The history of the American Experiment in self government has always been viewed as a battle between dichotomous ideas struggling for supremacy over the other… federalist vs. anti-federalist; conservative vs. liberal; republican vs. democrat; urban vs. agrarian; north vs. south; east vs. west; central government vs. states rights; freedom vs. security; black vs. white; rich vs. poor; business vs. labor; educated vs. uneducated; interventionist vs. isolationist; inheritor vs. usurper; patriot vs. traitor; traditionalist vs revisionist; living constitution vs. original intent; hawk vs. dove; defender vs. apologist; secrecy vs. transparency; communist vs capitalist; church vs. state; chaos vs. order; good vs. evil; us vs. them; you vs. me. It is a mindset that can be expressed in the idea that ‘those who are not with us are against us and those who are against us are our enemies’. The history of the American Experiment has been seen as a polarized conflict between opposing forces but, what America has never been good at is recognizing nuance, shades of grey, middle ground or balance. Every side wants to lay claim to the high ground and the moral upper hand in the struggle against their opposites but what none of them seem to be able to recognize is that none of them are opposites and all of them need the other ‘side’. What no side acknowledges is that their side is not a side at all and is just as fragmented and torn by conflict as the larger struggle they see themselves engaged in. The reason the American Experiment is doomed to end in failure is because any lesson learned is seen as justification for a polar opposite rather than proof of the necessity for moderation… all sides are right, all sides are wrong… it is up to the center to hold.
The immediate aftermath of the ratification of the American Constitution and the institution of American Constitutional Government was a conflict over which side was the inheritor and defender of the Revolution and which was side was the traitor to its ideals. This conflict was given physical embodiment in the personages of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Consider, however, that both of these men in opposition, each fighting to define and advance their vision of the cause they had fought together for, each the personification of their side in opposition to the other, had the same enemy in Alexander Hamiliton. Consider that Alexander Hamilton was a Federalist as was Adams and that Hamilton saw the Republicans and the Virginian planter class as enemies to be destroyed, literally destroyed by armed force, and yet Hamilton was ultimately responsible for Jefferson’s election as President in recognition that Jefferson was a more honorable man than Aaron Burr was. The failure of the American Experiment, from its very beginning, was the failure to recognize that the the differing sides were not their enemies, they were their opposition, they were each necessary to provide balance. Like a gyroscope spinning, the opposing sides are part of the same circle and they are each needed to orbit and balance the other around the center to keep the whole thing from tearing itself apart. The extreme example of this can be seen in Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler and the Communist Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. One the embodiment of the extreme right and the other of the extreme left. Implacable enemies who truly hated each other and yet rather than being opposites at two end of a line, they were each on a circle and had gone so far around that circle that they were at the same place.
There is a zen lesson which balances the paradoxical idea of “if you love something, let it go…” and that is that if you want to overcome something you oppose you must embrace it, for only by accepting it can you understand it and only by understanding it can you control it. Keep in mind that our ‘my side vs. their side’ mentality ignores the reality that the the struggle between black and white also includes Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans, as well as ignores that if someone was truly ‘racist’ they would automatically like everyone else of their race and automatically hate everyone else not of their race… oh yes, and what about those of mixed race… are they both or neither, us or them? The conflicts are illusory and blind us to our need for the ideas and strengths of our opposites. Consider the idea that there are no paradoxes, only things which we don’t understand enough to see the logic with makes seemingly disparate forces things that are unified. There are those who view history as being without order or a coherent order and that any effort to impose upon history as grand scheme is a lie. At the same time, there are those who see in history a purposful march from one great moment to the next. Adams and Jefferson discussed this in their voluminous correspondence between 1812 and 1826. But why can both ‘sides’ not be correct. If we apply the idea of chaos theory and fractal geometry to the discussion we can see an order WITHIN the disorder. This is an idea we must incorporate if we are to salvage anything from the American Experiment… the ordering of the chaotic.
Adams and Jefferson were both right. Jefferson was right that we need change, regular ‘revolution’, freedom and the supremacy of the individual over the tyranny of government. The needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many; the tyranny of the majority; permanent revolution; each generation is supreme. Adams was right that we need order and structure, stability, control and the advancement of the greater good. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few; majority rules; what holds today can be depended upon tomorrow. Jefferson and Adams were not enemies, they were partners in opposition… and if they had ever realized that and come together in common cause within the Constitution how different our nation might be today. Adams and Jefferson failed to recognize and tackle the greatest challenge history gave them… to join their disparate ideas into a unified whole. Our job now is to evaluate the successes and failures of the American Experiment and build a stronger institution for the benefit of those who will come after us. Jefferson and Adams should inspire us in their failure and give us the raw materials we need to build our foundation for the future.
Rhys M. Blavier
Truth, Justice and Honor… But Above All, Honor