Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Voices from the Past

"But we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy."
- House Leader Nacny Pelosi on the Health Care Bill
I've not mentioned for awhile the lectures I've been listening to while commuting to work. There hasn't been a subject (until today) that prompted a post. This morning The History of Literary Journalism by William McKeen opened with examples of citizen "journalists" covering the US westward migration in the mid-1800's and pointed out that some of these individuals were quite perceptive and well informed despite the lack of mass media and mass communication. There was a colorful but accurate description of the California Gold Rush and another written by an American Indian who eerily predicted the future of his people and their treatment by the US government.

This theme of accurate voices from the past was repeated when I read If You Want To Understand What Makes This Recession Continue from Clayton Cramer's Blog. I like Clayton's byline for his blog, "Conservative. Idaho. Software engineer. Historian." Sounds like a kindred soul since I'm Idahoan by birth for three generations, conservative, a software engineer and love history.

Clayton posts several quotes that perfectly describe present conditions...
It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow.
...
great injury results from an unstable government. The want of confidence in the public councils damps every useful undertaking, the success and profit of which may depend on a continuance of existing arrangements.
To this I'll add another quote from the same source
It is a misfortune incident to republican government, though in a less degree than to other governments, that those who administer it may forget their obligations to their constituents, and prove unfaithful to their important trust. ... [There is a] propensity of all single and numerous assemblies to yield to the impulse of sudden and violent passions, and to be seduced by factious leaders into intemperate and pernicious resolutions.
What is the source of these quotes? Some modern conservative pundit with a thesaurus? Nope. The writer was James Madison in a 1788 NY newspaper editorial. Even within his own lifetime James Madison was overshadowed by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson; we forget that Madison was the "Father of the Constitution", "Father of the Bill of Rights", negotiated the Louisana Purchase as Jeffersons' Secretary of State, was the fourth President of the United States in 1809, and defended the country during the War of 1812. Today the name Madison lives on as Madison Square Garden in NYC and in Dolly Madison snacks (his wife Dolly was famous as First Lady hostesss).

The editorial above became Federalist 62 and is part of the Federalist Papers which are unfortunately little discussed in public schools today - too advanced (?) for grade school and too "conservative" for today's college professors. In 1788 Madison defended the newly drafted US Constitution against opposition to convince States to ratify it to replace the Articles of Confederation. This Constitution was full of radical ideas for government that had never been tried before. Madison, Alexander Hamilton & John Jay wrote 85 editorials explaining why they made the choices they did during the Constitutional Convention. This collection of essays were collected in 1788 and published as "The Federalist; or, the New Constitution" and is priceless for explaining the original intent of the founding fathers.

In Federalist 62 Madison explains the purpose of the Senate. Conservatives feared that the people (and their reps in the House of Congress) would be reckless and pass bad laws that favored current fads over good governance. The Senate was created to add wisdom to the process of law. It was a smaller body of older leaders with a higher age requirement than the House. Senators would have legal experience as compared to the House that "lies in a want of due acquaintance with the objects and principles of legislation." Madison expected a high turn-over rate in the House with amateur pundits elected by the people - he did not foresee district gerrymandering and career Congressmen.

The Senators were appointed by the States for a longer term (6 years vs 2) to shield them from public whims. We lost an important check on Federal government when we switched to public elections of Senators:
Another advantage accruing from this ingredient in the constitution of the Senate is, the additional impediment it must prove against improper acts of legislation. No law or resolution can now be passed without the concurrence, first, of a majority of the people [the House], and then, of a majority of the States [meaning the Senate].
Today Senators represent the people of their state instead of the government of their state, As a result States have been losing their rights as the Federal government assumes ever greater power.
Bottom Line

Madison ends Federalist 62 by explaining what will happen if the government persists in passing arbitrary and incomprehensible law,
But the most deplorable effect of all is that diminution of attachment and reverence which steals into the hearts of the people, towards a political system which betrays so many marks of infirmity, and disappoints so many of their flattering hopes. No government, any more than an individual, will long be respected without being truly respectable; nor be truly respectable, without possessing a certain portion of order and stability.

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