The Seeds of Distrust in the U.S.

During the COVID 19 pandemic of 2019-2021 government distrust has led to election fraud accusations & demonstrations, vaccination mandate protests and anti-mask movements, calling Government’s response to public health crises into question.

The results of the 2020 Presidential Election were marred by allegations of fraud leading up to the January 6, 2021 breach of the Capitol building by protestors, who were attempting to halt the counting of Presidential Election results. 

The count was disrupted by pro-Trump followers who broke into the building, forcing members of Congress to flee. This delayed the certification of the election results to the morning of Thursday the 7th of January, instead of the 6th as planned.

The box containing the Electoral College certificates had to be moved and secured, in order to prevent the results of the election from literally being stolen.

By the end of the day, 5 people were dead: a Capitol police officer who was beaten by rioters and sprayed in the face with a bear deterrent,  an air force veteran who was shot by police when climbing through a broken door, and three people who died in medical emergencies during the melee (one man due to a heart attack, a women who was crushed to death after being stampeded by demonstrators and stroke victim).

What is going on in America? Is this something new, or an old phenomenon that has simply increased in its intensity?

Those were the sounds from inside our nation’s capital on January 6, 2021. How did distrust of the US Presidential Election result in lawlessness, including trespassing and assault, not to mention highly threatening behavior?

To find the answers, we will be taking a trip back in time to the Colonial era, moving through the early crises of our young American nation, and leading up to the Secession of the Confederate States. We will discover that the very same themes playing out today, created distrust in the past leading to the birth of a new nation and war.

It is clear that distrust of the government is rising in the USA, and I hope that you enjoy this walk down memory lane to identify some of the causes.

As always, let’s start with the basics. How is Government Distrust defined ?

Government (definition 5(a) in Merriam-Websters Collegiate dictionary: the organization, machinery or agency through which a political unit exercises authority and performs functions and which is usually classified according to the distribution of power within it.

Distrust means: the lack or absence of trust 

Political: of or relating to government

Government distrust, then, is the lack or absence of trust in the organization, machinery or agency in which a political unit exercises authority and performs functions. I think that this definition is precisely what we want to discuss today. 

There is a significant amount of distrust in the government today among Americans, broadly through the office of the President, the Congress, the courts and all political units where they exercise authority and perform functions.

What I will show in this three part series is that distrust in Government has been around longer than our Republic, and that fraud, bribery and scandals are nothing new.

Let’s take a look at this issue from a historical context, beginning with colonial times, through to today.

Colonial America: Distrust created by unfair policies and taxes designed to extract value from one group, and give to another.

The purpose of American Colonies’ from their onset was to enrich Mercantilist England. In 1651 and 1660, the English Parliament wanted to increase revenue and passed the Navigation Acts. The Acts required that goods from America that were to be shipped to England, or to other English Colonies, would be transported solely upon English or Colonial ships. The main competitive target at the time was the Dutch. Certain goods, such as tobacco, sugar and cotton were to be solely traded with England, leaving out more competitive buyers. This severely impacted growers and merchants, since England could not absorb all of the exports that were produced.

The Navigation Acts were extremely unpopular, as colonial farmers would earn less for their crops and other raw materials, than they would gain on open markets. The response from colonial merchants was to smuggle goods to other markets, such as Dutch colonies, so that more more attractive prices could be gained for their goods. Ships and cargo ran the risk of being confiscated by the British Navy, but fortunately, it was far too costly for the Navy to enforce the Acts, and smuggling was largely ignored until 1776.

The colonists at the time did not view smuggling as a crime, and typically sailed with duplicated paperwork and charted courses to avoid patrols.

In 1763 after a resounding victory for Great Britain, the Seven Years War (1756-1763), or French and Indian War as it is also known, left England in debt. To help pay it off, Parliament enacted new taxes on the Colonies designed to reimburse Britain for costs incurred during war. These new taxes included the Stamp Act of 1765, a tax on all official documents and papers and the Townshend Act which went into effect in November 1767. The Townshend Act consisted of duties on certain imported goods that the British didn’t think the colonists could make, such as English China, Lead, Glass, and Tea.

Even though the tax rate for the Colonists at the time equalled 1/20th of those paid by their counterparts in England, the Americans protested vehemently against the taxes and either refused to drink British tea, or instead chose illegally imported Dutch tea. 

The mounting effects of the boycott of English Tea, and smuggling, hurt the East India Company. After years of colonial protests, culminating in the Boston Massacre of March 1770, most of the taxes included in the Townshend Act were repealed by Parliament in April 1770, except for the tax on imported tea. The Tea Act was a symbolic gesture showing that Parliament had retained the authority to tax the colonies. The Tea Act was intended to force the colonists to buy tea only from the East India Company.

Protests continued arguing the unfairness of taxation without representation. Led by Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty, men boarded three ships in Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773. (The Dartmouth, The Beaver and the Eleanor, two of which were Nantucket Quaker owned ships, and one was owned by a Bostonian). Ineptly disguised as Native American tribesmen, they split open casks of East India Company tea with tomahawks and dumped 45 tons of it, valued at $1,000,000 in today’s money, into the harbor. Young boys joined the festivities by climbing the mounds of tea, and pushing them over to be sure that the sea water spoiled all of it.

Parliament was outraged by the actions of the colonists and in retaliation, it passed the Coercive Acts: The Boston Port Act, The Massachusetts Governing Act, The Act for the Impartial Administration of Justice, and the Quartering Act. Not intended by Parliament to be punitive, the Quebec Act further inflamed Colonists’ sentiment against England. I will review each Act briefly

The Boston Port Act

Closed the port of Boston to all commercial trade, but allowed supplies to British Forces and necessary items for the Colonists such as fuel and food.

Thomas Paine used the suffering of Bostonians, including starvation or abandoning their homes to the British, as cause for American Independence. 

The Boston Port Act damaged the economy of Boston, causing loss of trade and unemployment.

The Massachusetts governing act

Removed the representative government of Massachusetts, and put in place a council, whose members had to be approved by the Governor. Essentially, the Governor would handpick the council. Judges and sheriffs could be appointed without the council’s approval. Sheriffs could appoint jurors, making the entire judicial system completely unfair.

The Act for the Impartial Administration of Justice

Enabled the Governor in Massachusetts to send individuals for trial to Great Britain, or another colony, where they were sure to be convicted. The right of Habeas Corpus had been removed, as was the right to a trial by peers, inalienable rights granted under the Magna Carta of 1297

The Quartering Act

Forced colonist to house British soldiers in uninhabited barns or houses at the expense of the colonists. This practice infuriated Americans.

The Quebec Act

Increased negative sentiment toward Parliament, but its passage was not linked directly to the Boston Tea Party. The Act extended the southern border of Quebec down to the Ohio River, granted religious freedoms to Canadian Catholics, reinstated French civil law, especially the seigneurial system which enabled a feudal system style of land grants by a privileged class, the seigneurs, and changed the loyalty oath to make it easier for Catholics to take positions in the government. The Colonists feared that Parliament could make similar changes in the American Colonies further eroding their inalienable rights.

In Conclusion the coercive Acts were designed to punish and control the Colonists, but ultimately they accelerated talk of rebellion and precipitated the revolution. The Quebec Act was viewed by the Colonists as a projection of Parliament’s power, stripping away their inalienable rights. Removing the checks and balances of government, taking away Habeas Corpus the right to a trial by jury of peers, and other punitive measures are sure to create distrust, ultimately leading to the American War of Independence. The Boston Tea Party still resonates today as an appropriate response to unfairness.

Power concentrated into one person or branch of government, without balance, leads to unrest and revolt. This reverberates through to modern times, where Governors in states like New York and New Jersey were heavily criticized for using their emergency powers to shut down businesses, force assisted living homes to accept COVID positive patients and effectively lock people in their homes in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Nullification: Creating distrust through challenges to federal laws and authority

The year is 1798, in Post colonial, Independent America, Federalism is on the rise, French officials are demanding bribes (in what has become known as the XYZ affair) sparking a naval conflict with France and the concept of nullification is introduced by two of the framers of the Constitution.

President John Adams and the Federalists had come to believe that a strong Federal Government was necessary to the survival of the Republic. The Adams Presidency and Federalists in Congress began to enact policies that expanded the Federal Government’s powers. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison held that the Federal Government had no right to powers that had not been delegated to it under the Constitution. If the Federal Government assumed such powers, then the states had the right to declare them unconstitutional and invalid. This was due to the belief that the Constitution was a compact among the states, and the fact that judicial review system was not yet well developed.

The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were highly controversial and labeled unconstitutional by some. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson argued that the states had the right and duty to declare them so.

The Alien Acts gave power to the government to deport foreigners, and make it harder for them to vote. This was mainly aimed at French and Irish immigrants, who were mostly pro-French.

The Sedition Act effectively prohibited public protest against the Government. Newspapers could not publish articles critical of the government. It was a clear violation of the first amendment of the US Constitution.

In response, Kentucky and Virginia passed Resolutions that rejected the Acts and declared them invalid in their states. The resolutions were secretly written by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, two of the original framers of the Constitution

Some other States did not agree, and believed that such powers to determine what rights the Federal government was granted under the constitution was to be determined by the Judiciary.

Regardless, with the threat of War and Republican Democratic party winning control of the Federal Government in 1800, most of the Acts either expired, or were appealed, except for the Alien Enemy Act, which was expanded to include women in 1918, and provides the Federal Government with the power to deport aliens from a country with which the US is at war.

All told, there were 25 prosecutions, of the Alien Act, resulting in 10 convictions of the Alien Act.

Led to the Nullification Crisis of 1832-33

After the war of 1812 and the Napoleonic Wars, British Manufacturers began to offer goods at prices that American producers could not match. The Northeastern states wanted the Tariff Act because as manufacturers, their economies were negatively impacted by low cost foreign goods and raw materials.

In response, Congress passed the Tariff act of 1828 raising tariffs on imported goods to 38%, and 45% on imported raw materials.

In December 1828, John C. Calhoun anonymously published a pamphlet entitled, “South Carolina Exposition and Protest” which argued for nullification of the Tariffs and secession of South Carolina. As a primarily agrarian state, it relied on imports for manufactured goods and certain raw materials and would be unfairly impacted by the Tariff Acts. 

The executive branch was split with Vice President John C. Calhoun (Vice President under John Quincy Adams, and later under Jackson) supporting nullification, and President, Andrew Jackson supporting the power of the Federal Government to enact Tariffs. Jackson argued that nullification would give a state the ability to resist all laws and collapse the Federal Union.

In July, 1832, Congress enacted the Tariff Act of 1832, but it did not go far enough to address the grievances of the Southern States.

On November 24, 1832, South Carolina adopted the Ordinance of Nullification, and declared the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832 “null and void”.

Congress authorized the use of force against South Carolina to enforce Federal law and South Carolina prepared to defend itself against federal forces. 

The situation was defused by The Tariff of 1833 which gradually reduced tariffs down to 20%.

Conclusion: Rising Federalism leading to new powers for the Federal Government, stripping away rights guaranteed under the first amendment, the responding theory of nullification (validated by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison), protectionist Tariffs and their unequal effect on the Southern States vs. Northern, led to crises, and eventually the Civil War.

Secession: The belief that States are free, independent and sovereign states with all the powers of Statehood.

The conflict between the interests of the Northern States, the Southern States, the issue of slavery and the Territories came to a head in 1860 and 1861.

On  December 20, 1860, South Carolina issued the Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union. In that document, the assembly argued that:

The Declaration of Independence declared that the thirteen colonies were “free and independent states” and that as free and independent states, they have full rights to operate as states:

  • Levy war
  • Contract alliances
  • Make peace
  • Establish commerce
  • And do everything else a state can do

Further they argued, since the Declaration of Independence was made in response to the abuses of Great Britain, the colonies were absolved of all allegiance to the British Crown and political connection. On September 3rd, 1783, a treaty was signed by Great Britain acknowledging the independence of the Colonies and naming each Colony as a free, sovereign and independent state. The articles of the Union were agreed to by Colonies who entered it, and those who did not ratify, remained free and independent.

They then argued that the Constitution had been breached by the Federal Government, and since the States had the ability to agree and ratify the Constitution, they could certainly dissolve their relationship with the Federal Government, as evidence South Carolina cited:

Article 4, clause 3, the fugitive slave clause which the free states had bypassed or nullified. 

South Carolina argued that the clause was so vitally important, that they would not have agreed to the Constitution without it.

Jefferson Davis, and the leaders of the Southern States, believed that States were sovereign entities and could secede if they wanted to. He believed that the States should each make their own decision about Slavery.

Following the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Davis felt that the abolition of slavery was inevitable. The Mississippi house of representatives had voted to secede on January 9, 1861 (South Carolina had already voted to secede).  Davis argued in the Senate that that Mississippi had been deprived of rights bequeathed to her that:

  • Cited that all men are free
  • All races are equal
  • Believed that the above two points only applied to men of the political community

The Northern Free States had Nullified the Fugitive Slave Law – by passing laws to bypass or nullify the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. He believed that this was an attack on Mississippi’s social institutions.

Cited that the Constitution specifically stated that slaves were equal to 3/5ths, and thus not equal to white men. Specifically, the Constitution referred to “other Persons”, ie slaves, in Article One,Section 2, Clause 3. This was in reference to how many Representatives each state could send to Congress, and how taxes can be apportioned.

Conclusion: The belief that States had the Sovereign Right to decide to enter the Union, and also the right to decide when and how they wanted to leave led to the secession of the Southern States from the Union. They formed the Confederate States of America, and ultimately brought about the US Civil War. The wealth of the Southern states was locked up in the value of slaves, and their resource as cheap labor.  Southern State assemblies were not about to give up their economies that were based upon cheap labor and slave ownership.

The Southern states were criticized for nullifying the Tariff laws – that protected the North, but at the cost the Southern agrarian states. Southerners found it to be inconsistent when many northern states nullified or passed laws to bypass, the Slave Act of 1850.

Conclusion of this episode:

When the British Parliament attempted to use revenues collected from the Colonies to pay for war debts incurred by England, and prop up enterprises like the East India Company,  many colonists objected. They developed a deep sense of distrust, because no one likes to be manipulated or treated unfairly.

When frustrations boiled over into protests, Parliament tried to reign in the colonies through punitive acts, that backfired. Ultimately, the War for Independence resulted, giving birth to a new nation.

When the United States formed, out of the free and independent colonies, some states believed that they had retained rights, such as nullification or the right to own slaves. This lead to the nullification crisis and, ultimately, the US. Civil War.

Government distrust was a huge issue that resulted in the American War for Independence and the Civil War, conflicts that define us as a nation.

The ideals of fair tax treatment, and the powers that States have retained and those granted to the Federal Government by the free and independent states, resonate today.

Recent initiatives in 2022 of President Joe Biden to pass federal election laws flies in the face of the US Constitution. President Biden recently commented that state voting laws “are election subversion” and that “its simply unconscionable. Unfortunately for the President, he is completely wrong. The Constitution provides powers to the States, to determine “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives. Its curious that he would criticize States for exercising their powers. Let’s remember that following the War of Independence, the Colonies were free and independent states, able to make their own treaties and alliances. The document that defines how our nation operates clearly gives this power to the states, which was agreed to at the time of our nation’s founding.

The Constitution does state that Congress can pass laws to alter voting regulations. However, in 2022 President Biden failed to convince the Senate to create federal voting laws to supersede State rules. Joe Biden seems to be acting as a modern day federalist, a James Madison. One could argue that federalism reduces liberty by taking more powers away from the State Assemblies, which are elected by the local citizenry.

In case we should think that nullification is a dead concept, recent laws by several States, including New York and New Jersey, were designed to subvert federal cap of State And Local Taxes, SALT,  deductions, (kept to $10,000 for most W2 wage earners), and exempt small business owners through a loophole. These States have helped small business owners evade the payment of federal taxes by passing Acts allowing small business owners to deduct SALT payments from their personal income. When states pass laws to bypass federal laws, at the expense of others, (W2 wage earners), distrust results. State laws designed to bypass federal ones, such as the fugitive slave acts, were significant contributing factors to the Civil War.