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Fred Pearce: Out of the Demographic Trap: Hope for Feeding the World

Nancy Rubin Stuart: Bumper Sticker Distortions of a Founding Mother

Nancy Rubin Stuart is the author of The Muse of the Revolution: The Secret Pen of Mercy Otis Warren and the Founding of a Nation, and is an award-winning author, journalist and writer-producer who specializes in women and social history. Her articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and many national magazines.

A bumper sticker is first-cousin to the slogan, a statement steering the driver behind the message-laden car to a new thought, witticism or warning.

Veterans of highway driving know that bumper stickers vary depending upon region, economics and political climate. Ironically, they also reveal more about the driver than the style, make and year of his stickered car. Among the most popular have been messages like "I break for animals," "Save Paper," "If you can read this, you're tailgating," "He who dies with the most toys wins," or "Is it 2012 yet?" As slick as the paper they are printed upon, bumper stickers are literally and figuratively the rear guard of popular thought.

One such bumper sticker recently appeared quoting Founding Mother Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814), the first female historian of the American Revolution and an architect of the Bill of Rights. It reads, "The rights of the individual should be the primary object of all governments."

The Muse of the Revolution book coverInitially, that sticker resonates but like fast food, once digested it has little staying power. Apparently the sticker's plea for recognition of the "rights of the individual" was timed to reflect the sense of betrayal Americans felt during the 2009 economic downturn, the Wall Street bailout and the national health care debate, but Mercy Otis Warren's political views were far more complex than that slogan.

Imbued with the John Locke-inspired idea that a sound government depends upon consensus of its people and in turn, must honor the "natural rights of man," Mercy Otis Warren, in consort with fellow patriots like John Adams, maintained that our leaders must maintain civil order. Even before the chaos and wanton bloodshed of the French Revolution of 1789 during its initial thrust to champion the "rights of man," Mercy and the Founding Fathers worried that rule solely "of the people, by the people and for the people" would likely result in political chaos.

Two years after the 1783 peace treaty with England, citizens of our fledgling nation were horrified to witness the civil uprising of 1785-87 known as Shays Rebellion. That upheaval arose in western Massachusetts where impoverished farmer-veterans, threatened with foreclosures, high taxes and a demand for debts to be paid in hard currency, shut down the courts and threatened judges at gunpoint. As Daniel Shays and his armed men roamed from town to town, the citizens of Massachusetts trembled, chagrined by the realization that a government "of the people, by the people and for the people" had been misinterpreted as license for vigilantism. While the State of Massachusetts subdued and ultimately pardoned the rebels, Shays Rebellion prompted the Founding Fathers to call for the creation of a Constitution which would balance the voice of the people with the legislative, judicial and executive branches of government.

Initially Mercy did not approve of the new Constitution, contending that it failed to include a Bill of Rights which would define the rights of the ordinary citizen. In 1791, subsequent to Mercy's anonymously-penned but influential treatise "Observations on the New Constitution, and on the federal and state conventions" was circulated to several states, however, a Bill of Rights was finally ratified. Mercy's fears were consequently quelled and her faith in "republicanism," -– then meaning a belief in a citizen-governed republic rather than a monarchy -- were renewed.

As Mercy later asserted in the 1805 publication of her three-volume The Rise, Progress and History of the American Revolution, "Perhaps genius has never devised a system more congenial to their wishes, or better adapted to the condition of man, than the American constitution. At the same time, it is left open to amendments whenever its imperfections are discovered by the wisdom of future generations...."

The voice of the people, she observed, was not necessarily immune to error. For "Public opinion," Mercy warned in her History, "when grounded on false principles and dictated by the breath of ambitious individuals, {which} sometimes creates a tyranny, felt by the minority more severely, than that usually inflicted by the hand of the sceptered monarch."

To remedy that and maintain a sound government, she hoped that "The principles of the revolution ought ever to be the pole-star of the statesman, respected by the rising generation." Above all, "The people may again be reminded that the elective franchise is in their own hands; that it ought not to be abused, either for personal gratifications, or the indulgence of partisan acrimony."

That, admittedly is a tall order to place on a bumper sticker. But slick talk, like slick paper, rarely outlasts the test of human experience.