Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Can Words On Parchment Constrain Executive Overreach?

“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

The Declaration of Independence used these words to legitimize our founding as a nation. Fifteen simple words, but they embodied a world-shattering idea. Kings supposedly derived their authority from God, but the Declaration declared that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These subversive words flipped the divine right of kings on its head. Instead of kings, God endowed all of mankind with natural rights.

Words can be powerful.

That is, unless they’re ignored. The Constitution is the “supreme law of the land,” but many don’t accept that enumerated powers limit government action. Elected officials “solemnly swear … to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” but many view the words as cant uttered during a swearing-in ritual. Lesser laws are based on a reasonable man’s interpretation of the language, but many regard the “supreme law of the land” as a living document that can mean whatever we need it to mean on any particular day.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Tale of Serendipity

I took historical accuracy seriously when I wrote Tempest at Dawn. I not only read dozens of books about the Constitutional Convention, but studied books on Eighteen Century lifestyle and technology; Philadelphia, New York, and New Haven; the international scene; and numerous biographies of the principle Framers of the Constitution. I also made numerous visits to New Haven, New York, Mount Vernon, Montpelier, and Philadelphia as part of my research.

The events and locations outside of the State House were as accurate as I could portray them. Two major venues in the book were the Indian Queen and City Tavern. (City Tavern remains intact, but alas, the Indian Queen is long gone.) In my penchant for accuracy, I tried to lodge the delegates in the appropriate Inns, homes, and taverns, but I couldn’t find where Roger Sherman stayed during the convention. After looking at every source I could find, I finally decided I would need to make something up. He was not rich, so he would probably stay at a boarding house. I used my wife’s maiden name and put him in a room at Mrs. Marshall’s boarding house. This was a fictional contrivance, but not my only one. I left my other protagonist, James Madison, at the upscale Indian Queen for the duration of the convention when he actually moved elsewhere at some point for privacy.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

I Owe a Great Debt to One of The Founding Fathers

For Constitution Day, Steve Bartin wrote an American Thinker article about Roger Sherman, my favorite Founding Father. Sherman was a powerful influence on our founding and his progeny have been exceptionally influential in our nation’s history. I’m biased, course. In writing Tempest at Dawn, I wanted to present a personal perspective on the major conflicts at the Constitutional Convention. I stumbled around with a few different approaches until I decided to alternate point of view between James Madison and Roger Sherman. Each chapter would switch between these two characters to give the reader a personal as well as fact-based perspective. It worked far better than I expected.

Roger Sherman and James Madison provide a great contrast. Sherman was one of the few who could look the tall George Washington straight in the eye, while a wag described Madison as smaller than a used piece of soap. Sherman was the second oldest delegate and Madison among the youngest. Sherman was an abolitionist, while Madison owned over one hundred slaves. Sherman was taciturn, while Madison was talkative. (Sherman once dedicated a bridge by stomping on it, remarked that it appeared well built, and then walked away.)

constitutional convention Constitution
Roger Sherman and James Madison

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Celebrate Constitution Day by Buying Tempest at Dawn

Okay, that's a bit self-serving, but if you want to understand the Constitutional Convention, Tempest at Dawn is a good place to start. The novel accurately portrays the convention proceeding and the lifestyle of the delegates who attended. If you prefer a nonfiction account, then I recommend Decision In Philadelphia by Christopher Collier.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Death and Taxes

 “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Ben Franklin

Franklin made the above quip many times, always to approving nods. Complaining about taxes is as American as apple pie, Thanksgiving, and NASCAR. After all, the Revolution started over a three pence tax on tea. Here is an excerpt from Tempest at Dawn that shows the Revolution didn't revoke Franklin's immutable law.

The owner of the Indian Queen appeared instantly. Bowing respectfully, he asked, “Gentlemen, is there anything else you desire … another ale, tea and cakes, a plate of cheese? We have excellent cognacs.”
“No, no,” Morris said. “We’re ready to retire. Thank you for your hospitality.”
The innkeeper never looked at Morris; instead he aimed a witless grin at Washington.
“My pleasure. The general’s always welcome at the Indian Queen.”
All evening, Madison had found the Innkeeper’s solicitous behavior irritating. Now he was amused by his inadvertent slight toward the rest of the party. Washington often elicited bumbling adulation.
“Thank you,” Washington said, with a regal nod of the head. “We’ll be in Philadelphia for a spell, so we’ll visit your fine establishment again.”
“Yes, the Federal Convention. A noble endeavor. My best wishes.”
“And what might those wishes be?” Washington asked.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Is the US Constitution Viable in the 21st Century?

U.S. Constitution

Today, many people question the viability of our Constitution. People ask if 18th century men could anticipate the complex issues of the 21st Century. In other words, can something written over two hundred years ago direct a government in our modern world? The short answer is yes, but let me explain.

When James Madison brought the Virginia Plan to Philadelphia, it was not a list of laws, but a system of government. A system that forthrightly recognized the weaknesses of man, and delineated a set of checks and balances to distribute power; not just between the three branches of government, but also between the federal government and the states.

Although the delegates debated endlessly over the elements of the design, and made major revisions to Madison's plan, they always kept the debates focused on limiting centers of powers. They were serious men designing a system of government for the ages to protect liberty for themselves and their posterity. Although not a common phrase at the time, every one of the fifty-five men at the Federal Convention would agree with the maxim that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Lincoln at Cooper Union

Lincoln photo from day of speech

In early 1860, Abraham Lincoln was a little known regional politician from Springfield, Illinois. The Republican Party was new, and had failed running national hero John C. Frémont for president in 1856. Abraham Lincoln chances of ascending to the presidency under the Republican banner were slight. All that changed in New York City on February 27, 1860. That afternoon, Lincoln had his photograph taken by Mathew Brady, and in the evening, he gave a historic speech at the Cooper Union. Lincoln often said that Brady’s photograph and his Cooper Union address propelled him to the presidency.

Below is a highly abridged version of Lincoln’s speech.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

John Boehner in a Pickle Quotes Yours Truly

government news, 2016 campaign
John Boehner

John Boehner posted an article today at Constituting America. Near the beginning, he quotes an earlier article that I wrote for the site: “Concentrated political power frightened the Founders. They especially feared unrestrained executive power.”

It was an honor to be quoted by the Speaker of the House, but I felt his article weak. I suspect that the political turmoil in the 2016 race prompted him to write a reassuring piece claiming that the House was fighting executive encroachment on legislative powers.

Unfortunately, the actions related in the article are old and long ago lost their allure. People are frustrated. They want consequential action, not base appeasement. Few take comfort that the House puts its trust in the glacial judicial branch to protect its prerogatives. The United States Congress has its own powers ... if they can work up the courage to use them.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Celebrating Independence Day in 1787 While Drafting the Constitution

The following excerpt from Tempest at Dawn describes the Independence Day celebration held during the Constitutional Convention. The events and Reverend Campbell’s words are accurate to the historic record.

The cannon fire hurt James Madison’s ears and teared his eyes as concussions pounded his body. Sulfuric mephitis scratched his throat, and the rotten egg odor made him queasy. The thirteen reports ended, but before Madison could draw a grateful and tranquil breath, the artillery brigade started another round.
After three consecutive resounding salutes of thirteen cannon shots, Madison felt exhausted. He had been jostling for a position from which to see the Independence Day celebration when the cannon fire assaulted his senses. The State House Commons throbbed with people keyed up with rum and excitement. The crowd churned on the periphery of the Commons, while the Society of the Cincinnati, the City Calvary, the Light Infantry, and a battalion of militia vied for attention in the center of the swirling people. Each military formation, spruced up in their finest regalia, stood eager to demonstrate their parade skills. The units waited, as did Madison, for the artillery to finish their noisy salute.
Philadelphia, as the site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, took pride in holding the rowdiest Fourth of July gala in the nation. Festivities would go from dawn until deep into the night. The city echoed with public celebrations, ringing bells, and martial music. Every church would conduct special devotionals, and all 117 taverns would compete for revelers with loud entertainment. The formal celebrations had started early in the morning, with city officials, aspiring orators, and preachers making the customary thirteen toasts.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Would Divided Government Have Surprised the Founders?

Recent events in Washington make you wonder if anyone can get along inside the Beltway. It’s not just Democrats versus Republicans—now Democrats war with Democrats and Republicans war with Republicans. And all of them seem at odds with those of us in the hinterlands. Washington is getting like the Middle East without the beheadings.

Are the Founders’ at fault for government dysfunction? Garrett Epps thinks so. In an illogical piece in The Atlantic, Epps claims the Founders never anticipated a divided government. He wrote:

I’m trying to illustrate a dangerous weakness of our system, one that the Framers clearly did not foresee. Many of them believed there would not be political parties in the new system. Others no doubt thought that the government they had designed would consist of a Congress that met for a month or so every December and a president who would supervise a slumbering bureaucracy the rest of the year. Some of them assumed the president would be a passive figure, administering directions from Congress; others imagined a chief executive with some of the majesty of the king of England. I don’t think any of them anticipated that the two branches would ever clash over which represented "the will of the voters."

Epps teaches constitutional law at the University of Baltimore, but it seems he never got beyond grade school American history. (Actually, he probably knows better but hopes the rest of us have a cherry tree understanding of American history.)

First of all, none of the Founders owned a pair of rose colored glasses. These were hard core realists. Their entire design is based on placing guardrails around partisan combatants and tempering human frailty. Claiming the Founders never anticipated divided government is ignorant or disingenuous.

Historians estimate that about one third of the colonists supported a break with England, one third opposed it, and the remaining third kept their head down to avoid musket balls.  That’s pretty partisan. Jolly old Ben Franklin even became estranged from his son because they found themselves on opposite sides of the cause. Estranged is probably too light of a word since Franklin stopped G. Washington from setting his son free in a prisoner swap. Franklin and his son never forgave or forgot. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention knew ratification would be a ferocious battle, and before the convention was even over, took several actions to tilt the debate in their favor. And these men never anticipated partisanship and a divided government?

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign that Changed America By Craig Shirley

Tempest at Dawn, the founding of the United States

Theodore White in his book In Search of History wrote, "Threading an idea into the slipstream of politics, then into government, then into history... is a craft which I have since come to consider the most important in the world." This was Ronald Reagan's gift ... and it is a rare gift indeed.

I grew up enthralled with Theodore White’s Making of the President series. Shirley’s book does not measure up to White, but that has more to do with White’s mastery than with Shirley’s shortcomings. With White no longer with us, I’m glad Shirley has picked up the mantleat least for Ronald Reagan’s campaigns.