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Oligarchy: As American as Poisoned Apple Pie
George Washington presiding over the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention. At the time, Washington was the richest man in the United States. (Image by Howard Chandler Christy via Wikimedia Commons)

Oligarchy: As American as Poisoned Apple Pie

George Washington presiding over the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention. At the time, Washington was the richest man in the United States. (Image by Howard Chandler Christy via Wikimedia Commons)

Oligarchs are as American as poisoned apple pie. Their wealth and power look mouth-wateringly good, but with every bite, democracy dies.

” . . . in so far as we make (the use of wealth in politics) hard, we are advancing the agenda of democracy and we are decreasing the power of oligarchs,” said Jeffrey Winters, author of Oligarchy and professor of politics at Northwestern University, on a recent episode of Occupy Radio.

American oligarchs – wealthy elites who use money to buy power – have been around so long they’re almost as traditional as apple pie. They co-opted a people’s revolution, gave themselves vast acres of land in the newly formed nation and then pulled off a coup in 1787 that is commonly referred to as the US Constitution.

In the 1770s to ’80s, something revolutionary was stirring in the colonies. It wasn’t a war. It was a people’s movement called democracy. In public meetings and town halls, ordinary citizens were gathering to discuss how to govern themselves. In the Journal of American History, Joyce Appleby wrote:

“Foreign visitors in the 18th century invariably commented on the vitality of public discussions and on the political confidence of ordinary men.”

Although these ordinary men did not include African-Americans, women or indigenous tribes, these assemblies were not as divided by wealth and class as were the aristocratic governments of Europe. This gave rise to a culture that was virtually unknown at the time: that of commoners sharing the responsibility of self-government.

Yet, after the war, the revolutionary notion of democracy produced a counter-revolution. Oligarchs of that era found it difficult to conduct business among the 13 sovereign states, each of which was developing its own laws regulating commerce, taxes and tariffs. The first constitution of the United States (the Articles of Confederation) endured for 10 years, starting in 1778, before the oligarchs could find a way around it. Even then, they had to resort to extraordinary means.

In February 1787, George Washington (the richest man in the United States) proposed a convention in May in Philadelphia for the alleged purposes of revising the Articles of Confederation. Upon arrival, however, delegates to the Philadelphia Convention were dismayed to discover that Washington, Madison, Hamilton and others wanted to throw out the old Articles of Confederation. In their place, Hamilton proposed a new, second Constitution of the United States, which included a powerful federal government to rule over the state governments, a president for life, a senate appointed for life, an electoral college that elects the president and an appointed for life Supreme Court with authority over the state courts.

“Nothing but a permanent body can check the imprudence of democracy,” Alexander Hamilton is quoted as saying according to the Notes of the Secret Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787 taken by Robert Yates.

Many of the delegates left in protest. Of the 62 delegates appointed, only 39 signed the new Constitution. The Philadelphia Convention, widely heralded today as the birthplace of democracy, was nothing short of an oligarchic coup. Terms for elected officials were a minor concession to the proponents of democracy. The Bill of Rights was tacked on at the insistence of outraged citizens during the process of ratification, but it narrowed the list of protected rights to 10 out of the dozens that were initially proposed.

Today, tourists can visit the sunny, open rooms of Liberty Hall, but in 1787, the Convention took place under strict secrecy. The doors were closed; the windows blacked out and security guards ringed the building. In Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, the rules stated, “That nothing spoken in the House be printed or otherwise published or communicated.” James Madison, one of the main recorders, refused to publish his notes until all of the framers were buried in the grave.

If the citizens had known what was transpiring in Philadelphia, an uprising reminiscent of the Battle of Seattle at the 1999 World Trade Organization protests might have ensued. In 1787, citizens of the 13 sovereign states considered the United States of America to be a description of a friendly alliance of nation-states similar to the United Nations. Under the new Constitution, however, the federal government of the United States of America became a new, powerful legal body that wielded supreme authority over the subordinate states.

When they found out, citizens of the day were not amused. Resistance to the new Constitution was widespread. In 1787, Washington wrote, “Commotions of this sort, like snow-balls, gather strength as they roll, if there is no opposition in the way to divide and crumble them.” To ensure the states’ ratification of the new Constitution, his colleagues Madison and Hamilton rolled out their propaganda machines.

William Grayson of Virginia wrote, “We are now told . . . that we shall have wars and rumors of wars, that every calamity is to attend us, and that we shall be ruined and disunited forever, unless we adopt this constitution . . . and the Carolinians, from the South (mounted on alligators, I presume) are to come and destroy our cornfields, and eat up our little children! . . . These, sir are the mighty dangers which await us if we reject – dangers which are merely imaginary, and ludicrous in the extreme!”

Ultimately, the adoption of the new Constitution came down to money. Like so many of our contemporary issues, the nation divided not down left/right lines, but by monied interests (which supported the new federal government) and popular dissent (which objected to the loss of local power and the rising supremacy of the oligarchs). The Anti-Federalists were out-powered by the media apparatus and political influence of the oligarchs, who convinced commercial interests, small landowners, farmers, merchants and artisans to side with them. After the states ratified the new Constitution, the proponents of the new system embarked on a long-term effort to alter or recreate the state constitutions and legislative structure to reflect the federal government.

Know your history, goes the stern warning. Without knowledge of the past, tyranny in the present continues to oppress us all. To better understand what transpired at Liberty Hall in 1787, imagine that a group of wealthy businessmen came together in secret to draft up a new set of laws and to create a new court system that has authority over the nations of Japan, Australia, Korea, Vietnam, Canada, the United States and more. Then these wealthy elites empower themselves to regulate commerce to their own advantage.

If this sounds uncomfortably familiar, it’s because the modern-day Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement has engaged in many of the same maneuvers as the 1787 Philadelphia Convention that established the US Constitution. The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) is a trade deal that is being negotiated in secret. The legislators of the affected nations are not involved – just as the delegates to the Continental Congress were not present at the Philadelphia Convention. The tribunal courts of the proposed TPP would usurp the authority of the courts of the nations, just as the Supreme Court usurped the state courts. Under the TPP, commerce falls under the jurisdiction of the trade agreement board, rather than the individual nation-states. Local laws that violate the TPP would be considered void, just as state laws were nullified if they conflicted with the new, powerful federal government. Just as the TPP was initially being fast-tracked through Congress, so did the framers of the Constitution attempt to ram it through the state ratification process.

Echoes of the past can be heard in the problems of the present. The revolutionary notion of democracy was put on hiatus in 1787 and the coup of the oligarchs continues to this day. Rule of the oligarchs under the empty rhetoric of democracy is so familiar and comfortable that to have millionaires in Congress and a ruling class of wealthy elites seems as American as apple pie. But the poisonous politics of wealth are not the homegrown democracy that was cultivated in the backyards of local communities. They are a tainted substitute peddled by wealthy elites.

Today, oligarchic rule stands poised to kill equality, justice and ordinary citizens. Our grandmothers, all unwittingly, crisscrossed the crust, brushed it with oil and baked it until it was golden. The sweet scent of liberty emits from such well-intentioned efforts, but watch out! Our forks are loaded with false democracy and poisonous apples sold by the oligarchs.

The question is . . . are you going to eat it?

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