No two people are the same, especially centuries apart. Still, I can’t help but think about the leader of a great empire, occupying foreign lands, facing bankruptcy from an expensive victory in a war that galvanized many nations against it , taxing without representation, changing laws arbitrarily, putting his troops in people’s homes, with a legislative body insensitive to its citizens’ concerns, … I could go on, and ask
“Who resembles this person most today?”
I can’t help concluding the United States government resembles less its founders than the imperial government they rebelled against.
Thinking about Edward Snowden, Chelsea (born Bradley) Manning, and Daniel Ellsberg got me thinking about my country’s founders and revolutionary figures. I couldn’t help but read about Samuel Adams, Crispus Attucks, and Thomas Paine.
I hadn’t before connected how Snowden, Manning, and Ellsberg all worked for the military. They started their careers to support their government. They didn’t intend to blow whistles or oppose the government. They intended to help the government and the military in particular.
Snowden joined the Army, the NSA, and the CIA, hardly the career path of someone initially opposing the government. Manning joined the Army and served in Iraq, again hardly the career path of someone initially opposed to the government. Ellsberg married the daughter of a Marine Corps Brigadier General and served in the Pentagon and Vietnam.
They began as willing government agents.
Why did they change their positions? Why did they blow whistles?
They blew whistles from what they learned from their inside knowledge of how their government worked. They didn’t seem to seek out this information. It came to them. They didn’t create the documents they released. They didn’t ask to learn that their government was lying to its people. They just found irrefutable evidence of it.
Like them, Samuel Adams worked for the government, as a tax collector, before writing on the unconstitutionality of the King’s acts (the British Constitution), principally in taxing without representation. I’m confident contemporaries in England and the colonies disagreed with him. Maybe they called him a traitor. He was a traitor to King George III, though at least he pointed out the King was violating his Constitution.
Faced with opposition, his government dug in to its policies, taxing more, sending more troops, trying to enforce more. Adams transitioned from trying to reform his government to rebelling against it, eventually becoming a central figure.
The pattern sounds too familiar, only the government Adams helped start seems now on the other side.
I’m no historian. Maybe I’m missing important points. I’m only writing what a few hours reading Wikipedia told me (mainly all the links in this post). Nothing special, but that’s my point: how simple and obvious this trend is — as common sense today as Common Sense was then.
I just can’t help seeing Obama and Bush ever more closely resembling King George III than the revolutionaries, even to the point of motivating people to revolt, dividing and polarizing more than bringing together, moving toward tyranny and away from the Constitution, losing touch with their citizens. When I consider the data points of what Bush started and Obama is continuing, I shudder to extrapolate a few years or Presidents into the future.
I know many thoughtful, reasonable people consider Ellsberg, Manning, and Snowden traitorous enemies of the U.S. I don’t see that, but even if I did, I’d have to consider that the patriots who founded the U.S. became enemies of the state they rebelled against.
When we call them patriots today, we mean patriots to a country that didn’t exist because before independence they looked like traitors. They were traitors to the only government they had. John Hancock‘s signing the Declaration of Independence, like his co-signers, was signing his death warrant for treason.
Only history determined whether we would call Hancock, Paine, and Adams patriots or traitors. While their government wanted to kill them, their fellow colonialists probably had divided views. They probably feared for their lives as much as they steadfastly held their revolutionary traitorous views.
Only history will decide if Ellsberg, Manning, and Snowden will become known mainly as traitors, patriots, or what. Perhaps some future historians will view them as we view Adams, Attucks, Hancock, and so on — people that changed a tyrannical, oppressive government that ceased to represent its people. I don’t know. I’m just looking at trends. If you see differently, tell me. I’m the first to want to see my mistakes.
For now, like the King and Parliament then, the U.S. government seems inclined to dig into its policies and positions more, to invade privacy more, make its laws and judicial system more secret, attack critics more, and motivate more people to oppose it.
I can only hope that for all the regard we have for George Washington winning our Revolutionary War, we resolve things today without long, deadly conflict. Separated by centuries, there are many differences between today and then. Washington D.C. isn’t an ocean away. But what of the similarities? What can we learn from history?
Who could tell at the time of the Stamp Tax in 1765 what would happen twelve years later? Who can tell what might happen twelve years from now? In any case, when was the last time the U.S. government succeeded in a conflict? Has it since before Vietnam?