The issue here is to discern the pattern(s) of U.S. history and ascertain the purpose of the Federal and State Governments? For what are they or should they be responsible. And how has this changed over the years?
Historically during America’s Colonial Period people came for religious freedom which they did not generally extend to those with different beliefs once they were established in their own colony or they came for economic opportunities in order to exist in a non-fixed society where they could achieve goals not possible in Europe. Here one could gain ownership of land and possibly prosper. Many also were brought as indentured servants or as slaves.
It was to most of these people a New World with new opportunities that did not exist in the Old World, Europe. The Colonial Governments provided the opportunities and if the settlers could properly utilize them they could make a new life for themselves and for their families.
In time, going from the 16th Century to the late 18th Century the settlements and society became more complicated. On the East coast, in the Americas, Great Britain had gained control of most of the colonies. By the last quarter of the 18th Century the British Colonies below Canada and above Florida no longer wanted to be ruled as dependent colonies, totally relying upon the mother country. The immediate problem was taxes decreed by King George III and his Parliament. This protest brought about the Revolutionary War.
When it became clear to England, after the Battle at Yorktown in Virginia on October 19, 1781, that it was too expensive in both gold and men to occupy the American Colonies with an army perennially the British gave the 13 Colonies their independence. It was cheaper and more practical to simply trade with them. What was to develop from that was the United States of America.
The overall purpose of the new state governments, under the Articles of Confederation, was to allow their populations to develop as best they could with the governments essentially providing safety from foreign invasions and keeping order within the individual states.
Each state was virtually an independent nation with essentially a largely powerless Congress made up of representatives from all the different governments. They each could print or mint their own money. They agreed to cooperate but essentially kept their own sovereignty. The members of the unified Congress had to go back to their individual state legislatures for decisions over major bills. And all bills required unanimous approval in order to come into being. There was no executive office; Congress also had this function. This period lasted from the end of the Revolutionary War until 1788, when the Constitution was ratified and a new government established.
What brought the Constitution into being was mainly Shay’s Rebellion, which lasted from 1786 through 1787. The coastal mercantile class that controlled the government in the State of Massachusetts, in order to raise money, passed a tax to be paid by the small inland farmers who were not represented in the State Legislature and tended to be short of cash. The tax was vigorously collected, causing tax collectors to seize and auction off land in payment of debts. During this period many people argued that since the large plantation owners in the Southern states had refused to pay their debts to English merchants, that they had amassed before the Revolutionary War they, the small farmers, could do the same thing to the state of Massachusetts. This tended to raise fears among the property owning class throughout the new country and brought about for many an awareness of a need for a strong central government that could enforce its will. It brought about the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 which was chaired by George Washington.
In 12 of the 13 states a new government came into existence in 1789 with the election of George Washington as its first President. In Massachusetts a year earlier the state government was reformed. Shay’s Rebellion had been one of the major motivating forces for the formation of the Constitution. Henceforth life, liberty, and the protection of property became the creed of the new government.
The Constitution came into effect after 9 states approved it. 12 of the 13 states actually voted for it. Rhode Island did not send any delegates to the Constitutional Convention and did not approve it. It held a number of conventions within the state and did not approve the new government in any of them. Finally in 1790 the Congress of the New United States voted to exclude Rhode Island in the near future from any participation with the other 12 states, thus totally isolating them. On May 18, 1790, before this bill could come into effect, Rhode Island approved the Constitution and joined the Union.
The new government that came into being under the Constitution was run by both the educated and mercantile class. These people formed the Federalist Party. They were the elite. In this government only male property owners could vote. This group constituted the first political party. While they ran the country for everyone’s benefit they favored their own class. The function of government was the same as it had been under the Articles of Confederation.
In 1800 a new political party was formed under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson, the Democratic Republican Party. Jefferson favored the yeoman/small family farmer. During a dramatic election with all sorts of denouncement from both sides the Democratic Party won; Jefferson was elected President. It was still government by the elite; but mainly for the benefit of the small farmer.
In point of fact Jefferson bought the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon and France. The sale was technically illegal because the French had promised Spain, the original owner that they would not sell the territory; but there was nothing Spain could do about it since at that time she was ruled by one of Napoleon’s Marshalls and had been conquered by France.
To Jefferson the Louisiana Territory extended the new United States’ land area so that there would be land for yeoman farmers, in President Jefferson’s opinion, for the next hundred years.
After the War of 1812 the Federalist Party disappeared. It backed the wrong side in that war, England. It would not really appear again until 1860 under the new name of the Republican Party.
With the election of Andrew Jackson to the Presidency from 1828 to 1837 Democracy was spelt with a small d. By then practically all males voted. Land was cheap and practically all males owned some. The vote was essentially universal for males. In addition the Union had grown from the original 12 to 24 states. And the Democratic Party had split into Jacksonian Democrats and Non-Jacksonian Democrats.
With Jackson the concept of rule by the elite disappeared. President Jackson was considered by the population as one of their own. He was the common man elevated to the Presidency and his government extended that concept with what was called the “spoils system,” whereby anyone could hold any government job. It was now, to pre-quote Lincoln, “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Its overall purpose remained the same as it had been before: the government provided what was necessary in the country to exist, the people had the opportunity to make use of what the government provided.
With the earlier invention and dissemination of the Cotton Gin slavery, which had been dying out, became the means for the Southern states to raise cotton. Cotton became the chief export of the large Southern planters. It fostered the new Industrial Revolution and made slavery again important in the Southern States. Spinning thread and weaving inexpensive cloth became the first major industry of the new Industrial Revolution.
At first England controlled this new industry; then it spread to the rest of Europe and the Northern parts of the United States. The new Industrial Revolution was begun by an industry based initially upon slavery in the Southern United States. To them Cotton was King. It reestablished slavery as an economic system.
Gradually the Non-Jacksonian Democrats became a myriad of political parties. The largest pro-business party was the Whigs. Another was the Abolitionists which consisted of those who were against slavery. There were innumerable others; some lasted a short period of time and disappeared, others persisted. By 1860 the Whig, the abolitionists, and innumerable other smaller parties coalesced into the Republican Party and because the Democratic Party split into two political parts, the Northern and Southern Democrats, the new Republican Party won the Presidential Election with 40% of the vote and Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican President of the United States.
Lincoln’s name was not on the ballot in any Southern state. The election consisted of two separate elections; one in the Northern and Western States and one in the Southern States.
This began the Civil War and the one question that had never been settled when the nation was first established under the Constitution was resolved by the outcome of the war: Who was more powerful the States or the Central Government? In addition slavery was ended.
After the Civil War America went rapidly through the Industrial Revolution. The railroads covered the nation, industry rose rapidly, there was the very rapid rise of new cities and the phenomenal growth of the old ones. The country underwent rapid change with the growth of monopolies and oligopolies. Actually practically every industry by the end of the 19th Century had become a monopoly with one of its lawyers having a seat in the U.S. Senate. Just about all the state legislatures were prone to bribery. Rockefeller’s Standard oil not only had a reputation of refining oil it also refined state legislatures.
Initially the state legislatures elected the members of the Senate; they were to serve the needs of the individual states. The 17th Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1913. It caused the members of the Senate to be elected by the direct vote of the people of the respective states.
It was during this period that the nation changed from a rural country with cities to an urban one with rural areas that produced the necessary food for the population. The changes were so rapid that the support systems and support laws had to be developed with and after the changes. Proper water for the people of the cities, evacuation of sewerage, building regulations, proper ventilation, a sane workday in the factories, rules for the employment of women and children, and so on. All this and more had to be understood and laws had to be passed regulating these conditions. All this would take an infinite amount of time to be done. And all this would initially condone an infinite amount of corruption and bribery.
Initially the Populist Party came into existence to support the agrarian class. Among other things the railroads were charging the farmers different rates to transport their crops. The rule was to charge what the traffic would bare. In most cases the trains were the only way to get the crops to market.
From 1892 to 1896 the Populist (People’s) Party, a U.S. agrarian political party came into existence. It was hostile to cities, banks, railroads, and banks. It contained the poor white cotton farmers of the South and the wheat farmers in the Plain States. In 1896 it supported the Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan. The Republican candidate William McKinley won that election. The Populists became part of the Democratic Party after that election.
The major change at the beginning of the 20th Century was the Progressive Movement. Some of its leaders were Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William H. Taft, and Woodrow Wilson, both Republicans and Democrats. Robert M. La Follett, Charles Evans Hughes, William Jennings Bryant, and Al Smith were also some of the reformers. Efforts were made to reform local government, public education, industry, etc. It was a local, state, and national movement. It brought about financial reform with the establishment of the Federal Reserve in 1913 and women’s suffrage in 1919 with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. The Presidential Election of 1920 that made the Republican, Warren G. Harding President of the United States, was the first time all the women in the country voted in a national election.
The Progressive Movement targeted political machines and their bosses. They sought regulation of monopolies and corporations through antitrust laws. They were essentially an urban movement which largely and successfully brought the country into the Twentieth Century.
The reform stopped when the United States entered World War I. After the war with the refusal of the U.S. to sign the Versailles Treaty and join the League of Nations the country entered into a corrupt Republican period that in 1929 ended with the Great Depression.
In the early part of the 20th Century lawyers like Louis Brandeis, who later became a Supreme Court Justice, began using sociological facts as evidence. This was a first, expanding the concept of what presented proof. The function of the government was still to provide a safe base for its people in which to live; they were still responsible for themselves and their families. Basically, where the individual or family couldn’t handle the situation it was up to the local religious organization and/or neighbors to help the situation and provide aid. This had worked up to now.
With the Great Depression, which was a world disaster, a good percentage of the population could no longer provide for their basic needs. This was far beyond what local charitable organizations could handle. In general all the neighbors were in the same deplorable situation. Overnight the country changed, jobs disappeared and a fair percentage of the population could not handle the economic situation, but the Republic Government under President Herbert Hoover with the multi-millionaire, Andrew Mellon as his Secretary of the Treasury, could not adjust to the crisis. There had been depressions and recessions in the past and in all cases the economy had eventually adjusted itself and come out of crisis after a period of time. They expected that to also happen here. Consequently they kept talking about prosperity being around the corner. After three years the depression just got deeper and it was time to elect a new President. The Candidates were Hoover for the Republicans and Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Democrats.
In addition, shortly before the election, the veterans from World War I, who had been promised a bonus in the future, organized a Bonus March and came to Washington, D.C., requesting that Congress give them their promised bonus then. They set up a camp just outside the city. Congress refused to vote the bonus and President Hoover ordered General Douglas MacArthur to clear the veterans out of the flats. In the process of doing this several were killed.
When the election came the Democratic candidate, Franklin D. Roosevelt won by an overwhelming majority, 57.4 percent of the vote. It was with this administration that the United States expanded the purpose of government, adding the maxim that it was responsible for the welfare of the people who could not care for themselves.
What we’ve seen from the Colonial Period on was that the overall purpose of government was to provide a safe place for the citizen to get on with his life. When the citizen ran into situations beyond his ability beyond his ability to deal with then the community and the religious organization would help him. The government provided safety and security from foreign invasion and presumably a safe place to live.