Americans abhor politicians who gather up inordinate powers. At least, that used to be the case. From our Revolution forward, Americans remained wary of any officeholder who tried to maneuver around constitutional limits. This was especially true if the trespasser happened to be a president.

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American citizens should never fear their own government. It’s Un-American. The Declaration of Independence directed our Founders to organize government powers “in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.” We should be able to go to bed at night feeling safe from hostile pounding on the door. The concept of the home as a safe refuge has been a key principle of Western Civilization going all the way back to the Roman Republic.

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The Founders believed that consolidating executive, legislative, and judicial powers would threaten liberty, so to avoid this tragedy, they built our constitutional framework with checks and balances. James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, wrote in Federalist 47 that “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”

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The phrase checks and balances has become so commonplace that it is often spoken as if it were a single word, but in the eighteen century, it was two distinct concepts. John Adams may have been the first to put the words checks and balances together in that order in his 1787 publication, A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, but balance and check is the phrase used in The Federalist, and that is the sequence James Madison would have thought appropriate. First, balance powers between the branches of government, and then check those powers so they are not abused.

In his voluminous Constitutional Convention notes, Madison recorded himself as saying that he “could not discover … any violation of the maxim which requires the great departments of power to be kept separate and distinct … If a constitutional discrimination of the departments on paper were a sufficient security to each against encroachments of the others, all further provisions would indeed be superfluous. But experience had taught us a distrust of that security; and that it is necessary to introduce such a balance of powers and interests, as will guarantee the provisions on paper. Instead therefore of contenting ourselves with laying down the theory in the Constitution that each department ought to be separate and distinct, it was proposed to add a defensive power to each which should maintain the theory in practice.”

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Concentrated political power frightened the Founders. They especially feared unrestrained executive power. In fact, some of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention fought for a weak executive because history had been a continuous stream of kings and rulers supplanting legislative bodies. Despite misgivings, James Madison convinced the delegates that balanced power with effective checks was the only way to secure liberty and the idea became foremost in the design of a new government.

When you study the political formation of the United Sates, one is struck by the recurrence of the checks and balances theme— in Madison’s convention notes, the Constitution itself, the Federalist Papers, the minutes of the ratification conventions, and even the Anti-Federalist papers. There can be no doubt that a national consensus supported the concept that each part of the government should act as an effective check on all of the other parts of the government. Read more

Guest Essayist: James D. Best, author of Tempest at Dawn, a novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention, and Principled Action, Lessons from the Origins of the American Republic

John Adams wrote, “The Revolu­tion was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people … This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.”

How did a revolution commence in the minds and hearts of Americans? It germinated in pulpits and taverns, and from pamphleteers and newspapers. By the time the Declaration of Independence was signed, there was a colonial consensus on a few key principles. Today, we call these the Founding Principles or First Principles. Read more

Guest Essayist: James D. Best, author of Tempest at Dawn, a novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention, and Principled Action, Lessons from the Origins of the American Republic

Amendment XXVII:

No law varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives shall take effect until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.

The 27th Amendment states that any law Congress passes that alters their compensation cannot take effect until after the next election.

On September 25, 1789, Congress proposed twelve constitutional amendments. In a little over two years, ten of these were ratified by the states. These very first amendments to the Constitution became our revered Bill of Rights.

The first rejected amendment proscribed a complex formula for determining the size of the House of Representatives. The second failed amendment, known as the Compensation Amendment, was written by James Madison in response to Antifederalist claims that Congress possessed the power to vote themselves rich salaries. Although this amendment failed in 1791, it eventually became the 27th Amendment.

The 11th Amendment took less than a year to ratify. Prohibition (18th Amendment) took 14 months, while repeal (21st Amendment) took only nine months. Women’s suffrage (19th Amendment) took 14 months to ratify. Giving 18 year olds the right to vote (26th Amendment) took only a little over three months. So why did it take 203 years to ratify the 27th Amendment?

In 1791, Americans didn’t see compensation of Congress as a big issue—at least, not enough of an issue to threaten liberty. If Congress became too greedy, voters would simply throw them out of office. In 1873, Congress did vote itself a retroactive raise. In a pique, Ohio ratified the Compensation Amendment. No other states followed suit, so the amendment languished—until the 1980s. Surprisingly, a grassroots campaign was ignited by an undergraduate term paper written by Gregory Watson. (He received a C grade for the paper.) On May 7, 1992, the Compensation Amendment was finally ratified by enough states to make it officially the 27th Amendment.

The irony is that this two-century process may have been made meaningless by later court decisions. Since the amendment was ratified, the only court challenge claimed that the annual Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) violated this amendment. A few taxpayers and a congressman filed suit, but a lower court ruled that the taxpayers did not have standing (standing is a legal interest in the issue that entitles the party to seek relief).  It further ruled that an automatic COLA was not an independent law subject to the amendment. On appeal, the Tenth Circuit ruled that the congressman also did not have standing. If neither taxpayers nor congressmen have standing, it’s hard to imagine a successful challenge.

Madison had crafted a clear, single sentence that 203 years later became part of the Constitution. It’s doubtful that Congress would be foolish enough to violate this minor restriction on their pay increases.

We often hear laments that our politicians no longer honor their pledge to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.  This is backward.  The Constitution was not written for politicians.  Our political leaders have no motivation to abide by a two hundred year old restraining order.  Americans must enforce the supreme law of the land.  The first outsized words of the Constitution read We the People.  It’s our document. It was always meant to be ours, not the government’s.  It is each and every American’s obligation to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.

James D. Best is the author of Tempest at Dawn, a novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention, and Principled Action, Lessons from the Origins of the American Republic.

June 13, 2012

Essay #83

Guest Essayist: James D. Best, author of Tempest at Dawn, a novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention, and Principled Action, Lessons from the Origins of the American Republic

Amendment XXII:

1: No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once. But this Article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President, when this Article was proposed by the Congress, and shall not prevent any person who may be holding the office of President, or acting as President, during the term within which this Article becomes operative from holding the office of President or acting as President during the remainder of such term.


2: This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States within seven years from the date of its submission to the States by the Congress.


Amendment XXII: Reform or Revision?

Until 1940, presidents honored the George Washington precedent of serving for only two terms. In that year Franklin Roosevelt defied tradition and won a third term, then later a fourth term. Roosevelt died in office in 1945. Presidential term limits became a huge issue in the 1946 watershed election, and a new generation swept into office, many of them returning soldiers. The new congress was young, idealistic, and committed to change. One of their first priorities was the XXII Amendment, which was ratified by the states in early 1951. Since then, we have had eleven presidents, but so far only four have been restricted from another term by this amendment.

There have been many proposals to reform or revise the XXII Amendment. Congress has repeatedly submitted bills to repeal the amendment, but none has ever made it out of committee. Some have proposed that the restriction be revised to consecutive terms, and others want a super-majority of both houses to have the ability to override the restriction.

The XXII Amendment ought to be left in place without revision.

The president is often called the most powerful person in the world. To a great extent, that is true. Over the centuries, presiden­tial power has increased enormously, both domestically and inter­nationally. This was not the intent of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention. The president was supposed to be a co-equal partner in a three-branch government focused on the needs of Americans.

The greatest increase in presidential power came from the growth in government. As the national government grew, from around 4 percent of gross domestic product in the 1920s to 25 percent in 2010, presidential power grew exponentially because all but a smidgeon of that money ended up in the executive branch. The bigger the national government grows, the more powerful the executive is as an indi­vidual.

In United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp (1936), the Supreme Court ruled that the president has almost unrestricted powers in international affairs. The Court said that this singular authority over foreign affairs is “the very delicate, plenary and exclu­sive power of the President as sole organ of the federal government in the field of international relations—a power which does not require as a basis for its exercise an act of Congress.” One of the few excep­tions to this exclusive power is Senate approval of treaties.

This ruling by itself did not make the president the most powerful person on the world stage. Three other developments made that happen. The first was that the American free enterprise system built the largest, most robust economy in the world. The second development was the vacuum of power after World War II. The Soviets were dangerous, and their ambitions for empire threatened the world. Someone had to step into the breach. The third development was the devastating power and global reach of modern weaponry.

Both inside and outside the United States, the president is enormously powerful. The Framers of the Constitution feared concentrated power, and they were especially fearful of concentrated power in single person. The Framers would have immediately searched for ways to curtail this power, and term limits would be at the forefront of their consideration. We need an ironclad XXII Amendment to bolster the idea that this power is only on loan for a limited period.

Power corrupts. Let us hope it takes longer than eight years.

James D. Best is the author of Tempest at Dawn, a novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention, and Principled Action, Lessons from the Origins of the American Republic.

May 30, 2012

Essay #73



Guest Essayist: James D. Best, author of Tempest at Dawn, a novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention, and Principled Action, Lessons from the Origins of the American Republic

Amendment XVI:

The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.

Reform or Revision?

The infamous XVI Amendment gave the national government the authority to tax income … from whatever source derived. Income tax has always been divisive. In the early twentieth century, the amendment was promoted with the phrase “soak the rich,” and the level of progressiveness in the tax codes has been contentious ever since. Many feel that it is only fair that those with more money should pay the lion’s share, while others think fairness means that every American should contribute at least something to the national coffers.

In Federalist 10, James Madison wrote, “The apportionment of taxes on the various descriptions of property is an act which seems to require the most exact impartiality; yet there is, perhaps, no legislative act in which greater opportunity and temptation are given to a predominant party to trample on the rules of justice.” For the hundred years that the XVI Amendment has been in place, exact impartiality has been a rarity.

There are many odious aspects of our current income tax. T. Coleman Andrews, commissioner of the IRS under Eisenhower said, “It opened up our homes, our papers and our effects to the prying eyes of government agents.” An IRS appeal is through tax courts without juries, and if a taxpayer loses, the individual must pay before suing the government. Congress relishes playing three-card Monte with the tax code by deftly moving taxes up, down and sideways, while slipping loopholes to favored constituents. Tax policy seldom has any relationship to economic growth, keeping markets free, or preserving personal liberty. For those of us who are recordkeeping impaired, the laws are a nightmare and a huge waste of valuable time. And last, we work and struggle to make ends meet, and instead of getting thanks for all the money we send to Washington, there’s always some politician trying to make us feel guilty because we didn’t send more.

Should the XVI Amendment be reformed or revised? Probably. Revision of the XVI Amendment could potentially fix many issues about the application of income tax, but it would not resolve our growing debt issues. The federal government spends about a quarter of our national production, much of it financed with debt that has climbed to unfathomable levels. Reforming or revising the XVI Amendment might squeeze the revenue side, but it won’t guarantee spending restraint. The government has no restrictions on borrowing or printing money.

Congress has shown that it won’t fix the tax code or spending. As we’ve witnessed since the Tax Reform Act of 1986, tax cuts and simplification only buy a short recess from offensive rates and burdensome regulations.

Without an ironclad restraint, government will continue to tax and spend recklessly. If permanent change is desired, it will require amending the Constitution. The real question is what kind of constitutional reform is needed. It’s possible we could have a public debate and resolve the fairness issue once and for all. For example, a flat tax would be good for the individual and boost economic growth, but most Americans have come to believe progressive rates equate to fairness. Another proposed reform would repeal the XVI Amendment in favor of a national sales tax—sometimes called the fair tax. Critics have pointed out that these reforms have their own problems, but even if they present an improvement, they seem unlikely to get out of Congress or be ratified by thirty-eight state legislatures.

If the goal is to make income tax fairer or trade it for a different tax, then a revision of the XVI Amendment could do the trick. However, if the goal is to collapse the deficit—and eventually the debt—then reform needs to address both the income and spending sides. This means that revision of the XVI Amendment should probably be done in conjunction with a Balanced Budget Amendment. A consolidated reform approach would provide the best chance of ratification and fixing our country’s finances. Alas, that would take leadership. Where is Alexander Hamilton when you need him?

James D. Best is the author of Tempest at Dawn, a novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention, and Principled Action, Lessons from the Origins of the American Republic.

May 11, 2012

Essay #60


Guest Essayist: James D. Best, author of Tempest at Dawn

Article II, Section 1, Clause 5


5:  No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.


The president of the United States must meet three eligibility requirements. He or she must be a natural born citizen, be at least thirty-five years old, and have resided within the United States for fourteen years.

The first eligibility requirement is that the president be a natural born citizen.

There is an obsolete way to meet the citizenship requirement. The office seeker could have achieved citizenship before nine states ratified the Constitution. With this proviso, the eight foreign-born delegates to the Federal Convention would be eligible. Before ratification could become a possibility, the Constitution had to make it out of the statehouse, so it was tactful to make every delegate eligible for the executive position.

If a modern candidate is less than two-hundred and twenty years old, he must be a natural born citizen. Someone born inside the United States is a natural born citizen. Although some disagree, persons born outside the United States to United States citizens are considered natural born citizens. The first Congress in 1790 declared that “the children of citizens of the United States, that may be born beyond the sea, or out of the limits of the United States, shall be considered as natural born citizens.” The only reason this did not close the argument is that a Congressional statute cannot alter or clarify the supreme law of the land, but it certainly can be used to determine intent of the framers.

What was the intent of the framers? It actually varied by individual, as it did on many issues. When they debated this clause, Benjamin Franklin said, “When foreigners after looking about for some other country in which they can obtain more happiness, give a preference to ours it is a proof of attachment which ought to excite our confidence and affection.”1

Gouverneur Morris disagreed. “As for those philosophical ‘citizens of the world,’ I don’t want them in public councils. I do not trust them. A man who shakes off attachment to his country can never love any other.”1

(The debates can enlighten on original intent, but in the end, it was the votes that determined what the Constitution meant.)

The president must also be at least thirty-five years old upon taking the oath of office. Today, thirty-five seems young. Theodore Roosevelt was the youngest president at forty-two, and John F. Kennedy was the youngest elected president at forty-three. In 1787, thirty-five was not young. Alexander Hamilton was still five years away from eligibility. His fellow delegates Jonathon Dayton, John Mercer, Richard Dobbs Spaight, and Charles Pinckney were all younger. Even the Father of the Constitution, James Madison, was only thirty-six.

The last eligibility requirement is that the president must have resided within the United States for fourteen years. Justice Story opined that “residence in the constitution, is to be understood, not an absolute inhabitancy within the United States during the whole period; but such an inhabitancy, as includes a permanent domicil in the United States.” Due to draft wording of this clause and the precedent-setting election of Herbert Hoover, it is generally accepted that the fourteen years can be cumulative.

It is also interesting what is not included in this clause. There are no religious, property, hereditary, or military service requirements. Also, Fifty-five men framed a constitution that requires no amendment for a woman president.

1 The Franklin and Morris quotes have been changed to first person from the third person used by James Madison in his notes.

James D. Best is an author who writes historical novels and contemporary novels with a strong historical theme. Tempest at Dawn is a dramatization of the 1787 Constitutional Convention.

Guest Essayist: James D. Best, author of Tempest at Dawn

One of the criticisms raised against the Constitution was that there were too few members in the House of Representatives to adequately represent constituents.

The rule reads: “The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand.”

Federalist 55 argued that a representative body ought to have enough members to mitigate the threat of corruption, but not so many so as to cause confusion. The initial number would be 65, but a census in three years would adjust this number. Federalist 55 basically argues that the number in the state legislatures varied, and if 65 members were too few, it would be increased in a short time after the first census.

Federalist 56 addresses the objection that a small House would not possess the collective knowledge necessary to make laws.

The first argument is one that we’ve heard before: The powers of the national legislature are limited, and state legislatures would have specific knowledge for the powers retained by the states. “In determining the extent of information required in the exercise of a particular authority, recourse then must be had to the objects within the purview of that authority.” Since the national government had only enumerated powers, the House did not need a broad breadth of knowledge.

This led easily into the second argument, which was that national law could rely on state laws. “The laws of the state, framed by representatives from every part of it, will be almost of themselves a sufficient guide … little more to be done by the federal legislature, than to review the different laws, and reduce them in one general act.”

Both arguments show that Publius believed the states would handle the preponderance of legislation and act as a safeguard against the federal government.

For these reasons, Publius concludes “that a representative for every THIRTY THOUSAND INHABITANTS will render the latter both a safe and competent guardian of the interests which will be confided to it.”

This may seem like a minor issue, but in 1787 it grabbed the attention of the most powerful politician in the country. In the last days of the convention, George Washington verbally supported allowing a representative for every thirty thousand, rather than one for every forty thousand. In his convention notes, Madison wrote, This was the only occasion on which the President entered at all into the discussions of the Convention.

During the convention, James Madison also proposed doubling the initial number of congressmen, but as part of the Publius triumvirate, he ended up defending the smaller number.

What about today? Until 1911, the number of representatives was adjusted by population. Since that year, the population criterion has been adjusted to keep the number of representatives constant. The “shall not exceed” clause allowed the House of Representatives to restrict their membership to 435. Congress restricted their growth in number, but not their growth in power.

A quote from Federalist 55 shows that Publius never anticipated a dominating Congress. “I am unable to conceive that the State legislatures, which must feel so many motives to watch, and which possess so many means of counteracting, the federal legislature, would fail either to detect or to defeat a conspiracy of the latter against the liberties of their common constituents.”

James D. Best is an author who writes historical novels and contemporary novels with a strong historical theme. Tempest at Dawn is a dramatization of the 1787 Constitutional Convention.

character that balances republican virtue, self-restraint, and vigilant self-interest, and on the subtler bonds of cultural and political tradition. Constitutional forms help, but, ultimately, responsibility lies with the people.

Madison warns against laws that will not have “full operation on [Congressmen] and their friends, as well as on the great mass of the society.” Making only laws that are universally applicable “has always been deemed one of the strongest bonds by which human policy can connect the rulers and the people together.”  Citizen legislators must not be a privileged class.

Though the Republican take-over of Congress in 1995 spurred the passage of a law that removed Congressional exemption from a dozen anti-discrimination, labor, and safety laws, there yet remain other laws that apply to private citizens but not to Congress. Madison asserts that the American spirit will restrain the legislature from making legal discriminations in their favor and that of a particular class. “If this spirit shall ever be so far debased, as to tolerate a law not obligatory on the legislature as well as on the people, the people will be prepared to tolerate anything but liberty.” Where does that place us?  As many have said in some variant about republican systems, “The people get the government they deserve.”

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

An expert on constitutional law, Prof. Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law.  Prof. Knipprath has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums.  His website is


Guest Essayist: James D. Best, author of Tempest at Dawn

Federalist 59-61 address the federal power to regulate the election of senators and representatives. The clause being defended by Hamilton reads: “The times, places, and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof; but the Congress may, at any time, by law, make or alter such regulations, except as to the places of choosing senators.”

Vox Populi, in Anti-federalist 59, argued against the national congress regulating the election of senators and representatives. This was viewed as an infringement on state sovereignty and a possible tool of national tyranny.

In Federalist 59, Hamilton defended this clause by saying that every government must have the means to defend itself. The safety of the national government depended on its authority to override state rules that were harmful to the election of its own members.

In Federalist 60, Hamilton again argues against unfettered state authority over the election of members of the United States Congress. A national override of election laws is less pertinent than the arguments used by Hamilton. He defends the clause by stressing that safety from oppressive laws comes from the careful distribution of power and divergent methods of selecting each component of the national government.

He says, “the circumstance which will be likely to have the greatest influence in the matter, will be the dissimilar modes of constituting the several component parts of the government. The House of Representatives being to be elected immediately by the people, the Senate by the State legislatures, the President by electors chosen for that purpose by the people, there would be little probability of a common interest to cement these different branches in a predilection for any particular class of electors.”

One is struck by the recurrence of the checks and balances theme—in Madison’s convention notes, the Constitution itself, the Federalist Papers, and the minutes of the ratification conventions. There can be no doubt that the Founders believed that liberty depended on one part of the government acting as an effective check on all other parts of the government, and that meant between the national branches and between the states and the national government. The Founders abhorred concentrated power. They believed that only through judiciously balanced power—constituted by dissimilar modes—could liberty survive the natural tendency of man to dictate the habits of other men.

Hamilton made another interesting argument. If elected officials violated the Constitution to usurp power, “Would they not fear that citizens, not less tenacious than conscious of their rights, would flock from the remote extremes of their respective states to the places of election, to overthrow their tyrants, and to substitute men who would be disposed to avenge the violated majesty of the people?”

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

James D. Best is an author who writes historical novels and contemporary novels with a strong historical theme. Tempest at Dawn is a dramatization of the 1787 Constitutional Convention.