Thursday, December 04, 2008

Remember Silas Deane

Tomorrow will be the 230th anniversary of the public controversy over Silas Deane, a war profiteering scandal that took place during a tough chapter of the Revolutionary War, and a scandal in which Paine denounced private arms deals but in the process leaked negotiations with France that were to have been secret, and was forced to resign his government post. He was the first whistleblower on American government, and for this his very loyalty to the American cause was called into public question. He was literally beaten up on the streets on more than one occasion.

I happened to come across John Keane's description of this event yesterday, as I make my way through his biography of Paine, and it struck me how some of the political dilemmas we deal with today were already present in our colonial era.

In this case, for instance, Paine became embroiled because, in his view, public accountability trumped secrecy. In a democratic republic, what is the right balance between the secrecy and loyalty required in military matters, and the overriding need for public accountability, to hold government leaders and appointees to the rule of law?

Also, there is no basis for assuming that an American political leader supports the idea of the public being the authority, then or now. Is Congress in charge, or the President, or the people? We do not all agree on this. Paine foresaw people actively involved in watching their government and holding them accountable. The likes of John Jay and James Madison were aghast at this notion. Government is in charge, not people. Moreover, not all people should have the same political clout. John Jay said outright that people who own lots of property should get to decide how the country is run. So what if Silas Deane enriched himself with shady arms deals while the American army suffered on wintery battlefields with scarce food and clothing? So what if he paid inflated prices for supplies, accepting a nice commission for himself in the bargain?

It all sounds familiar. Men who think like Richard Cheney have always been part of our history, and indeed were among our Founding Fathers.

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