August 26, 2016 | Rome, Italy | Clear 21°C

Days of future past

Alexander Hamilton, left, and Thomas Jefferson disagreed over a national army and a national bank.
By Vittorio Jucker
Published: 2016-08-21

reoccupied as we are with the apparently insoluble problems of our times immigration, wars, changing international power balances, economic recession, world poverty and what in the grander scheme of things may appear as individual issues such as women's and LGBT rights, as well as apparently marginal problems such as the defense of purchasing power, the cost of raising our children, how to apportion our spending we often assume that the uncertainties and tensions of our times are unprecedented.

It's not true. Humanity has always been plagued by upheavals that threatened the survival of entire peoples, ethnic groups, nations and political systems. Many times we have overcome crises and continued to progress. Very often this progress has been painful and come at a high cost both in human and economic terms.

Right now we're in the midst of a huge transformation, a long and contradictory process toward the demise of the national state and its gradual metamorphosis into a supranational entity.

The French Revolution began as a peasant's revolt that escalated into cities and eventually took down the monarchy.

Giambattista Vico, an 18th-century Neapolitan historian, developed an influential theory that defined history as a series of constantly repeated cycles. He was writing at a time when Europe's once-flourishing absolute monarchies were entering a period of terminal crisis. The alliance between crowns, feudal aristocracies and churches, the backbone of so-called absolutist states, was buckling under the pressure from new and rapidly emerging forces. Industrialization and trade, the rise of the cities, and the emergence of an ever-growing professional middle class a new force claiming a larger share of power were changing the shape of the world. The first large European country to undergo this process was Britain. After the 1707 Act of Union with Scotland, it became, in a somewhat erratic process, a national state, ruled by a government, a parliament and an independent legal system. The power of the crown and of large landowners remained substantial, but their decline into semi-irrelevancy had begun.

In 1748, French political philosopher Charles Montesquieu wrote a fundamental study of existing political systems. He foresaw a new governmental equilibrium based on a balance between the executive branch, parliament, and the legislative branch, and the legal system, or the judiciary branch. That balance, or separation of power, said Montesquieu, would guarantee stability and welfare better than the inefficient autocratic rule built into absolutist system.

But Britain, France and Spain became imperial powers despite their stages of political development, staking out a significant colonial presence in the Americas, Africa, and elsewhere.

This is where Thomas Jefferson, and the other American Federalists enter the picture. Britain's American colonies were autocratically managed by the Board Of Trade, which aimed to apply the same rules and taxes imposed on its other dominions and world interests to the American colonies. But the large American colonist population rejected this one-size-fits-all approach. Britain's refusal to relax these centralized policies produced the resentments that triggered the American Revolution.

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