Books

James Madison Tag

In the last four years, partisan politics have reached a new low in our nation. Everyone deplores this, but the American people made their preference clear in the last presidential election, with a landslide vote for Biden and the Democrats, against Trump and his party (whatever that is, the Republican Party or some nightmare of a Trumpist party). Agonies in the Republican Party become more evident every day. Is it time for a new party? A third major party? The revamping of the GOP? For that matter, united as they seem to be, Democrats also have internal fault lines—progressive versus conservative—within their fold. Since the 1850s, the Democratic Party—center left and liberal—and the Republican Party—center right and conservative—have formed our two-party system, with variations. (Third parties do operate in the United States and sometimes elect candidates to local offices, but have not made inroads per se nationally. The largest third party since...

Laid low last week by an acute case of food poisoning, I swam in and out of cognitive ratiocination in a fog of rolling nausea. But I had some insights on race, precipitated probably by news of the reliably unchangeable British family–which of late is happily more changeable. These insights, such as they were, are on whiteness—and on families. But the American version, with two major characters. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), draftsman of the Declaration of Independence, the nation’s first secretary of state (1789–94), second vice president (1797–1801) and, as the third president (1801–09), the statesman responsible for the Louisiana Purchase. An early advocate of total separation of church and state, he also was founder and architect of the University of Virginia and the most eloquent proponent of individual freedom as the meaning of the American Revolution. Sallie Hemings (1773-1835) came to Jefferson's Virginia estate, Monticello, as an enslaved infant, part of...

I once inveighed against the American system of government, longing instead for the parliamentary system that permitted the bringing down of an administration whenever enough support for that could be mustered. Oh, think of that! The United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate are in fact modeled respectively on the British House of Commons and House of Lords, the Senate having longer terms, being originally selected not by popular vote but by each state legislature, and assumed to be further removed from the popular politics of the so called "rabble," thus better insulated to consider great matters of the nation. The US Senate was designed to represent the states--that each state would stand in a relationship of equality with the others. It was an expression of federalism. The US House of Representatives was designed to represent the nation. It was the expression of democracy, representing the...

Well, that was certainly dramatic: the debates, and then Covid 19. Still, we’re going to stay focused, persisting with our single in-depth subject related to the elections. The Post Office, The Census, the Debates, and today (brace yourself): The Electoral College.

The census?! Who cares? Boring! Well, if you think you know all about the census, you haven’t been paying attention. Enshrining this particular political tool in our Constitution marked a turning point in world history. Previously, censuses had been used to tax, confiscate property, or conscript male youth into military service. The visionary genius of our Founders lay in making this tool of government into a tool of political empowerment for the governed over their government. The plan was to count every person living in the newly created United States of America, and to use that count to determine representation in the Congress. Right now, it’s being manipulated to do just the opposite. But unlike the Postal Service, another fundamental American institution under siege, it isn’t garnering public support, although this is the first time the census has been conducted since the rise of social media, and the first time...

This is the third and last installment of a three-part meditation on women’s suffrages—plural. Parts One and Two examined the tortured twisting path of suffrage in this country, which always prioritized white, Christian, land-holding, property-owning males. Contrary to all the national mythography, the record shows historical hostility toward women and toward those men who were poorer, or “foreign.” That is, unless they were useful: Native Americans whose land and lives were for the taking, Africans abducted and forced here into enslavement, Chinese “imported” to build railroads and infrastructure and then no longer welcome, and so on. Women? Servants of the indentured, slaves of the slaves. In Parts One and Two, I tried to offer consciousness-changers that have meant much to me and that I recommend as sources for self-education about a legacy with which we are both burdened and privileged. The burdened part—well, see above. The privilege comes in, for every American, because the Framers (white, propertied, highly flawed males) nonetheless shared an impossibly impractical, aspirational vision that had not been put to the test of practice anywhere, ever. They knew that realizing that vision in reality would be a continuous, arduous task. The phrase "To form a more perfect union” in the Preamble to the Constitution reveals a diplomatically cautious James Madison trying to affirm the vision and not insult the original 13 states yet acknowledge the endless road ahead. So that was the goal of Parts One and Two. Now it’s time to get personal.

This week I want to focus on a small story that got insufficient coverage in the Trump glut of news, since it merely is about two of the most important founding principals of our Republic: freedom of speech and freedom of religion. You may have heard that on April 16, Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan announced that Fr. Patrick Conroy, a Jesuit priest and the House chaplain since 2011, would be stepping down. A day later, it turned out that Conroy was not leaving voluntarily but that the Speaker's chief of staff had told him to resign or be fired. Conroy duly tendered his letter of resignation, to take effect on May 24. But then in strode Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader and former Speaker herself, to Conroy's defense. Pelosi takes her Catholicism as seriously as her politics—yet she once endured a six-year estrangement from her mother, with...

Last week, I referred to the genesis of the Second Amendment, and its original intent. The volume of listener response, stunned at hearing facts I mentioned in passing, made me realize it was time to revisit this subject in greater depth. I'd done just that a few years ago, but there are lots of new readers on this blog post, and besides, in this "information age," facts can get buried under so-called information. Some scholars still disagree with aspects of this finding, but it's pretty well-documented history, thanks to the work of Roger Williams School of Law professor Carl T. Bogus in 1998, as well as that of historian Richard Hildreth as early as 1840 (on the antebellum South), and in 1995 of Clayton Cramer, on the Second Amendment basis for the Black Codes adopted after the Civil War, requiring emancipated Africans and African Americans (but not whites) to obtain...