Civil Discourse Now

Where the far left and far right overlap for fun and enlightenment

Taking the WABAC(R) Machine to the year 1787: did the Framers want political parties?

   It has taken years, but finally I was able to sketch out a copy of the controls of the WABAC® machine, as used by Sherman and Mr. Peabody. Using a black Magic Marker®, I sketched out the controls on an interior panel of a corrugated, cardboard box.

   So please join me as we travel back in time to Philadelphia in the summer of 1787.

   The first thing to strike the sense is the smell of horse sh-----uh, manure. Even the cobble stone paved streets of the nicer sections of the city have piles of the matter here and there. And why? Because horses are everywhere. There are no self-propelled vehicles.

   I approach a gentleman on a corner to ask about where I might find the State House—what they called Independence Hall back then. In my sheer joy at completion of the machine, I had forgotten to bring a map of the City I had. I would have brought a laptop, but there would be no WiFi, I knew. The gentleman casts his eyes downward, mumbles, and walks away. Another man walks up from behind the fellow, curses at him, tells him several things at the inn that need doing, then eyes me suspiciously.

   "He ain’t supposed to be talkin’ to no one," this man says in a distinctly Southern accent. "You should know that."

   I realize the first gentleman was African-American—wait. He was not considered an American in these times. He was considered chattel. He was a slave. And I was presumed to know such things.

   "I am not from around these parts," I reply. I cannot bring myself to apologize for having had the temerity to speak to another human being.

   The man takes a few steps closer, looks me up and down, and says, "And just what parts might it be you are from?"

   His breath catches me by surprise. It is a fetid combination of food decaying between teeth in a time before floss, stale tobacco, and whiskey. He sneers and I spot gaps where teeth should have been.

   "I am from the West," I say in a valiant attempt at an accent that will befit the times.

   "How far West?" His eyes narrow.

   "From beyond Pittsburgh," I say quickly.

   "Huh," he says, and takes a step back. "Ain’t traveled so far West myself. I was proud to have made it up here from South Carolina."

   I said to hell with it, and jumped back into the cardboard box. In an instant I was back in my basement.

   I wanted to see, first-hand, the Constitutional Convention. I had been silly. The Convention was a closed affair. Congress had charted a group to make changes to the Articles of Confederation. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and others had taken full opportunity to write a document that would become a blueprint for government. That, perhaps, is why they are called the Framers. Only delegates were allowed to enter the building. Proceedings were held on the second floor and the windows were shut, even in the heat of mid-summer, so that no one could hear the deliberations.

   We have been subjected to months of horrid "debates." I debated throughout high school and college. I coached at the college level for four years. Debates these things have not been.

   Anyway, they have been an attempt to advance a political party to a positions from which it can challenge the other (only two?) predominant party.

   The Framers did not like the prospects of political parties.  Of James Madison, "The Father of the Constitution," it is written:  "One of the most important forces impelling human beings into evil, Madison believed, was the tendency to form ‘factions.’—what we might call interest groups." Collier, Decision in Philadelphia, 1986, p. 64. As that source goes on to note: "Madison believed, further, that the primary force creating factions, and putting them at odds with each other, was the various and unequal distribution of property."  Id., at p. 65. In Federalist Paper Number 10, Madison was extremely critical of the formation of "factions." Alexander Hamilton, too, had deplored political parties. The word "party," in the political context, was regarded "as an epithet."  Ellis, Founding Brothers, 2000, p.186. 

   Yet we have a party system. At that, we have "two" parties.

   There have been new parties emerge on our Nation’s political landscape. Some have (thankfully, in the case of the Know-Nothings) died quite young. One emerged during the intense years that led up to the Civil War.  The Whig Party elected two presidents. Zachary Taylor was the latter Whig elected president. The 1860 presidential race was four-way: Abraham Lincoln of the relatively new Republican Party; John C. Breckenridge of the Southern Democratic Party; John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party; and Stephen A. Douglas of he Democratic Party.

   None of the candidates advocated abolition of slavery. Lincoln, of course, won (with a plurality of 39.8 percent of the popular vote). Southern States seceded and the Civil War was begun. The Republican Party became the second party of the two-party system.

   In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt formed the Bull Moose Party. TR polled more votes than the incumbent Republican Taft (27.4% to 23.2%), but both lost to Wilson (41.8%). Wilson’s electoral victory, however, was a landslide.

   The 1912 election would appear to be the gauge by which we would look at the effects of a third party on national politics. It skews votes in such a manner as to give an advantage to one of the two major parties.

   Is this as it should be?

   Once again: This Saturday, February 11, "Civil Discourse Now" will host representatives of parties some would call "third parties"active in the 2012 elections. Joseph O. Henzler is the state chair of the Constitution Party of Indiana, John Strinka is with Greater Indianapolis Socialist Party-USA, and Jay Parks of the Green Party.

   Certainly we shall discuss issues in the context of our guests’ respective parties’ platforms, but the focus of the discourse will be the efficacy of third parties today in American politics.

   We shoot at 11 a.m. on Saturdays at Big Hat Books, 6510 Cornell Avenue, Indianapolis. Anyone who wishes to come to the Show is welcome. 

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