Institutions, Power, and Tyranny
by poputonian   [  for 10/1/06]

Chalk up another win this week for the established order as they grind forward with a full and complete grip on power. The Hillary and Bill display of righteous indignation, which coincides not with the latest atrocity accomplished by the administration, but with the attack upon their 'good' name (a Rovian ploy, by the way), did little to assuage my contempt for mainstream Democrats. The Clintons, like most other Democrats (save the likes of Feingold and Conyers) are highly sublimated animals whose efforts are geared more toward social acceptance into the club, and not sufficiently toward political opposition, in my opinion. I've expressed before my belief that all the engineered politics of Billary are designed to cover her flawed judgment of having ever supported the war in Iraq. Karl Rove neutered the entire Democratic party when he forced them to anti-up on the war - in or out - and all those who registered high on the presidential ambition meter -- John Edwards, Evan Bayh, Hillary Clinton -- said, "Oh, count me in ... I'm strong on defense too." As the then twenty-two year old dylanesque song-writer, Conor Oberst, exclaimed at the time (in his song called "Let's Not Shit Ourselves") -- "The approval rating's high, so someone's gonna die."

The rest is history, as they say.

So once again I feel helpless as that amalgamation of the most powerful persons in industry, politics, religion, and military -- I'm speaking of the Republican Party -- commits ongoing tyranny against every citizen of the United States. Yesterday it was by misleading the nation into war, authorizing illegal wiretapping, bribing legislators for favorable votes in Congress, and exerting power and control over the now-corporatized press, and today it is by authorizing human torture without any due process whatsoever. It's human tyranny, something so new and unusual (tongue firmly in cheek) that the opposition party has no idea how to deal with it. We must be very careful with the language we use so as not to offend the sensibilities of the American Idiots.

And this is why one more time I find myself hearkening back to the pre-Revolutionary period when a group of New England liberals took opposition to a previous established order, one that also got too big for its britches, and one that also began committing acts of tyranny in order to preserve its power. I'm referring, of course, to the British parliament. Note the similarity of the setting: At the time, Great Britain was the wealthiest nation on earth, and the foundation for free institutions; the people of England had a Bill of Rights, and an unwritten constitution based on the natural law; the constitution had been confirmed more than fifty times by Parliament, according to John Adams. In short, the English people were -- free.

So when Great Britain used coercive measures to bring her subjects into compliance on matters of taxation and trade, things that seem almost trivial by comparison to today, many American intellectuals became obsessed with the threat of tyranny. So much so that they actually used the word "tyranny" to describe the party in power. That word, in fact, appeared thousands of times in print throughout the Revolutionary period. It was used in private letters written by and to the delegates of the Continental Congress and appeared in such derivative forms and creative spellings as: tyrany, tyrrany, tyranni, tyranic, tyrannic, tyranical, tyrannical, tyrannically, tyrannies, tyranys, tyrannize, tyrannized, tyrannous, tyrant, and tyrant's. And how ironic that the letters were directed at an earlier tyrant George, this one the King of England. The delegates' letters (culled from this CD ) were peppered with colorful phrases:

inexorable Tyrant
the artful Wiles of an infatuated and tyrannical Ministry
the impious War of Tyranny
the severest extremities of tyranny
deep lay'd Schemes of Tyranny
instruments of tyranny
mercenary Soldiers of a Tyrant
the Ministerial Sons of Tyranny
the infernal hand of Tyranny
outrages of Tyranny
Threats of a Tyrant
barbarous Tyranny
the rapacious Hand of a Tyrant
the Pillars of Tyranny
merciless Tyrant
Torrent of Tyranny
Slaves of Tyranny
bloody Standard of Tyranny
Infringements of a Tyrant
Altar of Tyranny
absolute despotic Tyrant
Encroachments of Tyranny
System of Tyranny

Particularly colorful, and my personal favorite was one by Oliver Wolcott of Connecticut, who asked: "When will Tyrant Worms cease to disturb human Happiness?"

Clearly, in the interest of preserving their hold on power, Parliament had stepped on someone's liberties.

In spite of the inflammatory language, the early leaders in America were not mere propagandists. They actively sought knowledge of human behavior and understood the threat posed by institutional tyranny. One source of knowledge (please note here that I'm paraphrasing and borrowing heavily from the source by Delbert Cress referenced below) was a book written by James Harrington in 1656 called Commonwealth of Oceana. Harrington tracked the themes of tyranny and corruption, and set forth theories about political degeneration, the decline of freedom, and the need for a constitutional balance. In pre-Revolutionary America, Oceana could be found in the Harvard College Library, the New York Society Library, and the Charleston Library in South Carolina. The contents of Oceana and theories of how political institutions always devolve into tyranny had become part of a pre-Revolutionary mindset.

Another source of knowledge for the revolutionaries was John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon who had written behind the pseudonym of Cato. In the early 1720s, in London, Trenchard and Gordon published a set of works called Cato's Letters. The letters conjured up images of tyranny, and explored the threat to society posed by institutional corruption. From Cato's Letters emerged a view that power itself corrupts men, leading eventually to political intrigue, unfair influence, and patronage. By 1776, Cato's Letters were known to exist in 40% of the colonial libraries and they, along with Harrington's Oceana, were known to have been studied by Thomas Jefferson, John Dickinson, John Adams, Henry Knox, and Benjamin Rush. These same men also studied the works of Sidney, Molesworth, Fletcher, Hutcheson, and Blackstone. So too did Benjamin Franklin, James Otis, Josiah Quincy, Jr., John Hancock, Samuel Adams, George Mason, James Wilson, and scores of lesser known citizens. The American intellectuals also studied the Greek and Roman republics, the ancient Goths and Germans, the success of the Swiss, and the writings of Machiavelli. James Burgh brought many of the earlier theories forward and added to them when he published Political Disquisitions in 1775. John Adams, George Washington, Samuel Chase, John Dickinson, Silas Deane, John Hancock, Thomas Mifflin, James Wilson, and Thomas Jefferson all were known to have received copies of Burgh's work when it was first published in America in 1776.

Those early American politicians were profound in their enlightened thoughts on institutional behavior and the workings of government and society. Many of the contemporary views on the inevitability of political corruption were formed as a result. Josiah Quincy was exceptionally marked in his prose, suggesting that the powerful institution was "a monster" birthed by "human follies and vices" where "depravity and cowardice" can thrive. He called the professional soldier an unwitting "slave" hired by men of "ambition and power" who could then manipulate the soldier for self-serving ends. Quincy believed the military's awesome power made "wicked ministers more audacious" and saw them advancing "schemes inconsistent with ... liberty" and "destructive of the trade." According to Quincy, the military/political institution was the place where "a will and a power to tyrannize are united." He called the impacts inevitable and fatal in both the political and the moral world.

The learned nature and the observations made by men such as Samuel Adams, Josiah Quincy, Simeon Howard, and others, reflected their wisdom and the studied reality which they came to know about human nature. The inclination to increase personal power is simply a part of the natural human makeup. Inclination toward power leads to the unfair advancement of self-interest, personal gratification, and exploitation. And powerful people, facing any perceived threat to their power, large or small, are inclined to use coercion to protect their standing. Tyranny, therefore, was a natural ingredient that could eventually be found in any institution. As the institution devolves, it always seeks to increase its power.

People also morph into unrecognizable characters as their institutions become corrupt. Samuel Adams, writing after the shots were fired at Lexington, but before Independence had been declared wrote in elegant prose to his friend James Warren about the threat posed by ambitious men and the institutional military:

A standing army, however necessary it may be at some times, is always dangerous to the liberties of the people. Soldiers are apt to consider themselves as a body distinct from the rest of the citizens. They have their arms always in their hands. Their rules and their discipline is severe. They soon become attached to their officers and disposed to yield implicit obedience to their commands. Such a power should be watched with a jealous eye.
Men who have been long subject to military laws, and inured to military customs and habits, may lose the spirit and feeling of citizens. And even citizens, having been used to admiring the heroism which the Commanders of their own Army have displayed, and to look upon them as their saviors, may be prevailed upon to surrender to them those rights for the protection of which against invaders they had employed and paid them. We have seen too much of this disposition among some of our countrymen.
The anonymous essayist Caractacus earlier expressed the same sentiment when his essay "On Standing Armies" appeared in a colonial Philadelphia newspaper:
History is dyed in blood when it speaks of the ravages which standing armies have committed upon the liberties of mankind: officers and soldiers of the best principles and character have been converted into instruments of tyranny by the arts of wicked politicians.

America was once a vibrant and vocal enterprise where prominent people spoke with courage and conviction. We are now a muted and sublimated culture where the opposition is cowardly, and too afraid they will be ostracized if they speak out. A once participatory and opposition-minded mainstream press is now preponderantly part and parcel of the largest institution, that amalgamation of powerful forces referred to earlier. The most influential reporters (Russert, Brokaw and their ilk) are millionaire staffers, corporate automatons, and vanity authors who have become inured to the ways and customs of their employers. The elite way of living that goes along with their wealth and social status make them less likely to question the actions of government tyrants. Yet they are the very people with the responsibility to do so, and they are the people who are in a position to do so.

I want to ask how did we get here, but I think the answer is obvious. We are still in the dark ages politically and if we are lucky enough survive the current phase of the human journey, it will be a long, long time, I think, until society advances beyond this sorry state.

Sources: As noted above, the references to tyranny are from Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, Paul H. Smith, editor. The background on sources of study for the early American leadership comes from Citizens in Arms, Lawrence Delbert Cress, Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, 1982.

Bill recommends that you visit Digby's Hullabaloo to read the excellent comments that have been added to the above post.

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October 1, 2006