Resquiescat in Pace: Gene Wilder

 

 

One of the great comedic talents of his day, Gene Wilder passed away last Monday at age 83.    Like so many in Hollywood, Wilder was a political liberal.  Unlike so many in Hollywood, he remembered that his function was to entertain, and that people did not come to his films to hear him spout of on politics.  I will miss him.

Advertisements
Published in: on August 31, 2016 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Resquiescat in Pace: Gene Wilder  
Tags: , , ,

Federalist 63 – Madison

In Federalist 63, James Madison picks up where he left off in Federalist 62 to discuss the Senate. At the outset of the essay he continues to argue that the Senate would provide a form of stability in government that would be reassuring to foreign powers. Moreover, the Senate, with its longer tenure, would be a stabilizing force in the national character.

Yet however requisite a sense of national character may be, it is evident that it can never be sufficiently possessed by a numerous and changeable body. It can only be found in a number so small that a sensible degree of the praise and blame of public measures may be the portion of each individual; or in an assembly so durably invested with public trust, that the pride and consequence of its members may be sensibly incorporated with the reputation and prosperity of the community.

He proceeds to this next point, and in some ways it is a bit of a paradox, as Madison himself admits:

I add, as a sixth defect the want, in some important cases, of a due responsibility in the government to the people, arising from that frequency of elections which in other cases produces this responsibility. This remark will, perhaps, appear not only new, but paradoxical. It must nevertheless be acknowledged, when explained, to be as undeniable as it is important.

This is paradoxical because the Senate – due to the nature of elections and the length of tenure – would seem to be the anti-democratic institution, yet Madison is here arguing it would be more responsible to the people. But note he says responsible, not responsive. In fact it is its non-responsiveness that makes it, paradoxically, more responsible.

Responsibility, in order to be reasonable, must be limited to objects within the power of the responsible party, and in order to be effectual, must relate to operations of that power, of which a ready and proper judgment can be formed by the constituents. The objects of government may be divided into two general classes: the one depending on measures which have singly an immediate and sensible operation; the other depending on a succession of well-chosen and well-connected measures, which have a gradual and perhaps unobserved operation. The importance of the latter description to the collective and permanent welfare of every country, needs no explanation. And yet it is evident that an assembly elected for so short a term as to be unable to provide more than one or two links in a chain of measures, on which the general welfare may essentially depend, ought not to be answerable for the final result, any more than a steward or tenant, engaged for one year, could be justly made to answer for places or improvements which could not be accomplished in less than half a dozen years. Nor is it possible for the people to estimate the share of influence which their annual assemblies may respectively have on events resulting from the mixed transactions of several years. It is sufficiently difficult to preserve a personal responsibility in the members of a numerous body, for such acts of the body as have an immediate, detached, and palpable operation on its constituents.

The proper remedy for this defect must be an additional body in the legislative department, which, having sufficient permanency to provide for such objects as require a continued attention, and a train of measures, may be justly and effectually answerable for the attainment of those objects.

The next argument on this point is yet another fundamental revelation of Madison’s political philosophy.

To a people as little blinded by prejudice or corrupted by flattery as those whom I address, I shall not scruple to add, that such an institution may be sometimes necessary as a defense to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions. As the cool and deliberate sense of the community ought, in all governments, and actually will, in all free governments, ultimately prevail over the views of its rulers; so there are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn. In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career, and to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind? What bitter anguish would not the people of Athens have often escaped if their government had contained so provident a safeguard against the tyranny of their own passions? Popular liberty might then have escaped the indelible reproach of decreeing to the same citizens the hemlock on one day and statues on the next.

In order for democracy to survive there needs to be an element of the constitution checking the democratic impulse. In some ways this almost sounds a bit like Rousseau and his famous declaration that the the people “will forced to be free” under his social contract. This is perhaps not so cynical, and it echoes a recurrent theme in Madison’s writings, namely, that the momentary will of the majority is one the same majority may come to regret after a moment’s reflection. It would therefore be beneficial to have an institution which existed to curb the spontaneous outburst of the democratic will. Over time, if the popular will remains as it had been, then the Senate will reflect this popular appetetite,  but only after sufficient time has passed.

In the next paragraph Madison has to answer himself in order to justify this viewpoint.

It may be suggested, that a people spread over an extensive region cannot, like the crowded inhabitants of a small district, be subject to the infection of violent passions, or to the danger of combining in pursuit of unjust measures. I am far from denying that this is a distinction of peculiar importance. I have, on the contrary, endeavored in a former paper to show, that it is one of the principal recommendations of a confederated republic. At the same time, this advantage ought not to be considered as superseding the use of auxiliary precautions. It may even be remarked, that the same extended situation, which will exempt the people of America from some of the dangers incident to lesser republics, will expose them to the inconveniency of remaining for a longer time under the influence of those misrepresentations which the combined industry of interested men may succeed in distributing among them.

This is another recurring theme. Sure an extended republic, as advocated in Federalist 10, provides a mechansim for curbing violent passions, but auxiliary precautions are needed. It is not enough to trust the nature of the extended republic to provide safeguards against democratic exuberance; rather, other institutional mechansisms will also be needed.

Madison proceeds to outline how all historical republics had a Senate, and how these institutions are relevant to the American case. He then answers the charge that the Senate would become an aristocratic form of tyranny by first noting that “liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as by the abuses of power.” He then provides a more substantive response:

Before such a revolution can be effected, the Senate, it is to be observed, must in the first place corrupt itself; must next corrupt the State legislatures; must then corrupt the House of Representatives; and must finally corrupt the people at large. It is evident that the Senate must be first corrupted before it can attempt an establishment of tyranny. Without corrupting the State legislatures, it cannot prosecute the attempt, because the periodical change of members would otherwise regenerate the whole body. Without exerting the means of corruption with equal success on the House of Representatives, the opposition of that coequal branch of the government would inevitably defeat the attempt; and without corrupting the people themselves, a succession of new representatives would speedily restore all things to their pristine order. Is there any man who can seriously persuade himself that the proposed Senate can, by any possible means within the compass of human address, arrive at the object of a lawless ambition, through all these obstructions?

It is check upon check upon check. In order for the Senate to become corrupted, the state legislatures themselves would have to become corrupted. In other words, unless every single other institution becomes corrupted, there is little or no chance of the Senate becoming corrupted. Thisis a seemingly endless labyrinth of institutional safeguards, combined with the federlist nature of the government and the extended republic, all meant to protect liberty from itself.

Published in: on August 30, 2016 at 5:14 pm  Comments Off on Federalist 63 – Madison  
Tags: , , , ,

Lossing and His Pictorial Field Book

2-18-15-973_2_l89_lossingpictoral_-copy2

 

 

Benson John Lossing, journalist and illustrator, in 1848 conceived the project of doing a history of the American Revolution.  At that time the end of the Revolution was 65 years in the past, and if the last survivors of that conflict were to be interviewed about their experiences, this was the time to do it.  Lossing would go to the sites of the battles and other great events, interview participants and make pen an ink drawings of what he saw.  Over the next two years he logged 8,000 miles throughout Canada and the United States.  Lossing displayed rare skill for his time as an historian, doing extensive primary research and carefully weighing the evidence when his sources conflicted.  His interviews with veterans preserved material of real historical value on their nation’s foundign for future generations of Americans. (more…)

Published in: on August 30, 2016 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Lossing and His Pictorial Field Book  
Tags: , ,

August 29, 1786: Shays’ Rebellion Begins

 

In the aftermath of American victory in the Revolutionary War, times were tough in the new nation.  In Massachusetts farmers faced financial ruin as merchants, concerned with the inflation, were demanding repayment of debts in hard currency which was in short supply.  Governor John Hancock attempted to set an example by not demanding that his debtors pay him in hard currency, and he refused to authorize prosecution of those who failed to pay their taxes to the State.  This was to no avail as more farmers began to lose their farms through foreclosure.  That most of these farmers had fought in the Revolution made their plight more poignant, and also suggested that they would not stand idle as they were reduced to poverty.

Violence broke out after James Bowdoin, champion of the merchants, was elected Governor of the Bay State.  On August 29, 1786 a rebellion broke out when a well organized force prevented the court from sitting in Northampton.  Daniel Shays who had served in the Continental Army as a Captain, and who had receive a sword of honor from Lafayette that he had to sell to help pay his debts, participated in the Northampton action.  His name became attached to the Rebellion, but he staunchly denied that he was one of the leaders of the movement.

The Massachusetts government now confronted the quandary of attempting to assert its authority when the only armed force at its disposal were militia levies and much of the militia sympathized with the rebels.   The Federal government of the Articles of Confederation was deaf to appeals for aid, having no armed forces in any case to aid Massachusetts in putting down the Rebellion.

The solution was  a 3000 man militia force under former Continental Major General Benjamin Lincoln.  The force was paid for by 125 merchants who contributed 6000 pounds.  With this force, Lincoln crushed the Rebellion in February 1787.  Casualties were minor, five killed, a few dozen wounded, but the impact of the Rebellion was profound in convincing many of the leaders in the United States of the necessity of revising the weak Articles of Confederation and forming a stronger Federal government.  Shays Rebellion had given rise to outbursts throughout New England, and although they had been quickly quashed, the alarm they raised reached Mount Vernon.

On October 31, 1786 in a letter to Henry Lee, George Washington demonstrated how deeply Shays’ Rebellion disturbed him:

 

(more…)

Published in: on August 29, 2016 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on August 29, 1786: Shays’ Rebellion Begins  
Tags: , , ,

Sermon of Father Mapple

 

 

 

 

John Huston’s film Moby Dick (1956) is a true work of genius.  The only film version worthy of the novel, the screenplay was written by Ray Bradbury who in 10,000 words  got to the essence of the 206,052 word novel.  (Bradbury confessed when he was approached by Huston to do the screenplay that he had never been able to get through the novel.)  A deeply religious film that asks questions about God and the human condition that still  jar us, the most striking scene is the sermon on Jonah by Father Mapple, portrayed unforgettably by Orson Welles.  Enoch Mudge who served as the chaplain of the Seaman’s Bethel in New Bedford and Father E.T. Taylor who served as the chaplain of the Seaman Bethel in Boston, served as the real life models for the fictional Mapple. (At the time of Melville any clergyman of age or authority was often accorded the title “Father” by his parishioners in Protestant churches, a distinction retained today only by Catholics, the Orthodox and a few Protestant churches.)

Welles suffered from a bad case of stage fright just prior to the scene and John Huston produced a bottle to help Welles fortify himself.  Welles then did the scene letter perfect in one take.  Here is the text of the sermon as written by Bradbury for the film:

 

 

 

And God prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. Shipmates, the sin of Jonah was in his disobedience of the command of God. He found it a hard command, and it was, for all the things that God would have us do are hard. If we would obey God, we must disobey ourselves.
But Jonah still further flouts at God by seeking to flee from him. Jonah thinks that a ship made by men will carry him into countries where God does not reign. He prowls among the shipping like a vile burglar, hastening to cross the seas, and as he comes aboard the sailors mark him.
The ship puts out, but soon the sea rebels. It will not bear the wicked burden. A dreadful storm comes up. The ship is like to break. The bo’s’n calls all hands to lighten her. Boxes, bales and jars are clattering overboard, the wind is shrieking, the men are yelling. “I fear the Lord!” cries Jonah, “the God of Heaven who has made the sea and the dry land!”
Again, the sailors mark him. And wretched Jonah cries out to them to cast him overboard, for he knew that for his sake this great tempest was upon them.
Now behold Jonah, taken up as an anchor and dropped into the sea, into the dreadful jaws awaiting him. And the great whale shoots to all his ivory teeth, like so many white bolts, upon his prison.
And Jonah cries unto the Lord, out of the fish’s belly. But observe his prayer, shipmates. He doesn’t weep and wail, he feels his punishment is just. He leaves deliverance to God. And even out of the belly of Hell, grounded upon the ocean’s utmost bones, God heard him when he cried. And God spake unto the whale, and from the shuddering cold and blackness of the deep, the whale breached into the sun and vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.
And Jonah, bruised and beaten, his ears like two seashells still multitudinously murmuring of the ocean … Jonah did the Almighty’s bidding, and what was that, shipmates? To preach the truth in the face of falsehood! 
Now, shipmates, woe to him who seeks to pour oil on the troubled water when God has brewed them into a gale. Yeah, woe to him who, as the pilot Paul has it, while preaching to others is himself a castaway! But delight is to him who against the proud gods and commodores of this Earth, stands forth his own inexorable self, who destroys all sin, though we pluck it out from under the robes of senators, and judges. And eternal delight shall be his who, coming to lay him down, can say “Oh father, mortal or immortal, here I die. I have striven to be thine, more than to be this world’s or mine own, yet this is nothing. I leave eternity to thee, for what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?

 

Here is the much, much lengthier version from the novel  (Too bad that time prevented Ray Bradbury from serving as Melville’s editor!) (more…)

Published in: on August 28, 2016 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Sermon of Father Mapple  
Tags: , , , , ,

Moonlight Sonata

 

Something for the weekend.  Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven.  Written in 1801 it has always been among the more popular of Beethoven’s works.

Published in: on August 27, 2016 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Moonlight Sonata  
Tags: , ,

Federalist 62 – Madison

If you’re keeping score at home, yes I am skipping ahead. It’s not that Federalists 58-61 are not unimportant, but they cover a lot of the same ground about the manner and place of elections. I would like to move ahead to slightly meatier territory.

With Federalist 62 Publius (here Madison) turns his attention to the Senate. Madison first addresses the qualifications of a Senator as distinguished from a Representative, noting a Senator must be at least 30 years of age (25 for a Representative) and at least nine years a citizen versus seven for a Representative. This added age and residency reflects the weightier position, which generally requires more knowledge and a greater amount of time apart from foreign influence.

With regards to the mode of election, Madison states, “It is recommended by the double advantage of favoring a select appointment, and of giving to the State governments such an agency in the formation of the federal government as must secure the authority of the former, and may form a convenient link between the two systems.” This one sentence provides a crucial bit of understanding of the Federalist mindset. The lofitier stature of the Senate necessitates an indirect mode of election. This mode of election lessens the democratic nature of the Senate, while simultaneously providing a greater say to the states in the representation of Congress. This is a critical element in the federalist design, which would be undermined later by passage of the 17th Amendment.

Madison then turns to the equal representation of the Senate. Here he essentially concedes this is a political compromise and not necessarily a reflection of deeper political thought: (more…)

Published in: on August 26, 2016 at 1:17 pm  Comments Off on Federalist 62 – Madison  
Tags: , ,

Quotes Suitable for Framing: Thomas Jefferson

 

 

 

I feel an urgency to note what I deem an error in it, the more requiring notice as your opinion is strengthened by that of many others.  You seem in pages 84. & 148. to consider the judges as the ultimate arbiters of all constitutional questions: a very dangerous doctrine indeed and one which would place us under the despotism of an Oligarchy.  Our judges are as honest as other men, and not more so.  they have, with others, the same passions for party, for power, and the privileges of their corps. Their maxim is ‘boni judicis est ampliare jurisdictionim,’ and their power the more dangerous as they are in office for life, and not responsible, as the other functionaries are, to the elective control.  The constitution has erected no such single tribunal knowing that, to whatever hands confided, with the corruptions of time & party it’s members would become despots.  It has more wisely made all the departments co-equal and co-sovereign within themselves.  If the legislature fails to pass laws for a census, for paying the judges & other officers of government, for establishing a militia, for naturalization, as prescribed by the constitution, or if they fail to meet in Congress, the judges cannot issue their Mandamus to them.  If the President fails to supply the place of a judge, to appoint other civil or military officers, to issue requisite commissions, the judges cannot force him.  They can issue their Mandamus or distringas to no Executive or Legislative officer to enforce the fulfillment of their official duties, any more than the President or legislature may issue orders to the judges or their officers.  Betrayed by English example, & unaware, as it should seem, of the control of our constitution in this particular, they have at times overstepped their limit by undertaking to command executive officers in the discharge of their executive duties.  But the constitution, in keeping the three departments distinct & independant, restrains the authority of the judges to judiciary organs, as it does the executive & legislative, to executive and legislative organs.  The judges certainly have more frequent occasion to act on constitutional questions, because the laws of meum & teum, and of criminal action, forming the great mass of the system of law, constitute their particular department.  When the legislative or executive functionaries act unconstitutionally, they are responsible to the people in their elective capacity.  The exemption of the judges from that is quite dangerous enough. I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society, but the people themselves: and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is, not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.  This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.

Thomas Jefferson to William Charles Jarvis, September 28, 1820

Published in: on August 26, 2016 at 5:30 am  Comments (5)  
Tags: , , ,

Quotes Suitable for Framing: George Washington

 

 

If Historiographers should be hardy enough to fill the page of History with the advantages that have been gained with unequal numbers (on the part of America) in the course of this contest, and attempt to relate the distressing circumstances under which they have been obtained, it is more than probable that Posterity will bestow on their labors the epithet and marks of fiction; for it will not be believed that such a force as Great Britain has employed for eight years in this Country could be baffled in their plan of Subjugating it by numbers infinitely less, composed of Men oftentimes half starved; always in Rags, without pay, and experiencing, at times, every species of distress which human nature is capable of undergoing.

George Washington, letter to Major General Nathaniel Greene, February 6, 1783

Published in: on August 25, 2016 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  

Weasel Words and Theodore Roosevelt

quote-one-of-our-defects-as-a-nation-is-a-tendency-to-use-what-have-been-called-weasel-words-when-a-theodore-roosevelt-309883

 

The more I study Theodore Roosevelt, the more I appreciate the impact he had on this nation, both in large and small ways.  He brought several phrases, for example, into common usage in this country.  One of these is “weasel words”.  Roosevelt did not invent the phrase, he noted that he first heard it used in conversation in 1879, but when he used it the phrase quickly entered American popular usage.  Roosevelt’s most famous use of the phrase was on May 31, 1916 in a speech entitled Mr. Wilson’s Weasel Words in which he attacked Wilson’s call for “voluntary universal military training”, Roosevelt viewing such a plan as inadequate and calling for a draft. (more…)

Published in: on August 24, 2016 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Weasel Words and Theodore Roosevelt  
Tags: ,