and the people. And “We the People” rose to the occasion.

People began to assemble for the purpose of debating in Boston, New York, Richmond, Baltimore, and even in the smaller towns – too loudly and raucously in many cases – but talking or shouting, not fighting. This was heartening. It appeared at first that people were showing enough maturity to realize that this document, after all, must be supported or attacked only after studying what it said, not in blind anger.

Americans today would do well to read Young Patriots and decide to study the issues that confront us in the 21st century with “talking or shouting, not fighting” and “not in blind anger.” Cerami might well have added “without CNN, or The New York Times, et. al.,” which in our day have taken on the role of ruler – predigesting and telling viewers and readers what those august bodies believe the people need to know. And with minimal input from those – politicians or media members – who have forgotten how to “overlook their own infallibility.”

Shoshana Bryen is editor of inFOCUS Quarterly and Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Center.