Alexander Hamilton was blessed, though it didn’t feel like it to him during his life, to not have burden of a “home state.” His awkward birth, outside both marriage and the Colonies, allowed him to think of himself first and foremost as an American, and as a New Yorker a distant second, if at all. Having “inhabited” Mr. Hamilton over the past 20 years of so, I’ve come to see much value in that point of view. In addition, a 25+ year career as a military officer reminded me often that my oath was to the Constitution of the United States, not a particular state. While I will always be fond of my birth state of Michigan, and my adopted home state of Colorado, I think of myself as an American first and foremost. Hamilton’s great adversary, Thomas Jefferson, did not agree, thinking himself a Virginian first, and favoring a weak central government with very strong state governments. Both men’s views seem to pop up from time to time, with Mr. Jefferson’s the most problematic.
During my years teaching political science at the Air Force Academy, I often asked my students why their parents, living say, in Montana, should have to contribute their hard-earned tax dollars to build a road in Georgia, upon which they would never drive. This lesson often helped me understand which of my students have a Jeffersonian perspective and which tilted more toward Hamilton. The recent destruction and suffering in Texas turns this academic question into a far more important matter of practical politics. What should the federal government’s role be, and what should our Congress do for the good people of Texas?
The role of the Feds has evolved a great deal over our history. In 1887, President Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, vetoed a bill designed to aid Texas farmers suffering from a catastrophic draught. Later, he refused to aid the citizens of both Georgia and South Carolina, as both states were hit with different and massive hurricanes that killed thousands. Cleveland believed the federal government had no role to play in natural disasters, and any such assistance could result in expectations of what he called “paternal” assistance from Washington, a dangerous precedent, in his mind.
Clearly we have evolved in our thinking, and most Americans today expect the federal government to be there in times of crisis. While there is debate about the size and scale of such assistance, few argue that there should not be a role for the Feds when the waters rise.
Unfortunately, many of those “few” seem to reside on the Republican side of the aisle in Congress. And, all too often, these representatives seem to embrace a more Jeffersonian view of the federal government than is helpful.
There are many significant and troubling divisions in Congress currently, including far too much support for the notion that disagreement requires a scorched Earth response – to allow compromise, or even worse, working together peacefully is a sign of weakness that must be stamped out. Regional bigotry all too often runs amuck, with northern representatives disparaging the South, while those representing folks below the Mason-Dixon Line see the north (and the northeast in particular) as a zone of un-American liberalism.
In this climate of hyper-partisanism compromise is weakness, up is down, and America is what I say it is. Thus it was in 2012, in the aftermath of Super-storm Sandy that both Texas Senators and 23 of the 24 GOP House Members choose to vote against a large aid package for the greater New York area. There was a variety of excuses – too much pork, too little oversight, etc. – but these are objections that could have been overcome in negotiation, had that not become a dirty word.
Now, with the devastation of Hurricane Harvey slowing coming into focus, and with the looming threat of Hurricane Irma, now growing in the Atlantic, it will be interesting to see if the nay voters on Sandy suddenly argue that too much pork, too little insight, etc., are not important enough to stop the aid to the cities of Houston and beyond. Will Senators and Members of the House from the northeast be Americans first and foremost, or will they decide that state comes before country, and that sauce for the goose is sauce for the Harvey?
The folks from Texas best hope those from up North are better to them than Mr. Cruz and Mr. Cornyn were to them. They must hope that the GOP House members, save one, rethink how they vote on aid to storm victims. I hope they will.
We must always first be Americans when other Americans are suffering. State rivalries are best left to sports arenas. Grover Cleveland was wrong, and so were those that voted against Sandy aid. Let’s hope the lessons have finally been learned, and if not, be glad that Colorado doesn’t face a threat of hurricane. But, about those wild fires…
(This blog was first posted on ColoradoPolitics.com under the title “Regional Bigotry all too often Runs Amok in Today’s Congress)
 For the past two decades, I have performed as Hamilton for audiences around the country, in the Chautauqua style. I was doing Hamilton, before Hamilton was cool. But I don’t sing during my shows. Just as well.