How The Democratic & Republican Parties Have Changed Throughout United States History & The Effects On Congress – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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Americans are deeply polarized in this country but often incorrectly attribute it to growing partisanship and the strength of political parties. In fact, the opposite is true. Some scholars have argued that the growing polarization in Congress and in politics more generally is a symptom of a declining two-party system and identification of Americans with one of the two major parties.

Political parties have experienced a long-term decline in our political system and society over the past forty or fifty years. During the middle of the twentieth century, political parties were strong and played an important role in representing broad swaths of the American population, the majority of whom registered and identified with one of the major parties even if they did not always agree with every position.

However, Americans have increasingly identified themselves as independents and not beholden to one party or the other.  The phrase that people use in conversation that they vote for the candidate rather than the party is revealing and indicative of a very important sea change in American politics. Moreover, primaries have replaced the proverbial smoke-filled rooms with party bosses who exercised a great deal of power. Special interests often control a great deal more money than do party organizations who are unable to control party members the way they did formerly that encouraged party loyalty.

Therefore, the lens through which we view politics today is really often clouded by liberal and conservative ideologies and our uncompromising allegiance to them rather than Republican and Democratic lenses. The unfortunate result for our political system is gridlock and an inability to compromise to accomplish reasonable laws and policies that are supported by most Americans rather than just one side. Perhaps even more unfortunate has been the inability of Americans to speak to each other constructively, if at all, about politics without name-calling, labeling, or abiding by a modicum of civility, particularly on social media.

The result of weak political parties for Congress and weak partisan leadership has been quite significant. Congress has become more decentralized as the power of the old committee chairs has been greatly weakened. Representatives are often beholden to their own districts or special interests and lobbyists more than their political party. How many people would seriously argue that Speakers of the House John Boehner or Paul Ryan could control the members of their own party? They were party leaders who struggled to contain the more ideologically-driven members of their party as much as they contended against the rival party within Congress and in the White House.

The ironic solution for gridlock in Congress and an inability to compromise for the common good may be the strengthening of political parties rather than decreasing their influence. However, with the rise of television, the internet, YouTube, and Twitter over the past fifty years and structural changes that challenged the organization and strength of parties (not to mention increasing distrust in party institutions), it does not seem that parties will recover and that our ideological polarization may continue and even increase.

Tony Williams is a Constituting America Fellow and a Senior Teaching Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute. He is the author of six books including the newly-published Hamilton: An American Biography.

Treaty-Making Power Of Congress – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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In the early republic, the founding generation took the treaty-making provisions of the Constitution seriously even as they sought to define the parameters of those constitutional powers. As the first president, George Washington, in particular, tried to set the right constitutional precedents and observe the proper balance of powers with relation to the legislative branch. Although the battles over the treaty-making authority could be highly contentious, the fights took place within a constitutional framework and helped establish the principles of American foreign policy.

The treaty-making power was derived in part from the experiences of the successes and failures of the Continental Congress during the war and the Articles of Confederation. Upon declaring independence, the Americans sent commissioners to various nations and achieved its most notable success with military and commercial treaties with France in 1778. At the end of the war, the peace commissioners secured a 1783 treaty with Great Britain recognizing American independence. The precedent was set for treaties negotiated by a few individuals subject to approval by the people’s representatives in Congress. In the wake of the war, however, several states challenged national authority and sought to make their own treaties due to state sovereignty.

The treaty-making power was additionally derived from the principles of the American founding and incorporated into the Constitution.  In Article I, section 10, the Constitution banned states from making treaties because it was a power of national sovereignty. In the executive power of Article II, section 2, the Constitution authorized the president to make treaties: “He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur.”  This provided for the energy and dispatch in the executive branch to make treaties, subject to the approval of a supermajority of representatives of the states in the deliberative and wise upper house less subject to popular passions. In addition to the principle of checks and balances, this supported federalism by allowing the states to have a say in approving or rejecting treaties.

If the constitutional boundaries of the treaty-making power were relatively clear-cut, they were anything but clear in the partisan squabbles of the new nation.  Washington was a scrupulous constitutionalist and tried to follow it to the letter when he brought instructions for a commission to make peace with the Creek Indians to the Senate personally in the summer of 1789.  When the Senate bickered over the details and sought to appoint a time-consuming committee to study the matter, Washington fumed, “This defeats every purpose of my coming here.” The discontented president stormed off and would later submit completed treaties to the Senate for their consideration after the fact.

After a great struggle in 1793 over whether the president or Congress could issue a proclamation of neutrality in the wars raging across Europe (settled in favor of the president, while Congress retained its power to declare war), the treaty-making power became the center of controversy over the Jay Treaty in 1795 and 1796.  John Jay negotiated a treaty with Great Britain to stop the impressment of American sailors and resolve several unsettled issues from the Revolutionary War.  While Jay wrangled as many concessions as he could on the latter, he failed on the former.

In the spring of 1795, Washington reluctantly submitted the treaty to the Senate and asked that it be considered in secret.  The Senate narrowly ratified the treaty by a vote of 20-10 only after an unpopular clause limiting American trade with the British West Indies was removed.  After Washington signed the treaty, the House tried to control the treaty and demanded Jay’s papers from the negotiations.  Washington refused and asserted executive privilege. The House then tried to block the treaty with its appropriations power, but then finally passed the money to implement the treaty in early 1796.

The Pinckney Treaty with Spain was also ratified during the Washington administration and gave the United States access to the Mississippi River and duty-free trade with New Orleans that was much less controversial.

President John Adams dispatched three negotiators to France when that country seized hundreds of American vessels, but foreign minister Talleyrand demanded substantial bribes and loans to the country.  Outraged Americans demanded war and after mobilizing for the Quasi-War in the late 1790s, Adams also tried for peace and his negotiating team secured the Convention of 1800 that settled the issues between the two countries and negated the 1778 alliance.

President Thomas Jefferson shared Washington’s constitutional scruples when deliberating over the purchase of the Louisiana Territory.  He was greatly concerned that the president did not have the constitutional authority to purchase land and considered asking for a constitutional amendment.  Finally, he instead reasonably found the authority under the treaty-making power, and the Senate quickly agreed and ratified the popular purchase that doubled the size of the United States.

In the new nation, the standard of diplomacy was generally the constitutional procedure of the executive signing formal treaties subject to Senate ratification by a two-thirds vote.  A century later, even President Woodrow Wilson submitted the highly controversial Treaty of Versailles to the Senate despite the fierce opposition he anticipated from “irreconcilable” Republicans, and it went down to predictable defeat.  In recent times, however, presidents have evaded partisan opposition and defeat by making agreements not subject to the same constitutional standard and have contributed to the “imperial presidency” by avoiding the checks and balances that mark constitutional government.

Tony Williams is a Constituting America Fellow and a Senior Teaching Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute. He is the author of six books including the newly-published Hamilton: An American Biography.

Robert Taft (1889-1953) – State Representative, U.S. Senator From Ohio; Son Of President William Howard Taft – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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Leadership styles can often impact how political leaders and statesmen are remembered. FDR and Reagan were excellent communicators and exhibited great charm, Harry Truman was a man of the people and tough, JFK wrapped himself up in the myth of Camelot, Lyndon Johnson was a political operator and a master of the Senate.

Senator Robert A. Taft had none of these characteristics and is largely forgotten today. He seemed distant because he was often a master of facts and statistics rather than a masterful politician.  As a result, he could seem cold and aloof.  Yet, he was an important political figure of the mid-twentieth century whose career and political philosophy helped define the Republican Party of that era.

Taft was a scion of a leading Cincinnati family and the son of William Howard Taft who served as a Governor of the Philippines, Secretary of War, President, and later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  They established a minor political dynasty, though not quite that of the Roosevelts, Kennedys, or Bushes.

Taft was raised in a life of affluence in Cincinnati and around the country and world. He may have inherited many opportunities but worked hard to succeed in becoming the valedictorian at Yale University and Harvard Law School.  He became a corporate lawyer, married, and engaged in local philanthropic activities. He never tried to win over friends and political allies with a congenial personality but was more interested in a good character and strong work ethic.

World War I was a defining event in Taft’s life and his political philosophy. He opposed American intervention but wanted to defend American neutral rights and national security. He served with Republican Herbert Hoover in the Food Administration during the war and the American Relief Administration in Europe helping to feed the shattered and starving populations there after the war.  During his time in Europe, he developed an antipathy to becoming involved in European affairs and hated both the collective ideologies of bolshevism and fascism that took hold in Europe.  Above all, he opposed the unlimited global commitment that seemed to come with the Treaty of Versailles and League of Nations. He developed a lifelong aversion to the crusading foreign policy spirit of Wilsonianism to “make the world safe for democracy.”

Despite being a relative introvert, Taft ran for public office out of a sense of family and personal duty to serve the public.  He served in the Ohio state legislature from 1920 to 1926, where he was interested in tax reform and resisted the influence of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Great Depression that gripped the nation and the New Deal that FDR conceived to battle the economic crisis continued to shape Taft’s thinking and serving in public office. He opposed the New Deal political philosophy that expanded the federal welfare state and powers of executive agencies. He thought that the New Deal was substituting “an autocracy of government for a government of law.” He feared that the growth of government would negatively impinge upon personal liberty, upset the balance of federalism, and create a massive state with huge budget deficits.

Nevertheless, Taft was a midwestern conservative Republican who was often equally suspicious of Wall Street as he was of Washington, D.C.  While he opposed massive regulatory intrusion in the private market and confiscatory taxes, he fought against monopoly and was not a believer in laissez-faire.  He supported reasonable regulation, higher taxes (and lower spending) to balance budgets, and a basic social safety net.

Taft was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1938, and quickly established himself as a hardworking, if somewhat dull and lackluster, member. Characteristically, he studied hard to become an expert on the issues rather than spending time making backroom deals and pressing the flesh. He served on several committees including the Education and Labor Committee.

As tyrannies marched their war machines across Asia, Africa, and Europe during the 1930s, the New Deal gave way to foreign policy issues.  Unsurprisingly, Taft adopted a thoughtful and relatively flexible isolationist stance.  He did not want to get involved in the coming war, but supported preparedness to defend American shores. He supported selling other countries arms so that they could defend themselves without American intervention. He feared that the wily FDR was leading the country into war and opposed the peacetime draft because of its impact on individual liberty.

Taft supported American entry into World War II after Pearl Harbor and the German declaration of war.  During the war, he was just as concerned about the rise of the warfare state with its budget deficits, wage and price controls, huge government spending, and threats to civil liberties as he was in peacetime with the New Deal welfare state.  Taft consistently defended the principles of limited government to protect individual liberty in a democracy.

During the war, Senator Taft had presidential aspirations but always seemed to lack the political skills necessary to win the Republican nomination or attain the highest office.  Moreover, FDR was simply too popular as commander-in-chief even if Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats began chipping away at the New Deal electoral coalition.

Taft entered the postwar world with his persistent doubts about liberal internationalism and government programs at home. Taft opposed the United Nations much as he had the League of Nations and was a voice against American commitments abroad during the early Cold War. He did not want to impose democracy on any nation or tell them how to govern their foreign policy decisions. Indeed, he was a strong anti-imperialist who warned against America putting “Our fingers…in every pie” with unlimited global interventions.

In 1947, Taft was the co-sponsor of the Taft-Hartley Act that is synonymous with his historical reputation.  Contrary to historical opinion, he was not antilabor and even supported the right to strike.  Even President Truman called for controls on strikes and federal power to intervene during a wave of postwar strikes across the nation.  Taft’s expertly guided his bill through Congress.  It banned the closed shop in which workers were forced to join the union as a condition of employment, banned secondary boycotts, and allowed both employers and unions to seek federal injunctions.  Truman vetoed the bill, but the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress after the 1946 elections, and overrode the veto.

After his reelection for a third term in the Senate, Taft reached the height of his power as he nearly won the Republican presidential nomination in 1952 and was elected Senate majority leader. True to his principles, he denounced Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist smear tactics and American intervention to save the French war effort in Vietnam. However, in 1953, he discovered he had cancer and was dead within the year.

Taft was known as “Mr. Republican” because of his allegiance to limited government at home and a non-interventionist foreign policy that represented mainstream Republican thinking during the mid-twentieth century.  While not the most gregarious politician, he was a well-respected, diligent statesman who dedicated his life to an ideal of public service.

Tony Williams is a Constituting America Fellow and a Senior Teaching Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute. He is the author of six books including the newly-published Hamilton: An American Biography.

 

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Henry Cabot Lodge Senate Debate Of 1919 & The Treaty Of Versailles – Guest Essayist Tony Williams

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“Breaking the Heart of the World”  –  Henry Cabot Lodge and Constitutional Objections to the Treaty of Versailles

Background

World War I was fought from 1914-1918 and claimed the lives of nearly 9.5 million combatants.  The United States entered the war in April, 1917, when Congress voted to declare war based upon President Woodrow Wilson’s war message arguing for American intervention with the expansive and idealistic foreign policy goal to “make the world safe for democracy.”  The armistice was signed in November, 1918, and the war concluded on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of that month.

The Allies of Great Britain, France, and Italy sought a punitive peace against Germany and blamed that nation for starting the war.  President Wilson, on the other hand, argued in his “Fourteen Points” for a lenient peace settlement that would prevent future wars by promoting international freedoms and self-determination.  At the core of his proposal was destroying the old balance-of-power diplomacy by establishing a League of Nations that would help prevent war through deliberation as well as an Article X that would commit member nations to go to war to stop an “aggressor nation.”

On November 19, 1919, the Senate was abuzz with activity from an early hour since all observers expected a critical debate and vote to take place after a twelve-hour debate the previous day. Spectators flooded the gallery, jockeying for a good vantage point to view the historic event.  Members of the press eagerly awaited news to report for their newspapers and spoke to their contacts about what to expect.  The Senators gradually entered the chamber and exchanged pleasantries in a civil manner before the day’s vigorous debate ensued.  Most eyes focused on sixty-eight-year-old Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge.

The Senate was considering the Treaty of Versailles.  The Senators did not disappoint the spectators and debated the treaty through lunch and dinner. After a ten-hour marathon debate in which they heard the arguments of their supporters and opponents, the Senators prepared to vote on the treaty.  President Woodrow Wilson needed an affirmative two-thirds vote according to the Constitution to win ratification of the treaty he had personally negotiated for six months in France.  On the first vote, the Senators rejected the treaty with reservations by a vote of 55-39.  Another vote was taken on the treaty without reservations as the Wilson administration wanted and it was also defeated by a nearly identical vote of 53-38.

Lodge had reason to be satisfied with the defeat of the treaty.  He was furious when President Wilson did not consult with him in his position as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before heading to Paris.  Moreover, Wilson had made blatantly partisan appeals in the congressional elections of 1918 in which Republicans had won control of both houses and Lodge became the Senate Majority Leader.  Wilson also did not include any Republicans on the peace delegation.

President Wilson had traveled to France to make peace in December, 1918, and Lodge questioned Wilson’s idealistic goals by asserting that the treaty should only focus on making it “impossible for Germany to break out again upon the world with a war of conquest.”  The president briefly returned briefly in February, 1919, and on the evening of February 26, Senator Lodge and other members of the Foreign Relations Committee attended a dinner at the White House.  Lodge sat impassively while the President spoke about a League of Nations to keep the peace.  Lodge did not like what he heard.  He peppered the president with a series of questions, and the answers confirmed many of Lodge’s fears that Article X of the League of Nations in the treaty would commit the United States to a war against any aggressor and bypass the constitutional requirement of a congressional declaration of war.  After the dinner, Lodge told the media, “We learned nothing,” meaning that nothing new was presented.  He was opposed to the United States being forced to “guarantee the territorial integrity and political independence of every nation on earth.”

Lodge believed in American constitutional principles and not committing U.S. troops to every conflict around the world.  He was not opposed to a postwar treaty or even to a League of Nations, but he could not abide international commitments that violated the Constitution.  He had the integrity to speak courageously and consistently to oppose the treaty with an international body that would compel America to go to war.

On the evening of Sunday, March 2, Lodge invited two other senators to his home to draft a resolution for their fellow senators to sign expressing their opposition to the League of Nations.  Thirty-nine Republicans would sign the resolution and even some Democrats would express support.

On March 3, Lodge gave an important speech expressing his opposition to the League of Nations.   Two weeks later, Lodge spoke in Boston and focused his attention on opposing Article X for violating American sovereignty, Congress’s prerogative to declare war, and the danger  that Americans would be forced “to send the hope of their families, the hope of the nation, the best of our youth, forth into the world on that errand [to stop aggressor nations].”  He continued, “I want to keep America as she has been – not isolated, not prevent her from joining other nations for these great purposes – but I wish her to be master of her fate.”  In the Senate, Lodge made sure that any new members of the Foreign Relations Committee were opposed to the League of Nations.

When President Wilson returned to the United States with the signed Treaty of Versailles, he broke with precedent and presented the treaty to the Senate in person.  As the president walked into the chamber with the bulky treaty under his arm, Lodge joked with Wilson and asked, “Mr. President, can I carry the treaty for you?” Wilson retorted, “Not on your life.”  It was funny but revealed a truth that Lodge was the Senator who would determine the fate of the treaty and that Wilson would not entrust it to anyone and not accept any changes.  During his address, President Wilson asked the Senate rhetorically, “Dare we reject it and break the heart of the world?”

In August, Lodge reiterated to the Senate that Article X violated the principles of the Constitution.  He stated that no American soldier or sailor could be sent overseas to fight a war “except by the constitutional authorities of the United States.”  In addition, Lodge thought that the United States could not fight in every war around the globe and only needed to protect American interests.  He said, “Our first ideal is our country . . . . We would not have our country’s vigor exhausted or her moral force abated, by everlasting meddling and muddling in every quarrel, great and small which affects the world.”

President Wilson had probably suffered a small stroke while in he was negotiating in Paris, and his health troubles caused him to be uncompromising.  In September, Wilson further angered Lodge and the other opponents by taking the case for the League of Nations directly to the American people on a train-stop speaking tour.  That tour was soon cut short when the president suffered a massive, debilitating stroke on October 2 back at the White House that incapacitated him for months.  When the vote on his beloved League of Nations and Treaty of Versailles took place in the Senate, the president could not even get out of bed and walk.

Throughout the debate over the Treaty of Versailles and League of Nations, Senator Lodge stood firmly for the American Constitution and its principles.  He did support world peace and hoped to avert another world war, but he would not sacrifice American principles in an attempt to achieve it.  He sought to do what was right according to the Constitution.

Tony Williams is a Constituting America Fellow and a Senior Teaching Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute. He is the author of six books including the newly-published Hamilton: An American Biography.

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Freedom Of Speech Within Congressional Debates: John Quincy Adams & The Gag Rule, 1840s – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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“Am I gagged?” –  John Quincy Adams and His Struggle Against Slavery and the Gag Rule

In December 1835, Massachusetts Representative William Jackson presented a petition to end slavery and the domestic slave trade in the District of Columbia where Congress had constitutional authority over slavery. Outraged southern representatives protested any consideration of the provocative petition. They felt that abolitionists had insulted southern institutions by sending hundreds of thousands of anti-slavery pamphlets through the mail to the South. South Carolinian James Henry Hammond complained he would not “sit there and see the rights of the Southern People assaulted day after day, by the ignorant fanatics.” Many southerners defended their “peculiar institution” against the barrage of assaults and developed the idea that slavery was a “positive good” that was beneficial for slaves, masters, and the country because it preserved a natural order rooted in the inequality of the races. They blocked abolitionist literature from reaching southern states and were preparing to block consideration of any abolitionist petitions in Congress.

John Quincy Adams was an unlikely member of the House of Representatives. He was a statesman and a former one-term president who had decided it would hardly be a demotion to represent the people in the Congress. Elected for the first time in 1830, he would eventually serve nine terms in the House and became a firm advocate for justice, constitutional rights, and natural rights.

In February 1836, South Carolinian Henry Laurens Pinckney offered a resolution stating that the House of Representatives would table any petition mentioning slavery and ban any discussion or referral to committees. In effect, the resolution was a “gag rule” that would prevent the reception and consideration of any petition protesting slavery. In May, the House soon passed the resolution by a vote of 117 to 68. Adams immediately rose from his seat to protest the gag rule.  When shouted down by colleagues and not recognized by the Speaker of the House, James Polk, Adams was exasperated and yelled, “Am I gagged?”  He argued that the gag rule was a “direct violation of the Constitution of the United States, the rules of this House, and the rights of my constituents.”  He declared the gag rule a threat to free, deliberative government: “The freedom of debate has been stifled in this House to a degree far beyond anything that ever has happened since the existence of the Constitution.”

While he did not embrace radical abolitionism, Adams did think that slavery was a grave moral evil that contradicted the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.  For Adams, the right to petition was essential to republican self-government by the consent of the governed and was a sacred, traditional right.  He asserted, “The right of petition . . . is essential to the very existence of government; it is the right of the people over the Government; it is their right, and they may not be deprived of it.”  Adams would persist in battling the gag rule and defending the just cause of a right to petition for the rights of others.

In January 1837, the House renewed the gag rule, and Adams quickly protested the rule by introducing hundreds of petitions including those from women and even free blacks and slaves.  The southerners in the House were irate and declared their honor insulted.  The House moved to censure (a formal reprimand) Adams for his supposed outrages.  Adams seized the opportunity to attack the gag rule and defend the right of petition.  It belonged not merely to the rich and powerful, but most especially to the powerless.  The right of petition was not the exclusive provenance of the “virtuous, the great, and the mighty,” he averred. “The right of petition belongs to all.” The attempt to censure Adams failed.

In early 1838, when the House voted to renew the gag rule yet again, Adams stood and argued that it violated “my right to freedom of speech as a member of the House.”  He also made the courageous stand to fight for women’s right of petition even though they could not vote.  “Are women to have no opinions or action on subjects relating to the general welfare?” he asked.

Adams continued to present hundreds of petitions with signatures from citizens opposed to slavery, and still his fellow representatives shouted him down.  Later that year, he resorted to a parliamentary trick by avoiding the word “petition” and stated he was introducing a “prayer” that all would enjoy their God-given rights.  “Petition was prayer,” he argued.  “It was the cry of the suffering for relief; of the oppressed for mercy.”  Therefore, to the great shock of Southerners, he asserted that he would therefore “not deny the right of petition to a slave.”

When he stated that summer that slavery was “a sin before the sight of God,” Adams received several death threats.  “I promise to cut your throat from ear to ear,” read one.  Another had a picture of a large Bowie knife, threatening, “Vengeance is mine, say the South!”  Finally, one warned of a “hangman to prepare a halter for John Quincy Adams.”  He confided to his diary that, “I walk on the edge of a precipice in every step that I take.”  Sometimes, he felt overwhelmed by the burden he was assuming for the cause of justice.  “I stand in the House of Representatives . . . alone.”  But he was not deterred from his path and only fought harder against the gag rule and for the right to petition against slavery.

Over the next two years, Adams introduced thousands of petitions. All were tabled without debate.  Pro-slavery representatives even instituted a harsher gag rule in 1840 to shut Adams up.  The House agreed that it would not even receive the petitions, but the new gag rule only passed by a narrow majority of six votes. Adams saw that his perseverance was bearing fruit. Still, in 1842, he saw a “conspiracy in and out of Congress to crush the liberties of a free people of the Union.”

Adams revered the Declaration of Independence (which his father, John Adams, had helped create) because of the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”  It also asserted the principle of popular sovereignty, that all authority in a popular government resides in the people.  Consequently, Adams had the clerk of the House read the Declaration.  Adams then stated that, “I rest that petition on the Declaration of Independence.”

On December 3, 1844, Adams’s diligent efforts were finally rewarded when the House voted to abolish the gag rule.  He had fought and won a long struggle for constitutionalism and for the rights of others.  Even his enemies grudgingly admitted his diligence to the cause of justice.  Henry Wise of Virginia called Adams “the acutest, the astutest, the archest enemy of Southern slavery that ever existed.”  He had fought the gag rule, pursuing the ideal of justice and fighting to preserve American ideals: the right of petition for all Americans and the natural rights of enslaved Americans.

Tony Williams is a Constituting America Fellow and a Senior Teaching Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute. He is the author of six books including the newly-published Hamilton: An American Biography.

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The Role Of Congress In Creation & Constitutionality Of The National Bank, Part 2 – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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Hamilton v. Jefferson: Taking the Constitution Seriously 

The First Congress was deeply divided over policies at the very start of the new nation. The debates generally centered around the economic policies and financial plans of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. The contention about the National Bank in particular generally revealed a sectional and increasing partisan divide between the Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians. While the debates revealed the tensions in the new nation, they also properly took place regarding interpretation of the Constitution.

In August 1790, Hamilton was preparing to move the treasury department to the new capital at Philadelphia. He had recently won the battle over the federal assumption of state debts and helped establish the soundness of the public credit. That month, Congress asked him to prepare a report on a National Bank. In December, he submitted a masterful blueprint for the National Bank and focused on its contribution to the growth of the American economy.

The National Bank would provide a means of taking deposits and lending out money for investment in business ventures, which would in turn stimulate the economy. Hamilton wrote, “By contributing to enlarge the mass of industrious and commercial enterprise, banks become nurseries of national wealth.” Hamilton believed that a bank was necessary not only to economic growth but to national security by funding armies in times of war.

The proposed bank encountered immediate opposition in both houses of Congress. Opponents were primarily southerners and those who feared centralized power and aristocracy—those who would become Jeffersonian Republicans. One member of Congress predicted, “This bank will raise in this country a moneyed interest at the devotion of government; it may bribe both states and individuals.” James Jackson of Georgia argued the bank was “calculated to benefit a small part of the United States, the mercantile interest.” Senator William Maclay predicted it would become “an aristocratic engine” and a “machine for the mischievous purposes of bad ministers.”

Despite the fierce opposition, the Senate easily passed the bill on January 20, 1791. James Madison led the opposition to the bank in the House. On February 2, Madison delivered a lengthy speech questioning the constitutionality of the proposed bank. Madison objected that it was not an enumerated power of Congress, nor was it a power Congress could legitimately exercise under the Necessary and Proper Clause in Article I, section 8. Madison’s arguments were to no avail. The House passed the bill by an overwhelming margin of 39 to 20.

President George Washington was a firm advocate of a stronger national government and economy, and usually sided on policy with Hamilton. However, the objections of Madison, and Thomas Jefferson and Edmund Randolph in the cabinet, troubled the president. He also took the Constitution seriously when considering signing bills into law, and he was concerned about the absence of a specific constitutional clause allowing Congress to create a National Bank. Therefore, he solicited opinions from the members of his cabinet to help him decide whether to sign the bill into law.

Jefferson produced a stronger paper arguing against the bank than Randolph’s rambling opinions. Jefferson argued for limited government when he stated that to “take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specially drawn around the powers of Congress, is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition.” The power to establish a bank was not one of the delegated powers of Congress, nor did the Necessary and Proper Clause apply because he thought the powers of the bank were unrelated to any other powers in Article I, Section 8. Jefferson argued that it was neither strictly necessary nor proper: “A bank therefore is not necessary, and consequently not authorized by this phrase.” He advised Washington to veto the bill because it was an “invasion of the legislature.”

On February 16, Washington weighed the arguments contained in the papers and then forwarded them to Hamilton for consideration while composing his paper. Five days later, Hamilton produced a brilliantly-crafted tour de force, burying his opponents in an avalanche of words and logic. Hamilton argued that the federal government had implied powers based upon having the means to execute the ends of its authority under enumerated powers. Moreover, Hamilton articulated numerous powers that Congress had that were related to the powers of a National Bank and therefore it was a constitutional exercise of power under the Necessary and Proper Clause. President Washington agreed with Hamilton’s constitutional reasoning and signed the bill into law on February 25.

The debate over the National Bank would be one of the disputes that helped create the Democratic-Republican and Federalist political parties. The differing perspectives on constitutional interpretation divided the Democratic-Republicans who had a strict construction of the Constitution from the Federalists who had a loose construction of the Constitution.  The 1790s were consequently characterized by a wide partisan divide over economic policies, constitutional interpretation, and foreign policy.

Whatever the divisions caused by the debate over the National Bank, the quarrel was ultimately rooted in the Constitution. Members of Congress considered the constitutionality of the bank bill during its passage. President Washington carefully weighed the Constitution when deciding to sign the bill, and its supporters and opponents made constitutional arguments for their rival views. The politicians and statesmen of the early republic took the Constitution seriously.

Tony Williams is a Constituting America fellow, a Senior Teaching Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute, and the author of six books including Hamilton: An American Biography and Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America.

 

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James Madison: Guiding The Bill Of Rights Through The U.S. House Of Representatives – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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James Madison and the Bill of Rights

On June 8, 1789, a few months after the convening of the First Congress, Representative James Madison arose on the floor and made a speech introducing amendments that would come to be known as the Bill of Rights.  Madison delivered a masterpiece of rhetorical statesmanship that attempted to persuade the Congress to pass a Bill of Rights to protect liberty and produce unity in the new government.

Madison had surprisingly opposed a Bill of Rights when it was introduced at the Constitutional Convention by George Mason and advocated by the Anti-Federalists throughout the ratification debate in the states.  During a long exchange with Thomas Jefferson, then in Paris, Madison privately articulated his reasons for opposing a Bill of Rights.

Most of the Madison’s reasoning was based upon the fact that he believed, along with James Wilson and Alexander Hamilton, that the Founders had created a natural rights republic with enumerated powers in a written constitution.  The rights of mankind were built into the fabric of human nature by God, and government had no powers to alienate an individual’s rights.  He also had witnessed that they were often just “parchment barriers” that overbearing majorities violated in the states.

Although he enumerated several reasons for his opposition, Madison then gave his friend hope when he stated that most important reason in favor of a Bill of Rights was that, “The political truths declared in that solemn manner acquire by degrees the character of fundamental maxims of free Government, and as they become incorporated with the National sentiment, counteract the impulses of interest and passion.”  Madison thought the liberties would become engrained in the American character.

When he arose to give the speech on June 8, Madison faced hostility from several Federalists who thought the House of Representatives had more pressing business. Most representatives and senators thought that the Congress had more important work to do setting up the new government or passing tax bills for revenue. Many thought it was a “tub to the whale,” or a distraction, like the empty tub that sailors would use to draw away a whale’s attention. They were forgetting their promise during the ratification debate to add amendments safeguarding liberties while setting up the new government. Madison wanted to ensure that obligation was fulfilled because he knew that failing to do so sure would strengthen the Anti-Federalist push for a second Convention to alter the Constitution and that it would stir up continuing opposition to the new republic.

Madison began his speech by stating that a Bill of Rights would prove to the Anti-Federalists that the Federalists were “as sincerely devoted to liberty and a republican government.”  In an act of reconciliation and magnanimity, he also reached out to the Anti-Federalists because, “We ought not to disregard their inclination, but, on principles of amity and moderation, conform to their wishes, and expressly declare the great rights of mankind secured under this constitution.”

Madison magnanimously completed his lengthy speech by asserting, “If we can make the constitution better in the opinion of those who are opposed to it, without weakening its frame, or abridging its usefulness, in the judgment of those who are attached to it, we act the part of wise and liberal men.”

Even though Madison had been one of the strongest opponents of the Bill of Rights, he became the “Father of the Bill of Rights” as he skillfully guided the amendments through the Congress during the summer of 1789.  He reconciled all the various proposals for amendments from the state ratifying conventions and discarded any that would alter the structure of the Constitution or new government. Keeping the amendments protecting essential liberties, Madison developed a list of nineteen amendments and a preamble. He wanted them to be woven into the text of the Constitution, and sought a key amendment to protect religious freedom, a free press, and a trial by jury against violation by state governments. The attempts to have the amendments inserted into the text and applied to the states lost, but he forged ahead anyway. On August 24, the House sent seventeen amendments to the Senate after voting by more than the required two-thirds margin. By September 14, two-thirds of the Senate approved twelve amendments, removing the limitations on state governments. President Washington sent them to the states endorsing the amendments even if he did not have a formal role in their adoption.

Over the next two years, eleven states ratified the Bill of Rights to meet the three-fourths constitutional threshold including North Carolina and Rhode Island. Virginia became the last state to ratify on December 15, 1791. While we rightfully celebrate the Bill of Rights as essential to our liberties, we should not forget that the Constitution created a limited government that is the best guarantee of individual liberties.

Tony Williams is Senior Teaching Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute; a Constituting America Fellow; author of Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America, and Hamilton: An American Biography.

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Since The First U.S. Congress In 1789: Why, When & How The People’s Branch Convenes – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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The People’s Branch

In the spring of 1789, several dozen representatives and senators from eleven states (North Carolina and Rhode Island had not yet ratified the Constitution) traveled to New York for the first session of the First Congress. Most fundamentally, they were assembling because the United States had a constitutional republican form of government based upon the consent of the governed.

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Beginnings Of The United States Congress – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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The Constitutional First Congress

As Representative James Madison reflected on the task of the First Congress, he stated, “We are in a wilderness without a single footstep to guide us.” Perhaps Madison was wrong for the representatives and senators had a few guides at their disposal. They had their experience in the state legislatures and the national Congress under the Articles of Confederation. In addition, they had their wisdom and prudence to pursue the public good in deliberative government. Most fundamentally, they had the new Constitution as the fundamental guide for all their actions.

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James Madison, the Bill of Rights & Political Compromise

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James Madison, 1751-1836, “the father of the Bill of Rights”

As we celebrate the 226th anniversary of the adoption of the Bill of Rights, American politics and civic life seems more and more divided. The founding generation often saw a political environment that was just as divided as ours, if not even more so. Virginia statesman James Madison gives us an example of principled compromise to achieve the principles of limited government and inalienable rights as he became the “father of the Bill of Rights.”

The origins of Madison’s work creating the Bill of Rights was rooted in his experience in the 1780s. In Virginia, he witnessed the established Anglican Church violating the freedom of conscience of religious dissenters. As a result, he became the primary advocate for Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. In early 1787, Madison was preparing for the Constitutional Convention and wrote an essay entitled “Vices of the Political System” detailing the flaws of the Articles of Confederation. One of the main problems in his view was that tyrannical majorities in the states passed unjust laws violating the rights of minorities.

At the Constitutional Convention, Madison supported the constitutional principles that would limit government and protect individual liberties. However, he lost one central feature of his plan of government—a national veto over state laws to prevent majority tyranny in the states. Still, he became one of the greatest supporters of the Constitution.

During the ratification debate, the Federalists who supported the Constitution had to promise that they would pass a bill of rights if the Antifederalist opponents agreed to a bill of rights. Madison opposed a bill of rights because he thought that they were often just “parchment barriers” that overbearing majorities violated in the states. At this point, he thought “the amendments are a blemish.”

Madison conducted an extensive correspondence with his friend Thomas Jefferson, who was in Paris at the time. Jefferson lamented the absence of a bill of rights in the Constitution and asserted, “A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth.” Madison began to change his mind.

Madison ran against Virginian James Monroe for a seat in the House of Representatives and made a campaign promise to support a bill of rights, particularly liberty of conscience. He also composed President George Washington’s Inaugural Address, which indicated support for a bill of rights in the First Congress.

Representative Madison became the champion for a bill of rights in the First Congress, but met a hostile reception for the idea. Most representatives and senators thought that the Congress had more important work to do setting up the new government. Madison was undeterred and dedicated to the cause of protecting the people’s liberties.

On June 8, 1789, Madison rose on the floor of the House to deliver a speech in favor of a bill of rights. His arguments were founded on a harmonious political order and the ideals of justice. A bill of rights would convince the Antifederalists of the “principles of amity and moderation” from the Federalists, especially when they fulfilled a sacred promise made during the ratification debate. Rhode Island and North Carolina, which had withheld their ratification of the Constitution, would also join the Union. Mostly, the Bill of Rights would “expressly declare the great rights of mankind secured under this constitution.”

Madison then skillfully guided the amendments through the Congress. He reconciled all the various proposals for amendments from the state ratifying conventions and kept the amendments protecting essential liberties. He wanted them to be woven into the text of the Constitution, and sought a key amendment to protect religious freedom, a free press, and a trial by jury against violation by state governments. He lost both these provisions but still guided the Bill of Rights through Congress. Congress approved twelve amendments, and President Washington sent them to the states.

On December 15, 1791, Virginia became the last state to ratify the first ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights fulfilled Madison’s goals of reconciling the opponents of the Constitution and protecting individual liberties. He did not get everything he wanted but compromised often along the way to secure limited government and the essential rights of the people.

Tony Williams is a Constituting America Fellow and the author of Washington & Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America and the forthcoming Hamilton: An American Biography.

 

Justice Anthony Kennedy (Born 1936) – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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Republican President Dwight Eisenhower reputedly said that appointing Chief Justice Earl Warren and Justice William Brennan were among his biggest mistakes as president as they helped usher in a wave of liberal jurisprudence at odds with Eisenhower’s conservative philosophy.  Republican President George H.W. Bush might have said the same about Justice David Souter for the same reasons.  Finally, Republican President Ronald Reagan would have agreed that Justice Anthony Kennedy surprisingly became a swing vote who could lean left.

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Roe v. Wade (1973) And Planned Parenthood Of Southeastern PA v. Casey (1992) – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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Before the 1960s, all states had stringent laws banning abortions.  The women’s movement of the 1960s demanded access to abortion as one of the rights of women. Abortion rights activists began working at liberalizing state laws on abortion since it was a state issue in the federal system.  The advocacy successfully chipped away at several laws, though by the time of Roe v. Wade in 1973, roughly forty states still had strong laws against abortion.

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Engel v. Vitale (1962) And Everson v. Ewing (1962) (Part 2) – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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“Almighty God, we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country:” Engel v. Vitale (1962)

In the Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township (1947), the Supreme Court decided that it was constitutional for the state of New Jersey to reimburse parents for the cost of bus transportation, even to a parochial school. In rendering the decision, the Court attempted to use evidence from the nation’s founding to prove that there was a “wall of separation between church and state.”

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Richmond v. J.A. Croson Co. (1989) – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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“A Puzzle Inside an Enigma: Untangling Affirmative Action”

In Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), the Supreme Court invalidated fixed quota systems for affirmative action as a remedy for historic racism, but decided that using race as a factor in college admissions was constitutional. It was a confusing decision with a 4-4-1 vote with the justices all concurring in part and dissenting in part (and resulting in a 5-4 decision). Bakke did very little to settle the constitutionality of affirmative action or even to clarify the issue—indeed, it only confused the issue further.

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Bolling v. Sharpe (1954) And Brown v. Topeka Board Of Education (1954) And Cooper v. Aaron (1958) – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954)

In December 1952, African-American lawyer Thurgood Marshall appeared before the Supreme Court representing a seven-year-old black girl from Topeka, Kansas named Linda Brown who had to ride the bus to her segregated black school instead of walking to the neighborhood school.  Marshall and other NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyers were there for three days of oral arguments in five consolidated cases dealing with segregated schools.  Three hundred spectators packed the hearing room while four hundred anxiously waited in the corridors.

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Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (1777-1864) (Part 2) – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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Roger B. Taney was born and raised on a southern Maryland tobacco plantation.  He attended Dickinson College and received a classical education before reading law under Jeremiah Chase, one of three judges on the state’s General Court.  He passed the bar exam and married the sister of his close friend, Francis Scott Key.  He entered politics and won a seat in the Maryland House as a Federalist.  He supported the War of 1812 and broke with the Federalists over their opposition to the war.  He adopted Jeffersonian views that would lay the foundation for the rise of the Democratic Party.

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Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) (Part 2) – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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Arrogance & Injustice in the Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) Case

In the 1850s, the United States was deeply divided over the issue of slavery and its expansion into the West. The northern and southern sections of the country had been arguing over the expansion of slavery into the western territories for decades. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 had divided the Louisiana Territory at 36’30° with new states north of the line free states and south of the lines slave states. The territory acquired in the Mexican War of 1846 triggered the sectional debate again. In 1850, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky engineered the Compromise of 1850 to settle the dispute. But, in 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act permitted settlers to decide whether the states would be free or slave according to the principle of “popular sovereignty.” Pro and anti-slavery settlers rushed to Kansas and violence and murder erupted in “Bleeding Kansas.” Meanwhile, southern talk of secession was in the air, and observers warned of civil war.
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Lochner v. New York (1905) – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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Making up Rights?: Lochner v. New York (1905)

In April 1901, Utica, New York bakeshop owner, Joseph Lochner, was arrested for allowing one of his few employees, baker Aman Schmitter, to work more than sixty hours in a week. A grand jury indicted Lochner for violating a New York bakeshop law regulating work hours. In February 1902, he was tried, convicted, and fined fifty dollars for his misdemeanor crime.

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Schechter Poultry Corp v. U.S. (1935) – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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The “Sick Chicken” Case: Schechter Poultry Corp v. U.S. (1935)

In 1933, the American economy was mired in the great depths of the Great Depression characterized by unprecedented unemployment and deflation of prices for business and farmers. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his advisors believed that the problems of the economy were rooted in excessive business competition resulting in low prices, faltering incomes, and underconsumption. In 1933, Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) to stimulate business recovery and economic growth as part of the New Deal. The legislation established National Recovery Administration (NRA) as an executive agency to work with business to craft a variety of industrial codes and regulations for entire industries to decrease competition by setting codes within industries. The goal was to set production quotas to increase prices and introduce labor regulations including a minimum wage to benefit workers. The Roosevelt administration sought to prevent “unfair competition,” ironically by allowing business to cooperate in a way that broke antitrust laws.

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United States v. E.C. Knight (1895) – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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Federal Regulation and the Rise of Big Business: United States v. E.C. Knight (1895)

The late nineteenth century was a time of business consolidation as the American economy experienced a “great merger movement” with the rise of big business. Through means foul and fair, corporations formed trusts that dominated entire industries to combat competitive pressures that drove prices and at times to monopolize for control. The sugar industry was a part of this consolidation movement.

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Briscoe v. Bank of Kentucky (1837) – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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In 1832, Nicholas Biddle, president of the Second Bank of the United States, applied for an early renewal of the bank’s charter.  He feared that bank opponent, President Andrew Jackson, would move to destroy the bank after he was re-elected.  So, Biddle tried to outmaneuver the president before the election.  His opponent, Henry Clay, and other National Republicans (future Whigs), supported Biddle’s move because they wanted to make it a campaign issue. Both houses of Congress voted to re-charter the bank in July.

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Barron v. Baltimore (1833) – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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In the early 1830s, the city of Baltimore was developing as a bustling urban center and port.  The city diverted the streams around John Barron’s successful wharf and lowered the water level, which negatively impacted his business.  He sued the city to recover his financial losses. 

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McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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In May, 1818, James William McCulloch was a cashier at the Baltimore branch of the Second Bank of the United States.  McCulloch issued a series of bank notes on which the bank did not pay a Maryland state tax.  The state treasurer quickly sued to recover the money and won a judgment in Maryland’s highest court. The Supreme Court soon accepted the case, which would have a profound impact in defining the principle of federalism, the reading of the Necessary and Proper Clause in the Constitution, and the national vision of the Marshall Court.

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1988, George H.W. Bush Defeats Michael Dukakis – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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A Thousand Points of Light: George H.W. Bush and the 1988 Election

George H.W. Bush had three significant obstacles to overcome if he wanted to be elected president in 1988.  The first was that Bush’s election seemed to be a referendum on eight years of the Reagan presidency.  Americans were split over that legacy with conservatives wanting to build on his economic and foreign policy achievements in the Cold War, while liberals wanted to stop a third consecutive term by a conservative Republican.  The recent Iran-Contra hearings had damaged the Reagan presidency and fed the partisanship.

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1984, Ronald Reagan Defeats Walter Mondale: Geraldine Ferraro Nomination As Vice President And The Constitutional Implications Of The Feminist Movement – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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Morning in America: Ronald Reagan & the 1984 Election

In his 1984 State of the Union Address, President Ronald Reagan laid out his principles and vision that had guided his first term and provided the foundation for his re-election campaign. He reminded voters that the economy was growing rapidly and was back on track after the horrific stagflation of the Carter administration. The “crisis of confidence” of the 1970s was conquered by a renewed American spirit.  Reagan was proud to report that, “There is renewed energy and optimism throughout the land.”  Indeed, he touted, “America is back, standing tall.”

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1960, The Election Of The First Catholic President As A Vindication Of The First Amendment’s Clauses On Religious Freedom And Religion Establishment – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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JFK, Catholicism, and the 1960 Election

The American Founding ushered in a “new order for the ages” that included the unprecedented and remarkable natural right of liberty of conscience.  The First Amendment protected this universal right of all humans and banned Congress from establishing an official religion.  The Constitution also banned all religious tests for national office.

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1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt Defeats Thomas Dewey: Constitutional Implications Of Roosevelt’s Liberal Internationalism, United Nations – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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Global War and Peace: The 1944 Election

In his 1944 State of the Union address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt offered a “Second Bill of Rights” that redefined the rights of the founding bill of rights. This radical pronouncement promised economic security and “positive rights” guaranteed by the federal government.

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1932, The “New Deal” – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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In 1932, the U.S. economy reached its nadir during the Great Depression.  Unemployment had risen to more than 20 percent, or 11 million Americans, matched by a similar number of the underemployed as factories and businesses closed their doors.  Banks were closing at an alarming rates as people instantly lost their life savings.  Hundreds of thousands of farmers and urban dwellers alike were suffering forecloses and lost their homes.  Breadlines were long and strained the resources of private charities and local governments.

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1912, Woodrow Wilson Defeats William Howard Taft, Theodore Roosevelt, Eugene Debs: Woodrow Wilson’s “New Freedom” – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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“The Professor and the Bull Moose” 1912 Election

In June, 1912, former President Theodore Roosevelt broke with the tradition of candidates not attending conventions and arrived at the Republican National Convention with great fanfare. He fervently announced, “We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord.” He then proudly labelled himself a “Bull Moose.”

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1844, The Issue Of Oregon Territorial Boundary – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!

In the early 1840s, thousands of settlers from the Midwest traveled to Independence, Missouri, where they loaded hundreds of pounds of food, tools, and supplies on their oxen-drawn wagons.  They launched an epic overland trek 2,000 miles to the Oregon Territory and braved its dangers in order to participate in the fur trade in earlier decades, but now mostly for farm land.  The individual decisions of these ordinary Americans in search of opportunity in the West would have implications for international affairs and the election of 1844.

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1824, The Second Instance Of An Election Decided In The House Of Representatives – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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The election of 1824 was eerily similar to the 2016 campaign.  It was characterized by fierce personal attacks launched by the surrogates of candidates and by the candidates who accused each other of corruption.  Several establishment candidates ran but failed to rouse the base.  One highly popular candidate ran as an anti-establishment, Washington outsider and was widely accused of being a demagogue.  The partisan media lined up for their favorite candidates.  Economic issues ruled the day with many concerned about government intervention in the economy while others railed against “the interests.”

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1808, James Madison Defeats Charles Pinckney: The Embargo Act Of 1807 – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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On June 22, 1807, the American frigate USS Chesapeake set sail from Norfolk, Virginia for the waters of the Atlantic to join in a squadron heading to the Mediterranean to battle the Barbary Pirates.  The 50-gun British warship HMS Leopard immediately pounced upon the ship and sought to board her seeking deserters from the Royal Navy.  When American Commodore James Barron refused the demand, the Leopard fired a warning shot and then loosed a deadly broadside at the Chesapeake.  The thunderous barrage was followed by others, and the beleaguered American ship could only offer meager resistance.  As the smoke drifted around the opposing ships, three American sailors lay dead and eighteen writhed in agony from horrific wounds.  Barron had no choice but to surrender, and the British seized four seamen though only one was a British subject.

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Election Of 1800: Constitutional Implications Of The Alien & Sedition Acts – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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In the summer of 1798, the capital of Philadelphia was gripped by several fevers.  Ships from the tropical West Indies brought Yellow Fever to several port cities including Philadelphia, causing thousands to flee for their lives as the number of victims escalated.  The epidemic, however, hardly compared to the political fever taking hold over the country.

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What’s In a Name? The Controversy over the Washington Redskins – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the progressives created numerous agencies in the executive branch of government that were supposed to bring more rationality, efficiency, and order to American society.  They were to be run by scientific experts who would oversee a civil service bureaucracy that would govern objectivity as they made decisions free of politics and partisanship.

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Treasury Department Overreach? – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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The Treasury is not simply executing its task of printing money for legal tender and updating its design to thwart counterfeiters.  It is pursuing an ideological agenda outside of its authority. 

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Immigration Reform By Pen? – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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The cliché that America is a “nation of immigrants” is true as successive waves of immigrants throughout its history came to this country for its freedoms and opportunity.  The Statue of Liberty symbolically welcomes immigrants to America.  Over the past 150 years, American immigration policy has alternated between restriction and liberalization.  But, whatever vacillating nature of immigration laws, the unifying core was that constitutionalism generally guided the process of laws regarding immigration.

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Do You Know How Many Wars Congress Has Formally Declared War In? HINT: It’s Fewer Than You Think – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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On December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and killed 2,500 American servicemen.  Japan’s ally, Germany, followed up the attack by declaring war on the United States.  Just after noon on the following day President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the shocked members of Congress and told them that the sneak attack was a “date which will live in infamy.”  The Congress declared war on Japan by an 82-0 vote in the Senate and nearly unanimous vote of 388-1 in the House.  When Japan’s allies, Germany and Italy, declared war on the United States, Congress responded in kind on December 10.  World War II became the last war in which the United States declared war against a foe.

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Monday, June 17, 2013 – Essay #86 – Commencement Address at Yale University by John F. Kennedy – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams, Program Director of the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute

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John F. Kennedy, “Commencement Address at Yale University”

Throughout the twentieth century, one of the most fundamental tenets of progressive ideology was what many historians called the “gospel of efficiency” that found salvation in scientific rather than republican government. Progressives believed that democratic, partisan politics based upon representative government was often corrupt but always too messy. The people were too uninformed, the Progressives believed, and political compromise did not always result in the “best solutions.”

The Progressives thought that they had a much better alternative. They believed that if policymaking were removed from the hands of the sovereign people and their representatives and placed in the hands of the academic experts in executive agencies, then scientific government could rationalize all areas of American life to bring order and efficiency out of democratic chaos. The gospel of efficiency became indisputable truth and worshipped as a creed by those who simply knew better than ordinary people.

The result of this for progressive liberals has been to believe arrogantly that they are acting scientifically and rationally while conservatives rest their arguments on platitudes and slogans. This was recently seen in the debate over gun control in the wake of several tragic mass shootings. The supporters of increased gun control described their reforms as “reasonable,” “common sense,” or “moderate,” implying that anyone who opposed them were irrational extremists. Progressives after all were academic experts – they simply knew better than everyone else, who should simply passively accept the policies handed down to them.

President John F. Kennedy clearly expressed his belief in the kind of progressive ideals described above. His 1962 Commencement Address at Yale University reads like a Progressive manifesto on the superiority of progressive over consensual government.

After some amusing digs at Yale from a Harvard Man, Kennedy tells the graduates that the central domestic issues of his administration were not based upon “basic clashes of philosophy or ideology but to ways and means of reaching common goals – to research for sophisticated solutions to complex and obstinate issues.” Kennedy explains some of the hidden meaning behind his statement. The Republicans and conservatives, though without naming them, rest their arguments on “myths,” “clichés,” “repetition of stale phrases,” “illusions,” and “platitudes.” Instead, Kennedy offers a post-partisan, progressive solution. “We need not partisan wrangling, but common concentration on common problems,” he explains to his audience. If the Republicans would simply accepted Kennedy’s ideas about government, then there wouldn’t be a problem.

He uses the occasion to shatter three prevailing illusions that “prevent effective action.” The first myth is that government is too large and that government is bad. He seeks to demolish this myth with the argument that the size of the government bureaucracy and federal debt had grown less rapidly than the size of the economy and any other sector of national life. Moreover, he argues that the large size of government “can bring benefits.” For example, even though he proudly states that three out of every four dollars for medical and scientific research comes from the federal government, “American scientists remain second to none in their independence and in their individualism.”

The second myth is that the growing federal debt is a problem. As proof, Kennedy states that although the debt was growing, it was decreasing as per capita and relative to Gross National Product. Additionally, he maintains that the public debt is increasing at a slower pace than private debt or the debt of state governments. If Kennedy can be forgiven for not guessing that our debt would reach a staggering seventeen trillion dollars, he might have foreseen that his support of a much larger government with almost limitless responsibility might contribute mightily to an unsustainable federal debt.

The third myth that Kennedy debunks is that business lacked confidence in his administration leading to stagnation. The president argues instead that confidence is rooted upon institutions – business, labor, and government – all fulfilling their obvious “obligations to the public.” The “solid ground of mutual confidence is the necessary partnership of government with all of the sectors of our society in the steady quest for economic progress.” The national administrative state run by experts necessarily reaches into every aspect of American life to usher in a perfect society not just for the United States but the world. Indeed, he continues, arguing that, “The safety of all the world – the very future of freedom – depends as never before upon the sensible and clearheaded management of the domestic affairs of the United States.”

What is at stake, Kennedy avers, is not contending rival visions of liberals and conservatives who would debate as politicians in a republican system, but the “practical management of a modern economy” by experts who could solve “sophisticated and technical questions.” Political compromise and representative government may have been adequate in a bygone age but the modern era had more subtle challenges for which only “technical answers, not political answers, must be provided.”

Kennedy’s embrace of progressivism traced its lineage back to Woodrow Wilson and the early twentieth century. Kennedy advocates a government based upon the European model when he promotes a government by experts and an increasingly large government that manages society,. Just as Wilson admired the German model and philosophy, Kennedy thinks America should become more like Europe. “The example of Western Europe,” Kennedy explains, “shows that they are capable of solution – that governments . . . prepared to face technical problems without ideological preconceptions, can coordinate the elements of a national economy and bring about growth and prosperity.”

President John F. Kennedy sought to administer government by progressive experts rather than the people. He sought to bring efficiency and order to democratic politics and free enterprise. He sought to impose a European vision of statism on American institutions, and then promised that this was the way to protect and promote freedom. It would supposedly “demonstrate anew to the world the superior vitality and the strength of a free society.” Perhaps we are living with the illusion that one could live freely and enjoy prosperity in a managed society.

Tony Williams is the Program Director of the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute in Charlottesville, VA, which teaches teachers American founding principles. Free downloads of its recently published WJMI Guide to the Constitution are available at http://www.thefederalistpapers.org/ebooks/jefferson-and-madisons-guide-to-the-constitution. He is the author of four books including American Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character.

 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013 – Essay #83 – Democratic Convention Address by Franklin Roosevelt – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams, Program Director of the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute

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On June 27, 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt accepted the Democratic nomination for the presidency.  Despite all of the success in getting Congress to pass New Deal legislation during his first administration and his excellent chances for re-election, FDR felt beleaguered.  Republicans in Congress and conservatives such as Herbert Hoover and the Liberty League continued to oppose the legislation he believed would solve the economic crisis and transform America.  Populist radicals such as Huey Long and Charles Townshend went even further than FDR in seeking to provide a guaranteed income for Americans and won some of his support.  Read more

Tuesday, June 11, 2013 – Essay #82 – “Commonwealth Club Address” by Franklin D. Roosevelt – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams, Program Director of the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute

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In 1932, the Democratic candidate, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was the privileged scion of a wealthy family who ran a campaign that was committed to the Progressive vision of American society and government from the turn of the century.  In his “Commonwealth Club Address,” FDR embraced the Progressive idea that pitted the “interests” against the people.  He also promised the continued growth of the administrative state managed by enlightened bureaucratic elites in the name of the people.  Even more importantly, FDR maintained that the purpose of government under the social compact was to preserve rights, but he was bold enough to assert that a redefinition of rights was necessary in an industrial age.  Achieving this vision would usher in a secular utopia of progress and equality. Read more

Friday, May 31, 2013 – Essay #75 – Socialism and Democracy by Woodrow Wilson – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams, Program Director of the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute in Charlottesville, VA

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Progressivism was a movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Whatever its different iterations, progressivism was rooted in the belief that the natural rights principles of the American founding were fine for an earlier age but no longer relevant in a mass, industrial society.  The modern age, as the Progressives saw it, was characterized by great inequality and concentrations of wealth.  The “interests” controlled the masses for their own self-interest rather than the public good. Read more

Tuesday, May 28, 2013 – Essay #72 – Liberalism and Social Action by John Dewey (1859-1952) – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams, Program Director for the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute in Charlottesville, VA

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We’re No Longer Lockeans Now: John Dewey & the Rise of Modern Liberalism, by Tony Williams

In his 1861 “Cornerstone” speech, Vice-President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens argued that Thomas Jefferson and the Founders really meant all humans, including blacks, were created equal in the Declaration of Independence.  He just believed that they were wrong.  John Dewey, in his “Liberalism and Social Action,” does much the same thing.  He largely summarizes the ideas of John Locke correctly and notes his influence on the Founding.  Again, much like Stephens did, he rejects those ideas, this time because of his belief in the new liberalism of the modern Progressive administrative state.  Read more

Friday, May 10, 2013 – Essay #60 – “The Dividing Line between Federal and Local Authority: Popular Sovereignty in the Territories” by Stephen Douglas – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams, Program Director for the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute

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1859 was an ominous year for America as civil war between the sections threatened despite the attempts to avert it.  Back in 1854, Stephen Douglas had tried to quell sectionalism with the Kansas-Nebraska Act that would grant the seeming American principle of popular sovereignty regarding slavery in the territories, but Kansas became “bleeding Kansas” as a shooting war between pro and anti-slavery forces erupted after they flooded the state to institute their vision of popular sovereignty.  In 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney injected the Court into the political question and tried to help prevent civil war with the Dred Scott opinion, Read more

Tuesday, May 7, 2013 – Essay #57 – “A House Divided” by Abraham Lincoln – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams, Program Director for the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute

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On June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln won the Republican nomination for the vacant U.S. Senate seat from Illinois.  His opponent in the election would be Stephen Douglas.  Upon his nomination, Lincoln delivered the “House Divided” speech in the war of words of what would culminate in the Lincoln-Douglas debates later that year. Read more

Monday, March 25, 2013 – Essay #26 – On Property by James Madison – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams, Program Director, Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute

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“Conscience is the Most Sacred of Property”: James Madison’s Essay on Property
by Tony Williams

On January 24, 1774, James Madison wrote to a college friend praising the Boston Tea Party, which had occurred only weeks before.  He praised the Boston patriots for their boldness in “defending liberty and property.”  Equating political and civil liberty, he warned that if the Church of England had established itself as the official religion of all the colonies, then “slavery and subjection might and would have been gradually insinuated among us.” Read more

Friday, March 22, 2013 – Essay #25 – Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association by Thomas Jefferson – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams, Program Director, Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute

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On January 1, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson received a thirteen-foot mammoth cheese weighing some 1,200 pounds.  It was delivered by dissenting Baptist minister and long-time advocate of religious liberty, Reverend John Leland, who then preached a sermon to the president and members of Congress at the Capitol two days later.  Jefferson took the opportunity to compose a letter to the Danbury Baptists on the relationship between government and religion that would shape the course of twentieth-century jurisprudence. Read more

Thursday, February 28, 2013 – Essay #9 – The US Constitution – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams, Program Director, Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute

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The Constitution

When Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were creating the University of Virginia, they decided that the three American documents that would best illuminate the meaning of the Constitution when teaching future statesmen were the Declaration of Independence (along with the ideas of John Locke and Algernon Sidney), George Washington’s Farewell Address, and the Federalist.

Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence expressed the universal principle that all men were endowed by a Creator with natural, unalienable rights.  Influenced by the ideas of John Locke’s social compact theory, the purpose of government was to protect those natural rights.

If any government became tyrannical, or destructive of the ends for which it was created, the people had a right to overthrow that government and to institute a government that would protect their rights. Read more

Thursday, February 21, 2013 – Essay #4 – Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams, Program Director, Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute

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Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics & American Republican Government

After George Washington was sworn-in as the first president of the new American republic on April 30, 1789, he delivered his First Inaugural Address to the people’s representatives in Congress.  He started the speech with his characteristic humility, stating that although he wished to retire to Mount Vernon and did not have the requisite skill to govern a country, he was nevertheless answering the call of his country.  The address struck a distinctly Aristotelian chord in Washington’s wishes for his country.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, describes his understanding of the basic nature of man.  Humans are rational creatures, he maintains, and must use that reason to exercise self-restraint over their passions.  That same rationality allows humans to be ethical, Read more