Philadelphia Reflections

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

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..The Constitution
Our Constitution was not a proclamation written by a convention. It was a negotiated contract for uniting thirteen sovereign independent states. Nothing like that had ever been done voluntarily, and few nations have matched it in two hundred years, even with the use of force.

Robert Morris and America
Robert Morris was an energetic problem-solver. In solving those problems he devised some innovative solutions which have become such axiomatic principles of a republic and its economics, that his name is seldom associated with them.

Legislative Branch: Two Chambers or One?

The traditional explanation for the two-chamber arrangement of legislative branches is that John Dickinson once crafted a compromise between the big states and the small-state demand for equality. That's accurate, and it's also true that the two-chamber system in Great Britain balances the power claims of the landed aristocracy with the demands of commoners. But only the Pennsylvania legislature of 1777 seems to have addressed head-on the issue of whether, in general, two were better than one. A central issue is whether the two chambers are selected by two distinctive characteristics, not what the characteristics are. By fighting to have only one chamber, the Pennsylvanians inadvertently demonstrated why unicameralism is unwise; shot themselves in the foot, as it were. Big state, little state, or patricians versus commoners, (or any other system of selection) was scarcely a central issue at all; what was essential was to create two bodies, with internal politics necessarily based on different criteria for leadership scheming. Electing representatives for six years rather than two is a minor distinction but it has a certain effect; after all, electing people for life would make a huge difference. Electing geographically, whether by counties as many states do or by state, is not terribly important in itself. What appears to be important is that one body is elected by the population, the other body geographically, and thus there are two different schemes to achieve power. Such differing political machines will seldom agree on a single pinnacle of power, thus undermining one of the central weaknesses of allowing political parties to exist. Washington believed he could achieve this outcome by making it a mark of disgrace to caucus outside of the voting chamber, probably not recognizing that relief from the temptations of tyranny was already built into the system by happenstance.

{Founding Fathers}
Founding Fathers

Bicameral, two-party legislatures seem to soften many of the objectionable features of political parties. Our founding fathers considered many things, but they never made up their minds about enduring political parties. Factions would, of course, appear with each contentious issue, but the modern idea of parties required experience to cope with, and the founding fathers had little experience. They were realists and pragmatists, but the concept of informal little warring governments within the government was a powerful concept they simply did not address. Part of that was due to the implacable resistance of George Washington to the whole idea; no one wanted to confront him on a topic he was so passionate about. His violent temper was famous, and sometimes it was irrational. He expected every senator and congressman to speak his mind on every subject, assuming an equal role from the day he was sworn in. For a while, it almost worked, largely because so many of the early congressmen had been members of the Constitutional Convention, hand-picked to be able to persuade their states to ratify it. But as elections became more routine it became evident that people who were primarily skillful at getting themselves elected would arrive in Congress, only to demonstrate they were lost, ignorant, or preoccupied. They "needed seasoning", out of which grew the seniority system, tending to substitute duration in office for competence and independence of mind; the main idea of seniority was to hold back raw newcomers, just a little. The vast variety of topics for Congress to consider inevitably demonstrated that many congressmen simply did not care what happened to a great many issues, but cared inordinately much about some others. Thus, the newcomers quickly needed a mechanism for trading their votes for "minor" issues in return for voting support on what they thought were "major" issues. As party leaders began to make an appearance, the leader acquired power through the seniority system, which quickly morphed from friendly advice to newcomers, into the warning phrase: "wait your turn".

{Henry Clay}
Henry Clay

Henry Clay, who had watched the system from the Senate, walked into the House of Representatives in 1811 and was elected Speaker on the first day. He quickly transformed the role of Speaker from an impartial umpire of debate and merged the powers of the Speaker with the powers of the Majority Leader. A supposedly independent Majority Leader still exists but is actually acting the role of the party whip. The true majority leader had pushed the nominal one aside, adding the powers of the speaker to his own. The supposedly impartial Rules Committee is merely an enforcer for the will of the majority party leader, rewarding and punishing Congressional colleagues as the Speaker desires. The volume of work relentlessly increased to over twenty thousand bills a year, so the larger House of Representatives was able to develop specialist experts in many fields which the Senate simply did not have the manpower to parcel out. Those who are familiar with the internal politics of large corporations will recognize the devastating threat of switching such a specialist from a field in which years of experience have been invested, into another field specifically chosen as a punishment, to seem unfamiliar or better still detestable. Speakers and Rules Committees which see themselves as impartial umpires do not do such things. But a power-hungry Majority Leader would laugh about it with his cronies. When a convulsive change of membership like the Tea Party suddenly makes an appearance, abusive leadership has a reason to mellow; but the difference between mellowing and biding your time is a small one.

The Senate has its own rules, so arcane and numerous it takes years to learn them. For present purposes, they are unimportant. The crucial thing is they are different from the House rules and tend to promote a different style of leadership. The leadership of the two bodies thus will usually have a clash of interest, and out of that comes restraint of arbitrary power. A phrase much in circulation within the Tea Party congressmen is that "The other party contains our adversaries, but the Senate contains our enemies." George Washington would not be amused, but Madison would be satisfied.

{Boston Tea Party}
Boston Tea Party

The 1777 Pennsylvania Legislature seems to have grasped the idea behind a single Legislative body immediately. The Constitution of the State had been bitterly contested, and one of the main issues was unicameralism. The radicals wanted power for the Legislature, and this was one clear way to enhance it. What the heedless egalitarians did with power once they got it, had a lot to do with persuading the Constitutional Convention ten years later, that John Dickinson's bicameralism had a pretty good idea buried within his Grand Compromise. In retrospect, it can be seen that the victories at Trenton and Saratoga, plus the early successes of the privateer navy, strengthened the other colonies and mostly put moderates in charge; in Pennsylvania however it was the radicals who took over the leadership and started acting on the assumption that radicals were the natural leaders of the rebellion. At least one major cause of this peculiarity was that the British attack was focused on Philadelphia, and moderate forces were forced to flee. While the Continental Congress initially fled to Baltimore as Howe approached Trenton, they briefly returned to Philadelphia until the British were actually on the outskirts of town, and then fled a second time. Because there was general dissatisfaction with Baltimore, this time they went to Lancaster and then across the Susquehanna to the then little town of York. Morris was better prepared than most and had bought the von Stiegal mansion in the Lancaster suburb of Manheim. To the extent it was possible to direct the maritime and financial activities of the Continental Congress from such a distance, he was at least able to do it in moderate comfort. This movement of the Continental Congress may not have caused the radical uprising in Pennsylvania, but it certainly suppressed the moderate forces which would have acted to restrain it.

For practical purposes, The radical legislature got its unicameral wishes and started printing money recklessly, imposing price controls and personal threats against anyone who raised prices. The leaders of the Quakers, with Israel Pemberton ("The King of the Quakers") and several dozen others dumped into oxcarts, were exiled into the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. James Wilson, obeying a lawyer's duty to defend his clients to the best of his ability, was the target of anger in the streets. A mob of radicals caught the Quakers emerging from the Arch Street meetinghouse and executed two of them. The mob continued a few blocks to James Wilson's house at 3rd and Walnut, and besieged a number of moderates including Robert Morris in the "Battle of Fort Wilson". The moderates were prepared to fight, but the appearance of the First City Troop put an end to the fighting of this revolution within the revolution. To a certain degree, the mob violence seems to have been provoked by food shortages, which were in turn caused by suppression of prices to a level the farmers would not accept. Inflation was raging out of control as the Legislature printed more money and attempted to make farmers accept it by force. A remarkably insightful economist of Philadelphia at the time, Pelatiah Webster, summarized the situation in a few pithy remarks which can scarcely be improved on today. Uncontrolled currency leads to inflation, inflation leads to price controls, and price controls lead to famine. The farmers simply would not sell their abundant crops for such constrained prices, city-dweller starvation notwithstanding. Their action was not violent; they simply withheld goods from the market, waiting for better prices. Price controls were, of course, futile after a very short time. Food riots were the last step before total chaos. Although the fighting stopped, the radicals consolidated their control at the next election, with Robert Morris and others of his sympathizers, turned out of office. After four years of war, things were beginning to fray at the edges.

Originally published: Thursday, April 07, 2011; most-recently modified: Thursday, May 23, 2019

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