Transition States - John C. Wunsch, P.C.
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Transition States

A transition state––that sinister and mysterious realm between what’s occurring and what’s about to occur––requires no small degree of scrutiny and attention. We too often ignore our transition states, taking them for granted. Sleep into wakefulness; the change of seasons; the movement from day into night, from youth into old age, from life into death––we pass unmindfully without ever pausing to consider. A transition state––a subtle, seismic shift––signals the passing of an ephemeral phase, the leave-taking through a corridor, its ending place unknown and uncertain.

1817. James Monroe is President. Mississippi steamboat service begins. Florida and California belong to Spain. Henry David Thoreau is born. David Ricardo publishes “On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation” which “[p]resents the theory of comparative advantage, the theory that free trade between two or more countries can be mutually beneficial, even when one country has an absolute advantage over the other countries in all areas of production.”[1]

Paying attention.  The first task is a simple one: pay attention. Look carefully at what’s changing. Take notice of its drift, its direction. Are these right? Where will we likely end up? Is this a well-intended destination? Is it beneficial to all or merely a select group? What’s driving this change? Transitions often seem invisible while occurring, difficult to detect, unnoticed until time and distance give rise to a sense of perspective. Incremental small steps, over time, can create drastic change. As well, distinguishing between the real and illusory may not always be readily apparent––particularly in the face of those who have a motive to mask and conceal.

1867. Andrew Johnson is President. The first elevated railroad begins service in New York. Charles Dickens gives his first public reading in the United States. Alaska is purchased for $ 7.2 million from Alexander II of Russia. Chinese, Scandinavian, and Irish immigrants lay 30,000 miles of railroad track in the US. In early 1866, Congress passed the Freedmen’s Bureau and Civil Rights Bills and sent them to Johnson for his signature. The first bill extended the life of the bureau, originally established as a temporary organization charged with assisting refugees and freed slaves, while the second defined all persons born in the United States as national citizens with equality before the law. After Johnson vetoed the bills, Congress overrode his veto, making the Civil Rights Act the first major bill in the history of the United States to become law through an override of a presidential veto.”[2]

Assessing significance. Taking stock of the meaning of a transition state––what’s actually occurring? What’s its significance? What insights can be gleaned? Every day a litany of events, large and small, are shown to us in split-second frames––which ultimately will make a difference? It’s probably true that we miss a great deal of what’s before us. Presumptively large changes never fully materialize while small changes, years later, come to take on disproportionate significance.

1917. Woodrow Wilson is President. Women win the right to vote in New York State. The United States pays Denmark $25 million for the Virgin Islands. Congress nullifies President Woodrow Wilson’s veto of the Immigration Act, a law severely curtailing the immigration of Asians. Republican Jeanette Rankin of Montana takes her seat as the first woman elected to the House of Representatives. Ukraine proclaims its independence from Russia. Will Durant publishes an essay “Philosophy and the Social Problem”: “Intelligence as virtue: it was not a new doctrine; it was merely a new emphasis placed on an already important element in Greek—or rather the Athenian—view of life. But it was a needed emphasis…Now what was the good word? It was, first of all, the identity of virtue and wisdom, morals and intelligence; but more than that, it was the basic identity, in light of intelligence, of communal and individual interests…[S]ocrates proposed to prove that if a man were intelligent, he would see that those same qualities which make a man a good citizen––justice, wisdom, temperance, courage––are also the best means to individual advantage and development…A man does not knowingly pursue anything but the Good; let him but see his advantage, and he will be attracted towards it irresistibly; let him pursue it, and he will be happy, and the state safe. The trouble is that men lack perspective, and cannot see their true Good…”[3]

Making sure. Mere passage of time is not enough. There have been long stretches when nothing of significance occurs whereas, in an instant, new eras come to redefine the world. Knowing which is which is its own complex puzzle, resistant to generalization. At the Supreme Court level, we see the occasional “seminal case” that never takes hold. In law, it’s probably a good rule of thumb to assume the small is always capable of being writ large.

1967. Lyndon B. Johnson is President. The Freedom of Information Act becomes official––government agencies must establish why internal information is to be classified. The first Boeing 737-100 makes its inaugural flight. The movie “Bonnie and Clyde,” starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, has its US premiere. DNA is created in a test tube. Bernard Bailyn publishes “The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution”: “Most commonly the discussion of power centered on its essential characteristic of aggressiveness: its endlessly propulsive tendency to expand itself beyond legitimate boundaries…What gave transcendent importance to the aggressiveness of power was the fact that its natural prey, its necessary victim, was liberty, or law, or right. The public world these writers saw was divided into distinct, contrasting, and innately antagonistic spheres: the sphere of power and the sphere of liberty or right. The one was brutal, ceaselessly active, and heedless; the other was delicate, passive, and sensitive. The one must be resisted, the other defended, and the two must never be confused…”[4]

Scientific, social, and cultural breakthroughs, the political and legislative ebb and flow, and something so fundamental as the enduring power exhibited by the congressional override of a presidential veto––the same problems tend to recur, over decades, even centuries. Transition states reflect the inner-mirror of the times, but give rise to the unknown, the unforeseen. “The public world these writers saw was divided into distinct, contrasting, and innately antagonistic spheres”––this, each generation must experience. From 1817 to 1967––a thin-cut slice in time, a mere one hundred and fifty years, barely enough time to know what’s occurring. While it’s true that complacency must be avoided––“[t]he one must be resisted, the other defended…”––the first step is simply to pay close attention.


[2] Reconstruction Era/Wikipedia

[3] Will Durant, Philosophy and the Social Problem (1917)

[4] Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Harvard University Press 1967) (P. 62-63)