Vail Daily column: Sometimes local controls slips out of control
Thomas Jefferson defined himself as a “Virginian” in his writing and conversation. He fiercely protected local identity and refrained from calling himself an “American.” Jefferson’s colleagues likewise defined themselves, referring to home turf and delineating personal identity as a resident of New Hampshire or Pennsylvania.
Because these patriots were suspicious of getting lost in foggy national identity, they pursued local control in governing. Their preference for stay-at-home governance gave George Washington fits. During the Revolutionary War, state legislatures lagged in sending Washington’s Continental Army badly needed recruits. They declined requests to raise taxes in support of a standing national army.
Under the Articles of Confederation, colonies competed against each other. Each colony supported local militias. Farm boys didn’t want to get far from their crops that needed harvesting to fight in a national army. They were reluctant to pledge their devotion to the nation because their comfort and security were tethered to local customs. Colonies assumed a standing national army would lurch along, even if local militias enlisted most recruits.
Historian Joseph Ellis, in his book “The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789,” reveals how our nation early on fought two fierce wars. The first pitted the Continental Army against British Redcoats. The second war was even more entrenched. It had Commander George Washington working for national unity in war and peace against parochial traditionalists who wanted self-contained colonies.
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Washington believed in the Continental Army’s national power. Most citizens opted for local control through town-based militias. Ellis dubs this epic battle “the Second American Revolution.”
Sound familiar? Conservatives controlling local school boards align themselves with GOP presidential hopefuls. They chastise big government. Such critics champion local control and fault any united effort from Washington, D.C. as wasteful, unproductive and opposed to old-fashioned American individualism. They talk as if it would be better to return to biblical dark ages when “… every ancient Hebrew did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
Tea party advocates packing school boards with “local control” candidates sound like 1992 Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan. This Nixon speechwriter pictured God’s people as persecuted peasants. Their “King George III” was encroaching government. Buchanan whipped up frenzied support, summoning peasants to wield pitchforks of local control. Jab the political establishment, exclaimed Buchanan. Patriotic Davids must slay this Goliath of giant government over-reach.
Today, Republican presidential hopefuls use similar rhetoric. They tell us the political system is wrecked. Washington cronies don’t listen to their demands. Big money forces steal power from local communities and park it into Wall Street’s corridors of power.
Those favoring local control side with Donald Trump. He appeals to their contempt for Washington’s Establishment. “What the American establishment has given us the past 20 years,” writes Peggy Noonan, Ronald Reagan’s former speechwriter, “is (sic) (are) sex scandals, money scandals, two unwon wars, an economic collapse, an inadequate recovery, and borders we no longer even pretend to control. They think: What will you give us next, the plague?
“In circumstances like this, a swaggering, charismatic rich man who shares and speaks the public’s indignation — and shows a bit of its raucousness and humor, too — will find fertile soil” (The Wall Street Journal, “The Three Presidential Primaries,” Aug. 15-16). Local control fertilizes the muck of suspicion toward Washington’s insiders.
Similar battles raged when General Washington recruited locals and fielded a national army to fight the British. “Washington wished to erase state lines,” writes historian Robert Middlekauff, “to make the army truly continental. But at Boston, and especially in the first years of the war, he found that officers wished to remain with their own state’s troops. Their vision was clearly narrower than his, and the troops in the commands of various states tended to agree with their officers” (“Washington’s Revolution: The Making of America’s First Leader”).
Washington pressed for a union indivisible, protected by a national army. Citizens argued for local control and fought him. After Washington desired to banish provincialism, political enemies portrayed him as a thief, robbing them of their home-grown identity.
“Certain I am,” huffed a frustrated Washington, “that unless Congress speaks in a less divisive tone; unless they are vested with powers by the several states competent to the great purpose of war …, that our cause is lost …. I see one head gradually changing into 13.”
If widespread local control persisted, argued Washington, then the cause of national freedom would be lost, national unity would be splintered and any semblance of colonials working together for the common good would be hopeless.
Heed Washington’s wise counsel. Siren voices contradict him and mesmerize many citizens. These ideological purists eschew collaboration and compromise. They press for their own way and use angry rhetoric to get it. Like naughty children rebelling against parents, they reject unified efforts advocated by the Father of our country.
We place our country in peril when local control citizens contradict Washington’s conviction.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.
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