Observations of a Citizen
As I write, the federal government is in the 3rd week of a so-called “shutdown.” This particular shutdown – there have been many – is the result of a stalemate between the newly Democrat-majority House of Representatives, and the Senate, now more strongly Republican than last term, with our President, Trump. They stand on opposite sides of critical issues regarding national security – how should we protect our borders – or should we skip protecting them at all?
There are a couple of questions that need to be addressed regarding this shutdown: What would our founders think of it; did they anticipate such discord between the two houses of our national legislature?
The wailing and hand-wringing that always dramatizes shutdowns as a national calamity are the only element that our founders would consider beyond their expectations. The whole reason we have three steps in creating a law is to stop bad legislation. The founders agreed that it was far more important to stop an ill-considered law or policy than to pass laws quickly or easily.
To pass a law, the Constitution was designed to stop any law that could not be agreed upon, word for word, by both houses of Congress, plus the signature approval by the President. Any one of these can stop a law that that just one of them deems unacceptable. The President’s veto can be overridden only by a super majority of both houses of Congress.
What is the result if just one of these – the House of Representatives, the Senate, or the President – rejects a proposed law? It fails. Whatever the failed law was going to accomplish is stopped. If, as in the case of broad expenditure bills, agencies of the government depend on the bill to proceed with their business, the business stops. They “shut down.”
That is the whole purpose of having multiple branches in our Constitutional plan – stop any proposed law that one or more of them finds objectionable. And the wording they used when considering how to stop bad legislation was prophetic.
In the convention that drafted our Constitution, while debating how long the terms should be for members of the Senate, on June 12, 1787, Edmond Randolph of Virginia (34 years old at that time) pointed out: “The Democratic licentiousness of the state legislatures proved the necessity of a firm Senate. The object of this second branch is to control the democratic branch of the National Legislature (The House of Representatives.)
James Madison agreed: “… what we wished was to give to the government that stability which was everywhere called for, and which the enemies of the republican form alleged to be inconsistent with its nature. “
The Constitution was chosen to replace the earlier form our nation chose after winning independence in a costly war – our Revolution. That earlier form – the Articles of Confederation – had failed by proving incapable of protecting our nation from, among other things, foreign interference at our borders. This included where the Spanish colonies – soon to be split into the Louisiana Territory and Mexico – were stopping our traffic along the Mississippi River.
Federal government shutdowns do point out problems. But they are the solution, not the problem. That was the plan. Stop, think it through, and don’t move forward until a good plan can be agreed upon.
But each shutdown reveals a truth that is the real reason that such a ruckus is raised over it – we find out once again how little the federal government actually does to help us through our individual daily affairs, and how little we need all those agencies that constitute “the swamp.” They don't want us to wake up to that.
Observations of a Citizen
Who Are Your Heroes?
What inspires us to admire someone? What do we think is important? What does that tell us about ourselves and our culture?
Many Americans watch “American Idol.” These “idols” sing well. Crowds cluster around movie “stars,” and read about their personal lives in the magazines. Sports fans cheer as players make a touchdown or hole-in-one.
The athletes and singers may actually accomplish things, however trivial. The actors and actresses merely pretend to be other people or situations that never really existed. They are the supposed “heroes” of our time.
It has not always been that way. What has changed, and what has the effect been?
From the time of America’s founding until perhaps the middle of the 20th Century, the people who were widely admired were not in show business or sports. They were people who actually accomplished things that made a difference in how we lived. Early on, Americans talked about people who created new ideas: social philosophers like John Locke and Montesquieu; scientists such as Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo.
The founders themselves our nation were admired for winning the Revolution, for creating a society that made individual liberty a reality for increasing circles of the population.
But there were more categories that Americans looked to as models to admire through the 1800’s. Perhaps it was Gutenberg, whose invention of the printing press in the 1400’s made the greatest advance ever in human communication, that inspired a popular interest in people who created machines. These men were known as “mechanics.” Some of our founders themselves became famous for successes in this field – notably Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson.
Enthusiastic biographies of various “mechanics” were published through the 19th and most of the 20th centuries. Their accomplishments were held as models for others. John Fitch built, and operated the first practical steam boat in 1787 (right outside the Constitutional Convention); Samuel Morse began the telegraph, which led to our present diverse electronic communications systems; Eli Whitney, the cotton gin. Later, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison; then Henry Ford and the Wright Brothers changed how we live. Others created corporations for manufacture and distribution – Woolworth, creating his department store chain; Andrew Carnegie, building America’s leadership in steel, and so forth.
These were the heroes when America was growing. The publicity chronicling their advances motivated legions of Americans to figure out ways to invent and produce on their own smaller scale. The virtues of diligent work, endurance, honesty and even modest success were expressed in the popular novels for boys by Horatio Alger. His characters struggled against bad situations, and difficult odds to achieve personal independence and success, even without great fame or wealth. That was the century – and the understanding of what a hero really is – that built America into a world leader in every field.
One of the fields where heroes were admired in the 20th Century was aviation. It started, of course, with the Wright Brothers. Eddie Rickenbacker was our top “Ace” in WW I, then head of Eastern Airlines. Most famous of all was the young fellow who flew solo across the Atlantic – Lindbergh. Chuck Yeager broke “the sound barrier.” And today you can fly anywhere in the world.
The media today ignore actual achievement. The heroes are merely fake. And the airlines cannot even find pilots for tomorrow. Who you choose to admire defines where you will wind up.
Observations of a Citizen
The Popish Plot
America today is mired in legal issues that seem to drive how we are governed. Our Constitution was designed to minimize this kind of counterproductive use of power to further the interests of clashing factions in our political life. This is not a problem that was unknown to our founders. Our founders were Englishmen, and had learned the lessons of their nation’s history. Much of the content of our Constitution was an effort to avoid evils that they had learned of in the history of the courts of England.
England in the 1600’s, as the colonies were founded and began to grow, was a nation in constant turmoil. Struggles for political power, involving imagined and actual attempts to overthrow monarchs, overlaid other disasters. The overthrow of King Charles the 1st led to the “commonwealth” government of Cromwell. When that failed, the restoration of monarchy with King Charles II was soon followed by the plague that killed thousands in London in 1665, then the fire that destroyed much of London the next year.
Part of the turmoil found its way into the courts. We tend to think that the turmoil of our own times “never happened before.” Such ignorance tends to encourage smug contempt for what our forebears knew and tried to warn us about. Let’s take a quick look at one disturbance that led to a trial. See if the story seems to have echoes in today’s news.
Ever since King Henry the 8th had separated England from the Catholic Church, there had been tensions and disunity in the kingdom, because much of the population remained Catholic, and the Protestants resented and feared their ties to Rome. Amid these tensions, one fellow, Titus Oates came to the monarchy in 1678 with news of a plot by a large number of Catholic (“Popish”) priests and Jesuits to assassinate Charles II, and install a Popish king. This was not only an issue of which religion would rule, but a political threat of oppressive political policies, such as creating a permanent, “standing”, army that would serve the new king and enforce his policies, as was happening in France under Louis XIV. Meantime, Louis had found it useful to breed disunity in England by giving money to support opposition factions.
The complicated story finally led to a series of prosecutions of the accused priests and their associates. One investigation led to the trial on December 17, 1678, charging William Ireland, John Grove, and Thomas Pickering with treason for collusion with the foreign power in Rome to remove the legitimate head of state in England. (Sound familiar?) In those days when regime change was accomplished by violence rather than elections, the charges were attempting to assassinate King Charles II. Reading the transcript of that trial we find the Chief Justice promising the accused that they would receive a “fair tryal,” and assuring them that they were not being tried for being priests. But later, when one pointed out that a meeting Oates had testified about never happened, the Chief Justice responded: “You have a religion that can give dispensation for oaths and falsehoods – how can you expect we should believe you?”
The proceedings led to increasingly biased handling by the court, and all three were quickly convicted. Their sentence was: “"That ... you be drawn to the place of execution, upon hurdles; That you be there severally hanged by the neck; That you be cut down alive; … That your bowels be taken out, and burned in your view; That your heads be severed from your bodies; That your bodies be divided into four quarter … And the God of infinite mercy be merciful to your souls.”
This execution was soon carried out, and other trials in the “Popish Plot” followed, with similar results. But within a few years Titus Oates was shown to have committed perjury – the whole plot was made up. He was punished with imprisonment for a time, and died in shame.
A few legal reforms were enacted to prevent such abuses, and found their way into our Constitution – the “writ of habeus corpus” (where a prisoner can demand that the accuser prove there is evidence to support charges – and if they cannot, the prisoner must be released); and prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment” are two.
But harassing investigations based on questionable charges have never been completely eliminated.