Measure Twice, Cut Once

Quick quiz: what was the first form of government the United States had?

You’d be forgiven for guessing the U.S. Constitution, but that isn’t the correct answer. Nor was the first President of the United States George Washington. That honor belongs to John Hanson, President of the Confederation Congress, which operated under the Articles of Confederation. In 1776, the Continental Congress declared themselves independent from Great Britain. Then, they set about the harder job: figuring out how to make a government that worked. The Congress, scarred from the tyranny of King George III, went the opposite direction from the British monarchy they knew and created the Articles of Confederation to govern the thirteen colonies. The Articles aimed to preserve the sovereignty of the states and describes the union as a “league of friendship.” This sounds wonderful, but what happens when someone organizes an armed rebellion and the government needs money to pay the militia to suppress it? The Articles’ weaknesses became apparent, and within six years, a group reconvened to make the United States Constitution.

There is a point for this anecdote, and that is that figuring out how to organize and run a government is not easy. In the words of a popular musical, “winning is easy; governing is harder.” The new United States knew what it wanted its guiding principles of government to be but went too far in that direction. Too loose a Confederation results in chaos, too tight results in tyranny. The correct balance is hard to find, especially at first.

Naturally, this is what our statesmen are doing today. No, we aren’t overconfident; we’re a training ground. We’re here to help the statesmen see what it’s like to get involved in politics and government so that when they go back into the real world, they have a better idea what to do or not do.

Each day at American Legion Jersey Boys State is built around a political cycle. Evening and morning the first day focuses on the city; the second day, the county; the third and fourth days, the state party and state government; and the final day, the representatives to the nation.

The first two days are the busiest. There’s a lot to cover those first two days, both about the program and about government, and those days set up the structure of the cities and counties. After receiving their city and county descriptions in the early afternoons, each group meets to discuss which form of government they think best fits their unique situation and votes to pick one. In the evening, the parties in the city or county meet separately to decide on a party platform and nominate candidates. The next morning, the candidates campaign, debate, and are voted upon. By lunchtime, the city or county has its elected officials. Then it’s time to get to work. Budgets have to be made. Ordinances have to be passed. Appointed positions have to be filled. (All this takes places alongside the speakers, seminars, sports, band, meals, and sleeping that are also part of the program.) The city or county has to run, and for it to run, there’s a lot of things that need to be done in a short time.

Probably the most interesting debates of the whole week happen in those afternoon discussions about which government to pick. You have 35 or 70 statesmen trying to individually and collectively think through what’s best and what they want to be about. Yes, maybe our situation might merit a strong central government, but would that lead to too much dominance? A diverse board of elected officials is great, but we need to have a tiebreaking vote; how will they do that? Do we want our government to have more powers or be more in favor of the individual? This is heady stuff. Think about it for a second: we’re asking seventeen-year-olds (who haven’t lived on their own, let alone voted) to both figure out what they personally value in their government and then be able to disagree and commit on a decision that they reach in one hour’s time. The First Continental Congress took over a year to create the Articles of Confederation. We’re asking the statesmen to do it in an hour—and they do!

By the end of the week, the city or county government has put together a manual showing what they’ve done throughout the week, and it’s always impressive. It’s even more impressive when you realize that many seats in the city and county governments have to be re-filled when people get elected to higher offices, which takes more time and elections. Then there’s the state-level governing bodies too; the ALJBS Senate and Legislature are running alongside our “local” politics, debating and passing their own legislation too. There’s a lot going on, which gives people an opportunity to see it in action.

The scale of ALJBS gives us an important benefit here too: the legislators live with the people they’re representing. I live in a small New Jersey town; we have well over a hundred times the amount of people that comprise a city at ALJBS. I don’t have the same connection to my governing officials that statesmen here do, nor they to me. We are effectively individuals sharing a postal code. But here at Boys State, everyone lives among the people they’re representing. They learn what it means to have people be annoyed with you for what you did or have problems that they want solved. They also get to see the happiness that comes from appointing good office holders, solving local problems, and being aware of who you represent. Do these things enough and share enough time together and you build a tight-knit community, which we see throughout the week. ALJBS is an example of localism done well.

It has sometimes been noted that male friendships often form through working together on projects. As staff, we can certainly attest to that amongst ourselves from our involvement with ALJBS, but we also can attest to watching it happen for each city each year. It gives us joy to watch each new group of statesmen take these steps into adulthood and learn to debate, decide, and build together, especially for something as significant as local government. This stuff takes time and practice. We may not get it right, but we have a week to teach all of it, and our statesmen do a great job. (We’re not saying our statesmen are better than the First Continental Congress, but we’re not not saying it either…) And even if they don’t get it right, they can learn from it and take that lesson with them to the County level discussions or to the State Party level or, most of all, back to their New Jersey cities on Friday.

In the end, we build sand castles. Whatever is created here will be gone by the end of Friday. But we’re also showing people what good castles look like so that when they find a quarry, they’ll have no trouble building a Capitol.