[First of a series of diaries linking today's struggles with the struggles of our founders - not the gentry who worked behind closed doors to draft the US Constitution, but the working class who fought for the right to govern themselves, only to see that right slip through their fingers in a few short years as the wealthy and connected in America re-established the same systems of oppression used by the British Empire.]
Back in 1776...
Pennsylvania revolutionaries drafted a radical state constitution, asserting that
"all government ought to be instituted and supported for the security and protection of the community as such...government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection and security of the people, nation or community; and not for the particular emolument or advantage of any single man, family, or set of men, who are only part of that community:
And...the community hath an indubitable, unalienable and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish government in such manner as shall be by that community judged most conducive to the public weal."
...The ordinary people - farmers and artisans - who drove the American Revolution in Pennsylvania from the grassroots, against the wishes of the Quaker gentry in Philadelphia, knew from experience that concentrated wealth threatened democracy, and that economic equality was essential for political equality.
Amazingly, so many people held these views, the original state constitution almost included provisions "allowing the state to ensure equality by confiscating wealth from extremely rich people," as documented by historian Terry Bouton. (Taming Democracy, 2007, pp. 51-58).
Although that provision was voted down by wealthy delegates, Pennsylvania's constitution went far beyond other state constitutions at the time by allowing almost all adult men to vote (those 21 and older who could meet a small tax-paying requirement) and even removing racial barriers (free African-American males could vote in PA until 1837) - measures intended to control political corruption by the wealthy, by diluting the upper class's political power through increasing the political and economic power of ordinary working people.
The framers also removed property requirements and most political and religious litmus tests to holding electoral office. Most of the new political offices were to be elected, not appointed, and political representation in the new assembly was tied to county population: more efforts to ensure that the wealthy, connected urban gentry in and around Philadelphia could not monopolize government.
Most importantly, the original framers tried "to remove internal checks against the will of the citizenry," such as a divided legislature or a gubernatorial veto. They created a unicameral legislature - one house - with no senate, and a state executive with no veto power.
Annual elections were scheduled, to ensure regular, frequent accountability to constituents. Assembly meetings were to be open to the public, with written records published and distributed across the state. And the constitution required public schools in each county, to make sure the population was educated and able to make informed decisions.
Unfortunately, the wealthy pushed back quickly...
and the most democratic provisions of the original PA Constitution were soon stripped away. Over the next two centuries, legislative and judicial decisions at the state and federal level have further weakened communities to the point where the state refuses to recognize that American citizens have the right to self-government in the places where we live.
For example, recent preemptions adopted by the PA legislature at the behest of wealthy, connected corporate interests include:* amendments to the Right to Farm Law that bar local governments from regulating corporate factory farms (1996); * amendments to the Municipalities Planning Code barring local zoning to regulate timbering, mining, or corporate factory farming (2000); * a new water law barring local governments from regulating large-scale water withdrawals in their communities (2002); and * a new seed law barring local governments from regulating genetically modified seeds and plants in their communities (2004).
More next time...