U.S. Constitution

The Federalist papers, the federalist debates

Posted on February 26, 2019. Filed under: Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Hello and welcome to a replay of our series on the Federalist debates. We have to admit that this was a topic we avoided for a long time here on the HP; somehow these impassioned, immediate debates over the very nature of our founding principles, carried out with and for the general public, have failed to capture the imagination. Part of this, perhaps, is because the Federalist debates are one of the worst-taught areas of U.S. history in American schools. You’re told there was a debate over whether to have a strong federal government, the Anti-Federalists are represented as idiots fighting an obviously good idea, and you’re sat down to read a laboriously expressed Federalist Paper or two, and that’s that. The debates seem pointless, and the Papers seem unreadable.

The debates weren’t pointless, however, and the Anti-Federalists weren’t idiots. And “Federalist” search activity here at the HP has moved us to repost. Enjoy!

 

The Papers can be dense: classical references; long, semi-historical digressions; sentences that are a full paragraph long, using more semi-colons than even the HP would dare. But generally when they have a point to make they hammer it home with minimal rhetoric and maximum good sense. So we’re going to quote from some of the Papers in this series, to make our own points. (We are also indebted to the powerhouse lectures on the Federalist debates of Dr. Thomas Pangle, UT Austin, for the flow of our series.)

We do this because Americans in the 21st century are still having the Federalist debates. The questions the anti-Federalists raised are still valid today, and not just for that minority of Americans who want to dismantle the federal government completely. The questions the anti-Federalists raised, and the answers the Federalists gave, are eerily modern, and the most eerie part is that Federalists like Hamilton explicitly stated in 1787 that they were thinking forward hundreds of years, trying in vain to fully anticipate the problems the nation would face centuries after them, and trying to build in protections for the government and liberties for the people to preserve freedom in the face of threats they could not even imagine. As Hamilton put it, in Papers 23 and 34 (the capital letters are his, not ours):

“IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO FORESEE OR DEFINE THE EXTENT AND VARIETY OF NATIONAL EXIGENCIES, OR THE CORRESPONDENT EXTENT AND VARIETY OF THE MEANS WHICH MAY BE NECESSARY TO SATISFY THEM. The circumstances that endanger the safety of nations are infinite, and for this reason no constitutional shackles can wisely be imposed on the power to which the care of it is committed. This power ought to be coextensive with all the possible combinations of such circumstances… We must bear in mind that we are not to confine our view to the present period, but to look forward to remote futurity. Constitutions of civil government are not to be framed upon a calculation of existing exigencies, but upon a combination of these with the probable exigencies of ages… There ought to be a CAPACITY to provide for future contingencies as they may happen; and as these are illimitable in their nature, it is impossible safely to limit that capacity.”

These remarkable statements not only anticipate cyber-age threats no one could have dreamed of even 40 years ago, let alone 227 years ago; they also describe an argument about government power that is whipsawing American society today as we face the reality of NSA surveillance.

But that’s leaping ahead. Let’s start this series with a quick update to refresh the collective memory:

The Articles of Confederation adopted during the Revolutionary War by the Continental Congress established, as the name says, a confederacy: a league of friendship between sovereign political entities—in this case, the 13 states. The federal government, which consisted of a single-house Congress, did not impinge on the sovereignty of these states very much: it was authorized to handle foreign policy, national defense, disputes between states, interstate commerce, and legislating for new territories under U.S. control but not yet organized into states.

There was general concern that the states were headed for disputes that the weak federal government would not be able to resolve. Populist state governments were making zealous proclamations/warnings about maintaining their sovereignty, and it seemed increasingly likely that if the U.S. did face an external threat, like war with Britain or Spain, the federal government would be powerless to stop each individual state from going its own way—making separate peace treaties, or joining blocs of states that followed different policies, or refusing to pay federal taxes needed to levy an army in favor of prepping its own militia to defend its own borders and nothing else.

James Madison of Virginia and Alexander Hamilton of New York were the main leaders of a convention called to revise and edit the Articles of Confederation in the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia. The delegates to the convention met in secret, which worried many Americans, who were afraid they would make and pass substantial changes to the government without public input, and present the new Articles as a done deal after the fact. Those fears were realized in part when the delegates decided not to revise the Articles but to scrap them completely and write a new document. But fears that the new document would be railroaded through were not realized.

This is one of the amazing facts about the Constitution: the finished document was not referred back to the existing Congress for approval (many Americans think that members of Congress met at the convention, but while some delegates were also members of Congress, most were not; they were specially appointed by their states to go to the convention). The new Constitution was also not sent to the state governments for ratification. Instead, the proposed Constitution was sent directly to special conventions set up in each state and made up of delegates elected directly by the people. The Founders’ faith in the people, and their dedication to creating a republic where the people ruled, was unprecedented in western history. As the first Federalist Paper put it:

“It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.”

In other words, the American people will decide what system of government they will have because they have earned that right, “by their conduct and example”. A people so devoted to liberty, as proved by their conduct in fighting the Revolutionary War, must be “capable of establishing good government from reflection and choice.”

And so the debates in the special conventions began, and the Anti-Federalists and Federalists began their writing campaign to instruct and sway the people. The Federalist Papers, as well as the many documents written by the Anti-Federalists (they have no one unifying name) were published in newspapers and broadsides from October 1787 through August 1788, as the state ratifying conventions met, to educate the people about the issues at stake so they could influence their state conventions. It was a remarkable campaign on both sides to impact a vote not with lies, scandal, rumors, or personal attacks, but with logic, reason, examples, and thoughtful questions. Passions ran high, to be sure, but the passion was for the truth, and the best form of government, not for personal or party gain.

We won’t address every issue canvassed during the campaign to ratify or reject the Constitution, but we will look at those which are most pertinent to us today, in our “remote futurity”, so that we can call upon the Founders once again to help us decide our important issues of good government.

Next time: the pros and cons of big government

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National Emergencies, 1787 and 2019

Posted on February 18, 2019. Filed under: Politics, The Founders, three branches of government, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , , |

As we face the prospect of a necessary legal battle over the emergency called by the president in order to fund some sort of border wall on our southern border, we are driven to many thoughts, most of them anguished. Will the courts and Congress fulfill their constitutionally defined roles, or will they allow the executive branch to rule this nation, creating a president who is above the law, and thus ending democracy in the United States?

We turn for hope to many sources, including our founding principles. We were reminded of one part of the Federalist debates, in which Anti-Federalists raised the question of how to put limits on the federal government’s authority. The Federalists were in favor of giving all three federal branches just about unlimited authority to respond to future crises–as long as they honored the Constitution. The Anti-Federalists rationally countered that unlimited authority is never a good idea.

The crux of the debate lay in the Federalist position, described by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist Papers #23 and #34, that since we cannot know what dangers the nation may face in 100 or 1,000 years, we simply cannot put literal constraints on the powers given to the federal branches to protect the nation. Hamilton saw a way to make this consonant with our Constitution.

We posted about this previously in a series on the HP; read on in this re-posting to see how, and to get eerie predictions about the future from both Hamilton and the HP.

 

Welcome to part 3 of our series on the Federalist debates; here we see how the men who supported the new constitution answered the Anti-Federalists’ concern that the strong federal government proposed by that document would degrade the republican virtue of American citizens by weakening local government, which they could take a more active, immediate role in. The Anti-Federalists made a passionate case that corruption would follow the distancing of government from the people, and challenged the Federalists to prove them wrong.

The Federalists replied by completely ignoring the whole argument as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Their response focused on foreign policy and national security. A strong central government was absolutely essential to national security, they said—there’s no point worrying about domestic citizen virtue if the United States has been destroyed by a weak foreign policy and national defense. To survive in the world, the U.S. had to be able to negotiate treaties in good faith; other nations had to believe the U.S. would obey international law and live up to the terms of those treaties. For that to happen, the U.S. had to have a strong federal government that could make sure the states lived up to the terms of the treaties. Without this mechanism for good faith negotiating, the US would open itself to invasion and dissolution.

This was no imaginary scenario in 1787. Even as the Federalist debates raged, the US was in violation of its treaty with Britain ending the Revolutionary War. In that treaty, the U.S. had agreed to either return property seized from Loyalists during the war or reimburse those Loyalists for their losses. That was not happening, because state governments were not enforcing those terms, and that was the stated reason why Britain was not removing its army from the western frontier as it had promised to do. The U.S. had also signed a treaty with Spain promising to keep US citizens east of the Mississippi River, out of the lands that would one day be the Louisiana Purchase but were in 1787 Spanish territory. Americans were moving into the regions that would become the states of Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky—pressing right up to the Spanish border, and clearly intending to cross it. That could provoke a war with Spain in the west, which could activate a war with Britain in the west as well, and both countries could sweep east and divide up the nascent US between them and that would be that.

We have to have a strong federal government, said the Federalists, to enforce international treaties, deal with foreign powers to avoid war, and to organize a national defense if war cannot be avoided. A strong central government protecting the states will deter other nations from attacking individual states to pull the U.S. apart piece by piece. Of course, the “government” itself wouldn’t fight a war: the government would have to raise a standing army.

This was political dynamite to many Americans in 1787. Getting the British standing army out of America had been a major war aim, and most Americans saw a standing army—an army maintained during peacetime—as a tool of tyranny. What government would resist using its army to keep the populace down, intimidate people, and prevent them from criticizing the government? And who would pay for it—the states? They were already maintaining their state militias; why add the expense of funding a national army? Why couldn’t the US fight any future war the way it fought the Revolutionary War, by sending states militia to join together in one army until the war was over, then to return to their states? When the Federalists added that the U.S. would also have to have a strong navy, the call only confirmed suspicions that these forces would be used to tyrannize over the people, not protect the nation.

The standing army and navy also represented another problem: clearly, to create and maintain these armed forces, the federal government would have to tax the states. The Federalists did not mince words here. They said that the federal government must not only tax the states, but have an unlimited power of taxation.

Remember that under the Articles of Confederation, the federal government could ask the states for money, but could not levy a tax the states were required to pay. Remember also from part 2 of our series that the Anti-Federalists had criticized the idea of the federal government ever levying a tax, and made only the small concession that if a war came up the federal government could ask the states for money to fight it (without a guarantee that the states would pay it; they would, in fact, most likely have refused to pay it, focusing instead on beefing up their individual state defenses/militias). If the Constitution was adopted, that would radically change to allow the federal government to enforce any tax it liked in the name of national security.

The Anti-Federalist writing under the name “Brutus” (we do not know who this was) stated in his/her 8th essay:

“These powers taken in connection, amount to this: that the general government have unlimited authority and control over all the wealth and all the force of the union. The advocates for this scheme, would favor the world with a new discovery, if they would show, what kind of freedom or independency is left to the state governments, when they cannot command any part of the property or of the force of the country, but at the will of the Congress.”

Alexander Hamilton, rather than dissemble, agreed heartily. Yes, he said, the federal government will have unlimited authority over the “force” of the union, and over its wealth when it comes to preserving that union. In Federalist Paper 23, he said that because we cannot predict the future, and know what threats we may face, we have to be ready to face anything, and that means being ready to pay anything (all capitals are his, not ours):

“These powers ought to exist without limitation, BECAUSE IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO FORESEE OR DEFINE THE EXTENT AND VARIETY OF NATIONAL EXIGENCIES, OR THE CORRESPONDENT EXTENT AND VARIETY OF THE MEANS WHICH MAY BE NECESSARY TO SATISFY THEM. The circumstances that endanger the safety of nations are infinite, and for this reason no constitutional shackles can wisely be imposed on the power to which the care of it is committed. This power ought to be coextensive with all the possible combinations of such circumstances; and ought to be under the direction of the same councils which are appointed to preside over the common defense. … And unless it can be shown that the circumstances which may affect the public safety are reducible within certain determinate limits; unless the contrary of this position can be fairly and rationally disputed, it must be admitted, as a necessary consequence, that there can be no limitation of that authority which is to provide for the defense and protection of the community, in any matter essential to its efficacy that is, in any matter essential to the FORMATION, DIRECTION, or SUPPORT of the NATIONAL FORCES.”

If the threats we face as a nation are “infinite”, then our capacity to respond to those threats must also be infinite. You can’t say, We’ll allow the federal government to tax the states to raise $100K for national defense in 1788 because that’s how much we needed in 1787. You can’t even say, let’s double it to $200K just in case. You cannot ever put a limit on the power of the government to tax the states to defend the nation because then you run the risk that what you need is $700 million, and you only have $200K.

This seemed preposterous to most Americans. How could so unexpected a threat arise? What on earth was going to change to make such huge amounts necessary?

In Federalist Paper 34, Hamilton answered this by saying, I don’t know. Who knows? Who can know the future? Who can say what unimaginable threats might arise in 50 or 100 years? You have to remember, Hamilton said, that we are talking about how the US government will function not just in our lifetimes, but for hundreds or even thousands of years:

In pursuing this inquiry, we must bear in mind that we are not to confine our view to the present period, but to look forward to remote futurity. Constitutions of civil government are not to be framed upon a calculation of existing exigencies, but upon a combination of these with the probable exigencies of ages, according to the natural and tried course of human affairs. Nothing, therefore, can be more fallacious than to infer the extent of any power, proper to be lodged in the national government, from an estimate of its immediate necessities. There ought to be a CAPACITY to provide for future contingencies as they may happen; and as these are illimitable in their nature, it is impossible safely to limit that capacity. In framing a government for posterity as well as ourselves, we ought, in those provisions which are designed to be permanent, to calculate, not on temporary, but on permanent causes of expense.

That is, the federal government must have the “capacity” to expand its expenditures when necessary, with no set limits. You can’t limit the government of 2014 to a certain amount of taxation because that’s what worked in 1787; we know, Hamilton says, that what works in 1787 is not going to work in 2014—it just can’t. Change is constant, and we can’t handcuff the federal government by forcing it to remain in 1787 as time marches on. We also can’t force the federal government to beg the states to approve each and every change it needs to stay current, or risk the states refusing that approval.

This Federalist argument is very much alive today. The federal government has defended NSA surveillance on the basis of anticipating threats we can’t even imagine. Some Americans believe that national security should trump personal privacy and liberty; others argue that the federal government should have to justify its actions and expenses to the public. For some Americans, no expense is too much if it is spent to protect the nation from threats real or imagined; others demand oversight of national security expenditures. Hamilton was prescient in his understanding that the definition of “threat” could change beyond all rational expectation. Whether he was right in saying the federal government must have the freedom and power to meet those threats by any means necessary is still a question in the United States today.

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How the U.S. Constitution was born

Posted on October 18, 2018. Filed under: Bill of Rights, Colonial America, Politics, Truth v. Myth, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , |

Welcome to part the last of our series on Bernard Bailyn’s masterful description of the transformation of American political thought in the decade before 1775. Here we look at how the idea of a Constitution of principle took off once it was properly presented. As Bailyn puts it:

The transition to more advanced group was forced forward by the continuing need, after 1764, to distinguish fundamentals from institutions and from the actions of government so that they might serve as limits and controls. Once its utility was perceived and demonstrated, this process of disengaging principles from institutions and from the positive actions of government and then of conceiving of them as fixed sets of rules and boundaries, when on swiftly. [181]

Americans, as Bailyn spends a long early chapter explaining, seemed to fear nothing more than unlimited government that became tyrannical. Abuse of power was the worst possible abuse. That’s why most Americans had resisted a government based on theory–theory could infinitely expand and be used to justify any abuse of power. Better to send reps to the legislature with a few concrete demands than to have them while away their hours coming up with “ideas” to guide them.

But it became clear to these Americans that Principle did not have to be used for evil expansion of power. Principles could be used to limit government. The U.S. Constitution is a tribute to where this thinking quickly led–it can definitely read sometimes like it’s primarily a list of what the federal government cannot do rather than what it can. Principles can be used to curb government by giving natural rights to the individual citizen, and institutions like the free public press.

If politicians drew their power to act from a set of written principles that the voters had agreed upon, then those principles–the Constitution–began to seem like it had a lot in common with those written rules and requirements towns used to send their reps to the legislature with. One knew that one’s reps were bound by the principles of the Constitution, and, if that constitution was properly written, it would curb the power of the government.

This helped Americans to separate bodies of law from actual bodies of government. Parliament, or the colonial legislature, were not the constitution. They were not the law. They did not write laws by their own authority. Americans quickly adopted the idea that legislatures were authorized to write laws by authority of the constitution they were governed by. They could not create laws that violated that constitution. Legislatures were not synonymous with the law, and they were not above it.

This flew in the face of the established English legal tradition that the body of laws Parliament had created over the centuries was the English constitution, and therefore Parliament itself was the ultimate authority. As Zubly put it, the Americans were diverging into the belief that

Parliament derives its authority and power from the constitution, and not the constitution from Parliament… the constitution is permanent and ever the same, [and Parliament] can no more make laws which are against the constitution or the unalterable privileges of the British subjects than it can alter the constitution itself… The power of Parliament, and of every branch of it, has its bounds assigned by the constitution. [181-2]

This leads fairly naturally to the idea that a people and their legislature must have a written constitution to operate by. The English tradition that the entire great body of law and precedent created over the centuries was the constitution was unacceptable. That great body of law had no guiding principles–it contained laws that contradicted each other, laws that were written on the spur of the moment, laws that were the brainchild of individual men. And it put the cart before the horse: a legislature doesn’t make a constitution possible; a constitution makes legislation possible.

Bailyn goes on to the end of this chapter to describe how different colonies began to implement this idea, and it’s good reading. But we’ll close our series with a final quote from this great historian:

These changes in the view–of what a constitution was and of the proper emphasis in the understanding of rights–were momentous; they would shape the entire future development of American constitutional thought and practice.

It’s great to really study the intellectual history of our revolution, and to remind ourselves that it was not all about “Americans didn’t want to pay taxes”.

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How America developed its Constitution

Posted on October 14, 2018. Filed under: Bill of Rights, Colonial America, Politics, three branches of government, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , |

Here in part 5 of our series on Bernard Bailyn’s masterful description of American political thinking in the transitional decade of the 1760s, we come to the second revolution in political thinking that occurred in a very short period: the idea of a constitution of principles.

English legal tradition had defined the “constitution” as the legislature itself–“a legal constitution, that is, a legislature”, as Richard Bland put it. Bailyn describes how the work of the American lawyer James Otis began to articulate a new definition of a constitution as a moral foundation for the work of a legislature, a set of principles that informed and put boundaries on what a legislature could do. Bailyn sums this up as “a set of fixed principles and rules distinguishable from, antecedent to, more fundamental than, and controlling the operating institutions of government” (176).

In this understanding, a constitution authorized and limited the legislature’s actions. Since all of this thinking was going on in the context of English law, the question of whether a constitution authorized and limited the monarch’s actions did not come into play. And as we know, after the Revolution there was still substantial support in the new United States for a monarch-like president who stood above the law. But the idea that Congress, House and Senate, had to abide by a constitution of principles was firmly established–so much so that the American people famously demanded a Bill of their rights be added to the Constitution that they, the people, ratified, so that Congress would be clearly bound to protect principles of personal liberty, and, even more important to people at the time, restrained, constrained, and prevented from expanding its powers and becoming tyrannical.

But that’s leaping ahead. During the period 1765-1775, Americans were working out the first step, which was how to define the principles a constitution should uphold. Were they simply the recognized legal principles handed down from legislature to legislature over the centuries of English practice? Were they religious principles of Anglican Christianity? Were they the new and radical tenets of natural law? It was easier to use the term “fundamental law” and “formal principles” than to define them, especially in America, where there had been so much steely and deliberate resistance to the idea of men in a legislature serving any other principle than “I will follow the orders my townspeople gave me.”

Otis wrote that Parliament could not be allowed to violate natural laws “which are immutably true,” because that would violate “eternal truth, equity, and justice,” and therefore any act of Parliament that violated natural law would be “void.” But how do we define what is “immutably true”? How do we come to agree on what is eternally true, fair, and just? What we discover is that the foundation of any constitution is a shared agreement on, and belief in, some powerful concepts of truth, fairness, and justice.

We see this shared agreement stated elegantly in the opening words of our Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

We hold these truths–it took years of debate, ten thousand letters and editorial essays printed in newspapers, tens of thousands of sheets of paper, a million letters between Americans, and countless millions of conversations in taverns, family homes, business offices, and farm fields to define who “We” were and what the “truth” was. That all this intellectual activity was compressed into about 10 years–1765-1776–is remarkable, and shows how important those definitions were to Americans at all levels of society. The same debate went on for another ten years, until our Constitution was drafted in 1787.

Even Otis did not go as far as his fellow Revolutionaries would. He did not believe that a constitution would “furnish judges with grounds for declaring [laws] nonexistent because they conflicted with the ‘constitution,’ but only[provide] judges with principles of interpretation by which to modify gross inequities in ways that would allow traditional [definitions] of justice to prevail.” [180] The idea that inherited laws and legal procedures, inherited concepts of law that were centuries-old, should still stand as the test of whether an act of Parliament was valid would be vehemently discarded by the men who wrote our Declaration and, eventually, our Constitution. Longevity was not truth, tradition was not equity.

We’ll finish next time with the path to concretizing the new American idea(l) of a modern constitution of principle.

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President Trump cannot fire Robert Mueller

Posted on February 6, 2018. Filed under: Politics, three branches of government, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , , , |

When we decided to write a series on Watergate back in 2014, we did not know how pertinent it would become just three years later.

We re-ran this post in January 2017, in response to the Trump Administration’s sudden firing of acting Attorney General Sally Yates. As we said at the time, “President Trump firing an attorney general who stood up to his unconstitutional requests is all too reminiscent of a horrible 24 hours in our nation’s history, when President Nixon tried to fire his attorney general for refusing to help Nixon break the law. Two attorneys general would resign in what was called the Saturday Night Massacre.”

Today, the deja-vu continues. We’re rerunning our January 2017 rerun of the September 2014 Saturday Night Massacre post with heavy hearts but every hope that most Americans will stand unwavering in support of our democratic process in the face of Trump’s threats to fire the Special Prosecutor of the Russian investigation, Robert Mueller.

If you don’t want to read about the terrible parallel to Watergate, here’s the argument in a nutshell: Trump cannot fire Mueller because Mueller is protected from just that sort of intimidation. The special counsel cannot be fired by the president he is investigating because the president doesn’t want to be investigated. FactCheck.org puts it well:

Because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the investigation, the decision to appoint a special counsel fell to Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein. In his order making the appointment, Rosenstein cited federal regulations issued by the attorney general in 1999, 28 C.F.R. § 600.4-600.10. The rules were drafted in the wake of the Kenneth Starr investigation of President Bill Clinton.

According to those regulations, a special counsel “may be disciplined or removed from office only by the personal action of the Attorney General” (or in this case, the acting attorney general). And Rosenstein can’t just do it on a whim, either. According to the regulation, special counsel can only be removed “for misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or for other good cause, including violation of Departmental policies.”

In a Senate hearing on June 13, Rosenstein said he alone exercises firing authority, and that he had not seen any evidence of good cause for firing Mueller.

“It’s certainly theoretically possible that the attorney general could fire him, but that’s the only person who has authority to fire him,” Rosenstein said. “And in fact, the chain of command for the special counsel is only directly to the attorney general, in this case the acting attorney general.”

Only the deputy attorney general who appointed Mueller can fire him and only for cause. But Trump could fire the DAG, or order the special-counsel regulations repealed and fire Mueller himself.

That said, let’s revisit Watergate and the Saturday Night Massacre, when the president tried to indirectly fire the special prosecutor:

It’s post 5 in our series on the Watergate crisis, and here we come to the most shocking part of the entire event, which is the Saturday Night Massacre of October 20, 1973. We left off last time with the forced resignations and false confessions of Haldeman and Ehrlichman, and the firing of John Dean for deciding he would tell all he knew to the Senate Watergate Committee. Bear in mind that Dean knew that the original break-in had been carried out by CREEP and approved by former Attorney General John Mitchell, and he knew that the president had ordered evidence to be destroyed and people to be paid off to keep quiet, but he did not know that Nixon had tried to stop the FBI investigation. No one but Nixon, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman knew that. The only way anyone else could find that out was if they listened to the secret tape recordings Nixon made of all of his conversations, including the one we mentioned last time from June 23, 1972—six days after the break-in—in which Nixon told Haldeman to have the CIA director, Richard Helms, call the head of the FBI, Patrick Gray, and tell him to “stay the hell out of this” in the name of national security. Luckily, only a handful of men in Nixon’s administration knew about the tapes. Unluckily for Nixon, one of them told all he knew to the Senate Watergate Committee, on live national TV.

On Friday the 13th, July 1973, White House assistant Alexander Butterfield was asked if there was any type of recording system used in the White House. After some prodding, Butterfield said there was, and that it automatically recorded every word spoken in the Oval Office, Cabinet Room, and Nixon’s private office. Three days later, after the weekend break, Butterfield reiterated this claim. Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox subpoenaed Nixon for these tapes. He wanted to listen to them and see if they showed that the president ordered the break-in, had tried to cover it up, or just knew about it. Nixon refused, citing executive privilege and again saying that national security would be damaged if the tapes were made public. Cox said he would only make public information relating to Watergate; if there was none, no part of the tapes would be made public. Nixon still refused and ordered Cox to rescind the subpoena, which Cox refused to do. On Friday, Nixon offered a compromise: he would allow Mississippi Senator John Stennis to listen to the tapes and write a summary of their contents. Cox refused. He did not trust Nixon to give Stennis access to tapes that would incriminate himself. The subpoena stood.

Now the events unfolded that would be called the Saturday Night Massacre, events which threatened the very basis of constitutional law in the U.S. It’s hard to believe that finding out that the president had tried to obstruct a criminal investigation to protect the criminals could be overshadowed by any other of his actions, but what Nixon ordered on Saturday, October 20, 1973 surpasses even that obstruction of justice in its seriousness.

That morning, Nixon told his chief of staff Alexander Haig to call his new Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, and tell him to fire Cox. Richardson had just been appointed as Attorney General by Nixon in April after the “resignation” of John Dean. A few days earlier, on Thursday, Richardson had met with Nixon and learned that he wanted Cox fired if he wouldn’t accept the Stennis compromise. Richardson told the president he felt sure Cox would accept it, but left the meeting already resolved to resign if Cox didn’t. He knew that Nixon would ask him to fire Cox because only Richardson could: as Attorney General, he had appointed Cox as special prosecutor, and only he could fire him. Richardson did not believe the refusal to accept the Stennis compromise was grounds to fire Cox, but Nixon did. After that Thursday meeting, he told Haig “No more tapes, no more documents, nothing more! I want an order from me to Elliot to Cox to that effect now.”

When Haig called Richardson at 7.00 on Friday night to tell him to fire Cox, Richardson refused, saying he would resign instead. As this was happening, Cox (unaware of this call) issued a statement to the press just in time for the evening deadline saying that the president was refusing to comply with a court order “in violation of the promises which the Attorney General made to the Senate” that the Watergate break-in would be investigated thoroughly. Cox’s statement was front-page on Saturday morning, and he was planning to hold a press conference at 1.00. Richardson phoned Cox to tell him what had happened. At the press conference, Cox reminded reporters that only the Attorney General could fire him. Meanwhile, Haig phoned Richardson again and ordered him to fire Cox; Richardson refused. Knowing what would happen next, Richardson met with his Deputy Attorney General, William Ruckelshaus, and told him that he, Ruckelshaus, would be asked to fire Cox once Richardson’s resignation was made public. Ruckelshaus said he would not do it and that he, too, would resign.

Nixon summoned Richardson to his office and told him that if he didn’t fire Cox, Nixon couldn’t meet with the Soviet Premier to work out a solution to the crisis in the Middle East because Brezhnev wouldn’t respect a man who was being publicly defied by a subordinate. Again Richardson refused, and Nixon said “I’m sorry that you insist on putting your personal commitments ahead of the public interest.” Richardson resigned. As Richardson left, Haig was on the phone to Ruckelshaus, telling him to fire Cox. When he balked, Haig barked “Your commander in chief has given you an order! You have no alternative.” Undaunted, Ruckelshaus replied, “Except to resign”, which he did. Finally, Nixon sent a limousine to pick up Solicitor General Robert Bork from his home and bring him to the White House. There, Nixon told him to fire Cox. He had a letter of dismissal ready, waiting for Bork’s signature. Intimidated, Bork signed it. Nixon told him, “You’ve got guts.”

At 8.25 that evening, White House press secretary Ron Ziegler held a press conference announcing the resignations of Richardson and Ruckelshaus and the firing of Cox, saying “the office of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force has been abolished as of approximately 8 PM tonight.”

The nation was shocked. The way they experienced it, they woke up to read Cox’s claim that the president was refusing to obey a court order. Then they watched his press conference at 1.00 PM where he outlined his rightful claim for the tapes. Then they heard an 8.25 PM press conference saying that Cox, Richardson, and Ruckelshaus were all fired, and that the president had declared the Watergate investigation over. It was abundantly clear that Nixon had eliminated three men whom he was afraid of—what was he afraid of? What did he think they would discover if they had the tapes? And more importantly, would the president’s illegal, unconstitutional firing of the special prosecutor be allowed to stand? was the president above the law? Could he do whatever he wanted, no matter what? As commander in chief, if he committed a crime, did the American people “have no alternative” but to let him do it, and to quietly accept an imperial presidency?

The name “Saturday Night Massacre” may seem overdone—like the “Boston Massacre”, in which only five people died. But what was being massacred was the Constitution, separation of powers, and the rule of law that said that in the U.S. no one, no matter their position, is above the law. The coverage on the news that night reiterated this perception of danger:

John Chancellor, NBC News: Good evening. The country tonight is in the midst of what may be the most serious Constitutional crisis in its history. The President has fired the special Watergate prosecutor, Archibald Cox. Because of the President’s action, the attorney general has resigned. Elliott Richardson has quit, saying he cannot carry out Mr. Nixon’s instructions. Richardson’s deputy, William Ruckelshaus, has been fired.

Ruckelshaus refused, in a moment of Constitutional drama, to obey a presidential order to fire the special Watergate prosecutor. And half an hour after the special Watergate prosecutor had been fired, agents of the FBI, acting at the direction of the White House, sealed off the offices of the special prosecutor, the offices of the attorney general and the offices of the deputy attorney general.

All of this adds up to a totally unprecedented situation, a grave and profound crisis in which the President has set himself against his own attorney general and the Department of Justice. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

Nothing like this had ever happened before. Nixon had thrown down a gauntlet to the nation: you must accept my power to live above the law. I will not be questioned. How would the nation react?

 

And now back to the present, February 2018:

Just as members of our federal government rose up to save the Constitution and the United States in 1973, we must fight for our system of government, which explicitly says the president is not above the law. We, the people, do have “an alternative” if a president breaks the law—we impeach that president. Nixon’s actions posed “a grave and profound crisis”; so do Trump’s. How will the members of our federal government act in 2018?

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The Great American Experiment–a reminder

Posted on November 15, 2017. Filed under: American history, Bill of Rights, Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

It seems apropos to rerun this post as we look back on a year of the Trump administration. We originally ran it in 2008 when Barack Obama was first elected, and we re-ran it last year when Trump was elected. Perhaps we will run it every November, that great election month, to remind people of what is at stake each time they vote.

 

America is an experiment. From the time of its establishment as part of a New World in the late 1400s, the land that has become the United States of America has been a place where people came to experiment with doing things differently. It’s been a place to gamble, to see if you could be one of the lucky ones who became landowners or lawyers or independent merchants. You gambled on the weather, politics, your own skills, and your own ability to commit to the experiment of living in America, and being an American.

During the 18th century, the experiment deepened, as Americans began to speculate that they could form the first democratic nation in modern times. Intense experimentation went on from the 1760s to 1787, as Americans adapted and invented forms of government fit for the scope of their needs, the gaping hole of their inexperience, and the high and intense expectations for their future.

On and on went the experiment: could we create a strong and stable centralized government? Could we grow without destabilizing? Could we solve the problem of slavery? Could we truly create a melting pot in which to forge Americans out of peoples of all nations? Could we give women the vote? Could we accept Jewish people as true Americans? Could we desegregate? Could we assure civil rights regardless of sexuality?

America’s story is one of constantly tackling the big—the biggest—problems, ahead of everyone else, with very little to guide us but those founding principles of liberty and justice for all that nag at our conscience. And each time we’ve made progress, extending civil rights to more and more people, it’s been because that old spirit of taking a gamble, of performing the ultimate experiment, took over and led us to the right decision.

As we think today about what divides Americans, I think it boils down to the fact that some Americans no longer want to experiment. They want to close the lab down. We’ve gone far enough into the unknown, making it known, they say; now let’s stop—let’s even go backward. We were wrong to conduct some of our experiments in liberty, and that’s the source of all our problems. Gay people shouldn’t be treated equally. Black people shouldn’t run the country. Women shouldn’t hold high office. Muslims shouldn’t be granted habeas corpus.

Whenever one of those Americans talks about the problem with our country today, they talk about how we should be like we once were, back when white people who defined marriage as one man-one woman and were Protestant military veterans living in a small country town built this nation. They feel they are losing their birthright, their legacy—even when they don’t entirely fit that description given above.

But those Americans are wrong. What their ancestors really were was scientists. Experimenters. Radicals who always considered the impossible possible. To define those ancestral Americans as merely white or straight or Christian strips them of their most stunning feature, their near-supernatural qualities of optimism and defiance and willingness to go into the unknown and make it their home, to make the amazing the norm. They defied the status quo. That’s how they built America, the ideal that is represented by the Statue of Liberty.

Americans who want to end the experiment are few, but boisterous. They clamor at the national microphone. But Americans who know that there is no America without the experiment will keep at it, and they will persevere.

Sometimes we elect a president who is such an American, and his (so far only “his”) election is proof that the lab is still open, and that America in general will always be at the drawing board, expanding its concept of liberty and justice and equality until we finally fulfill the founding principles that created this nation so long ago.

Sometimes we elect a president who is not such an American—we elect someone from the loud minority who want to shut down the lab and restrict liberty and justice to some, not all. In that case, real Americans must redouble their efforts to restore our proper focus.

Whatever time you find yourself in, live up to your duty as an American, and keep the experiment going, not because it is easy, as one president once said, but because it is your birthright.

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Kneeling during the national anthem is patriotic

Posted on September 29, 2017. Filed under: Truth v. Myth, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

We’ve noticed a lot of people coming to the blog to read our post What does the United States national anthem mean? as more NFL players have been kneeling in silent protest during the anthem before games. Debate over this protest has focused on whether it is unpatriotic because it disrespects the flag.

What does our flag represent? In the Pledge of Allegiance, we say that we

pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

Yes, we skip the “under God” part, which was tacked on during the Cold War (see The Pledge of Allegiance at 60) but even if you include it, you see that when we salute the flag we are committing ourselves as citizens to the principles of unity, liberty, and justice for all. “I pledge allegiance to the flag because it represents a nation that is united in offering liberty and justice to all.”

The national anthem is sung at sports events while enormous flags are unfurled across the stadium or from the roof of the court. The flag is the symbol of the indivisible nation we are committing ourselves to support. This is a moment of good faith: the flag stands in for our country, and we honor it by promising to uphold its founding principles.

So the anthem is an entirely appropriate time and place to protest any violation of those founding principles of liberty and justice for all. In fact, it is the height of patriotism to say, “I’m not going to pay lip service to the flag by saying I give my allegiance to the principle of liberty and justice for all but then ignoring flagrant violations of that principle. I’m not going to pretend that what the flag stands for is not being systematically violated. I will not support a good faith gesture being made in bad faith.”

We disrespect the flag when we thoughtlessly salute it, when we salute it while ignoring the violations of our national principles, when we act like saluting the flag is patriotism. Singing the national anthem and saluting the flag are not in themselves patriotic acts. They can be, if they are performed with the serious intention of working to uphold the principles the flag and anthem stand for. But if we’re just mouthing words and waiting for the game to start, they are not patriotic. If we sing the words and put our hands over our hearts while doing nothing to fight for our country, that is not patriotic.

The flag and the anthem are not about supporting U.S. soldiers, as many people have come to believe over the past decade. They are not supposed to represent the military. They are not supposed to represent an ultimatum to hostile foreign nations. The flag and the anthem represent our founding principles of a people united in maintaining liberty and justice for each other in every way, in every place in this country. So kneeling during the anthem is not an insult to our military.

There are many ways to fight for America that don’t involve being a soldier. Whenever you fight for liberty and justice for all, you are protecting America. Sometimes that battle takes place in schools. Sometimes it takes place in courts of law. It can and does take place in business offices, factory floors, newspaper articles, playgrounds, restaurants, living rooms, and yes, sports arenas. Wherever you stand up for someone else’s civil rights, you are fighting to protect America.

And so when athletes take advantage of a national stage to nonviolently protest the unpunished persecution and murder of black Americans, that is appropriate. They are respecting the flag and our country by showing that the words we sing in the anthem and the hand we place over our heart should really mean something. They are holding us all accountable for living up to the pledge we all make.

The anthem is not just a feel-good moment. It’s serious. It’s a symbolic recommitment of every generation of Americans to the whole purpose of America, which is to be truly democratic, to offer life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all citizens, without malice, with liberty and justice for all. If that’s not being honored, it’s better to sit it out. Kneeling during the anthem is a powerful statement. No one does it lightly. It’s a red flag, a wake-up call to all Americans that there is an actual and serious violation of our national principles going on.

As one American said on the radio this morning, Just because you put on a uniform doesn’t mean you give up your right to freedom of speech. We would add that it doesn’t mean you give up your right to sound the alarm when our national principles are at risk. That’s what we call patriotism.

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Robert E. Lee was not a hero, white supremacists are not Americans

Posted on August 16, 2017. Filed under: Civil Rights, Civil War, Politics, Slavery, The Founders, Truth v. Myth, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , |

There is no need to be careful about this. Anyone who served in the armies of the Confederate States of America was a traitor to the United States; anyone who led those armies all the more so. They were part of an armed rebellion against the U.S., which is the definition of treason.

That in itself is enough. But the fact that Confederates were fighting to protect and advance slavery, to create a slave state, means their rebellion was not just political, against the political entity that was the United States, but ethical, moral, and philosophical. They specifically rebelled against the U.S. move to end slavery of black Americans, and just as American abolitionists and antislaveryites based their work to end slavery on moral principle enshrined in the Constitution—that “all men are created equal”–American proslaveryites based their work to continue and expand slavery on a rebellion against that American principle.

The Confederacy was explicitly founded to protect and promote slavery. Its leaders made absolutely no secret of that at the time (see Charles Dew’s Apostles of Disunion for all the evidence from primary sources that you need). As Confederate vice-president Alexander H. Stephens said in his famous “Cornerstone speech“,

…the new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. [Thomas] Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. …The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. …Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind — from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics; their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just — but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails.

I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal. [our emphasis]

We quote Stephens at nauseating length to show that the Confederacy was explicitly dedicated to the anti-American principle that non-white people are biologically inferior to white people. The Confederates themselves expressed it this way, as a rejection of and rebellion against the Founders’ plan and hope that slavery would inevitably end the United States because it was “wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically”, and the United States would not tolerate this because the nation was founded on the principle of equality.

Why does this matter now, on August 16, 2017? Because Stephens still has followers in this country. The Confederacy still has supporters. There are still people living in this country who do not support our Constitution or our law, or any of our founding principles. They call themselves Americans, and most were born here, but they are not. Americans are dedicated to the founding principles of the United States of America, which include the premise that all men are created equal. Anyone who fights this is not American.

And the man currently holding the title of President of the United States is one of them. Donald Trump is no American. He is, clearly, a Confederate president, taking up the torch from Alexander Stephens. In his press conference after a white supremacist/KKK/Nazi rally in Charlottesville, VA in which one woman was killed while protesting against the racist rally, Trump said that Americans protesting fascism were just as bad, and in some ways worse, than Nazis posing as Americans, and he took the fascist side:

What about the people of the alt-left, as they came charging at the alt-right, as you call them? [shouts] What about the fact that they came charging, they came charging with clubs in their hands swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do.

As far as I’m concerned, that was a horrible, horrible day… wait a minute; I’m not finished. I’m not finished, fake news. That was a horrible day. …I will tell you, I watched this closely, more closely than any of you people, and you had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now. I think there’s blame on both sides and I don’t have any doubt about it and you don’t have any doubt either.

…there were people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. …the following day it looked they had had some rough, bad people–neo-Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them, but you had a lot of people in that group who were there to innocently protest…

So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?

Our quotes for all but the last paragraph were taken from video on Fox News’ website. So far as we saw the Fox News coverage did not include the last statement. Their commentator did describe these statements by Trump as part of a “brave and honest press conference, he pulled no punches… brutally honest, maybe too honest.”

Honest. We can’t help thinking of Stephens gloating that the premise that all people are created equal had finally been debunked as a fantasy, as fanaticism. If it’s “honest” to say that American protesting fascism are the criminals, and the fascists are the true Americans, innocent Americans, then we have entered a second civil war—or a second Confederate States of America, brought into being without a shot fired in official war.

For over 150 years, the citizens of the United States perpetrated a dangerous wrong by allowing statues of traitors who fought against the U.S. politically and morally, traitors who were dedicated to the lie that all people are not created equal, to stand. “Oh, it’s not about slavery,” people would say; “it’s just their culture.” We once heard someone say there are no statues to Nazi leaders in Germany. Why are there memorials to Confederate leaders in the United States? Now we see the result of 150 years of dedicated fighting after Appomattox by people who will never be real Americans, and a concentrated effort over the last 50 years, since the Civil Rights movement, to revive the Confederate States of America.

Needless to say, we can’t give in. While Trump has basically invited and urged Nazis to show up when the statue of Jackson is taken down, and has given new hope and excitement to Nazis in America, we Americans have to fight. It’s much harder to fight a guerrilla war than it was to go into actual battle during the Civil War. Right now the best path is to meet the Nazis wherever they go, and not remain a silent majority.

Every nation has a fraction of its population that urges fascism and hatred. Sometimes they manage to monopolize the microphone and take up more space in the media than their numbers justify. Now is such a time in the U.S. Now is the time to muscle these people back into the shadows if we can’t drive them out of the country. That’s the “brutally honest” truth.

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Medicaid is in the Constitution

Posted on July 20, 2017. Filed under: Politics, Truth v. Myth, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

That’s a bold statement, and it’s inaccurate in the sense that if you read our Constitution you won’t find the word “Medicaid” in it. Medicaid is a federal program created in 1965 as part of a series of amendments to the Social Security Act of 1935. Here’s a quick, neutral definition of Medicaid from Wikipedia:

“Under the program, the federal government provides matching funds to states to enable them to provide medical assistance to residents who meet certain eligibility requirements. The objective is to help states provide medical assistance to residents whose incomes and resources are insufficient to meet the costs of necessary medical services. Medicaid serves as the nation’s primary source of health insurance coverage for low-income populations.

States are not required to participate. Those that do must comply with federal Medicaid laws under which each participating state administers its own Medicaid program, establishes eligibility standards, determines the scope and types of services it will cover, and sets the rate of payment. Benefits vary from state to state, and because someone qualifies for Medicaid in one state, it does not mean they will qualify in another.”

Millions of Americans rely on Medicaid (and the related Medicare) for medical care. All of them are poor–officially living below the poverty threshold as defined by the federal government. In 2017, for instance, the poverty threshold for a household of four people is $32,300. Most Americans who receive Medicaid are elderly. Many are disabled, many are veterans, many are children.

Medicaid, then, is a federal safety net like Social Security that is meant to maintain a basic standard of living for the poorest, oldest, and youngest Americans.

When the Affordable Healthcare Act (Obamacare) was passed, it required Americans to have health insurance. If someone lives below the poverty line, Medicaid pays for that insurance. To make this happen, the federal government offered all states more money for Medicaid.

18 states, all but two with Republican governors or legislatures, refused to take this extra funding for Medicaid. Some representatives of these states claimed they wanted to draft their own Medicaid “reform” legislation; others, like Maine’s governor LePage, claimed it was just an attempt by the Democratic party to create a “massive increase in welfare expansion.”

That word—“welfare”—has become a charged word in the U.S. Like “liberal”, which means “generous”, welfare is a positive word that has been given a negative meaning by its opponents. “Welfare” means “the good fortune, health, happiness, prosperity, etc., of a person [or] group”. You can see its English root pretty clearly: “fare” means “to experience good or bad fortune”; if you fare well, that’s good. Then you have welfare. We maintain this understanding when we tell people “farewell” when they leave on a trip. We want to wish them a good experience, safety, and happiness.

But conservatives who oppose any government spending on social safety nets turned our federal welfare system into a whipping boy in the 1980s, under President Reagan. The infamous “welfare queen” Reagan wowed audiences with—a woman who supposedly bilked the federal system to the tune of $150,00 a year—was used by conservatives to damn the program. They said people on welfare were lazy (code word for “black”), and that all hard-working, middle-class Americans (code words for “white”) were paying to support these people who laid around eating candy and watching TV all day. Why should they go get jobs? They were living the good life on our dime. If we got rid of welfare (shorthand for all federal safety net program, from food stamps to subsidized school lunches to Head Start), the conservatives said, all of those people would have to go out and get jobs, and we’d all be better off.

To help make this happen, Reagan’s administrations cut funding to the programs, and subsequent Republican lawmakers and presidents continued this trend. They also began cutting taxes sharply under George W. Bush. With less money coming into the federal government, less money could go to states to support programs like Medicaid and SNAP (food stamps). States began to cut services, often by making the poverty threshold lower and lower.

These cuts in funding exacerbated the problems of the poor who depended on them. They also coincided with stagnating incomes, a stubbornly low minimum wage, and a forced shift of workers to part-time employment by companies that did not want to pay full-time wages or offer full-time benefits to make the traditionally poor even poorer, and to move working people who used to make enough money to live on into the poverty range, where they need federal assistance.

Despite the fact that “the poor” includes white people, people who are working, children, veterans, and elderly people who worked all their lives, conservatives today continue to slam “welfare” as a trap set by devious immigrants, blacks, and criminals to trick honorable working white people into giving away their money.

Welfare. Despite all of this recent effort to make it a bad word and an even worse idea, welfare actually is in the Constitution. Let’s revisit that famous Preamble (and sing it in our heads to the Schoolhouse Rock melody):

We, the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

“Promote the general Welfare”: that’s written into the fabric of our national identity, the purpose of our nation. One of our fundamental reasons for being is to ensure that every American has the full opportunity to experience the Blessings of Liberty. This is an idea that was first expressed by English settlers in 1630, when Puritan John Winthrop said, in what we call the “City on a Hill” speech,

…we must be knit together in this work as one man, we must entertain each other in brotherly Affection, we must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities, for the supply of others necessities, we must uphold a familiar Commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality, we must delight in each other, make others Conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labour, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our Commission and Community in the work, our Community as members of the same body, so shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace, the Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us, as his own people and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways…

As we note in our original post, this is a beautiful passage, reminiscent of the Sermon on the Mount in its focus on mercy, kindness, sharing, and other selfless qualities. The Puritans will not succeed by harrying out the sinner or otherwise smiting evil, but by loving each other, caring for each other, and “abridging our selves of our superfluities, for the supply of others necessities” (that is, there will be equality of wealth, with no one living in luxury while others starve). They will delight in each other,  making others’ conditions their own, and they will do all this to create a natural community of faith.

That’s what America was still dedicated to in 1787 when the Constitution was written and ratified by popular vote. We dedicated ourselves to giving some of our own wealth to provide for others. We dedicated ourselves to “liberality”, meaning generosity. We dedicated ourselves to Community, to seeing ourselves as members of the same body, living in a unity of spirit.

In short, we committed ourselves to the “general Welfare”, as the Constitution says. Americans must remember this in an age where we are urged to believe that “rugged individualism” is our true creed, and urged to say “no one helped me so why should I help anyone else?” and “I take care of my own.” Medicaid, food stamps, subsidized school breakfasts and lunches, Social Security, and everything else slighted now as “welfare” are really avenues toward establishing and maintaining the general Welfare our Founders envisioned. No nation is rich if it refuses to create equality of opportunity for all its citizens. No nation ends poverty claiming it is a trick played on the nation by the poor. No nation but the United States made generosity a cornerstone of its political outlook and purpose. Let’s remember that, and live up to our own creed.

 

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The Obama farewell address: advice from another world?

Posted on May 16, 2017. Filed under: American history, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , |

At long last we wrap up the close reading of President Obama’s farewell address that we began on January 13! We, like most of the nation, have been waylaid and distracted many times since then by the almost daily, certainly weekly news bulletins from Washington alerting us to almost every conceivable type of crisis or question or misstep arising from the Trump administration.

Five months into that administration, we begin to wonder if it serves any purpose to follow all those bulletins. What good does listening to accounts of our Constitution being violated, our national commitment to making liberty and justice for all a reality being ridiculed and undermined, or our president acting like a king do? What action can we take? Do marches work in the long term? Petitions? Shouting matches at town hall meetings? Jokes on late-night talk shows?

One of those things does work, and it’s nice that it’s the town hall meetings. On this site that so often discusses the Puritans, creators of the American town hall  and town hall meeting, it’s good to be able to join with our last president in his optimistic view of the future by recommending a return to something the Puritans valued deeply: taking right action.

In this case, it’s political action. As those Americans who believe our system of government—that any system, almost any kind of government—is the problem and not the solution, a hindrance at best and a trap at worst, attempt to dismantle it, we have to step up to keep it alive. Participate in local government. Vote, attend town hall meetings, go to candidate information sessions, learn how your government is supposed to work. Keep track of your state government. Write or call the people you elect to get information on how they plan to vote on upcoming legislation. Vote. Get referenda or other popular, grass-roots legislative change engines running if you need to. Do the same for your federal government.

This can be exhausting. Many Puritan men who were full church members and thus entitled to vote and run for political office chose never to become freemen and do so. (Freeman was their term for a full [male] citizen.) They knew how much time it took. Going to meetings after work is tiring. People with families may struggle to do it. Taking time out of the weekend is challenging.

But we were never so desperately in need of our democracy as we are now. So answer the call to right action. Be represented in our representative democracy. Choose the optimism Obama sent as his final message, the message that says if we remain inside our government, if we are its engine, we keep it alive and we keep it honest. Don’t let those Americans who break the government and then say we should throw it out because it’s broken achieve that self-fulfilling prophecy. Don’t wait for Democrats to retake the House and Senate; this is just an aggravation of the partisanship that’s killing us. We need to find ways to unite. Cross as many bridges as you can to create unity behind the real American identity, which is ever-expanding justice, liberty, and the common good.

We’ll finish with a quote from John Adams to motivate us:

There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.

Go unite our states.

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