Category Archives: Founding Fathers
Yesterday, Glenn Reynolds posted a link to a post over at Cool Material which, in a humorous manner, displays what might have happened if historical events had Facebook statuses. I had so much fun with the historical events graphic, I thought I’d take a stab at what some of the Founding Father’s posts might have looked like along with some of the potential comments left afterwards.
I do not support Ken Buck in the Colorado senate race and I will not vote for him. Actually, between his extreme position on abortion, on banning common forms of birth control, and his sexist comments he made about his primary opponent, I think he is quite a jackass.
But even as much as I have some major concerns about Ken Buck and dislike him personally, the Democrats are running some ads that I believe are lacking in historical context and misrepresent the founding principles of our constitution and our republic.
Here’s the first ad entitled “Different”:
This “radical” idea that the state governments would choose their senators instead of the voters is hardly a new idea conjured up by Ken Buck. If we accept the notion that Buck would “rewrite” the Constitution, he would merely be changing the way senators are selected back to the way the founders intended 223 years ago. It wasn’t until the 17th Amendment was passed in 1913 that senators were chosen by popular vote in each state. In fairness, the ad does mention that for “nearly 100 years” Colorado voters picked their senators. It seems to me that the Democrats are counting on the average historical ignorance of civics 101 of the average person to be outraged at such an “un-democratic” idea.
Now to the second ad entitled “Represent”:
The second ad repeats the “rewrite the Constitution” claim but goes even further “change the whole Constitution?” Repealing the 17th Amendment is hardly changing the whole Constitution.
And what about this scandalous idea that Ken Buck wouldn’t necessarily “represent” what Coloradans wanted and would “vote the way he wanted”? Is this really what we want – senators and representatives with no will of their own?
To the lady in the ad who says “If Ken Buck doesn’t want to listen to what we have to voice our opinion then why is he even running?” my response would be that if its up to each senator to poll his or her constituents on each and every issue, why do we even need senators at all? This is why we have elections. If your congress person or senator consistently acts contrary to your principles, vote for someone else on Election Day. If you have a problem with Ken Buck’s policy positions as I do, don’t vote for him.
Despite popular belief, our system of government is not a democracy but a republic based on the rule of law. The senate was designed to be a counter balance to the fickle whims of the majority of citizens. Prior to the 17th Amendment, senators were selected by state legislatures so that the states themselves would be represented at the federal level while the people were represented directly in the House of Representatives.
There are certainly some good arguments for repealing the 17th Amendment that I don’t believe are “radical” at all. For one, if the state legislatures picked the senators, perhaps there would be more reason to pay attention to government at the state level. How many people in 100 can name their senator and representative in their state legislature let alone have any idea about their voting records?
Also, because senators are chosen by popular vote, some argue that their loyalties are not so much with the states they are supposed to represent but the senate itself. As a result, its much easier for the federal government to blackmail the states via unfunded mandates and holding funds hostage if states pass laws the federal government disagrees with (ex: forcing all states to keep the drinking age at 21 in order to receive highway funding).
Certainly, the repealing the 17th Amendment wouldn’t be a panacea and there are probably some very persuasive arguments in supporting the 17th Amendment. No system of government is perfect even in its most ideal form.
The founders were keenly aware that majorities could be as tyrannical as any monarch or dictator. A more democratic government does not necessarily mean people have more liberty; the opposite is more likely the case.
Today marks the 223rd anniversary of the U.S. Constitution, allegedly the supreme law of the land. The framers of the Constitution recognized that over time changes would need to be made through an amendment process. In the intervening 223 years, this document has been amended only 27 times.
This brings me to the question I want to pose to readers: what top 3 amendments would you make if you could and why?
Here are my top 3 in no particular order:
1. Rebalancing the Scales of Justice Amendment: The
4th 6th Amendment’s guarantee for the accused to have a court appointed [see comments below] lawyer is a wonderful idea but incomplete. Sure, the accused can be represented by a public defender but does not have nearly the resources available as the prosecution. My proposed amendment would go further than the 4th 6th Amendment and state that the accused would be guaranteed the same resources in his or her defense as the prosecution. For every tax dollar spent to prosecute a dollar would be made available for the defense (whether or not the accused uses a court appointed attorney). This amendment would also guarantee compensation for the wrongfully accused, hold prosecutors criminally and civilly responsible for withholding exculpatory evidence from the jury, and clearly state that a compelling claim of “actual innocence” (due to newly discovered evidence or technological breakthroughs) would be reason enough for a new trial for the previously convicted.
2. Term Limits Amendment: A single 6 year term for president, 2 terms for senators (keep the current 6 year term), 6 terms for representatives (keep the current 2 year term). These terms would be limited for consecutive terms only; if a president wants to make another run, s/he could do so after sitting out a term while senators and representatives would have to sit out a full 12 years (and make them deal with the consequences of their laws as private citizens for awhile) or run for a different office.
3. Accident of Birth Amendment: This would revise Article II, Section 1 removing the requirement that the president must be a natural born citizen and changing the requirement to match that of a U.S. senator. While this requirement might have made sense 223 years ago when the nation was getting started, we are now to a point to where we can do away with it. I don’t like the idea of disqualifying an individual for something s/he had absolutely no control over. Also, this would force the birthers to think about something else other than Obama’s birth certificate : )
Now it’s your turn.
In his post that started this debate, Brad Warbiany makes this point about the idea that the individual states have the power, or at least the right, to make declarations as to the Constitutionality of Federal laws:
Nullification is the civil disobedience of Federalism. Is it legal? No. After all, the Supremacy Clause and judicial review see to that. But it wasn’t legal for Rosa Parks to sit at the front of the bus, or for black students to sit at a “Whites-only” counter at Woolworth’s. Sometimes, the law is a ass. Sometimes, you need to disobey to make a point.
Viewed this way, nullification is less about disobedience as it is about changing policy. Nullification is a tactic in a wider strategy. It is a way to register unhappiness with federal dictates without necessarily going full-bore and threatening secession. Further, it is a way to demonstrate, by direct example, that changes in policy are preferable to the way Washington demands.
Taking this view of nullification, I don’t necessarily disagree with Brad on the value of state’s, and their citizens, weighing in on what they believe to be a usurpation of Federal power. After all, this is something that has a long and noble history in America. When President John Adams persuaded Congress to pass The Alien and Sedition Acts, Thomas Jefferson, who at that point was serving as Adams’s Vice-President, and James Madison worked together to draft and ensure the passage of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which were resolutions passed by the state legislatures of Virginia and Kentucky to condemn laws which Adams’s opponents viewed as both unconstitutional and near-dictatorial.
The resolutions — which you can read here, here, and here — are interesting in themselves because they contain one of the first post-ratifications statements by American leaders of what they believe the Constitution to mean, as this excerpt from the Kentucky Resolution of 1798 shows wonderfully:
2. Resolved, That the Constitution of the United States having delegated to Congress a power to punish treason, counterfeiting the securities and current coin of the United States, piracies and felonies committed on the high seas, and offences against the laws of nations, and no other crimes, whatsoever; and it being true, as a general principle, and one of the amendments to the Constitution having also declared, that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people,”—therefore, also, the same act of Congress, passed on the 14th day of July, 1798, and entitled “An Act in Addition to the Act entitled ‘An Act for the Punishment of certain Crimes against the United States;’” as also the act passed by them on the 27th day of June, 1798, entitled “An Act to punish Frauds committed on the Bank of the United States,” (and all other their acts which assume to create, define, or punish crimes other than those so enumerated in the Constitution,) are altogether void, and of no force; and that the power to create, define, and punish, such other crimes is reserved, and of right appertains, solely and exclusively, to the respective states, each within its own territory.
3. Resolved, That it is true, as a general principle, and is also expressly declared by one of the amendments to the Constitution, that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people;” and that, no power over the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, or freedom of the press, being delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, all lawful powers respecting the same did of right remain, and were reserved to the states, or the people; that thus was manifested their determination to retain to themselves the right of judging how far the licentiousness of speech, and of the press, may be abridged without lessening their useful freedom, and how far those abuses which cannot be separated from their use, should be tolerated rather than the use be destroyed; and thus also they guarded against all abridgment, by the United States, of the freedom of religious principles and exercises, and retained to themselves the right of protecting the same, as this, stated by a law passed on the general demand of its citizens, had already protected them from all human restraint or interference; and that, in addition to this general principle and express declaration, another and more special provision has been made by one of the amendments to the Constitution, which expressly declares, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” thereby guarding, in the same sentence, and under the same words, the freedom of religion, of speech, and of the press, insomuch that whatever violated either throws down the sanctuary which covers the others,—and that libels, falsehood, and defamation, equally with heresy and false religion, are withheld from the cognizance of federal tribunals. That therefore the act of Congress of the United States, passed on the 14th of July, 1798, entitled “An Act in Addition to the Act entitled ‘An Act for the Punishment of certain Crimes against the United States,'” which does abridge the freedom of the press, is not law, but is altogether void, and of no force.
That’s mighty strong language. Stronger, some would say, than the laws that a few states have passed since March challenging the Federal Government’s authority to require Americans to purchase health insurance. However, it’s worth noting what Madison and Jefferson were not doing, because as Madison acknowledged in his defense of the resolutions, there is no Constitutional authority granted to the states that would allow them to nullify a Federal law:
Nor can the declarations of either [the citizens or the legislature of Virginia], whether affirming or denying the constitutionality of measures of the Federal Government, or whether made before or after judicial decisions thereon, be deemed, in any point of view, an assumption of the office of the judge. The declarations, in such cases, are expressions of opinion, unaccompanied with any other effect than what they may produce on opinion, by exciting reflection. The expositions of the judiciary, on the other hand, are carried into immediate effect by force. The former may lead to a change in the legislative expression of the general will; possibly to a change in the opinion of the judiciary; the latter enforces the general will, whilst that will and that opinion continue unchanged.
And if there be no impropriety in declaring the unconstitutionality of proceedings in the Federal Government, where can be the impropriety of communicating the declaration to other states, and inviting their concurrence in a like declaration? What is allowable for one, must be allowable for all; and a free communication among the states, where the Constitution imposes no restraint, is as allowable among the state governments as among other public bodies or private citizens. This consideration derives a weight, that cannot be denied to it, from the relation of the state legislatures to the federal legislature, as the immediate constituents of one of its branches. . . .
Considering that this was written by a man who was both one of the principle authors of the Constitution and one of the authors of the Resolutions, it seems to me that it is fairly persuasive evidence that, whatever else the Tenth Amendment might mean, the Founders never intended to give the individual states the power to nullify state laws.
So, basically, that leaves “nullification” (and personally I don’t like the word because of it’s historical associations with secessionists and segregationists) in the category that Brad would put it; a method by which the citizens can, through their state legislatures and the Courts if necessary, petition Congress for a redress of grievances.
However, when nullification is discussed today, it isn’t the “civil disobedience” variety that Brad favors that’s being advocated. In his new book, Nullification: How to Resist Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century Thomas Woods essentially argues for a full-throated right on the part of the states to ignore Federal laws if they choose to do so:
Nullification is Thomas Jefferson’s idea, articulated most clearly in his Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, that if the federal government passes a law that reaches beyond the powers delegated by the states, the states should refuse to enforce it. Jefferson believed that if the federal government is allowed to hold a monopoly on determining what its powers are, we have no right to be surprised when it keeps discovering new ones. If they violate the Constitution, we are “duty bound to resist,” to quote James Madison’s Virginia Resolutions of 1798.
Now this is a vast simplification of the argument that Woods makes, you can get a better idea of what he means in this interview:
I have yet to read Woods’ book, and still want to, but it’s fairly clear that his argument suffers from the fact that there just isn’t any historical support for his idea that the Constitution grants states the right to essentially break Federal law by ignoring it if they believe that it is unconstitutional. Any reliance on the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, for example, is easily rebutted by Madison’s own admission that the Resolutions were expressions of opinion rather than something that had the force of law.
History after the Resolutions doesn’t really provide any support for Woods’ argument either. The most notable example came during the Nullification Crisis of 1832, when South Carolina purported to declare a Federal import tariff unconstitutional and took steps to prevent Federal agents from collecting tariffs on goods entering through the Port of Charleston. Though the matter was resolved, it set the nation down a road toward secession that resulted in the bloodiest war in American history. After the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, ten Southern states used the doctrine of nullification, and the related concept of interposition, to attempt to resist efforts desegregate school and refuse to enforce the Court’s decision. In Cooper v. Aaron, the Supreme Court held that such efforts were unconstitutional:
Article VI of the Constitution makes the Constitution the “supreme Law of the Land.” In 1803, Chief Justice Marshall, speaking for a unanimous Court, referring to the Constitution as “the fundamental and paramount law of the nation,” declared in the notable case of Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137, 177, that “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” This decision declared the basic principle that the federal judiciary is supreme in the exposition of the law of the Constitution, and that principle has ever since been respected by this Court and the Country as a permanent and indispensable feature of our constitutional system. It follows that the interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment enunciated by this Court in the Brown case is the supreme law of the land, and Art. VI of the Constitution makes it of binding effect on the States “any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.” Every state legislator and executive and judicial officer is solemnly committed by oath taken pursuant to Art. VI, cl. 3, “to support this Constitution.” Chief Justice Taney, speaking for a unanimous Court in 1859, said that this requirement reflected the framers’ “anxiety to preserve it [the Constitution] in full force, in all its powers, and to guard against resistance to or evasion of its authority, on the part of a State . . . .” Ableman v. Booth, 21 How. 506, 524.
No state legislator or executive or judicial officer can war against the Constitution without violating his undertaking to support it. Chief Justice Marshall spoke for a unanimous Court in saying that: “If the legislatures of the several states may, at will, annul the judgments of the courts of the United States, and destroy the rights acquired under those judgments, the constitution itself becomes a solemn mockery . . . .” United States v. Peters, 5 Cranch 115, 136. A Governor who asserts a [358 U.S. 1, 19] power to nullify a federal court order is similarly restrained. If he had such power, said Chief Justice Hughes, in 1932, also for a unanimous Court, “it is manifest that the fiat of a state Governor, and not the Constitution of the United States, would be the supreme law of the land; that the restrictions of the Federal Constitution upon the exercise of state power would be but impotent phrases . . . .” Sterling v. Constantin, 287 U.S. 378, 397 -398.
In other words, if nullification of the type Woods advances actually existed, we would no longer live in a Federal system, but in something more closely resembling the Articles of Confederation. Since the Constitution was written to replace the Articles, it’s clear that the Founders never intended to give the states the power to decide for themselves what the Constitution means and to randomly choose to ignore Federal laws based on that interpretation. Therefore, Woods’ nullification is little more than a professorial fantasy.
In closing, I don’t necessarily object to the kind of “civil disobedience” nullification that Brad favors. Let’s just not pretend it has the force of law.