What would Robert Morris do?
Portrait of Robert Morris, c. 1782 by Charles Willson Peale
For almost a year a majority of citizens in the small town of Oxford, Maryland, have been demanding change and transparency in their town government. Their questions and demands have initiated the development of a hiring policy to assure ethical hiring practices, an election to add a resolution for a special election to replace Town Commissioners when they leave office early, the actual election of a new Commissioner, and many inquiries about the questionable sudden retirement of the police chief and other town employees. Citizens are getting involved in town government and are demanding answers and ethics in their town government.
You would think that local government and the other citizens of Oxford would appreciate the participation of the other residents of the town. Not so.
The authoritarian people who have controlled Oxford for so long are pushing back, afraid of losing their power over town government. They seem to be afraid of transparency and citizen involvement. They have forgotten who government works for; not just the wealthy and influential, but the citizens. They are "circling the wagons" in an attempt to shut down those asking questions.
In a recent town meeting (which was standing room only) one citizen, a local architect and member of the "status quo crowd" wrote a letter to the town entitled, "What Would Robert Morris Do?" It was read by the President of the Town Commissioners, Tom Costigan. In it, the man accused all of the citizens asking questions of being "divisive" and spreading misinformation. This is the third of what seems a coordinated attack of indignant letters and emails from people who don't care for transparency. He claimed that citizens asking questions of government is not something Robert Morris would approve of. He believes Morris would tell us to sit down and shut up.
If you don't know Oxford, Robert Morris is a noteworthy historical figure in our town. He has a historic inn named after him as well as our main street. Robert Morris was called the "financier" of the American Revolution. One interesting fact about him is that he originally didn't want to fight the British. A successful, wealthy businessman, Morris tried to bridge calls for independence with those who were in favor of neutrality and petitioning the King. He didn't even want to sign the Declaration of Independence. He eventually discovered that the only way to address the tyranny of King George and Great Britian would be to join the Revolutionaries, sign the declaration, fight back and finance the Revolutionary War. He went on to become a critical figure in the young government and was a signer of the Constitution. Without him, the Revolutionary War would not have succeeded.
In other words, he asked questions and made demands of the British and Colonial Government as did the other Founding Fathers. He fought back against the constant lies, repression and tyranny of an unresponsive set of rulers.
Sound familiar? Sound like what the citizens of Oxford are doing? Yeah, it does to me too.
I pointed this out in a response to the letter during public comment. I reminded the writer, the other citizens, and the commissioners, that asking questions is NOT divisive, even if the status quo crowd and town office want to call it that. I stated that we are not interested in getting people in trouble or fired without cause. We WANT TRANSPARENCY, ethical behavior and truth. I reminded everyone that our actions are exactly what Robert Morris and the rest of Founding Fathers did and would tell us to do. It's how they founded this country. They encouraged a vocal, active citizenry that came from all stations of life, not just those who historically held power. They encouraged people to fight for the right to speak freely to our leaders. They knew there would necessarily be passionate disagreement. As George Washington said, "Truth will ultimately prevail where there is pains to bring it to light."
That quote leads back to the initial question. What are the elitists and town office of Oxford trying to keep from the light? It seems odd that a small group of people would fight so hard to keep information hidden from other citizens and to allow the Commissioners/town office to consistently ignore and subvert the policies and procedures of the town. One wonders if it is because they have received some benefit from allowing these actions to occur. Maybe they are reaping the benefits of "business as usual" from the town office. It could be a permit given where others wouldn't get one, a promise of no speed/drunk driving enforcement outside a bar/restaurant, or actions that favor some citizens over others. Maybe they want the decisions of the past kept secret. Or maybe they desire placid compliance, regardless of the ultimate price.
Or maybe it is something bigger.
None of us know. But that doesn't mean we should stop asking questions of our public officials, elected and/or hired. Getting real answers is the only way to regain trust.
Robert Morris and the rest of the Founding Fathers would tell us NOT to stop.
As Benjamin Franklin said, " It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority." Ben didn't say that so it could be a bumper sticker. He said it so people would remember our duty as citizens.
We are working hard to fulfill that responsibility. Even when some people don't like it.
Update: an acquaintance of mine wrote to say, "Morris made money, the only freedom he cared about was freedom to profit. He sold as much to the British as he did to the Americans. Just an ordinary merchant." I really appreciated his comments.
That is probably true. However, in the end, he played a major role in the creation of this country, regardless of his motives. And, after all, many of us speaking up are "just ordinary citizens." Not judges, not architects, not bankers etc.