Archive for the ‘constitution’ tag
Now if only I could clean up the rambling. I think I botched “recite” and invented a word called “roboticism.” Ahh, the price of a writer by trade going unscripted on camera …
Perhaps it only grew on Madison in later years, but there was definitely a flash, a flicker, an irreverence that radiated from him, which history ignores. For whatever reason, modern scholars have made Madison not only full of thought, which he was, but a stone-faced politician, which he was not; and they have, with comparable ease, rendered Jefferson as the Federalists so often branded him, a confused idealist. — Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg, “Madison and Jefferson“
The above passage seems to summarize the general error of history that Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg address in their colossal, that is to say, towering work on a friendship between James Madison and Thomas Jefferson that endured for half a century.
Madison, as history has recorded, has been judged as the mostly quiet and stoic political thinker and constitutionalist, while Jefferson is widely thought of as the passionate, if not hyperbolic, consummate republican, always heralding the interests of the Virginian farmer against a potentially overbearing federal government that is always in danger of overextending itself.
Burstein and Isenberg break down these oversimplifications at every step of the way in this 644-page tome, masterful as it may be in its research, could have, I think, accomplished the same goal and expounded on its main thesis in half the time. The last 200 pages through the Monroe and John Quincy Adams administrations get distractedly cumbersome as we plod slowly through a seemingly endless paper trail of letters, mostly intended for private consumption between Madison and Jefferson and other politicians, toward the eventual demise of Jefferson on July 4, 1826 on the 50th anniversary of the nation’s independence. Consequently, the second president, John Adams, gave up the ghost on the same day. If I were a believer in America’s consecration as a “Christian nation” or somehow ordained by the god of Abraham and Isaac, this might give me pause. Also too would this fact: Monroe, the nation’s fifth president, died on July 4, 1831, five years to the day after Jefferson and Adams’ passing.
Nonetheless, the length of the “Madison and Jefferson” does not detract from the fact that it is an important contribution to the legacies of the two presidents. While I find it difficult to believe that previous biographers of the third and fourth presidents have all failed in uncovering and correcting misconceptions about the true personalities and political proclivities of the two men, Burstein and Isenberg do meet the imperishable goal of correcting the lay interpretation of Madison and Jefferson, as they are commonly studied in high school and college. Of course, that being said, I doubt that many lay readers — those who might, for instance, chance to pick up “1776” by David McCullough because they heard it was a good read — would be willing to set forth the time and mental energy necessary to consume such a seminal work, perhaps bedeviling the whole point in the first place. I hope that is not the case, obviously, but in this age of trash fiction and revisionist history, I don’t hold out too much hope for the general public to become suddenly interested in new studies these two American founders. Even people who describe themselves as students of history may get a little frustrated with the length and breadth of this book, for along with the 600-plus pages are more than 100 pages of accompanying notes.
That being said, those who endure to the end of the book will be rewarded with the conclusions contained therein and the way the authors of “Madison and Jefferson” ultimately encapsulate the legacies of the two men. After getting some of the criticism out of the way, let’s look at what makes this work shine.
We begin with the title. In their preface, Burstein and Isenberg said that they did not intend to be ”cute or ironic” in reversing the order of the names from a previous biography of the two men, “Jefferson and Madison: The Great Collaboration” (1950). While they describe the previous work as “a serviceable piece of scholarship,” they said the author gave Jefferson precedence in the title
for the same reason that a beautiful monument was erected to his memory in the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., in 1943. Madison, the dry, distant “Father of the Constitution,” generated little posthumous sentiment.
In reversing the order, the intention was
not to degrade Jefferson as a force of politics — not one iota — but rather to suggest that it is time to reevaluate their relationship and their distinct individual contributions. Popular historians have done precious little with Madison. And while political scientists have boiled him down to his noteworthy contributions to “The Federalist Papers,” the historians who place him within the larger context of party formation have presented Madison as a man unaffected by an emotional life, a man eclipsed by the more magnetic, more affecting Jefferson.
Again, I’m skeptical that all biographers of Madison have ignored the more nuanced parts of his character and personality, and this passage seems to scream for some supporting examples other than a work from 1950, but no notes are given in this section of the preface. I have quoted one passage about Madison’s irreverence and the flashes of flair that, perhaps, could be captured in some of Madison’s more uninhibited moments, but what are some of Burstein and Isenberg’s other claims about Madison and Jefferson?
One can hardly speak of the founder of the University of Virginia and its caretaker after Jefferson’s death without mentioning the subject of religious freedom and the myth that two of the most important founders in American history had any kind of healthy affinity for religion. Rather, they protected religious freedom at every turn. Indeed, Madison, after his friend died, worked to ensure that the University of Virginia remained a secular institution and was not taken over by the pious, and we can also see this in Madison’s ideas on what types of books to include in the future Library of Congress. According to Burstein and Isenberg:
For this purpose, he (Madison) tapped a list of 2,640 books cataloged by Jefferson, which Madison amended and expanded to include numerous titles by radical religious skeptics. Unfortunately, the idea of a Library of Congress was ahead of its time; it would not be established until the last year of John Adam’s presidency.
Further, the authors in the final chapter made it clear that Madison and Jefferson adhered to Enlightenment principles:
… Madison and Jefferson subscribed to the Enlightenment in ethereal form: its adoration of science and philosophy and its treatment of religious dogma as hopeless fallacy; its focus on grand nature and human nature; its teaching that we should privilege rational understanding over passionate conviction.
What about politics? Here, things get murkier. While these two slaveholders obviously fought tirelessly for personal liberty, for American Democracy against the British monarchy and western expansion, they held a rather dim view of the 1 to 2 million slaves and free blacks that were in the nation at the time, and neither Madison or Jefferson ever drew back their support for the untenable solution of black colonization:
No English monarchy or aristocratic body had ever welcomed progress. On the strength of this simple formulation, Madison and Jefferson advocated a republican government that kept power out of the hands of the undeserving and transferred it to new guardians of the public trust. Republican government extended happiness by minimizing taxes and maximizing individual freedom. This is their legacy. But in doing almost nothing to advance the cause of liberty for those enslaved, Madison and Jefferson also knowingly acquiesced to an American tyranny.
In essence, then, the “pursuit of happiness” applied to white happiness. The two presidents were surely smart enough to realize the inconsistently of their own positions regarding black people, but they must be viewed as a product of their times and not ours, and as the authors acknowledge, we would be in error if we attempt to “associate” them with today’s progressive movement, just as we can’t view Hamilton’s notion of a national bank as paving an early path to the modern American economy.
As for their political ideologies, Madison stayed more true to his principles throughout his political career than did Jefferson. The latter, before becoming president touted republicanism and states rights, while maintaining a skepticism for federal power, but as president, he oversaw a huge expansion of federal power, land grabs and initiated the First Barbary War without congressional consent. Moreover, he worked behind the scenes to attempt to destroy the credibility of Aaron Burr, Hamilton (Hamilton unrelentingly returned the favor to both Burr and Jefferson) and others, and as president, Jefferson had Burr arrested on the false charge of treason for filibustering schemes in Mexico, something that the federal government would in essence legalize in order to wrest land away from Spain and the Native Americans. Hamilton and Jefferson had at least one thing in common: they both felt threatened by the talented Burr:
Thomas Jefferson entertained grand expansionist plans, and James Madison was in favor of them all. Neither Jefferson nor Madison was opposed to what Burr was preparing for south of the border. What bothered them, and the president especially, was that Burr, only recently out of government, was already a step ahead. Jefferson, who never doubted Burr’s capabilities, feared that his rejected running mate was in a strong position to reap political gains from his independent efforts.
Jefferson also had a nasty relationship with Chief Justice John Marshall. Burstein and Isenberg again highlighted moments in which Jefferson went too far in his wrangling with political competitors:
The length to which he took his fears resulted in his applying a political litmus test of a most rigid kind. Purging the Supreme Court of Federalists is extreme (and unrepublican) behavior.
The most salient point to take away from “Madison and Jefferson” is that the two presidents are not to be viewed through a hyperbolic lens. They were men with prejudices, flaws and unique strengths like everyone else, some of which history has remembered, some of which we are, perhaps, now only becoming more aware. The failure of history has been to over-highlight some parts of their character while ignoring others. Or, in the authors’ words:
Biography is a tricky thing. Privileging one source over another inevitably alters conclusions. The particular problem among biographers of Madison and Jefferson are those caused by too much license being taken with too little information. As Benjamin Rush said so incisively in 1808, believing in the “great man” theory of history makes as much sense as believing in “witches and conjurers.” The celebratory biographer exists because nostalgia adheres to every generation.
Despite the specific flaws and strengths highlighted in this book, Madison and Jefferson were long-time politicians, yet through all the political rancor, remained long-time friends, and even in their occasional disagreements on policy, they wrote affectionately to each other in their final days. No matter the shrewd and sometimes inconsistent politics in which Jefferson might have engaged during his career, the consistency was an enduring admiration for his friend. To end on a fitting note, Jefferson, approaching his final days, had this to say of Madison in his autobiography:
… he sustained the new constitution in all its parts, bearing off the palm against the logic of George Mason, and the fervid declamation of Mr. Henry. With these consummate powers were united a pure and spotless virtue which no calumny has ever attempted to sully. Of the powers and polish of his pen, and of the wisdom of his administration in the highest office of the nation, I need say nothing. They have spoken, and will forever speak for themselves.
Continuing with my study of the Constitution and the debates and writings leading up to its ratification, this month I supplemented my recent reading of “The Federalist Papers” with “The Antifederalists: Critics of the Constitution 1781-1788″ by Jackson Turner Main.
Like a handful of the other short non-fiction works I have read this year, this book, at only 286 pages, is dense with information and has the most impact if it is read slowly and carefully. Having read Hamilton, Jay and Madison’s work and earlier this year, “Ratification” by Pauline Maier, I was fairly familiar with most of the political issues that were important to politicians and their constituents in late 18th century America. As such, I didn’t expect that this short work would take so long to digest. It took a good two weeks longer than expected to finish it up.
Originally written in 1961, Main informs readers in the introduction that up to that point, the story of the Antifederalists, that bloc of American politicians and thinkers in the 1780s that was opposed to the Constitution, had been unwritten. The term “Antifederalists” was one that was placed on them by the Federalists, and the Antifederalists themselves rejected the moniker. Main opens his book by setting up the political and social landscape of 18th century America. Even casual readers of American history probably know this part of the script: the merchant class, lawyers and the commerce sector flourished along in many of the North’s bustling seacoast towns, while in the South, the planter class and merchants held much of the property and wealth along the coasts and small farmers (many of them crippled by personal and business debt) mainly held the interior. There were, of course, exceptions, but that was the general economic layout at the time.
Main then proceeds by presenting the Antifederalists’s major objections to the Constitution and their proposed solutions. The major objections, of course, were that the Constitution would give too much power to the central government and leave too little for the States, prevent the States from making paper money for debt relief, that it lacked a bill of rights assuring certain personal liberties, that it provided Congress with too much power in levying taxes, among other objections. Main outlines the overarching opposition to the proposed Constitution:
The substance of criticism of the Constitution from the democratic point of view is summarized in the argument that the new government would be controlled by the upper class, not the “democracy,” and therefore it would favor the rich, not the common man.
As mentioned earlier, the general dichotomy at the time divided the mercantile classes of the seacoast towns and the small-town farmers further inland, the latter of whom were predominantly Antifederalists, with the exception of Georgia (At the time, its territory stretched into what is now Alabama and Mississippi to the Mississippi River). That state, as Main notes, was heavily Federalist because the people there needed federal protection from the Native Americans who were an ongoing threat to the west. Thus, the Constitution, which granted Congress with the power
to provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;
was a reasonable document in which to throw behind their support.
In the conclusion, Main articulates the basic premise of the whole book and the central concept that must be understood in any study of the Federalists and Antifederalists:
In all parts of the country, therefore, the commercial interest with its ramifications, including those who depended primarily and directly upon commerce, were Federal, and the “non-navigating” folk were Antifederal.
Next year, I may read the Antfederalist Papers, but for now, I was pleased to be able to study both sides of the debates surrounding the ratification of the Constitution. I would encourage anyone with a cursory interest in American history to take a look at some of these enlightening polemics because it’s critical in understanding just how forward-thinking the framers of the Constitution — and indeed, even their detractors — and also how savvy they were in anticipating future problems that inevitably did arise on the national scale.
If Main’s book suffers from any flaws, it may be that it tends to be repetitious at times. This may benefit readers who are unfamiliar with the most of the issues, but it gets tedious for someone who wants to dig deeper.
As the title suggests, “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism” by Susan Jacoby, takes readers through the progression of secularist and humanist thought in America, by looking at how various historical figures handled religion, particularly the separation of church and state and keeping any mention of God out of the Constitution, through 19th-century struggles for women’s rights and the battle over slavery up through the early 2000s, when — as today — the battle over teaching intelligent design alongside traditional science curricula continues (Here is an essay as recently as 2009).
One of the most interesting people that I have come across in the pages of “Freethinkers” is Robert Ingersoll (Aug. 11, 1833-July 21, 1899), known as The Great Agnostic and described by Jacoby as a “rotund, unimposing figure” but one who was engagingly witty, often delivered his many speeches off the cuff, had a pleasant demeanor and sometimes cut jokes along the way. He was also, from what I have seen thus far, lucid, passionate and profound. The Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum’s website describes him as “the most remarkable American most people never heard of.” I am only halfway through Jacoby’s book, but I can clearly identify the most remarkable Ingersoll quote that I have come across at this point.
Ingersoll visited the laboratory of his friend, Thomas Edison just before Ingersoll’s death and made several early recordings, excerpts of which can be listened at the museum in Dresden, N.Y. Here, Ingersoll speaks about his own beliefs and how to approach life:
While I am opposed to all orthodox creeds, I have a creed myself; and mycreed is this. Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy to be here. The way to be happy is to make others so. Thiscreed is somewhat short, but it is long enough for this life, strong enough for this world.
The museum has also provided
of these lines from 1882, which was remastered by Paul Squire, Squire Recording Studio in Buffalo N.Y. Follow this link to learn more about Ingersoll and his contributions to American freethought.
As usual, Fareed Zakaria provides some lucid commentary on how the very necessary, if not undersold, bailouts on Bush’s and Obama’s watches helped save the economy from tanking further.
The U.S. government’s actions stopped the fall. Between the passage of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and the massive quantitative easing of the Federal Reserve, markets realized that the government was backstopping the financial system, that credit was beginning to flow again, and that if no one else was going to inject capital into the system, the U.S. government would do so. Part substance, part symbolism, the effect was to restore confidence and stability to the system. In fact, the financial system bounced back so fast that the government will likely recover almost 90 percent of the funds it committed during those months, making this one of the cheapest financial bailouts in history.
As I noted earlier on this site, I recently finished a book titled, “Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution: 1787-1788″ by Pauline Maier, which is an invaluable resource for people interested in learning about the founding principles of the U.S. In the book, Maier takes us to each state ratifying convention, highlights the key speakers and most influential spokesmen at each and informs readers of the key issues on Americans’ minds in the late 1700s as our “experiment” in Democracy was taking shape.
Isn’t it convenient that in matters about the economy, fiscal restraint and pulling back the federal government’s power, Tea Party types pore over the Constitution looking for ways to pick apart their opponents bit-by-bit? But ah!, when it comes to folks of color, that’s another matter altogether. They then cut to the quick, ignore what the founding document actually says on the topic of immigration and throw off their own humanity.
The New York Times reported June 18 that the Obama administration would fight the recently passed Arizona immigration law, saying that it infringes on the Constitution, while proponents of the administration make the claim that Obama is attempting to infringe on state’s rights.
This issue is actually very simple according to the 14th Amendment:
No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
States don’t confer citizenship nor do they have the power to deport anyone. (When I read letters to the editor directed toward my newspaper or more national ones, I wince when I see a reader calling a resident of such-and-such state or county a “citizen” of that county or state. Counties and states have no authority on the matter of citizenship. It’s a literally meaningless exercise to use that word in a context other than on topics of naturalization.)
The Arizona bill makes it a state crime to be in the U.S. illegally. But that’s redundant. It’s already a federal crime, and federal law takes precedence over state law according to the 14th amendment. True, the amendment says states can’t make any laws that “abridge” on the rights of citizens of the nation, but a semicolon later, and we find that
nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.
Another semicolon later and we have:
nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Now, some type of case could probably be made as to whether “person” means citizen or just any person, but the amendment is unambiguous in indicating that the federal government alone confers citizenship and determines who comes and who stays. And even illegals deserve due process of law like anyone else. They are, after all, human beings with pulses and wives and husbands and sons and daughters with people back home who love them. Or have we forgotten that?
I was never more proud of my adopted state of Georgia this week upon learning that Rep. Paul Broun, who happens to represent the district in which I live, illegally returned his census form with only one portion filled out. It was the part about how many people live in his household. He stated that the Census Bureau could not ask about the other personal information. Broun said:
“The Constitution requires the federal government to count the number of people in this country every 10 years. It doesn’t require them to ask a lot of personal information. People are very concerned about an invasion of privacy, and I have those same concerns.”
You see, Broun feels that any inquiry beyond the constitutional requirement to “enumerate” the number of persons living in his household is, per se, “unconstitutional.” He too has failed to notice that the Constitution empowers Congress to pass legislation in the public interest — and that, in any case, he is not empowered by the Constitution to determine for himself what is or is not constitutional. (Moreover, as the astute Greg Sargent points out, Article 1, Section 2 expressly directs that the count be performed “in such manner” as Congress “shall by law direct.” Although Broun carries the document around in his pocket, that doesn’t necessarily mean he has ever actually read the whole thing.)
For, indeed, even though we know Broun is one smart cookie, an expert in constitutional law, he still doesn’t get to decide what is and what isn’t constitutional. As to the legality of Broun’s action, or inaction, (Other great constitutional minds like Ron Paul and Michelle Bachmann also illegally returned their census forms), Think Progress notes that
What Congressman Broun did is illegal. U.S. law says that people can be fined for refusing to honestly fill out the entire Census:
§ 221. Refusal or neglect to answer questions; false answers
(a) Whoever, being over eighteen years of age, refuses or willfully neglects, when requested by the Secretary, or by any other authorized officer or employee of the Department of Commerce or bureau or agency thereof acting under the instructions of the Secretary or authorized officer, to answer, to the best of his knowledge, any of the questions on any schedule submitted to him in connection with any census or survey provided for by subchapters I, II, IV, and V of chapter 5 of this title, applying to himself or to the family to which he belongs or is related, or to the farm or farms of which he or his family is the occupant, shall be fined not more than $100.
(b) Whoever, when answering questions described in subsection (a) of this section, and under the conditions or circumstances described in such subsection, willfully gives any answer that is false, shall be fined not more than $500.
This is like the Boston tea party for people that decided, let’s say, I don’t know, two and a half months ago, that they didn’t want to pay taxes anymore. The tea part is just a metaphor [on screen: a Fox News reporter pointing to boxes at one of the tea parties containing a million tea bags]. Let me get this straight. To protest wasteful spending, you bought a million tea bags. Are you protesting taxes or irony? — Jon Stewart, The Daily Show
A friend asked a couple days ago whether I was still writing about the Tea Party some, and I said I hadn’t in awhile, but hey I’m always happy to pop the cork now and then.
I think this pretty well sums up what is happening in conservative/libertarian/Constitutionalist circles around the country:
- 80% are white (with 8% not responding to the question)
- 60% are male
- 40% are college graduates
- Over a third make $75,000 or more
- 50% live in rural areas
- 77% label themselves conservative
- 96% are Republican-Independent
- 87% say they will vote Republican for U.S. House
What is slightly surprising, but not shockingly so, is that 40 percent of those polled were college graduates. Now, I didn’t expect them all to be illiterate yokels — I’ve debated with a number of folks over a reteaparty.com, and many aren’t dim bulbs by any stretch (They also don’t like the Tea Bagger label) — but I did think the number would be more in the 30 percent range. Still, 60 percent aren’t college graduates, so that says something.
Also not surprising is the fact that 66 percent of Tea Party supporters made more than $50,000 per year, while only 42 percent made that much across all people who were polled.
Of course, the rise of the movement itself is not surprising, as we have a progressive president who has taken drastic measures — some experts say not drastic enough — to attempt to right the economic ship. It has risen despite the fact that Obama has stated nearly until he’s blue in the face, that any tax increases would not affect people making less than $250,000. It has risen on the tailwinds of ridiculous charges of Nazism, socialism, fascism or Communism, terms often used interchangeably for some reason, to describe the same person or his policies by folks like Mark Levin, Michael Savage and others who often squelch any potentially meaningful political discourse into name-calling and arguments that break no new ground and just echo the tired arguments of all the others.
All of this to make the ultimate case, as I understand it, that America should get back to the Constitution and the grand ideals of the Founders. While that’s a sexy notion and helps sell books, one problem exists with that. Readers of the Constitution or “Paradise Lost” or “War and Peace” can’t drop their authors into the 21st-century and make assumptions about what they might think on topics of the day. The Founders lived in a different America, and it’s an America that will never exist again. It was a more brutal time, a much larger country, and we were under the heel of the British. The Founders really didn’t have representation in Parliament; we have representation, whether we agree with those representing or not. The Founders were not making any claims against big government; they were fighting for the right of self-government itself.
Proponents of larger government intervention versus less did exist then as now, most notably from the Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans, and some of them would be shocked at how big our government has become, but even the most conservative among them understood that the country would change with the times, and thus they had enough foresight to know the Constitution would need amending. The claim that all the Founders, or even most of them, were ultra conservative or libertarian has no basis. They did pen the bits about separation of church and state, free speech, freedom of the press, and religion, after all.
The only argument of the Tea Party that is even halfway analogous would be arguments against upped taxes. But obviously, while taxes was one grievance against Britain in the colonies, they it wasn’t the only issue.
So, the crux of what is happening, as I see it, is that people are angry (about something, the country’s debt, bailing out corporations, etc.) and don’t know what to do, so they wail on the government, and folks like Levin, Savage, Beck and the gang are pawning their wares and playing off those frustrations like door-to-door salesmen. So, one question may be: Why don’t I share in their frustrations? Because while I am as angry that Wall Street and the corporations were bailed out as anyone else, I don’t see our government’s reaction to it as a permanent mark of things to come. We aren’t anywhere near crisis mode regarding our government. Obama will be elected, or he won’t. The talking heads will continue railing against Obama or a Republican will get elected and the vitriol will shift toward whichever progressive in Washington is trying to bring us ever out of the stone age.
But that’s enough ranting for now. Here’s something to strum your satirical lyre:
Apparently on the good advice of our good friend, Glenn Beck, who’s pirate-eyed obsession with gold is bizarre to say the least — gold marketeers are about the only sponsors he has left, after all, given his maniacal rants night in and night out — my home state’s own, South Carolina Rep. Mike Pitts, has introduced a bill to have gold and silver coins replace the federal dollar as legal tender in his state, a move that is soooooo 17th century.
It’s also soooooo unconstitutional since one of the listed powers of Congress, not the states, in the Constitution is to “coin,” or make, money.
No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal; coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts; pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts, or grant any Title of Nobility. — U.S. Constitution
Thus, states can’t coin money or issue it, but they can technically use gold or silver to pay debts (state debts, not issue gold and silver to residents for paying individual debts), which would be an anachronistic idea in modern times. Yet, Pitts is still, yes, 250 years after the fact, playing the stupifying states’ rights card:
But Pitts maintains that his state is better off with something he can hold in his hand and barter with as opposed to federal currency, which he described to the Scoop as “paper with ink on it.” He says he resents what he considers the federal government’s intrusions on states’ rights.
We’re still talking about states’ rights? Really?!?
Regardless, South Carolina has an unfaithful governor who seemingly using state resources to foster his extra-marital affair and then, representatives who want to send us back to the 17th century, or at the least, the mid-19th century. That’s all this state needs.