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Liberty or Government?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By James Nordin
July 31, 2021

The storming of the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021, is viewed as a once-in-a-century event. Technically, that is true. No one had stormed the Capitol since the British set it afire in the War of 1812. The capital had never been attacked by American citizens since its construction.

However, the conflicts of majority rule versus minority rights and liberty versus subservience to government have been continuing themes in United States history, dating to the first colonies and the allowance of slavery.

In the minds of most Americans, the Revolutionary War started with the Declaration of Independence in 1776, but a de facto state of war had been in place for almost a decade by the time the Declaration was issued. What we call the French and Indian War took place on the American continent from 1754-1763 with Americans fighting (mostly) on the English side. To help finance that war, England passed the Stamp Act in 1765 to the great irritation of the colonists. The Boston Massacre occurred in 1770—with John Adams defending the British soldiers. The Boston Tea Party followed in 1773, which led, in part, to the so-called Intolerable Acts, passed by the British government in 1774 (which provided the slogan, “No taxation without representation.”) The battles of Lexington and Concord took place in 1776 and, finally, the colonies declared independence and the “official” war began in 1777. The Continental Congress was created in 1777 with the Articles of Confederation to guide the fledgling Americans through the war (although the Articles were not ratified by the final colony until 1781—yes, the same year Cornwallis surrendered). Those Articles were in effect until the creation of the United States Constitution in 1787 (which was ratified in 1788).

So, we get our chronology a little confused. Big deal. What is more important is that we forget the historical mood. As Issac Kromnick points out in his introduction to the bicentennial edition of the Federalist Papers, the period roughly from 1763-1783 was one in which the mood in the colonies was anti-government, pro-liberty. Colonists, particularly wealthy colonists, did not like a “foreign” government controlling commerce or levying taxes. They also most strenuously objected to the appointed governors of the colonies. They wanted free reign to operate as they saw fit. They strongly objected to enforcement of payment of debts, particularly debts they owed, but they also objected to the use of paper money to pay debts they were owed. In summary, the general mood was one of strong liberty over any form of government. The Articles of Confederation are a good example of this. There was no executive. There was no judiciary. There was only the Continental Congress and the Continental Congress could not levy taxes, regulate commerce among the colonies or pass laws that every colony had to obey. It could theoretically act in the defense of the colonies as a whole, but with no power to tax and no power to create a “national” army, such actions remained highly theoretical. Under the Articles, the 13 colonies became 13 sovereign states. Not only was there no balance of power within the “national” government, but also there was no balance of power among the states. Nothing was more important than liberty—the throwing off of all authority and control. “Give me liberty or give me death.”

It turned out there were problems with almost limitless liberty. The lower (representative) houses in the states became power hungry and interfered with almost anything. They decided divorce settlements; they decided who received a contract for a new road (generally their friends and supporters); they overturned local laws and regulations simply because those they favored desired it and they could do it. Liberty became wantonness.

After the British surrender, the Continental Congress was even less effective. There was no urgency to induce the colonies to voluntarily give the Congress funds. War debts piled up. Continental Army veterans who had frequently been unpaid for several years remained unpaid after the war. The weaknesses of the government under the Articles of Confederation became more and more obvious, as did the problems of unrestrained liberty.

The mood of the country was changing. Leaders such as Madison, Hamilton and, less vocally, Washington recognized that governance and government were at least equally important as liberty. Uncontrolled liberty led to chaos. Nations need executive leadership and some form of independent judiciary to balance legislative power. And so, the Virginia Plan, the Massachusetts Plan and the Connecticut Plan were modified, compromised and put together into our Constitution. That original document focused on strong government with national leadership and power separated and balanced among executive, legislative and judicial bodies. Unrestrained liberty was essentially outlawed. As promised during the ratification debates, the Constitution was immediately amended with the Bill of Rights to make plain that individual liberties had not been forgotten, even though they had been reduced in importance.

In public administration we often discuss the issues of politics versus administration, or representativeness versus responsiveness. But the enduring conflict between liberty and government persists, as well. Many of the events of January 6, 2021, can be understood through this lens. Locke says that for self-governance to take place, two steps are necessary. First, there has to be consensus (universal agreement) that self-governance is desired. Second, there has to be agreement that majority rule is the method for operating self-governance. Self-governance requires a fine balance between liberty and governance and between majority rule and minority rights. The events leading up to and following January 6, 2021, demonstrate how difficult that balance can be.


Author: James Nordin, adjunct professor in the MPA program at Sonoma State University, is a retired federal civil servant with more than 33 years of service as a grants and financial manager and program director for the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture. He has a passion for social equity and created and endowed ASPA’s Gloria Hobson Nordin Social Equity Award. Jim received his BA from Knox College, his MPA from Roosevelt University and his DPA from the University of Southern California and can be reached at [email protected]

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