Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Philadelphia Politics
Originally, politics had to do with the Proprietors, then the immigrants, then the King of England, then the establishment of the nation. Philadelphia first perfected the big-city political machine, which centers on bulk payments from utilities to the boss politician rather than small graft payments to individual office holders. More efficient that way.

Philadelphia Legal Scene
The American legal profession grew up in this town, creating institutions and traditions that set the style for everyone else. Boston, New York and Washington have lots of influential lawyers, but Philadelphia shapes the legal profession.

Shaping the Constitution in Philadelphia
After Independence, the weakness of the Federal government dismayed a band of ardent patriots, so under Washington's leadership a stronger Constitution was written. Almost immediately, comrades discovered they had wanted the same thing for different reasons, so during the formative period they struggled to reshape future directions . Moving the Capitol from Philadelphia to the Potomac proved curiously central to all this.

Unwritten Constitutional Modification
It is so difficult to amend the Constitution, we mostly don't do it. Our system is to have the Supreme Court migrate slowly through several small adjustments, watching the country respond. Occasionally we have imported new principles, sometimes not entirely wise ones, adopted without the same seasoning.

Constitution V: The Unforeseeable

At the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, the Framers had pride in their accomplishment, but great anxieties about how long it would survive. Few of them would have predicted it would survive for several centuries, unmatched in durability by any of its imitators. A dozen wars and unimaginable changes in the nature of American society have not shaken it. It survived two particularly ominous threats, the Civil War, and the 1937 Roosevelt Court-Packing episode, but more remarkably it survived momentous, unpredictable, changes in our political, social and economic environment.

The Invention of Political Parties.

It emerges in retrospect that the founding of the American republic took place during The Enlightenment, a comparatively brief interlude of general allegiance to rational behavior. Almost all efforts at the representative government for thousands of years had previously developed many political parties, and vicious ones at that. The Framers expected that elected representatives would disagree about policy and decisions, but would refuse to win political arguments by personally attacking the political opponents who expressed disagreement. The Enlightenment was world-wide, but the American version had strong doses of Virginia Cavalier courtesty and Pennsylvania Quaker humility of speech. Scarcely anyone in the former colonies was true to the manner born, and so almost everyone was both self-conscious and a little unrealistic about the mannerisms of gentlemen. Mix that with an aversion to the aristocracy recently rejected, and there emerged a hesitation to declare a true gentleman would want to be elected public representative for any reason except sincere desire to serve the public as a duty, and certainly not to seek raw power itself. George Washington was the particular exemplar of this model. Renouncing personal power at the moment of his greatest military acclaim, Washington was outspoken about his hatred of partisanship. Resigning as the victorious leader of the armed forces, his return to private life was an act that exited notice and admiration from the whole world, which had fully expected him to create a throne and sit on it firmly. He soon refused to come out of retirement to accept the Presidency unless it was offered unanimously, and agreed to only one term of office. After he was persuaded to accept a second term, he adamantly refused a third because he wanted to establish a tradition of voluntary transfers of power. Along that line, he was seriously concerned that he might die in office, preventing him from establishing a tradition of peaceful transfer of power. No one dared suggest political parties in Washington's presence, but the moment John Adams became President, partisan ugliness began. And it was Thomas Jefferson who was itching to begin it. Jefferson never considered waiting patiently for Adams to complete two terms, but began attacking him during the first one. However much Washington wanted to establish an enduring tradition of courtliness, his administration during the Philadelphia years now sticks out as a quaint aberration.

So the republic was started and established for at least Washington's term, with the proclamation that partisan politics of the sort universally seen before and afterward was only to be deplored. This period was the ten-year temporary period when Philadelphia was the nation's capital, so the concept persisted in Philadelphia as the dominant local standard for another fifty years. Meanwhile, the rest of the country degenerated into the deplorable politics of the frontier, the ignoble, and well, the gutter. Even after Philadelphia evolved into a serious player of machine and state politics, enough guilt about naked ambition remained to restrain the Quaker State from its normal role as a national political power. James Buchanan was indeed elected president but is believed to have been a failure. Since then he serves as an example of why politics are inherently dirty, not suitable for the ambition of authentic Philadelphians. Digby Baltzell blames much of this on Quakerism; that's a partial possibility, but ignores its lack of application to non-Philadelphia Quakers like Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon, and its visible watermarks stamped on Philadelphians of all religions.

Not mentioning parties, the Constitution says nothing about their number or management. Since the original language contemplated the election of individuals, it leans toward all-or-none victories, thereby sparing us debate about proportional representation. We expect a two-party system, although we do not forbid more than two. The purpose of a party is to help people get elected, so can he win? is the decisive question in the selection of a party candidate. Extremists in both parties disqualify themselves by this test, so when the election finally arrives, comparatively little difference separates the two candidates, and losers can accept the winner. Our elections are unlikely to be followed by civil war, are more likely to be followed by legislative cooperation. Consider the situation with proportional representation among a dozen parties spread over the political spectrum: in nations that try it, one party seldom wins a majority and must form coalitions after the election results are known in order to achieve that governing majority. A succinct summary of the difference is that Americans make their deals before the election; countries with proportional representation have the election first and make deals later after the electorate is excluded. In the rare circumstance when the public wants the wrong thing, proportional representation is a way to do the right thing against the wishes of the public. While it is possible to envision a good outcome from such a situation, it is not easy to imagine public approval of it.

The Mysteries of Property

Everyone was once a nomad. When vast unoccupied land stretched in all directions, ownership meant very little; everyone moved at will. A particular water hole had importance, perhaps, but ownership of it merely meant fighting off others who came near; tribal ownership was a matter of having enough friends to help exclude intruders. If the tribe moved away and came back, intruders again had to be thrown out. This was essentially the situation of native American Indians when the Europeans arrived.

Conventions of land ownership existed under English common law in 1787 but were only a step better organized than the Indian conventions. All land belonged to the king, who might cede large estates to loyal nobles, but could also take it back if the vassal proved disloyal. The Magna Carta and the English Civil War could be viewed as steps in the disruptive process of eventually ceding portions of the King's land to individuals permanently, to have and to hold. The concept of private property became embedded in English common law and was carried over into our own Constitution, although the awkwardness of Indian rights created an incentive to be a little vague. English common law was not so much transferred into our system as recognized to "inform" it, a characterization which allowed the Judiciary to adopt, modify or ignore the awkward parts. Although the rules were imprecise, the Framers of the Constitution and John Marshall's court created a hybrid system, with enough flexibility to deal with remnants of the two preceding theories of land ownership, the farmer and the cowboy. Pre-revolutionary Royal caprice was frozen at the moment of independence, followed by successive recorded transfers through an unbroken chain to the present. If you could establish your position to the satisfaction of the courts, it was your land, your property. This seems to have been the basic model the Framers envisioned when they wrote the Constitution and served as a template for other kinds of ownership when they wrote of the sanctity of contracts. Because this uniform theory of ownership contained some delicate threads of reasoning, well recognized to conflict with the attitudes of the earlier Indian owners, and a little stretched when extended to concepts like intellectual property, it was essential to establish it as uncontested. Land ownership at that time was the main place to store wealth, and transforming a limitless continent into the useful property was the main route to acquiring wealth. Money in the form of currency was a tool for facilitating wealth transfers, banking was a step removed and remained contentious for a century. The property was wealth, and more sophisticated definitions of wealth were treated as property organized around the principles of real estate. When the Framers spoke of the sanctity of voluntary contracts they also had in mind preventing the recent abuses of debt forgiveness under state legislatures responding to unfettered majority rule. If the chain of ownership broke at any point, and particularly if contracts were unenforced the Framers had reason to fear the country could fall apart.

The certitudes of the Eighteenth century were also the certitudes of the Nineteenth; and even for most of the Twentieth century, those who challenged it were regarded as nuisances, intellectual triflers, perhaps Bolsheviks. The courts, however, began to observe evolving ideas of society conflicting somewhat with this central core of our law. Small businesses protested the unfairness of competing with big business, unrestrained by governmental antitrust laws. Labor unions rebelled at the situation of worker powerlessness in their eternal struggle for higher wages against huge companies intent on reducing costs. Private companies could not possibly compete against businesses run by the government, but perhaps it would be more profitable for all businesses to be run by the government. One by one, foreign socialist and communist countries have tried it and were competitive failures, but perhaps Singapore and China, or Denmark and the Netherlands, have perfected government ownership to a point where some corporate state could impoverish us if we persist in the old economic model. So far, it has not been necessary to argue justice and logic; the economic failures of other systems make adoption of their legal ideas laughable.

Nevertheless, the premise of unlimited open land is disappearing. Only 2% of workers in the economy work in agriculture. If the land is no longer the unwritten monetary standard, perhaps its requirements should no longer be the tentpole of the legal system. Perhaps the government has a legitimate role in health care, support of the arts, support of the poor and retired, education of the young. An underlying concept seems to be that certain economically unprofitable but desirable activities will not flourish in a property-based economy unless they are identified politically and reimbursed by taxation. Perhaps in an information age, the government is the logical and most efficient management of information. Perhaps if the government interfered more in private transactions, society as a whole would benefit. It can be difficult to tell how much this sort of reasoning is based on changing concepts of private ownership, and how much is a claim of collective rights; the two visions tend to merge in weakening individual control of the property, while enlarging public claims to the same property. Something called Society is claimed to exist and claimed to have rights.

This assault on old attitudes currently achieves prominence in the Green revolution, where residents of urban skyscrapers feel passionately about swamps and mountain tops they have never seen. If an eagle roosts on a farmer's land, somehow it is not the farmer's eagle, it is everybody's eagle. Green revolutionaries need to become far more explicit about their rights to the private property of others if they hope to convince judges that they have a case, but their ardor is not deniable.

Originally published: Tuesday, February 24, 2009; most-recently modified: Wednesday, May 15, 2019