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Commentary & Opinion

Stephen Gottlieb: Preserving Republican Government

Americans began to think about preserving and protecting their form of government even before the Constitution was signed.

It may surprise contemporary Americans but they thought of liberty as both a blessing and a problem. To them, self-government was the essence of liberty. But what would people do with liberty?

That conviction, of the blessings and dangers of liberty, led to their emphasis on education. It was important to raise Americans with what they called a “republican” spirit of responsibility to their communities, their states and their nation. A “republican” spirit would guide them through the principles of self-government, mutual respect, and equality – no one was justified in putting on airs of self-importance. What most struck the French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville, when he came to America in the 1830s was the spirit of equality. Without a “republican” spirit, liberty could be dangerous, mired in self-interest and self-importance, and destroy the young nation.

To preserve those benefits, they also tried to disperse power. That went well beyond federalism, the three branches of government, civilian control of the military and nationally regulated state militias. They also dispersed economic power. Monopolies and any form of economic power were frowned upon as dangerous. Freedom depended on dispersion of wealth. Without widely dispersed wealth, some would become dependent and lose their ability to participate freely in the life of the community.

Education and the dispersal of power and wealth were tools they believed would help keep this republic self-governing. The third tool was unity. Ours was a diverse nation, with many forms of protestantism, Roman Catholicism, Jews, Muslims and the religious beliefs of African-Americans and Native Americans. Our country was founded in the wake of centuries of vicious religious wars in Europe. Hamilton, Madison and Jay explained in the Federalist papers the dangers we would face if we did not unite under a much stronger government amid the diversity of the new country, and the foreign troops poised at our borders. We wanted no wars here.

So the Founders used the national economy to bind people together. Hamilton’s famous work as our first Secretary of the Treasury was to make the national government important throughout the country by creating a national banking system and a national debt in which people could invest with confidence.

Education would help. The larger electoral districts required by the new federal government would broaden everyone’s perspectives. And they purposefully stirred the melting pot. The Founders sought immigration and worked to make immigrants welcome. They used the schools to mix rich and poor in common, now called public schools. Then they purposefully adopted coeducation to mix boys and girls together. They mixed speakers of different languages in the schools, factories and the military. Integration by race is only the most recent extension of an old American recipe for bringing people together.

These were the values that America contributed to the world after World War II, helping to  build constitutions in Germany and Japan, and draft the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is a great legacy. It is the heart of America, the pump that circulates the spirit of America. It keeps us alive and successful. This election cycle is challenging those values. We need to keep them alive.

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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