^^^ the Convention in Philadelphia reached a decision about the purpose of our Union and the power it should have to do things; but it was a closely divided vote. That division continues even today, as wide apart as ever.


As we celebrate America’s 237th birthday, we look at what has become of us. We do remain committed — almost all of us — to the democratic ideal, as asserted so timelessly in the Declaration of Independence. We remain committed to it even when, a Paul Krugman writes in today’s NY Times, in practice we seek legislation, or pursue behaviors, that negate it.

Still, as we all learn in school, the ideals in the Declaration are only one statement of our nation’s purpose. The other is the Constitution; and that document was not by any means the voice of all. In the conventions held in twelve states — Rhode Island refused to hold one — during 1787 to 1788, the question of whether to ratify or reject the Constitution divided folks bitterly. In key states, ratification was the minority opinion. “Federalists” had to work hard to win — often by just a few votes: in Massachusetts, the majority was nine out of 266 voting; in Virginia, where ratification was opposed by many, including Patrick “give me liberty or give me death” Henry, no less, the vote was 89 to 79; in New York ratification — opposed by Governor Clinton — was secured only three votes. (Rhode Island, stubbornly opposed, had to be forced to consent to the Union.)

Today we worship the Constitution — or at least we say we do — as if it had been an inevitable event. Yet Constitution Nation is, today, as divided about what it means as our founders were then. We are dividing further, in fact; and striking it is how the division gets expressed in the same terms put forth by anti-ratifiers in 1788 : “big” government versus states’ rights; federal power versus liberty; big city commerce versus rural life; national debt versus pay as you go; tyranny versus liberty; and so on.

Modern industrialization made America even more single a nation — and, to those of us seeking it,  more perfect — than the Constitution had envisioned; and the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s enshrined our common purpose in law. But history did not stop there. Despite the efforts, struggles, and lives of so many generations of Americans to make the Constitution’s promise of “promoting the general welfare” real, our nation seems as divided as it was during the Ratification Conventions.

On the Coasts, and in key states in between, we have big-city commercial life; we enjoy the advantages of a Federal Debt that is the world’s safest and most desired investment. We have social diversity, cultural multiplicity, and full respect for the rights of women, people living alternate lifestyles, and social peace keeping. We welcome immigrants and acknowledge — sometimes proudly — that America is all about immigration. We control weapon ownership closely; we support social safety net legislation and worker unions. We do not allow religion to intrude upon public law but to remain a private matter, as the Constitution and First Amendment require; we live in confidence of the future, and and we have laws that safeguard and promote our commercial diversity.

In much of inland America, however, including most of the South, we are ruled by rural legislators, we dislike Federal debt, we rue social diversity. Culturally we are uniform, and the diversity in prospect frightens us. In these states the rights of women are regulated  by Biblical instructions, as are lifestyle alternatives. Public schools are disliked; the social safety net distrusted,  the taxes that pay for it an imposition. Voting rights are seen as a threat; so are immigrants. Guns rule; and the Constitution is seen not as the enabler of a more perfect union, but as a grudging exception to a general principle that Union is tyranny; that government and all that it seeks is the enemy of free men.

This division into two very different Americas would not be a problem except that Rural Nation controls the Federal House and through that control, prevents Big City Nation from fulfilling our objectives. As Big City nation continues, however, to hold almost all of the money power, most of the media power, and the vast majority of the education and information power, it seems highly unlikely that Rural America can have any lasting effect on Big City America except to alienate us still further from it. There are dangers definitely in aggravating this mutual alienation; just as in 1820 Thomas Jefferson heard, in  the ugly passions unleashed by the slavery question, “a warning bell ringing in the night,” so do we hear several warning bells ringing the intensifying division of America into Two nations.

Let us hope that the warning bells we hear are wrong.

—– Micvhael Freedberg / Here and Sphere