Thursday, August 13, 2009

Protesting health care: as American as shouting down the guy on the ten dollar bill

From Larry Kramer's wonderful book The People Themselves: Popular Constitutionalism and Judicial Review (2004):

"Saturday, July 18, 1795. At least 5,000 people gathered in front of Federal Hall in New York City to protest the Jay Treaty. Planned for weeks by Republicans anxious to see the treaty condemned, the crowd of mostly tradesmen and laborers was unexpectedly joined by some of the city's elite, hastily assembled by Federalist merchants under the leadership of Alexander Hamilton. The determined Federalists tried to take over the rally. As the meeting was about to commence, Hamilton mounted the steps of a nearby building surrounded by supporters and began to speak. Republican leaders asked him to yield, which Hamilton haughtily refused to do. The crowd reacted angrily, drowning Hamilton out with 'hissings, coughings, and hootings.' Hamilton offered a written resolution, which he urged be adopted as reflecting the true sense of the city. The crowd paused to listen, but exploded in fury upon hearing that it was 'unnecessary to give an opinion on the treaty ' because the people had 'full confidence in the wisdom and virtue of the President of the United States, to whom, in conjunction with the Senate, the discussion of the question of the constitutionally belongs.' Hamilton and his companions were driven away amidst shouts of 'we'll hear no more of it' and 'tear it up.' Someone in the crowd allegedly threw a rock that hit Hamilton in the head. Similar scenes were repeated around the country." (p. 4).

To the best of my knowledge, nobody is alleged to have hurled a rock at Arlen Specter the other day. But take out that little detail, and doesn't this sound a whole lot like Specter's town hall meeting, or many others that have taken place these past couple of weeks? I particularly like the part about Hamilton and Federalist friends trying to hijack the proceedings. We've seen things like that lately too, haven't we?

You've heard about the Obama health care bill that it's long, difficult to understand, and most of the people upset about it haven't read it anyway? I'll bet that was true in 1795 when it came to the Jay Treaty, which you can read here if you're so inclined. You think more than a couple of dozen folks back then read and digested that whole thing, especially since they didn't have the advantage of the Avalon Project website as a reference source?

For the record, the two big objections to the Jay Treaty were one, that it gave British subjects the right to own land in the U.S., and two, that its reopening of trade between the U.S. and the British West Indies were on terms most unfavorable to the Americans (Currie, The Constitution in Congress: The Federalist Period, 1997, pp. 210-11). Getting hot and bothered about whether English folks could own a piece of land over here seems trivial to us today, but then again, we don't personally know what it's like to have had friends, relatives, and countrymen die in a bitter war with Britain.

And surely, whether the current health care bill passes or not, some of the concerns raised by the protesters will seem trivial in two centuries. But the point is, the objections raised in these town hall meetings are significant to an awful lot of Americans now. When voices are raised condemning the behavior of the town hall participants, in response some are quick to note that the protests are in many ways similar to the public dissent of the Vietnam era.

But as the anecdote Professor Kramer describes shows, loud voices of derision go back way, way before the 1960s. Other than the hurling of the brick, that eighteenth century New York crowd wasn't really out of line.

So let's have no more of these comparisons of the health care protesters to fascists, or saying they're un-American. The First Amendment guarantees "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." That's what those folks were doing in New York City in 1795. That's what they're doing in 2009. It may not always be pretty, but it sure is American.

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