Economic Cycles and Political Trends in the United States (Part II)

Chronique de Rodrigue Tremblay

"I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences
attending too much liberty than to those attending too
small a degree of it."

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), 3rd U.S. President
"The people are turbulent and changing, they seldom
judge or determine right."

Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804)
"I believe in an America where the separation of
church and state is absolute––where no Catholic
prelate would tell the President (should he be
Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would
tell his parishioners for whom to vote–– where no
church or church school is granted any public funds or
political preference––and where no man is denied
public office merely because his religion differs from
the President who might appoint him or the people who
might elect him."

President John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1960
[N.B.: This article is drawn from a conference
pronounced by Dr. Tremblay before the Florida
Renaissance Academy (Florida Gulf Coast University),
Marco Island Yacht Club, on April 4, 2008.]
There are even much longer political cycles and trends
in political philosophies and ideologies, and social
trends, some lasting more than 100 years. Thus, some
people may live an entire life without encountering
their more extreme occurrences. These are the very
long trends I am dealing with here.
Indeed, historically, we can identify three major
trends and sources of disagreement in American
political philosophy. Such swings in political ideas
are developed more fully in my book ["The New American
(a book which has also been published [in French in
and in France
and which has just been published in Turkish,
in Ankara). I believe it is important to understand
the sources of these trends and cycles in order to
understand contemporary politics.
I- First, let's go back to the Mayflower
in order to show the tensions that have existed in the
U.S., since the very beginning, between the [religious
view of the world
->] and
the business view of the world.
On November 10, 1620, a group of English families left
Holland (where some had been living for 11 years,
after fleeing England where they had been persecuted
for their religion) and landed at what became
Plymouth, Massachusetts. For them, American offered
them a land of religious freedom where they could
freely practice their religion and not be subjected to
the exactions of a state-run official religion. — It
is therefore no accident that nearly 200 years later,
in the first amendment of the [Founding Fathers' Bill
of Rights,
Bill of Rights: A Transcription] adopted two years
after the 1787 Constitution, the government is
expressly prohibited from infringing upon freedom of
religion, among other freedoms, such as freedom of
speech, freedom of the press, the right of assembly,
and the right to petition the Government.
What is less well known is the fact that the 104
passengers (some of them called themselves "The
Pilgrims") were divided into two nearly equal-sized
groups. *One group of 50 people was composed of the
more religious ones. They called themselves the
"Saints" and they called the other 54 passengers the
"Foreigners" because these were people who had been
recruited by London merchants and who essentially were
mainly interested in the economic opportunities that
the new colony, they hoped, would offer them.
During the trip, there were continuous quarrels
between the two groups. This was settled by the
signing of an agreement between the two, proclaiming
equality among the colonists (whether religious or
not) and the establishment of a "Civill body
Politick", governed by "just and equall Lawes" (sic).
This agreement, called the Mayflower Compact,
represents the beginning of the American civil
government. It is fundamentally a compromise between
religion and business.
There was also another permanent European colony,
which was established by the London Company in
Jamestown, Virginia, on May 14, 1607, thirteen years
earlier. Captain John Smith was the leader of 105 men,
whose principal mission was to find gold and to become
Therefore, among the first 209 Americans of European
origin, about one fourth were deeply religious, but
the other three quarters came to make money and get
rich. — I sort of think that this is about the same
thing today between the business-oriented people and
the very religious people, although the latter group
has been gaining importance and influence over the
last half century.
As to the right to free enterprise, it can be said
that the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution
somewhat guarantees such a right since it is says "No
State shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or
property, without due process of law."
As to freedom of religion, this may explain why there
is no official state religion in the United States.
Even before the War of Independence (1776 to 1783),
a majority of American colonists had been anxious to
preserve freedom of religion, and they had revolted
against British rule, when the British attempted to
establish the Anglican Church as the state religion,
as they did in the states of Virginia and New York.
That may explain why, after the War of Independence,
the leaders of the new nation chose to establish a
fundamentally lay republic that is expected to remain
neutral on matter of religion. [The Preamble to the
1787 United States Constitution
states clearly that the new constitution promotes
secular political objectives, not religious ones: "We,
the people of the United States, in order to form a
more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic
tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote
the general welfare, and secure the blessings of
liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and
establish this Constitution for the United States of
America." There is no reference to religion there.
And, for good measure and to be clearly understood,
the Founding Fathers added Article VI to the
Constitution, which says expressly that there should
be no religious litmus test to occupy any public
function in the United States.
That is why, unlike the constitutions of some other
countries, the U.S. Constitution makes no reference
whatsoever to a deity. In Canada, which remained
within the British Empire much longer, our
constitution makes a direct reference to God,
declaring that our constitution is based upon "the
supremacy of God and the rule of law".
The United States Constitution is much closer to the
French Constitution,
which expressly defines France as a secular nation:
"France is an indivisible, secular, democratic, and
social Republic, assuring equality before the law of
all citizens without distinction of origin, race, or
religion, and respecting all beliefs."
The two constitutions, both the American and the
French, derive their inspiration from the same
democratic principle of government. Indeed, in a
democracy, the right to vote and to engage in
political activity changes the balance of power in a
country and it opens the door for the establishment of
a government, in Lincoln's famous words, "of the
people, by the people, and for the people."
The French and the American constitutions have brought
democracy to the world because they proclaim the
important religion-neutral principle that all
political power emanates from the consent of the
people, and that, consequently, it is not in the
government's domain to concern itself with religious
matters. This is the principle of the neutrality of
the state in matters of religion.
While less explicit than the French Constitution, the
United States Constitution implies, at least, the
principle of laicity and secularism in the First
Amendment (the Establishment Clause), which I have
already mentioned: "Congress shall make no law
respecting an establishment of religion, or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof." . Indeed, to
make things clear enough, President Thomas Jefferson,
on New Year's Day, 1802, explained in a widely known
official letter that the Establishment Clause meant
that there should be “a wall of separation between
church and state,”—not a door—a wall.
In the past, American courts have interpreted the
First Amendment and Jefferson's explanation to mean
that there is an obligation, on the part of the
government, not to get involved in churches'
activities, not to spend public money on religions and
not to favor any one religion over another. They have
also referred, for example, to the 1797 Treaty of
Tripoli. The Treaty of Tripoli, initiated by president
George Washington (1732-1799) and signed into law by
president John Adams (1735-1826), officially
proclaimed that: " the Government of the United States
of America is not, in any sense, founded on the
Christian religion; as it has in itself no character
of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility,
of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered
into any war, or act of hostility against any
Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that
no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever
produce an interruption of the harmony existing
between the two countries."
Treaty of Tripoli, Article XI, 1797.
President James Madison (1751-1836) is probably the
American president who expressed himself the most
clearly on the question, stating that there should be
a total separation between church and state: “The
number, the industry, and the morality of the
priesthood, and the devotion of the people have been
manifestly increased by the total separation of the
Church from the State.” Thus, for James Madison and
other American founders, the separation of church and
state was not only a requirement of political freedom,
it was also a mean to safeguard religion from being
encroached upon by politics and politicians.
It is paradoxical, indeed, that in Canada, where the
titular head of state is also the head of a church
(the Church of England), we have a tradition and a
political culture which are decidedly more secular
that those of the United States, especially as it has
been witnessed in recent years in the U.S. with the
establishment of faith-based public programs and in
the speeches of American politicians.
Enough of this Church and state stuff. [My coming book
(The Code for Global Ethics)
->] will deal in
much deeper detail on this topic.
II- The second important political tension in the U.S.
is between the Jefferson and Hamilton political
philosophies of democratic rule versus an
aristocratic rule.
Just as some wanted to establish a theocracy in early
America, the early American leaders were divided on
the question of democracy, and as to whether a popular
and decentralized democratic republic was better than
a centralized aristocratic republic.
On the question of democracy vs. aristocracy, the two
American polar personalities were Thomas Jefferson
(Secretary of State in the first Washington
government) and Alexander Hamilton
(Secretary of the Treasury in the same government).
Each was a follower of one of two opposite British
political philosophers.
Jefferson (who became the 3rd U.S. President) was a
disciple of both the French political thinker
Montesquieu (1689-1755),
("The Spirit of the Laws", 1748), and of the British
philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). In his
classic book, ("Second Treatise of Government", 1690),
Locke refuted the divine right of kings and who argued
that people were sovereign and had the right overthrow
their governments. This was of course the credo of
most of the 55 "Founding Fathers" who supported and
fought the War of Independence against royalist Great
Britain and George the 3rd, and who signed the US
And, when came the time to write a constitution, the
founders did not want absolute power concentrated in
one man or one branch of government, but rather they
wanted a decentralization of power which would protect
individual rights from government, with "checks and
balances" within government, first between the states
and the federal government (federalism), but also [with
"checks and balances" or the separation of powers
between the Judiciary, the Legislative and the
For example, they introduced a clause in the
Constitution requiring that only Congress could
declare a war (Art. I, Sect. 8- cl. 11); that the
Right of Habeas Corpus cannot be suspended except for
cause (Art. I, Sect.9-cl. 2); that the President, Vice
President and all civil Officers of the United States
can be removed from Office by Impeachment (Art. II,
Sect. 4) and that "no religious Test shall ever be
required as a Qualification to any Office or public
Trust under the United States." (Art. VI, cl. 3).
On the other hand, there were those, like Alexander
Hamilton, who were wary of giving so much power to the
people. They feared that the government would be weak
and unstable. They were followers of the British
political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588 - 1679). Hobbes
did not believe in democratic rule as such, but rather
defended the right of kings and aristocracies to rule
the masses, for their own good. For instance, Hobbes
wrote that people have no right to revolt against the
government, no matter how oppressive, but they should
instead, and I quote him, "expect their reward in
Heaven.” Thus, long before Karl Marx, [the idea that
religion is the opiate of the masses
->] was
clearly expressed by Hobbes.
For Jefferson, Hamilton was a "monarchist" at heart
and an aristocrat. Indeed, Hamilton had argued in
favor of a President elected, yes, but for life, and a
Senate modeled on the British Chamber of Lords, also
elected for life. In his plan, the President would
have an absolute veto. Only the House of
Representatives would have had to be elected.
If Hamilton were alive today, he would be an ally of
President George W. Bush and of Vice President Dick
Cheney and he would be in favor of the notion of [a
Unitary Executive
or of an "imperial presidency", i.e. a president with
de facto dictatorial powers and a subservient
Congress. (Hamilton even proposed the abolition of
state governments and that the federal government
should appoint the State governors.) President George
W. Bush has added a clause to more than 750 laws
passed by Congress that he has signed, stating that
they may not apply to the president and that he may
bypass them if he chooses to do so.
Hamilton, if no democrat, had other qualities: he
fostered the development of capital markets, he
encouraged commerce, and he stood for sound fiscal
policy. On the whole, he was more interested in the
economy than in politics per se.
As we know, Hamilton was killed in a duel with Vice
President Aaron Burr on July 12 1804, and his portrait
is on the $10 bill. Jefferson died the same day as
John Adams, on July 1, 1826 and he his portrait
appears on the $2 bill and on the 5-cent nickel.
Jefferson's face is also on Mount Rushmore.
III- Americans have also been divided regarding
isolationism in
international affairs versus [active foreign
This is the third big trend and dilemma in American
political philosophy.
On the whole, America's Founding Fathers
tended to be isolationists and did not want to get
involved in the games that European empires (the
British, the French, the Portuguese, the Spaniards
which all had so-called colonies) were playing around
the world. For example, George Washington (1732-1799) said:
"It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent
alliances with any portion of the foreign world."
Besides, they were too busy developing the Louisiana
Territory that Jefferson had bought from Napoleon in
1806 for $14 million [$11,250,000 plus cancellation of
debts worth $3,750,000]. This was a territory, East of
the Rockies and located on both sides of the
Mississippi River that went from New Orleans to the
Canadian border. That's 23 percent of the territory of
the United States today.
This approach began to change in 1823 with [the Monroe
->] when
President James Monroe (1758-1831) declared
that the USA would not tolerate any European nation
trying to establish a colony in the Americas, This had
the effect of placing the entire South American
continent under American influence.
This was followed by the [U.S.-Mexican War of 1846 to
after the U.S. annexed the independent state of Texas
in 1845, under President James K. Polk with the
emerging doctrine of "Manifest Destiny."
Most of the Republicans (then called Whigs) in the
North and South, including then Congressman Abraham
Lincoln, opposed the war on the grounds that Texas was
a Mexican province, but most of the Democrats in the
South supported it. In the nineteenth century, this
became the main feature of American politics:
Republicans tended to be isolationists, while
Democrats tended to be more interventionists in
foreign affairs.
This all changed at the turn of the twentieth century
with the [Republican administration of William McKinley
->] a very
religious man. McKinley, and one of his principal
secretaries, Teddy Roosevelt, crafted an imperialist
foreign policy on the commonly held belief that it was
America's duty as a Christian republic to spread
democracy throughout the world. Armed with this new
ideology, they launched the first American foreign war
of aggression against Spain, in 1898.
The U.S. launched the Spanish-American war
after the U.S.S. Maine incident in the port of
Havana, when an explosion in the visiting battle ship
killed 266 American sailors. The explosion took place
on February 15, 1898. Although it was most likely an
accident, the media empires of Hearst and Pulitzer
stoked the fire of war against Spain, and there was a
war, even if the pretext was somewhat flimsy. The
Spanish-American war allowed the United States to de
facto annex the island of Cuba, the Island of Puerto
Rico and the Islands of the Philippines. In 1903,
Teddy Roosevelt's administration took over the country
of Panama.
Therefore, we can say that the first part of the
twentieth century saw the triumph of the ideology of
foreign intervention, especially in Central and South
America and in the Caribbean. After the McKinley
administration, which had an openly imperialistic
foreign policy, the Woodrow Wilson administration tried to
abandon the previous administrations' imperialist and
unilateralist foreign policy by promoting the right of
self-determination for all peoples throughout the
world. They believed the people in every country
should have the right to choose their own governments.
This was the famous Wilsonian idealistic, progressive
and multilateralist American foreign policy that many
successive administrations would try to adhere to. The
last one in line was the [Bill Clinton administration
But even for President Wilson, events that took place
in other countries forced him to embark upon foreign
interventions to "make the world safe for democracy."
For example, Mexico fell into a bloody revolution in
1913, when Mexican general Victoriano Huerta overthrew
and assassinated the duly elected Mexican President
Francisco Madero. The next year, Wilson sent troops to
Mexico, and peace with Mexico was achieved only in
1916, through complex negotiations.
Wilson also intervened in Nicaragua to fight rebels,
and the same happened in Haiti and in the Dominican
Republic. American troops ended up occupying these
Caribbean islands for many years.
Altogether, it has been estimated that between 1898
and 1934, the United States intervened four times in
Cuba, five times in Nicaragua, seven times in
Honduras, four times in the Dominican Republic, twice
in Haiti, once in Guatemala, twice in Panama, three
times in Mexico and four times in Columbia.
During the other two thirds of the twentieth century,
the United States was involved somewhat defensively in
the two World Wars against Germany, and in the Cold
War against the Soviet Union, until the later
collapsed in 1991. There was also the involvements in
the Korean war and in the Vietnam war, but generally,
U.S. foreign policy, while interventionist, was also
And that brings us to the twenty-first century.
The Bush-Cheney administration
that came into power on January 20, 2001, has been a
direct successor to the McKinley-Roosevelt
administrations, of one hundred years earlier. Its
2002 so-called "Bush Doctrine" promoted
unilateral foreign interventionism and the
self-proclaimed right to launch "preventive wars"
against other countries, notwithstanding international
law or international institutions such as the United
Nations. Here we are today with this "Bush Doctrine"
back one hundred years in international relations.—In
my book "The New American Empire", I delve more deeply
into this issue.— Of course, the title of my book is
somewhat misleading, because the Bush-Cheney's empire
building efforts of today are not new in American
history: They are but the old McKinley-Roosevelt
imperial foreign policy cloaked in new clothes.
Perhaps the book's title should have been "The New,
New American Empire"!
My general conclusion, therefore, is that for two
thirds of the twentieth century, various U.S.
administrations, beginning with the Franklin D.
Roosevelt administration (1932-1945), which was mainly
responsible for establishing the United Nations, in 1945,
have built a reputation for the United States as a
protector of international law, of the right for
peoples to self-determination and of international
peace. For example, the United States opposed [the
Soviet Union
->] when it
invaded Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968,
under what came to be known as the ["Brezhnev
When the Bush-Cheney administration invaded Iraq on
March 20, 2003, under a similar "Bush Doctrine" and
without the United Nations' authorization, this had
the effect of a shock to a lot of people around the
This goes a long way in explaining why [President
George W. Bush
is presently the most unpopular politician around the
world that the U.S. has ever had.
A recent Harris Poll taken in Europe gave these dismal
figures on Mr. Bush's approval rating in five
representative countries:
In Italy: 8 percent of approval;

In the UK: 7 percent;

In Spain, 7 percent;

In Germany, 5 percent;

In France, 3 percent.
Considering these figures, maybe some American
politicians would do well to meditate about [what
Benjamin Franklin
called his seven "great virtues" that politicians
should practice in public affairs. They are:
- aversion to tyranny;
- support for a free press;
- a sense of humor;
- humility;
- idealism in foreign policy;
- and, tolerance and respect for compromise.
I leave you to be the judge if many contemporary
politicians meet Ben Franklin's standards.
Finally, I would say that the three fundamental
influences that are observed throughout history in
American politics seem to be following a very long
cycle of occurrence. In fact, they seem to confirm
British historian Arnold Toynbee's one hundred-year
cycle. Indeed, Toynbee identified what he called a
century-long cycle of colonial or imperialist-like
wars over time. And, in this regard, the beginning of
the twenty-first century looks like a duplicate of the
beginning of the twentieth century: then, Great
Britain was involved in the Boers War in South
Africa while the U.S. was involved in the
Spanish-American War. Today, [both countries are
involved in the Middle East wars, the Afghanistan war
and the Iraq war.
It may not be a complete coincidence that such
periods, marked by colonial zeal, are also periods
when religious sentiment is running high. And, since
wars require a concentration of power, it may not be a
coincidence either that it is during such periods that
political theories about the need for a strong
presidency and the Unitary Executive abound, with the
purpose of turning the presidency into a virtual
dictatorship. These three powerful social and
political trends seem to go parallel to each other.
Therefore, the question seems to be obvious: To what
extent do the three main social and political trends
that I have observed in American politics tend to
reinforce each other at certain periods? This is a
question that political scientists and historians
should investigate further.

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