Calling Mr. Madison!

The current financial crisis surrounding Greece has the European Union (EU) reliving an American nightmare of the 1780s.  Then, the Articles of Confederation bound the thirteen states together with ties that were both loose and clumsy, and that failed.  The parallels are plain:

  • A group of states join together for mutual advantage.
  • History and pride require that the union not be too close!  No one wants to give up political autonomy.
  • The organizational charter requires unanimity — that’s right, unanimity — to adopt critical economic policies.  In America in the 1780s, it was allowing the national government to levy a tax on imports; in Europe now, it’s the bailout plan for Greece.
  • A crisis arises:  In America in the 1780s, it was the inability to repay our debts.  In Europe today, it’s . . . Greece’s inability to pay its debts!  (Are you still with me?  This is working.)
  • One of the smallest, least significant members of the union holds out.  In the 1780s, it was Rhode Island.  Rhode Island!  Today, in the Greek crisis, it’s Slovakia which refuses to go along.  (This structural arrangement — known in history as the liberum veto — was a characteristic of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which collapsed; not really a “best practices” model.)

The EU was created by treaties among the member states, culminating in a Constitution of 2004.  It has achieved an amazing amount.  The Euro, as a currency, plainly makes trade and travel in Europe incalculably easier.  As a traveler who has gazed enviously at Europeans scampering through no-customs lines at European airports, I have admired their progress in breaking down barriers between states.  But the current crisis is showing the severe limitations of the current governance arrangements.  It’s time for some change.

We could offer the use of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, but they will have to provide their own James Madison and George Washington figures.  Ours have long since left the building.



  1. Rebecca Staton-Reinstein on October 11, 2011 at 9:00 am

    David, thanks for another wonderful insight as history informs our understanding of the present. Keep them coming and hope that both our citizens and leaders are reading and understanding. Thanks

  2. Michael Pollock on October 11, 2011 at 4:49 pm


    On the whole, I agree with you on both the reasons for the current economic mesh not just in Europe but worldwide, and the solutions for the same. However, as a professional genealogist, I have a bit different perspective of the same. Whenever I have looked at past events with an intent to understand not just what happened, but why, I frequently find that history books rarely answer the latter question, at least to my satisfaction.

    A good example is how Wyatt Earp is treated, typically as either the architypical U.S. Marshall portrayed by Hugh O’Brien in the TV series, or an early version of the “Dirty Harrry Callahan”, the character made famous by Clint Eastwood. The latter position has as its earliest proponent a man named William Breakenridge who was a Deputy Sheriff in Tombstone while Wyatt was a marshall there. That Breakenridge actually knew, and at least in theory, worked with Earp as they were fellow “policemen”, would seem to give credence to his account, particularly since it is the most detailed account by a contemporary of Earp (other contemporary accounts are only of specific incidents).

    I qualify “worked together” because as Marshall and Sheriff, Earp and Breckenridge were as much, if not more so, rivals as coworkers. Sheriff is an elected, local, office, while Marshall is federal and appointed, with Wyatt appointed at a time when one implicitly had to be a loyal adherent of, if not contributor to, the party of the then President, Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican who was the first President who did not win a majority of the popular vote. Most Republicans came from the “North” (Earp was born in Illinois, raised in Iowa) and had likely served in the Union Army (Wyatt was himself too young to have fought, but brothers Virgil, Jim and Morgan received pensions for their Union service). Most of the people who settled in Arizona came from the states of the former Confederacy (Breckenridge was from Kentucky, the Clantons from Texas), so had likely served in the Confederate Army (Breckenridge and the Clantons all had), and voted Democrat. Oh, yes, Wyatt’s wife had previously been the “girl friend” of Breckenridge’s boss, Johnny Boehm, so Breckenridge’s dislike of Earp was highly politically motivated. And when one looks at what happened in Tombstone in the early 1880s from that perspective, as a struggle between two rival politcal camps, EVERYTHING that happened actually makes sense!

    I can offer still other examples, but the point is if we don’t do a better job of studying history, we are DOOMED to repeat the same mistakes our ancestors did!

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