Tag Archives: Constitution

Congresswoman apparently thinks the Constitution is 400 years old

It’s good to see such high standards of historical literacy maintained in our nation’s capital.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, speaking on the House floor: “Maybe I should offer a good thanks to the distinguished members of the majority, the Republicans, my chairman and others, for giving us an opportunity to have a deliberative constitutional discussion that reinforces the sanctity of this nation and how well it is that we have lasted some 400 years, operating under a Constitution that clearly defines what is constitutional and what is not.”

The charitable thing to do would be to chalk this up to a verbal slip and assume she had the founding of Jamestown somewhere in the back of her mind.  But since this is the same person who thought Vietnam was still divided in 2010, and who once asked someone from NASA if the Mars Rover had taken a picture of Neil Armstrong’s flag, I’m not optimistic.

quotespictures.net

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The Anti-Federalists said there’ll be days like this

A columnist at WND seems to be suggesting that the Framers are the ones who screwed up this whole America thing:

It is high time Americans celebrate the Anti-Federalists, for they were correct in predicting the fate of freedom after Philadelphia.

To deny that the Anti-Federalists were right is to deny reality.

Having prophesied that Philadelphia was the beginning of the end of the freedoms won in the American Revolution, our Anti-Federalist philosophical fathers fought to forestall the inevitable. They failed.

Now you know who got us into this mess. It was these guys:

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Lincoln, law, and necessity

Cross-posted at the blog of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy

I asked the students in my introductory Lincoln course to write an essay on Lincoln’s use of presidential power. I told them to decide whether Lincoln abused his authority and overstepped the Constitution, whether he was too timid, or whether he used his power judiciously, and to defend their answer in a short paper.

Although I assured the class that there was no “right” answer to the question, and that they were free to excoriate Lincoln as harshly as they wanted, the results came back overwhelmingly in his favor. Of some two dozen students, only three found his use of power excessive. The rest of the class generally agreed that Lincoln acted properly, given the circumstances he faced.

Interestingly, though, the two groups defended their positions quite differently. The students who argued that Lincoln assumed too much presidential power cited specific passages of the Constitution to make their case. Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, in particular, came in for criticism. As these students noted, the Constitution permits such an act “when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it,” but this passage is found in the article dealing with powers of Congress. The legality of a presidential suspension of habeas corpus while the legislature was out of session was therefore a matter of controversy during the Civil War, and it remains so today.

Adalbert Volck depicted Lincoln as Don Quixote with his foot on the Constitution in this 1861 etching. Image from the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

The students who defended Lincoln, by and large, did not try to cite law and precedent to demonstrate that his actions were legal. Instead, they argued from necessity. Rebellion on the scale of the Civil War was something no other president had faced, and most students felt he had no choice but to act as he did in order to preserve the Union.

A few of the students who defended Lincoln did find him a bit too hesitant in one respect; they wished he had issued his emancipation decree sooner. But they also noted that their preferences in timing weren’t necessarily practical, and agreed that Lincoln had good reasons for waiting as long as he did.

I found it interesting that the two groups of students differed in their approaches, because Lincoln himself used both law and necessity in defending his more controversial policies. Referring to his suspension of habeas corpus in a message to Congress in 1861, he noted that “the attention of the country has been called to the proposition that one who is sworn to ‘take care that the laws be faithfully executed,’ should not himself violate them.” At the same time, however, he observed that all the Constitution’s provisions were essentially going unenforced “in nearly one-third of the States.” Was it acceptable for “all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated? Even in such a case, would not the official oath be broken, if the government should be overthrown, when it was believed that disregarding the single law, would tend to preserve it?”

In any case, Lincoln continued, his suspension of habeas corpus was not a case of “disregarding the law.” He believed he had acted within the limits established by the Constitution. After all, that document permits habeas corpus to be suspended in a case of rebellion, and while it does not explicitly permit the executive branch to exercise this power, neither does it explicitly forbid it. Besides, since “the provision was plainly made for a dangerous emergency, it cannot be believed the framers of the instrument intended, that in every case, the danger should run its course, until Congress could be called together; the very assembling of which might be prevented, as was intended in this case, by the rebellion.”

Lincoln thus hedged his rhetorical bets in his message to Congress. He made a case for the constitutionality of his actions, and if that failed to convince his critics, he asked whether they preferred to see one law stretched and the Constitution saved or watch the whole Constitution tossed aside by the rebellion while the Union’s hands remained tied.

If my students’ essays are any indication, many modern Americans will support leaders who use extraordinary means so long as they believe the ends are worthwhile.

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Two anniversaries

Today wasn’t just the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam; it was also the 225th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution.  Wonder if all the guys who labored over that piece of parchment had any idea how expensive it would turn out to be.

 

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Lincoln exhibit in Knoxville

The National Constitution Center’s traveling exhibit “Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War” is currently at the East Tennessee History Center in downtown Knoxville, along with some supplementary material from various historical collections in the region.  Go check it out if you have a chance.

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Disorder–an occasional American pastime

I don’t think Ann Coulter thought this one through.

Contrary to all the blather you always hear about how lawless street protests and civil disobedience are part of the American tradition — “what our troops are fighting for!” — they are not. We are an orderly people with democratic channels at our disposal to change our government.

The very reason we have a constitutional republic is because of a mob uprising. Soon after the American Revolution, Shays’ Rebellion so terrified and angered Americans that they demanded a federal government capable of crushing such mobs.

For nearly 200 years, Americans understood that they lived in a country capable of producing bad politicians and bad policies, but that it was subject to change through peaceful, democratic means. There was no need to riot or storm buildings because we didn’t have a king. We had a representative government.

Well, Americans haven’t always been as docile as she’s making out.  The Whiskey Rebellion, the pro-French mobs of the 1790′s, the New York draft riots, the labor upheavals of the Gilded Age and afterward, the suffragette protestors of the Progressive Era, Coxey’s Army, the numerous and sometimes overlapping movements of the 1960′s…public uproar has been woven pretty deeply into the fabric of American life, and it’s always been a source of divisiveness.  Witness, for example, the contrasting attitudes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson toward Shays’ Rebellion. Washington: “Are they nuts?!”  Jefferson: “Oh, sweet!  A revolt!

What really surprised me, though, was this sentiment: “This is what our Constitution was designed for: to use the force of the federal government to uphold the law when the states couldn’t (Shays’ Rebellion) or wouldn’t (segregationist Democrats).”  A die-hard conservative pundit cheering on the “force of the federal government.”  You don’t see that every day.

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