America could face a constitutional crisis, or crisis of governance, and few people realize it.
To elaborate, there are superficial similarities between the present civil unrest in America and the situation that led to the Constitutional Convention in the 1780s. In fact, 6 January 2021 was not the first time a mob attacked Congress.
On June 20, 1783, a mob of 400 soldiers from George Washington’s Continental Army surrounded Philadelphia’s Independence Hall where the Continental Congress was meeting. The soldiers were demanding back pay, which Congress did not have.
Fortunately, the soldiers allowed Congress to leave and reconvene in Princeton, New Jersey. Eventually, soldiers from the Continental Army put down the Pennsylvania Mutiny. However, the mutiny marked the beginning of a wave of civil unrest that led to the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
The Insurrection that created the Constitution
An even scarier event for the Founding Fathers was Shays’ Rebellion in 1786 and 1787.
Shays’ Rebellion was actually a series of attacks on courthouses and other government buildings in Massachusetts by mobs of farmers and Revolutionary War veterans. The name Shays’ Rebellion came from the insurrection’s principal leader; Daniel Shays, a veteran of Bunker Hill.
Violence broke out when a bankrupt Massachusetts government began levying higher taxes. Farmers became angry when authorities began foreclosing on farms and throwing bankrupt property owners into debtors’ prison.
The insurrection began when mobs of armed farmers began breaking up debtors’ courts that were trying to foreclose on farms. The Shays’ Rebellion mob violence reminds me of the January 6 violence at the US Capitol.
Eventually, Boston businessmen financed an army of 4,400 mercenaries that defeated the rebels in a pitched battle in Western Massachusetts. The failure of government to control Shays’ Rebellion and the prospect of civil war and warlords with private armies prompted a group of founders to hold the Constitutional Convention.
One of those frightened by Shays’ Rebellion was George Washington, who came out of retirement to preside over the Constitutional Convention. The Convention’s purpose was to replace the weak and ineffective Articles of Confederation which did not give the federal government enough power to govern the nation.
Crisis and Constitution
The Founders held the original Constitutional Convention because of the Federal government’s inability to handle the nation’s problems.
In the 1780s, the Continental Congress proved itself incapable of issuing money, raising an army, collecting taxes, putting down rebellions, and defending the nation. One of the Founders’ fears was that the nation was vulnerable to attack by European powers, or by well-organized Native American alliances such as the Western Confederacy. The British financed Western Confederacy defeated American militia troops during the Northwest Indian War a few years later.
Today, the United States a startlingly similar crisis of governance. In the past year, the federal government proved incapable of dealing with two grave existential threats to the nation.
First, the federal government failed to control coronavirus despite ample warning of the danger of COVID-19. Other nations controlled the virus and tamed its economic effects.
By 23 January 2021, Worldometers estimates coronavirus had killed 424,709 Americans. The economic devastation could be greater; the US Census Bureau estimates almost 26 million adults could not afford food in November 2020, The Washington Post reports.
Yet the federal government was incapable of offering a coordinated response to the coronavirus. Frighteningly, many political leaders actively oppose and even sabotage efforts to control the virus such as masks, stimulus checks, and lockdowns.
Similarly, Congress has proven incapable of providing even minimal economic relief for the coroanvirus’s victims. In contrast, Canada’s government will pay family’s up to $1,200 for each child in 2021 and 10-year $1 million business loans, Forbes reports.
The Canadian Recovery Benefit will pay people who lost their incomes because of COVID-19 $500 a week for up to 26 weeks. There are also $500 a week payments for people who have to care for Canadians who have to care for children or sick loved ones.
Second, the US government proved incapable of protecting its own Capitol against a violent mob despite many warnings of the attack. Neither the military; nor the massive US Department of Homeland Security, mounted an effective response to the 6 January insurrection, despite FBI warnings of a potential attack.
The government did not prepare for an attack on Washington, defend the Capitol, or take action against violent extremists. The regular military failed to mobilize on 6 January or appear at the Capitol. Moreover, there is circumstantial evidence that government officials including members of Congress helped plan the 6 January violence.
Critics will argue that America’s federal government is incapable of dealing with the nation’s problems. Furthermore, most critics allege that the government’s problems begin with Congress, which appears to be incapable of legislating or even funding the government.
As in 1787, faces a crisis and an ineffective government. Observers will wonder if this situation will lead to a new US Constitution.
Is a New Constitution Possible?
Rewriting the US Constitution will be tough because of the existing constitution. To explain, Article V of the Constitution offers two means of amending (rewriting) the Constitution.
First, two-thirds of both houses of Congress can propose an amendment. Then two-thirds of state legislatures have to approve amendment for it to become part of the Constitution. Second, two-thirds of state legislatures can vote to hold a Second Constitutional Convention that will have the power to amend the Constitution.
I think getting two-thirds of Congress; and two-thirds of state legislatures, to agree on anything will be impossible. Thus, I think new Constitutional amendments or a Second Constitutional Convention are improbable.
Conversely, just a few months ago I would have considered a mob storming through the Capitol and driving Congress out impossible, yet that happened. Thus, I now wonder if a Second Constitutional Convention is possible.
However, a growing crisis could change that. Another possibility is that Congress or some other group could call a new Constitutional Convention in direct contravention of the present Constitution. There is a national movement to hold a Second Constitutional Convention, however, it is unclear how much support that movement has or how serious its members are.
A possibility is that prominent Americans, the military, or big business seeing ineffective government will call a Second Constitutional Convention and write a new constitution. They called the first Constitutional Convention when the original Constitution; or Articles of Confederation proved ineffective.
Something to remember is that the Founders did not intend to write a new Constitution at the Constitutional Convention. Instead, they wanted to amend the Articles, however the Articles were so bad they ended writing a new document.
Unfortunately, it is not clear whether Americans will accept a new Constitution or if that effort will trigger civil war. Remember, the French Revolution erupted when the Estates General of 1789 began rewriting France’s Constitution.
Unless the situation settles down fast, I predict America’s crisis of governance will grow and lead to calls for Constitutional reform. Only future history can tell us if such efforts at reform can succeed. However, given the crises facing America, including Global Warming, I predict a major effort at Constitutional reform is inevitable.