Sunday, September 25, 2016

What If the Confederates Had Resorted to Partisan Warfare in 1865?

April of 1865 was the month in which the Confederacy was utterly crushed. The first day of the month saw the Southerners suffer a terrible defeat at the Battle of Five Forks, cutting off the last rail supply lines to the Army of Northern Virginia. The following day, the lines of fortifications protecting Petersburg, which had held off Union forces for more than nine months, were shattered by a series of attacks, forcing the Confederate to abandon their capital at Richmond. There followed a frantic week as the Army of Northern Virginia sought desperately to escape to the west, only to be run down and cornered by the irresistible might of the Army of the Potomac. On April 9, as every student in America is taught on 8th grade, Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse.

Down in North Carolina, dramatic events were also taking place, if at a slower pace. There a hodgepodge Confederate army was still in the field, commanded by Joseph Johnston and consisting of the remnants of the Army of Tennessee and troops pulled from the garrisons of now abandoned ports of Charleston and Wilmington. The Union army under William Tecumseh Sherman was steadily moving north, seeking to link up with Grant in Virginia. Although Johnston's men had given the Yankees a bloody nose on the first day of the Battle of Bentonville the previous month, they had shortly thereafter been forced to retreat when Union reinforcements arrived. As Johnston confessed, he lacked the ability to do anything more than annoy Sherman. On April 26, having learned of Lee's capitulation in Virginia, Johnston surrendered to Sherman.

In the midst of all this, President Jefferson Davis refused to admit that the cause of the Confederacy was lost. Moving out of Richmond with his Cabinet and what remained of the Confederate treasury, he fled to Danville, Virginia, where he released a remarkable statement to the press.

Relieved from the necessity of guarding cities and particular points, important but not vital to our defense, with an army free to move from point to point and strike in detail the detachments and garrisons of the enemy, operating on the interior of our own country, where supplies are more accessible, and where the foe will be far removed from his own base and cut off from all succor in case of reverse, nothing is now needed to render our triumph certain but the exhibition of our own unquenchable resolve. Let us but will it, and we are free. 

What President Davis was talking about was, in effect, abandoning a conventional military strategy and resorting to partisan warfare, or what we today would usually call guerrilla warfare. It had a history going back to the emergence of civilization, but it was widely understood even in the more dignified 19th Century. The term "guerrilla" comes from the Spanish for "little war" and was popularized by the Spanish partisans fighting against Napoleon during the Peninsular War. Russian partisans had played a key role in thwarting Napoleon's attempt to conquer Russia and Tyrolean insurgents fighting Napoleon in northern Italy had captured the public imagination. Many Southerners could look back on heroes from the Revolutionary era who had battled the British in the Carolinas, such as Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter. Guerrilla fighters might not have had the mystique in the mid-19th Century that they would gain during the Cold War, personified by Che Guevara, but they were a well-established part of the public imagination. Anyone who read Davis's statement knew exactly what he was talking about.

Davis was not the only person who wanted to resort to partisan warfare. E. Porter Alexander, Robert E. Lee's brilliant chief of artillery, approached his commander before the surrender at Appomattox with a dangerous proposal. Rather than capitulate, Alexander argued, they should simply order their men to disperse in small bands and carry on the fight. Other men in the Southern ranks also remained defiant, in spite of all the catastrophes that had befallen the Confederacy in 1865. The possibility of a widespread partisan war was a very real one.

What would a Confederate partisan war have looked like? Certainly it wouldn't have looked pretty. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the men of the Army of Northern Virginia dispersed on April 8, when Lee historically made the decision to surrender to Grant unless they could cut their way out of the trap the next morning. This was also the moment when Porter approached Lee, so it's entirely possible that the great general was thinking the question over. At that point, there were between fifteen and twenty thousand men still with Lee. Had he ordered them to scatter, large numbers of them would have been captured by the Union forces then swarming through the area, especially the large cavalry corps commanded by General Phil Sheridan.

Perhaps half might have escaped, however, either individually or in small groups. Plans might have quickly been laid to meet at designated rendezvous points. Porter himself envisioned the men making their way back to their home states. We would have seen central Virginia flooded with perhaps ten thousand scattered Confederate fighters, but they would have had no ability to supply themselves with food except by taking it from the civilian population. Lee had foreseen this problem and had spoken of it to Porter as a justification for not following his advice. Some civilians would have done their best to help the insurgents, for support for the Confederacy remained strong in many quarters even this late in the conflict. But Virginia had been picked clean by the war and there was little food left to give. Sheridan's vengeful cavalry, experienced in this sort of thing from their fighting in the Shenandoah Valley, would have surely made the ordinary people of Virginia pay dearly for any help they provided to the partisans. It would have been a truly bloody business,

If Lee's army had dispersed rather than surrender, and central Virginia was filled again with the sounds of battle as the partisan bands fought against their Union foes while they desperately sought food, what would Johnston have done? Historically, Johnston surrendered because Lee had surrendered, and the remaining Confederate forces in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi followed suit. If Lee's men were still fighting, albeit now as partisans, we can assume that Johnston would not have surrendered and that his army would have remained intact for at least the time being. Unlike Lee, Johnston did not surrender because his army was trapped and surrounded, but because the war was obviously lost and he was unwilling to see his men die for nothing.

Johnston might have retreated to the southwest, away from both Sherman and Grant, but had he done so, Sherman would have launched a vigorous pursuit and probably run him down in a North Carolinian version of the Appomattox Campaign. Besides, his army was already melting away from desertion. So, for the purposes of our little thought experiment, let's assume that Johnston's orders his men to scatter into partisan bands around April 15. North Carolina would have turned into the same bloodbath that would have been sweeping Virginia at the same time. Thousands of starving men, no longer under any unified command structure, would have been moving to and fro, alternately fighting or trying to avoid the Union forces which would have been trying to track them down.

There were still Confederate forces in the field under the command of General Richard Taylor in southern Alabama and Mississippi, as well as small garrisons in Georgia and Florida. Word of the partisan fighting would have reached them by the time Union forces arrived to gobble them up. We can assume that many of them would have surrendered, or simply thrown away their uniforms and gone home, but many of them might also have elected to take to the woods and join the partisan effort. What would have happened in the strategically irrelevant Trans-Mississippi, where the Confederate remained in a fairly stable position, is anybody's guess, although it should be pointed out the Governor Pendleton Murrah of Texas wanted to continue resistance against the Union even after he learned of Lee's surrender.

Would the Confederates have been able to maintain any kind of organized command structure? It's difficult to say. I find it very unlikely that Jefferson Davis, hiding out in the swamps of Florida or the mountains of northern Georgia, would have been capable of exercising any real control over his remaining forces even if he had avoided capture. Had he achieved his objective of reaching the Trans-Mississippi and found momentary safety there, he could still have exercised no real control over the Confederate partisan bands east of the river. At best, he would occasionally have been able to smuggle out messages encouraging further resistance, rather like Saddam Hussein did between the fall of Baghdad and his capture in December of 2003. Lee and Johnston were good soldiers, but getting on in years and exhausted by four years of toil. Would they have had the endurance to be guerrilla commanders? It's doubtful. I would expect both of them to either give themselves up or wait to be captured and spend the remainder of the conflict in honorable imprisonment.

On a more local scale, however, the situation changes. The Boers maintained a roughly organized partisan effort against the British, when, following the defeat of their conventional armies, their troops scattered into small, fast-moving partisan units known as "commandos" (from which we get the modern name of soldiers in the special forces). The Americans in the southern colonies were able to do so after the destruction of their conventional armies at Charleston and Camden in 1780. Moreover, in Wade Hampton and Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederacy had outstanding cavalry commanders who would surely have made equally outstanding partisan leaders.

If the Confederate had turned to partisan warfare on a massive scale after the spring of 1865, what would have been the reaction from the Union high command? After four years of war, these were men hardened to the strength of iron and granite. Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, and George Thomas were not going to be in the mood for forgiveness. The war had become much harsher in 1864-65 than it had been before, as hundreds of burned out farms in Mississippi, Georgia, Virginia and South Carolina could attest, to say nothing of the smoldering ruins of Atlanta, Columbia and Richmond. Any civilians who actively aided the partisans could be certain that vengeful Union cavalry would soon descend upon their homes and leave them in flames. The Union still had effectively unlimited resources of manpower and material, and the collapse of Confederate authority would have allowed them to recruit untold thousands of freed slaves as well, making their army even stronger.

More importantly, there was an alternative government to vie for the loyalties of the people. Under President Lincoln's "Ten Percent Plan", a state could be brought back into the Union with a functioning government as soon as ten percent of the number of people who voted in the state in the 1860 election had sworn loyalty to the Union, with generous pardons extended to all but very high-ranking Confederate political or military officials. By the time we are suggesting the Confederate armies might have dispersed into partisan bands, there were already functioning Unionist governments in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee. As the Union army gained control of the cities and towns, with Confederate partisans consigned to the forests and hills, similar administrations would have soon become operational in other states as well.

With Confederate partisans simultaneously trying to fight Union occupation forces and keep themselves fed and supplied, the loyalties of the people would soon become torn between the Confederate "bitter-enders" (to use a phrase from the Boer War) and the emerging Unionist governments. Knowing that Union forces would burn them out if they helped the partisans, and that the partisans might loot them of their food no matter what they did, there would be an inevitable shift towards the Union side, After all, even a temporarily effective partisan campaign would have provided no real chance for an ultimate victory against the Union and this would have been obvious to all concerned.

Throughout the remainder of 1865, we would see scattered Confederate partisan bands battling against Union forces trying to run them all to ground. But history shows that a partisan campaign can only persist in an environment where the partisans enjoy the support of the civilian population. The Southern people had had enough of war, which was aptly demonstrated by the steadily increasing rate of desertion from the Confederate armies during the months before November of 1864 (when Lincoln's reelection ended any realistic chance for a Confederate victory) and April of 1865. Combine with the certainty of terrible retribution, we can be sure that the exhausted civilian population would not have been inclined to support the partisans very much.

An already ugly situation might have been made even worse if Confederate partisans had decided to direct their attention towards Southerners who swore loyalty to the newly established Unionist administrations. Given the now unorganized nature of the Southern partisans, it would have been impossible to prevent all groups from engaging in retaliation against Unionist Southerners, even if what remained of the Confederate leadership had been inclined to restrain them. The result would have been a civil war within the Civil War. This actually happened in East Tennessee and other places historically, but it would have been vastly worse and on a wider scale in the scenario we are describing. We might even have seen former Confederate troops who had surrendered being mobilized by the Union governments to fight against their former comrades.

This, then, would have been the South in the summer and fall of 1865 had the Confederates decided to resort to large-scale partisan warfare rather than give up the fight. Tens of thousands of Confederate soldiers would be at loose across the country, fighting as partisans. Some of these bands might be loosely organized on a local level by leaders such as Nathan Bedford Forrest or Wade Hampton, but communication would be extremely difficult and it's likely that most of the groups would not be under any effective command at all. Without any system of logistics to supply themselves, the partisans would have had to turn to looting to obtain food. Within a short time, there would be very little distinction between the Confederate partisan bands and simple outlaws. Any civilians would supported the partisans would have been burned out of their homes and many of them would have turned against their fellow Southerners in desperate bids for safety and peace. Thousands of more men would have died in a cause that had already perished. Historically, the South took decades to recover from the American Civil War, but in this scenario, the wounds inflicted upon Southern society would have been infinitely worse.

That this nightmare did not come to pass can be attributed above all to three men: Robert E. Lee, Joseph Johnston, and John C. Breckinridge. Lee and Johnston refused to give orders that would have scattered their men into partisan bands. Being Virginia gentlemen of the old school, they had no wish to engage in a guerrilla conflict, especially one they had no chance of winning. Both army commanders cared deeply about their men, and neither was going to be willing to have them killed to no purpose.

On April 20, a paroled General Lee wrote Jefferson Davis a letter, though the President could not have received it before he was captured a month later. In it, Lee states the following:

From what I have seen and learned, I believe an army cannot be organized or supported in Virginia, and as far as I know the condition of affairs, the country east of the Mississippi is morally and physically unable to maintain the contest unaided with any hope of success. A partisan war may be continued, and hostilities protracted, causing individual suffering and the devastation of the country, but I see no prospect by that means of achieving a separate independence. It is for Your Excellency to decide, should you agree with me in opinion, what is proper to be done. To save useless effusion of blood, I would recommend measures be taken for suspension of hostilities and the restoration of peace.

Lee was always very tactful and careful when communicating with Davis. Reading between the lines, it is clear that Lee was doing two things. First, he was trying to make it clear that a partisan war would achieve nothing but add to the suffering of the Southern people. Second, he was leaving a footnote in history to absolve himself of any responsibility in the event that Davis was foolish enough to attempt a partisan war.

Johnston didn't have to write to Davis, for he got a chance to say pretty much the same thing to the President's face. The commander of the Army of Tennessee was probably the last man Davis wanted to see, for they had been bitter personal enemies for years, perhaps as far back as their West Point days in the 1820s, Johnston told Davis plainly that the war was over, that there was no point in continuing resistance, and that attempting a partisan war would simply bring more death and devastation to the people of the South. When Davis equivocated on whether he should allow Johnston to negotiate a surrender of his army, Johnston went ahead and did so without the President authorization.

Breckinridge served as the Confederate Secretary of War in the waning days of the Confederacy, having assumed the position in January of 1865. He recognized immediately that the South no longer had any chance of victory and took it upon himself to guide events towards as easy and honorable a conclusion of hostilities as possible. As he said to Davis, "This has been a magnificent epic. In God's name, let it not terminate in a farce." Yet Breckinridge remained faithfully by Davis's side through the hopeless, grim flight to the south, keeping the cavalry escort that protected the President together, and all the while doing his best to persuade Davis that the war was well and truly lost.

All the while, Breckinridge used his moral authority, and the now hazy legitimacy he held as the Secretary of War of a disintegrating government, to help Confederate soldiers surrender and go home. He assisted Johnston in his negotiations with Sherman and pushed other Confederate government officials and military officers to pressure Davis to cease resistance. As Davis seemed close to losing his grip on reality after the fall of Richmond, everyone turned to Breckinridge for guidance. To everyone, he gave the same message. The war was over. Surrender to the Yankees. Peace with honor is preferably to fighting to the death. In the end, Breckinridge's efforts probably prevented thousands of men who might otherwise have vanished into the woods and hills from doing so.

All Americans should give thanks to Lee, Johnston, and Breckinridge for helping to prevent the nightmare vision of a Confederate guerrilla war from becoming a reality. The American Civil War was the most traumatic experience our nation has ever gone through, yet it would have been even worse had Davis been able to persuade even a sizable fraction of his army to fight on as partisans. For this, all three of those men deserved to be placed in the pantheon of American heroes.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

An Ordinary Day in the First World War

One hundred years ago today, September 18, 1916, was a fairly typical day during the First World War. Lots of things were going on around the world.

In France, around the fortress city of Verdun, one of history's longest and nightmarish battles was still ongoing. Between February and July, a titanic German offensive against the French Army there had been repelled by the narrowest of margins and only at a terrible cost in human life. The land surrounding Verdun had been turned into a surreal quagmire of mud churned up by unprecedented amounts of artillery fire. Chemical weapons had been used on a massive scale, including the first employment of diphosgene gas by the Germans, against which the gas masks of the French troops were initially ineffective. Now, the French army was preparing a major counter offensive to retake the lost ground, which was seen as a matter of national honor. The attack would open the following month and, by December, drive the Germans back to the positions from which they had launched their initial attacks nearly a year earlier. Over the course of the Battle of Verdun, in a space of ground roughly the size of a typical American county, about 300,000 men had been killed on both sides, and hundreds of thousands more had been wounded. The front lines ended pretty much where they had begun.

To the north and west, another ferocious battle was raging along the lines near the Somme River. Back on the first day of July, the British army had launched a mighty offensive designed to smash through the German lines and win the war. It had not gone according to plan. The first day of the attack proved to be the most disastrous day in British military history, with 60,000 casualties (including 20,000 dead) being suffered for minimal gains. The attacks continued for months, extending to September 18 and beyond, but the British eventually gained only about seven miles of ground. Over the course of the battle, the British lost more than 400,000 men and the French, who supported the attack, had lost about 200,000. The Germans lost about 500,000 men in repulsing the attacks.

On the Eastern Front, the Russians had mounted a great offensive against the Austro-Hungarians back in June, under the command of their best general, Aleksei Brusilov. At first the attack had achieved great success, taking the Austro-Hungarians by surprise and punching a huge hole in the front. The Eastern Front had always been more fluid than the Western Front and the Russians made some impressive territorial gains in the first days, taking thousands of enemy prisoners. In this sense, the Brusilov Offensive represented the greatest Russian victory of the First World War. But as the weeks past, Russian momentum had slowed down, the Austro-Hungarians had recovered, and heavy German reinforcements had arrived. The offensive was eventually brought to a halt. All told, the Russians lost about half a million men, the Germans about 350,000 thousand, and the Austro-Hungarian a whopping 900,000.

The initial success of the Brusilov Offensive had persuaded Romania, which had remained neutral up to that point, to join the war on the side of the Allies. Being a bit on the greedy side, they hoped to seize territory held by Austria-Hungary which was largely peopled by Romanians. Their initial attacks into Habsburg territory succeeded in gaining some territory. On September 18, however, the Germans under the command of Erich von Falkenhayn launched a major counter offensive, effectively coordinating German, Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian, and Turkish forces. By the end of 1917, Romania had been crushed and its army had suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties.

Meanwhile, down in the Alps, the Italians were busy banging away at their Austro-Hungarian enemies in an endless series of battles along the Isonzo River. The mountainous terrain was tailor-made for the defense, with soldiers being asked to launch attacks in an almost vertical direction. The Italian commander, Luigi Cadorna, might be a candidate for the title of most incompetent general of all time and he simply flung his divisions against the Austro-Hungarian positions again and again, resulting in nothing but heavy casualties. He blamed his troops rather than his own lack of imagination for the successive defeats, dealing out incredibly harsh punishments. The Sixth Battle of the Isonzo had been fought the previous month, resulting in minimal gains and heavy casualties. On this date a hundred years ago, the Seventh Battle of Isonzo was coming to an end, having resulting in no gains and heavy casualties. The following month, the Eighth Battle of Isonzo would be fought. You won't be surprised to learn that it resulted in no gains and heavy casualties.

In northern Greece, fighting raged along what was known as the Salonika Front. An Allied army consisting of French, British, and Serbian troops faced off against the Bulgarians and a few German units, each side attacking and defending in turn, rather like partners at a dance. Bizarrely, Greece was officially neutral in the war and nobody seemed to know why the Salonika Front even existed. Though the fighting there was not as intense or costly as the battles raging on other fronts, thousands of men still died along its lines.

Battle raged in subsidiary theaters of the war this day in 1916 as well. Russian and Turkish troops clawed away at one another in the Caucasus Mountains, which each side advancing and retreating in turn. In the Sinai Peninsula, the forces of the British Empire faced off against a Turkish army reinforced by German machine gun teams and Austrian artillery; having successfully defended the town of Romani, the British would soon go over to the offensive. In Mesopotamia, having suffered a humiliating defeat at Al-Kut earlier in the year, the British were reorganizing their forces and preparing for a major offensive when the weather turned favorable. In German East Africa, the intrepid German commander Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, a master of mobile warfare, continued to run rings around the British forces sent against him, though this would change the following year. In the North Sea, the Grand Fleet of the British and the High Seas Fleet of the Germans, having fought the enormous, costly, and utterly inconclusive Battle of Jutland a few months earlier, continued to eye each other warily. In the air, German zeppelins were periodically bombing London and Paris, a prelude to the much more destructive bombing campaigns that would take place in the next war, but in this conflict something that didn't achieve anything aside from killing a couple hundred civilians for absolutely no purpose.

This, then, was the state of the war on the completely ordinary day of September 18, 1916, exactly one hundred years ago. In France, the British and French slugged it out with the Germans, with both sides suffering massive losses at Verdun and the Somme. The Brusilov Offensive by the Russians on the Eastern Front had spent itself, having gained some ground at heavy cost, while dealing massive casualties against the Austro-Hungarians. Romania was about to be crushed. The Italians continued attack along the Isonzo, suffering massive losses for little or no gain. And fighting on the "minor" fronts continued to cost the lives of many thousands of men.

It might fairly be asked by a rational person what all of this fighting was about. The answer is a very sad one. It was about nothing.

The war, of course, had started because a Habsburg archduke got shot by a Serbian nationalist. The Austrians thought this would be a good chance to knock the Serbians down a peg or two and so provoked a war over it. The Russians, fearful of looking weak, decided that they had to back up the Serbians. The Germans, through foolishness or inattention, decided to back the Austrians. The logic of entangling alliances then brought in the British and French and the war was on. As it progressed, other powers jumped into the fight out a greedy desire for territory: Japan on the Allied side, then the Turks on the German side, then the Italians on the Allied side, then the Bulgarians on the German side, then the Romanians on the Allied side, and so on and so forth.

The First World War was the worst of all possible wars, because it was caused by human vanity and human stupidity. There was no great ideological or religious issue at stake. It was about nothing. The men who bravely fought and died in the First World War fought and died for nothing. There have been many useless and unnecessary wars in history, but the First World War was surely the largest and most bloody such conflict. The Second World War had to be fought, because Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan represented truly evil forces which were trying to subjugate the world and had to be defeated. The aggressors in the First World War were not evil so much as stupid.

A mother in 1942 or 1943 who received one of the dreaded telegrams informing her that her son had been killed fighting against the Germans might eventually, in the fullness of time, have been able to have console herself in the knowledge that he had died fighting against a truly monstrous evil. A mother receiving a similar telegram received on September 18, 1916, would never have such comfort, for the First World War was an entirely unnecessary and stupid war.

The British writer Rudyard Kipling (one of my favorite authors) is largely known for his jingoistic and patriotic poems and short stories written in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, when the British Empire was at its height. The First World War changed him, especially after his son John was killed fighting against the Germans during the Battle of Loos in September of 1915. I think that a two-line poem he wrote in response to the war, taking the voice of a common soldier, pretty much sums up how we should all feel about the war.

If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Read the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers

On September 17, we will be celebrating Constitution Day. It's a holiday that, in my opinion, should be celebrated by the people of the United States of America with the same gusto as Independence Day. For all our differences in ethnicity and language, in religion and political persuasion, we are all Americans because we all live under the same governmental framework as set out in the Constitution. It is truly the tie that binds the United States together. The Constitution is one of the two sacred texts of our civil religion, the Declaration of Independence being the other one. I have always thought it quite proper that both documents were approved and signed in the same room in Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed their completed document on September 17, 1787. It marked the culmination of several months of intense debate, characterized at different times by intellectual brilliance, high idealism, ruthless political bargaining, selfish protection of regional interests, and a willingness to compromise in pursuit of the greater good. The men who made up the Convention comprised a galaxy of great statesmen. Some were names familiar to most Americans: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. Others are less well-known but shouldn't be: George Mason, Roger Sherman, James Wilson, and Gouverneur Morris. Thomas Jefferson (who was on diplomatic duty in Paris during the Convention) was not exaggerating much when he described the men as "an assembly of demigods".

The Constitution is not perfect. For all the genius we rightfully attribute to them, the Founding Fathers were ordinary mortals who could not see into the future. I've written previously of changes I would like to see in our governing document, which I think have been made clear by more than two centuries of national experience. Yet the achievement of the men who wrote the Constitution is truly awe-inspiring. Through crisis after crisis, including a terrible civil war, the framework of our government has never been broken. It truly is one of the great intellectual achievements ever to spring forth from the human mind.

The questions that the framers of the Constitution sought to answer were those which have plagued democratic societies since the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans. What power should government have over our lives? If we accept majority rule, how can we ensure that the majority does not oppress the minority? In a government split in constituent states or provinces, what powers should be held by the central government and what powers should be held by the states or provinces? How can we can prevent the person who holds executive power from exerting too much control over the country and making himself a king or dictator? Can we balance the interests of one region of the country against the interests of another region? What rights do citizens have and what obligations do they owe?

We wrestle with these same questions today, more than two centuries after the Constitution was written. In my opinion, there is no better way to consider questions like these than to read the Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers.

In the aftermath of the approval of the Constitution by the delegates of the Convention, the arduous process of getting it approved by the people of the individual states began. This was, if anything, a more difficult task than the actual creation of the document had been. A public debate unlike any other in history took place, with ordinary people talking and arguing over the Constitution all across the country in taverns, coffee houses, churches, and anywhere else. The newspapers were filled with editorials voicing different views and untold numbers of pamphlets were printed in favor of one side or the other. In the end, special conventions were called in each state to decide whether or not the ratify the Constitution. By the narrowest of margins, it was approved.

During this period, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, three of the strongest supporters of the Constitution, collaborated together to write a series of newspaper pieces designed to persuade New Yorkers to support ratification. These eventually became known as the Federalist Papers. Comprising eighty-five essays in total, they explore all the issues raised by the Constitution. What taxation power should the federal government have? Should the federal government or the states be empowered to maintain the country's military forces? Are there proper checks and balances between the three branches of government? Does the executive branch have too much control over foreign affairs?

Hamilton, Madison, and Jay set out to answer these questions and, by and large, they did so brilliantly. Hamilton wrote more than half of them, with Madison authoring about a third and Jay only six (he suffered from poor health during this period). From the standpoint of political philosophy, the Federalist Papers represent one of the great literary productions the world has ever seen. Arguably the most important paper was Federalist #10, authored by Madison, in which he makes the case that the large number of different political factions in an extensive republic actually provides stability, since each faction serves as a check on the ambitions of the other factions. I always remember this whenever one of my Democratic or Republican friends suggests that all would be right with the country if only their political party held complete political power.

Set against the Federalist are the appropriately named Anti-Federalist Papers. Unlike the Federalist Papers, these were not a singularly organized effort, but a term given by historians to the much more loosely organized literary efforts of opponents of the Constitution. They include the report composed by the anti-ratification minority from the Pennsylvania ratifying convention, speeches by Patrick Henry and other opponents of ratification, and newspaper pieces written by George Clinton, Robert Yates, Melancton Smith, and numerous others, not all of whom have been conclusively identified. Taken together, these efforts represented a powerful case against ratification of the Constitution. Indeed, historians have persuasively shown that only the better organization and political discipline of the supporters of the Constitution led to their victory in the ratification debate.

I am a person who revers the Constitution as a near-sacred document, so it might be surprising that I would recommend reading the writings of those who were opposed to it. In fact, the Anti-Federalist Papers contain some of the most insightful and incisive commentary on government that has ever been written. Many of the problems with which we are wrestling with today, from an overbearing executive branch of government to a bloated military establishment, were anticipated by the Anti-Federalist writers. Most importantly, it was through their efforts that a Bill of Rights was appended to the Constitution almost as soon as the new government was put into place, placing all Americans in their debt.

The Federalist Papers and the commonly accepted version of the Anti-Federalist Papers are available at any decent library, can be downloaded onto ebook readers for less than a dollar, can be purchased for a pittance at any reasonably well-stocked bookstore, and could probably be had for mere pennies at most large used book stores. There is nothing better for a good citizen to do in commemoration of Constitution Day than to acquire and read them.

Of course, these works are written in the language of the 18th Century, which might intimidate some people. But just as one feels slightly confused for the first few minutes of a Shakespearean theatrical production before the mind adjusts and the understanding becomes effortless, so it is with the writings of the Revolutionary period. Besides, the people of the 18th Century wrote in a more flowing and graceful manner than people do today, making the reading of their words a delightful experience. The authors of the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers were not writing for the people of their own time alone, but for us as well. They wanted us to know why they thought as they thought and why they acted as they did. In accepting their invitation into their thought processes, we are honoring them even as we make use of their astounding intellectual achievements and political insights.

It is incumbent upon anyone who wants to be a good citizen to understand the true nature of the system of government under which he or she lives. The first step for any American is to read the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers. As we prepare to celebrate Constitution Day, why don't you get started?

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Ranked Choice Voting Would Improve American Democracy

Back in July, I wrote about the urgent need for reforming the system in which congressional and state legislative districts are drawn. Today, I'd like to write about another reform is our election system that I think is badly needed: the implementation of Ranked Choice Voting. It goes by other names, such as Instant Runoff Voting or Alternative Vote, but in this piece we'll be using the term Ranked Choice Voting, or RCV.

Virtually all elections in the United States, from those in which we choose the President of the United States down to those in which we choose our city council members, are decided by a "winner-take-all" system (called "first-past-the-post" in the United Kingdom and other countries), in which the candidate who receives the largest number of votes wins. Whether the winner actually receives a majority of the vote doesn't matter. In any winner-take-all election with more than two candidates, the winning candidate can actually be a person whom the majority of people voted against.

Consider, for example, the 1992 presidential election, which featured Republican George Bush, Democrat Bill Clinton, and independent Ross Perot. Bush received 37.4% of the vote and Ross Perot received 18.9%. Clinton, the winner, received 43%, considerably more than either of the other two candidates, but considerably less than a majority. It's impossible to know, had Perot not been a candidate, how much the 18.9% of the vote that Perot received would have gone to Bush and how much would have gone to Clinton, but the fact remains that the majority of the American electorate voted against Clinton and yet Clinton became President. This was nothing out of the ordinary. Indeed, out of the fifty-seven presidential elections held since the founding of the republic, sixteen have seen the winner take office without having won a majority of the vote.

Winner-take-tall elections limit the choice of a voter to a single choice for a single candidate. Suppose, for example, that a voter in 1992 really wanted Perot to win, but simply couldn't stand Clinton and wanted him to lose. Should be vote for Perot, whom he really wanted to win, or should he vote for Bush, who had a better chance of beating Clinton than Perot did? In other words, can he cast a ballot for the candidate he really likes if it increases the likelihood that the candidate he really dislikes will win the election? This is a conundrum faced by many voters in countless elections in the United States, whether we're choosing the President of the United States or our representative on the local city council, and one I have confronted many times myself.

Ranked Choice Voting differs from winner-take-all elections in that, rather than simply casting a single vote for a single candidate, voters get to rank their favored candidates on a scale, with their first choice ranked as 1, their second choice ranked as 2, and so on. If any candidate wins 50% or more of first choice votes, that candidate wins. If no one does, then the candidate with the lowest number of first choice votes is eliminated and the second choice votes of the voters who choose the eliminated candidate as their first choice are moved into the columns of the other candidates. The process repeated until there a candidate receives more than 50% of the first choice votes.

Imagine a city council election with four candidates, which we'll call A, B, C, and D. First round results are as follows: Candidate A wins 35%, Candidate B wins 30%, Candidate C wins 25%, and Candidate D wins 10%. This means that D is eliminated and his second choice ballots are distributed to the other candidates. Assume that supporters of Candidate D really liked Candidate B, so half of them choose him as their second choice and the remainder were split between Candidate A and Candidate C. This means that the second round results were as follows: Candidate A wins 37.5%, Candidate B wins 35%, and Candidate C wins 27.5%. This means that Candidate C is eliminated and his third choice ballots are distributed between the remaining two candidates. Let's assume that three-fifths of Candidate C backers choose Candidate B as their third choice and two-fifths choose Candidate A. This means that the third results have Candidate A winning 48.5% and Candidate B winning 51.5%. Since Candidate B has secured greater than 50% in this round, he or she is the winner of the election.

Even though Candidate A received more first choice votes than Candidate B, the eventual outcome is more reflective of the actual desires of the electorate than would have been the case in a winner-take-all system. The RCV process sounds complicated, but in the age of computers the result can be known in seconds. As far as the voter himself is concerned, it's as simple as 1-2-3.

The key advantage of RCV is that it eliminates the "spoiler effect" of candidates, which have bedeviled many an American election. Perhaps the best-known example is the role played by Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in the 2000 election. Down ballot, there are many examples over the years of Democrats beating Republicans because Libertarian candidates won a share of the vote larger than the Democratic margin of victory. Under RCV, voters are free to vote for their truly preferred candidates without the risk of helping an unfavored candidate win.

The Republicans and Democrats don't like the idea of RCV, because protecting the two-party stranglehold on American politics is one of the few things the two major parties can agree upon. RCV would give much greater influence to marginalized third parties and independent candidates. At the same time, the prospect of obtaining genuine political influence would encourage such players to move away from the radical fringe and adopt a more serious and practical role in the political process. In the United States, the Green Party is something of a joke, whose members spout outlandish ideas and often adhere to conspiracy theories. By contrast, in many European countries where Green parties actually win elections, the Green Party is a genuine political player which participates in government in a responsible and respected manner (albeit supporting policies with which I often disagree).

In short, RCV would inject American democracy with a breath of fresh air, giving the electorate a means of choosing their representatives in a manner that better reflects the true wishes of the people, which is the whole point of a representative democracy. It would also help break the two-party stranglehold over American politics, which has been a powerful means of the establishment to maintain its control over the functions of government, often to the great detriment of the people.

It's also been pointed out that RCV reduces negative campaigning. After all, in a race with more than two candidates, the people seeking office will need to appeal to the supporters of their opponents in the hopes of gaining their secondary votes in the event that no candidate wins a majority in the first round. Studies by Rutgers University have suggested that negative campaigning in municipal elections using RCV were considerably lower than in similar elections using the traditional winner-take-all systems. Living as we do in an age of hyper-negativity as far as politics are concerned, this is a point not to be underrated.

Skeptics would say that RCV is overly complicated and too cumbersome to be used as an election system in the United States. This is manifestly false. The same Rutgers study that found that RCV reduced negative campaigning also found that the considerable majority of voters in RCV elections found the system simple and easy to understand. Moreover, RCV has been used successfully in many parts of the world, most notably in elections to the Australian House of Representatives and to Australian state legislatures. Systems very similar to RCV are in use in Ireland, Malta, and India, and are also used to elect the Mayor Of London. In the United States, RCV has been used for municipal elections in San Francisco, Minneapolis, and other communities. It's been used in primary elections by the Republican Party in Utah and the Democratic Party in Virginia. It's also been used in non-political elections, such as the vote for the Academy Award for Best Picture. In all these cases, RCV has worked just as it is supposed to work.

I consider Ranked Choice Voting to be among the most critical electoral reforms needed in the United States in the early 21st Century. If I had my way, a constitutional amendment would be enacted that simply read, "All elections for public office in the United States of America, on all levels of government, shall be conducted using a system of ranked choice voting." Those few words would go a very long way towards more firmly establishing democracy in this nation and represent a big step forward towards the ultimate realization of our country's potential.