We still have some work to do on this one…
The third stated purpose of the Constitution as outlined by the Preamble is ”to insure Domestic Tranquility.” On the face of it, this seems to be self-explanatory, but a review of the circumstances and context of the Constitutional Convention gives insights that once again reveal both the immediate practicality and the future prescience of the founders.
Domestic Tranquility is not a monolithic goal. It has scope that is both macro and micro, running the gamut from counter-terrorism to police reform to digital privacy. It led to the creation of a cabinet-level position overseeing the Department of Homeland Security. And it has application to the literal domicile of a citizen, in the inclusion of privacy protections of one’s own home as outlined by the provisions of the 4th amendment in the Bill of Rights. It also has application to the perpetrators and victims of domestic abuse and violence. As a whole, there exists an implied right to privacy in the Constitution, insuring that citizens may enjoy domestic peace, free from governmental interference.
But for Domestic Tranquility to be insured, it had to first be achieved. The typical American would think that domestic America became tranquil, that is to say ”peaceful”, as soon as the British surrendered at Yorktown in 1781. But the post-Revolutionary period of flux, with its absence of federal authority, gave rise to several rebellions. One, the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783 actually threatened the Congress authorized under the Articles of Confederation, and drove it out of Philadelphia. This event led directly to the creation by the framers of the District of Columbia; a district that would not need to rely on insufficient State authority to secure the protection of the seat of government.
Another, Shay’s Rebellion was contemporaneous to the Constitutional Convention itself. It arose in late 1876 and continued into 1877. It involved the revolt of some 4000 seditionists, mostly from rural, western Massachusetts. Many participants were Revolutionary War veterans who had been poorly paid for their service, and who were now crushed under personal debts and unfair taxation. They succeeded in shutting down several State courts, including the Massachusetts Supreme Court, and almost took over a Federal Armory, before being quelled.
The proponents of this effort fled to what is now Vermont. Many dissenters from the colonies of New York and Massachusetts joined them to avoid the oppressive taxation in those colonies. From these auspicious beginnings, Vermont became the fourteenth State after ratification of the Constitution.
The common causes of these rebellions were crushing debt, no stable currency, no Federal courts system, and no Federal system to assist Colonial or municipal authorities with military or financial support. A fifth component common to the two instances named above was the presence of disgruntled military veterans as the core fomenters of sedition against their local authorities.
The five-year period of the Revolutionary War had a debilitating effect on the economics of the colonies, the basis of which was still agricultural. There was no common currency. Therefore even in the more urbanized northern colonies, barter was widely used as a means of exchange in local markets. The British pound was still regarded as the official currency by most merchants. Many common citizens relied on various paper currencies in circulation. Some of these were honored for debts. Others were not. There existed then, as now, merchants acting as private bankers. These took advantage of the poor economic conditions brought on by the war to create ”debt instruments” by which a loan was granted at usurious interest rates. There was no regulatory agency, and there were no federal courts to settle interstate civil claims.
These conditions led to alliances between merchants and politicians. Both Mayors and Colonial Governors were financially dependent upon the support of the wealthy merchants. And the politicians were free to tax at whatever rates they felt they could collect. Neither debtors, nor unfairly taxed citizens had any means of suitable redress.
An additional cause of unrest during this post war period is that some states were actually threatening to go to war with others over which would control newly annexed Western territory, won and claimed as terms of the British surrender.
The framers knew that the newly formed government would have to be sufficiently powerful to create national laws, courts, and financial institutions to regulate and enforce taxation, local commerce, interstate commerce, and interstate extradition laws. It addressed the creation and annexation of new states and lands, and it undertook the creation of a civil authority over the military. The framers also knew that Federal authority would need to be centralized enough, with power vested in a single Executive, to enable rapid response to domestic disturbances and to enforce the laws.
Here again the framers display their genius for the practical and not merely the poetic. The Constitution is replete with language and law meant to address these needs. They knew that the surest way to national strength was national unity, and the surest way to national unity was Domestic Tranquility. Truths that hold to this day.
The framers also built in protection for private citizens to enjoy peace and privacy in their own homes and persons. They were so interested in preservation of personal liberties that when Jefferson was informed by the Convention of Shay’s Rebellion, Jefferson, then serving as the first Ambassador to France, dismissed it. In a January 1787 letter to James Madison, addressing the rebellion, we find Jefferson’s famous quote, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” He was among those who believed that occasional rebellions should be expected as that which would best preserve freedoms.
Of note is that the framer’s emphasis on Domestic Tranquility was not to create a Federal Police Force, or National Militia. They focused on the causes that led to domestic disturbances as primary in importance, and the creation of a reactionary authority to put down domestic disturbances as secondary. That emphasis and focus remained central right up to 9/11.
It is hopeful that this original focus can be restored. Since the attacks of 9/11, the pendulum has swung towards enforcement. Americans have relinquished more individual liberties since that day than at any time in our previous 200 years as a nation. The focus of so-called Homeland Security has shifted much more onto a surveillance, military, policing, counter-terrorism footing. The founders, especially Jefferson and Franklin would be horrified.
Yet, as the summer protests and riots of 2020, and the recent January 6th attack on the US Capital reveal, the Federal government has a responsibility, not just to quell domestic unrest, but to address the root causes.
The summer protests raise issues about as yet unresolved institutional systemic racism. This manifests specifically in unjust and unequal law enforcement practices as applied to suspects of color. The oft-heard chant of ”No Justice, No Peace.” quite literally shows the path towards insuring Domestic Tranquility on this front. The path to peace will be via equality of Justice. This includes reformation of a failed drug policy, reformation of police training and accountability, abandonment of for-profit prisons, reformation of sentencing guidelines to focus on rehabilitation and mental health, etc. It is a task so large that only the Federal government can provide guidance and legal authority to institute the necessary changes.
The rise of politically motivated violence, or even the threat of violence, is a challenge to the very core of our Republic. It is disheartening to hear politicians and media personalities stoke fears, sow divisions, cast aspersions, engage in racist or xenophobic or jingoistic rhetoric. America began as an idea; the idea that a people united would ALL win a better life for themselves and their posterity, or they would remain divided and ALL lose.
When politicians play a zero-sum game, pitting Americans against one another, hoping one side wins, while the other loses, we ALL lose. That is the opposite of Domestic Tranquility.
Perpetrators of this hateful, distrustful, un-American attitude create the soil not of liberty, nor patriotism, but of tyranny. It is this soil that nourishes the seeds of domestic terror, fertilized by racist ideologies, foreign influence, and political lies and disinformation. Every tyrant in human history has grown out of this un-holy soil. This is more dangerous to the existence and longevity of America than any foreign power ever has been or ever will be.
This tendency of an autocratic demagogue to win popular support by a ”divide and conquer” strategy will be hard for government to legislate or enforce out of existence. This problem is one that seizes the heart, it clouds the mind, it darkens the soul. This requires determined self-reflection. It requires each of us as citizens to honestly examine whether we are part of the solution or part of the problem. Are you sowing peace, unity, understanding, harmony, and respect? Or are you treating those with different political views, different ethnic backgrounds, different religions like they are enemies?
Without a doubt, this purpose of Government is being tested in our day. In my fifty-six years, I cannot recall a season that has been less tranquil, less peaceful, than the one we’re living in. There have been other stresses on Domestic Tranquility. Most notably the Civil War in the mid-1800’s and the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960’s. America has survived those, in large measure due to the efforts undertaken by the founders to provide a framework for dealing with domestic disturbances.
We will get through this one as well, if we can agree as Americans that our united goal is Domestic Tranquility. We need politicians on each side of the aisle who display that Tranquility in their public, political discourse and statements. We want them to debate HOW we achieve and reclaim it, not IF we will.
No wants wants to accept an America that does not feel peaceful and safe at home, in our cities, towns, and neighborhoods. Insuring this Domestic Tranquility is a fundamental purpose of government. As citizens, we should demand that both Federal and State and local governments take steps to deal with root causes, and to put down violence in every form, every time. Most importantly, as citizens, let us commit ourselves to be conduits of Domestic Tranquility in our interactions with fellow citizens, either in real-life or in the virtual, digital world.