The World Turned Upside-down … Again
On October 25, 1774, the First Continental Congress started a movement that would ultimately turn the world upside down.
With a simple, respectful petition to King George III, the as yet tolerant Colonists sought relief from what came to be known as the Intolerable Acts. The king’s dismissive rejection of this petition lit the fuse for “the shot heard ‘round the word” the following spring and inspired common colonists to rise up in rebellion, determined to govern themselves or die. This American resolve culminated seven years later, to the month, with the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781.
The Broadway musical Hamilton characterized this uprising as “The World Turned Upside-Down.” And so it was. Rather than suffer themselves to be ruled by an oppressive, distant king, our founding forbearers fought for the right to govern themselves.
In 1842, a young historian named Mellen Chamberlain interviewed the last survivor of the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Fifty-two years later, in 1894, Chamberlain recounted to the Concord Sons of the American Revolution the burning question he asked the 91-year-old Levi Preston.
“Captain Preston, why did you go to the Concord Fight, the 19th of April, 1775?”
Preston didn’t answer.
Chamberlain pressed, asking if it was because of “the Intolerable Oppressions.”
Preston said he “never felt them.”
Stamp Act? “I never saw one of those stamps,” he responded.
Tea Tax? “I never drank a drop of the stuff,” Preston remembered. “The boys threw it all overboard.”
Maybe it was the words of Harrington, Sydney or Locke, Chamberlain probed.
“Never heard of ‘em,” was the captain’s reply.
Chamberlain persisted, “Well, then, what was the matter? And what did you mean in going to the fight?”
“Young man,” the old soldier said, “what we meant in going for those red-coats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.”
“And that, gentlemen,” Chamberlain resolved, “is the ultimate philosophy of the American Revolution.”
On October 25th, 2019, 245 years after that rejected petition, my dog Rugby and I found ourselves passing through neighborhood after neighborhood blanketed with “battle signs” for the upcoming municipal election. As I thought about that revolutionary battle to govern ourselves, it occurred to me that perhaps the world has turned upside-down yet again.
Despite surveys indicating the American people overwhelmingly trust local government more than state government — and much more than the national government– studies abound indicating that voter turnout for municipal elections is dismal and getting worse.
“Almost nobody bothers to vote in mayoral U.S. elections,” a Portland State University report found.
We have voluntarily given up – without a fight – the right of local self-governance, which was purchased for us by the blood of patriots.
Our unique governing system was designed to unite diverse states and people for vital national concerns, while preserving to the American people the benefits of local self-government – efficient, effective, accountable government over their lives, liberties and properties. American federalism was designed to amplify Americans’ governing voice in their communities and their states, where they have direct knowledge of political problems and the ability to exert their personal influence over political outcomes.
To the degree that Washington exerts increasing control over more and more local and state matters, American citizens have a smaller and smaller voice and less and less influence over political outcomes in DC. In the case of my home state, for example, 529 of the 535 members of the U.S. House and U.S. Senate are not from Utah. American citizens from every state quite literally have no voice and no influence because they cannot vote for or against more than 90% of the members of Congress, who are rendering edicts and failing to rein in federal agency regulations, which affect every aspect of life, liberty and property.
Thomas Jefferson warned of the stark consequences of centralization:
“[W]henever all government, domestic and foreign, in little as in great things, shall be drawn to Washington as the center of all power, it will render powerless the checks provided of one government on another, and will become as venal and oppressive as the government from which we separated.”
An overwhelming percentage of Americans feel frustrated that government at the national level is not efficient, effective or accountable. They sense something is wrong with our governing system and are increasingly disengaging from government because their voice really doesn’t matter anymore.
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy cautioned against allowing our system of American federalism to atrophy in this manner:
“The fragmentation of power produced by the structure of our Government is central to liberty, and when we destroy it, we place liberty at peril.” (NFIB v. Sebelius, 2012, dissent)
Do you want to turn the world of American self-governance right-side-up again? Vote in your upcoming municipal elections. Remind your friends and neighbors to do the same. Teach them that our unique system of federalism was designed to amplify their governing voice and enlarge their governing influence over the diverse matters affecting their lives, liberties and properties in their own unique communities and states.
Pledge to them that if they will continue to support you, as their representative, you will be their modern-day Captain Levi Preston, and fight for your constituents who mean to govern themselves in their communities and states, even as the national government increasingly means that they should not.
If you’d like to know more about how specifically to do this, attend the Federalism meetings at the States & Nation Policy Summit in Scottsdale, Arizona, December 4-6, 2019, and reach out to Karla Jones about functional federalism outreach programs the Center to Restore the Balance of Government can provide for you and your colleagues in your state.
“Remember, from here on in, history has its eyes on you.”