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Echoes from the Revolution: Why the States and How they Govern Matter

Christopher R. Pearl, author of Conceived in Crisis, finds echoes of the past in our current moment. 

I, like many of you, planned to be at SHEAR this year, listening to new ideas shared by colleagues in panels and over a cold pint, but, sadly, we can’t do that. Instead we are home, navigating ways to keep ourselves and our families safe and happy during a global pandemic.

These disruptions to normal life have provided time for reflection. For historians, that reflection has resulted in a consistent effort to identify echoes of the past in our own times. Unfortunately, we have a lot to work with.

For me, the struggle to finish my book on the American Revolution and the creation of states collided with current experiences to reveal echoes from the past. I see more clearly than ever how individual states and the way they govern shape our daily lives, which is at the heart of my new book.

Our experiences for the last several months, while similar in many respects, have also been quite different depending on where we live, especially in the United States. While the Federal Government struggles to put together coherent national plans, we have become quickly attuned to the importance of our individual states and the way they govern for our safety and welfare.

In states like New York, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, decisive action helped “flatten the curve.”  As researchers at Harvard, Northeastern, and Rutgers discovered in a national survey in April, such decisive action led many Americans to see the state governments in a more flattering light than the U.S. Government.

Yet while some state executives seek contracts for PPE, work with foreign states to acquire tests, mandate masks, issue stay at home orders, and regulate social distancing, governors elsewhere continue to act cavalierly. For example, these personal governance styles can be so strong that the  governor of Oklahoma recently contracted Covid-19 and yet continues to deny the efficacy of state action.

Even in these cases, though, states have acted. They have consciously ignored the seriousness of the virus to quickly reopen their economies without clear plans for public health. This has resulted in a serious spike in cases, instigating new executive orders to scale back reopening in some states, and complete disinterest or obstruction in others. The states and the way they govern matter.

Regardless of the very real political divide in the country, we can all see and feel that the onus of responsibility for the public’s safety has been left to the states. According to a recent opinion piece by Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, "Trump said it was the states' job." So, "every governor went their own way."

That is not to say the governors did not try to construct their own quasi-national plan. In early February, the governors met together at the Marriot Marquis and consulted with experts such as Anthony Fauci and Robert Redfield.

That meeting was, to use Hogan's words, "chilling." Perhaps all the more chilling because, as Hogan put it, "It was a harrowing warning of an imminent national threat, and we took it seriously — at least most of us did." The latter part of that quote is a poignant reminder of just how important state governance is to the health and well-being of Americans.

We can also see the importance of the states as we contemplate what education will look like this fall. President Trump can tweet threats to withhold federal funding from public schools and reevaluate the tax-exempt status of colleges and universities unless they bend to his will. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos can declare that schools must reopen without a clear plan to do so safely. Nevertheless, education this fall is ultimately in the hands of the states.

New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, made this point clear. Responding to federal pressure, Cuomo unequivocally pointed to the sovereign authority of New York State. “School reopenings,” Cuomo stated in a press briefing, “are a state decision. Period. That is the law, and that is the way we’re going to proceed.”

This decentralized response is not a new reality in our federal system, it is just more visible. States have always mattered for our daily lives. Even after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, states continued to, as Thomas Jefferson expressed to Congress, control the “principle care of our Persons, our property, and our reputation, constituting the great field of human concerns.” States, in essence, control their internal police.

The idea of police in early American republican thought was fundamentally linked to the promotion of “the pursuit of happiness.” For revolutionaries across America, that pursuit required institutional intervention through an active and energetic use of regulatory power.[1] Such a power, they argued, must be dedicated to preserving the public welfare, which constituted not just a theoretical notion of governance, but crucially informed the actual practice of governing.  

Government must, revolutionaries pointed out, regulate day-to-day realities no matter how mundane or extraordinary when the public’s safety, health, and welfare is at play. Understanding this aspect of revolutionary thought matters as much today as it did then, especially as we debate what our governments should and could do. It was how revolutionaries understood the basic premise of governance that forged our states, and it should continue to inform how they govern.

How and why the states came into being and continued to govern the lives of Americans in the early republic and beyond has been the focus of my research. As each day passes, I see more clearly why the answers to my questions matter.

And the echoes keep coming. Amidst all this suffering and confusion, we are also experiencing a groundswell of voices demanding basic human rights after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others. Some paint those voices as trying to end “law and order,” essentially reframing the protests as an un-American movement against government. However, it is quite plainly not that.

Instead it is a push for good governance — a demand for inclusion and equal access and treatment to and before the law. In short, it is a plea for a government that upholds the ENTIRE public’s welfare.

Such a demand, in many ways, echoes what I found in the 1760s and 1770s, as colonists cum revolutionaries demanded the basic elements of good governance. Though popular belief casts colonial resistance to the British empire as against government, it was, I would argue, a movement for government.

Our founders on the ground worked in the streets, taverns, and neighborhoods to organize petitioning drives, town meetings, and “extra-legal” committees and conventions. Although they were deemed illegal dangerous mobs by those in power at the time, they — like many modern Americans — wanted more government, not less. And they wanted that government to be easily accessible, equitable, and capable of regulating and protecting the interests and lives of “the Public.”

Though the definition of “the Public” was exceedingly narrow in the eighteenth century, revolutionaries tried to work out the basic contours of such a government in their state constitutions. In those documents, such as in Pennsylvania, revolutionaries stated very clearly that “all government ought to be instituted and supported for the security and protection of the community as such, and to enable the individuals who compose it to enjoy their natural rights, and the other blessings which the Author of existence has bestowed upon man.”

That government, Pennsylvania’s revolutionaries bluntly stated, needed to function “without partiality for, or prejudice against any particular class, sect, or denomination of men whatever.” Government, then, at its core “is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection and security of the people, nation or community; and not for the particular emolument or advantage of any single man, family, or set of men, who are a part only of that community.” Afterall, as the Declaration of Independence and State constitutions throughout America highlight, “all men are created equal.”

Such statements speak to an ideal vision of government that Americans have been striving to realize or, sadly, resist since the heady days of 1776. At that time, many thought they could achieve that laudable goal at the state and local level.

It is because of that local emphasis that the states and how they govern still play an outsized role in American lives. And it is because revolutionaries embraced an ideal of good governance for all that many Americans are still actively fighting for the realization of our revolutionary dreams.

In sum, as we labor in vain for national plans to heal our country, we also need to look to our states for real leadership and proper governance. The thoughtful implementation of any plan, any design to uphold the public’s welfare depends on them.

But it also depends on us. Just like the protests, petitions, and movements that fomented a revolution, our words and our actions, if we make them, can shape our future. After all, the state in the American tradition should and could be representative of us.

Christopher R. Pearl
Associate Professor of History
Lycoming College

 

[1] Tomlins, Law, Labor, and Ideology, 35-59. See also, Gerstle, Liberty and Coercion, 55-86; Pearl, Conceived in Crisis, 3, 8-9, 268.

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