Where to (re-)start…

April 16, 2015

In the months since my last post, hardly a week goes by without something in the news or everyday life that makes me think “I should post something on that;” but by the time I get to where I can sit down and do it, I have other things on my mind and it never happens.

Maybe the trick is to stop feeling I have to clear enough time and attention to do a long fully-argued post before I can write anything.

But I like spinning out long fully-argued posts.

OK, here’s a quickie. This thought underlies a lot of my thinking about politics, morality and religion topics, and almost everything I start spinning out on those topics leads back to it, so I’ll say it once here, and maybe unpack it in the near future:

The history of all human society is, above all, the history of society.


In the months since my last post, lots of things have happened. We’ve had a national election, for one thing, which by most accounts has assured us two more years of political gridlock and confirmed the deep polarization of public opinion. At the same time, the drive for marriage equality has gone from one success to the next, with only an occasional glitch. (One – only one – circuit of the Court of Appeals has taken a stand against the trend, increasing the chances of the Supreme Court taking a case soon and deciding once and for all whether the Equal Protection clause requires equal marriage laws.)

And as usual I’ve been reading lots of stuff.

The polarization thing has drawn me back to my interest in the roots of representative democracy as we know it, in 17th and 18th century England. This is something I may be able to cook down into a series of blog posts. The latest soundbites from the conflict of Whigs and Tories. Actually, most recently I’ve been looking at the earlier history of Scotland, because it was Scots Calvinist resistance to royal imposition of Episcopacy and its trappings that triggered the English Revolution of the 1640’s. Which wouldn’t have happened if the crowns of the two countries hadn’t been united since 1603. That’s one of the things I’m getting from my study of history – a sense of how things could have turned out very differently if some heir to a throne had lived longer, or died sooner, or been born a different gender.

So let’s see if I can get myself to write up some of this stuff, and whatever else comes up.

Wish me luck!

More about Mitt

May 25, 2012

The issue of Governor Romney’s experience at Bain is not so much whether anything he did was ethically wrong, or disqualifies him from the presidency; the issue as I see it is his own insistence that his background in venture capitalism is a uniquely valid qualification for the presidency, that he is thereby better suited for the job than someone whose job experience has been primarily political.

Now people have reached the highest office in the land by a number of different paths, including military service (especially in the aftermath of a great war). I don’t think it can be said that any honest job disqualifies a candidate. My point is that even in the golden age of pro-business Republican domination, from the election of McKinley in 1896 down to the Great Depression, most GOP presidents and candidates were primarily politicians – had spent much of their working lives in elective office – and were, I think, quite proud of the fact. McKinley himself had been a congressman for 15 years, then governor; Teddy Roosevelt – well, he had done just about everything; Taft had never been elected to anything but had been a judge, a colonial governor (!) and a cabinet member; Hughes, who almost won in ’16, had been a judge and governor of NY; Harding, a governor and senator; Coolidge, who famously stated that “the business of America is business,” rose through the ranks of Msssachusetts politics to become governor of the state, then VP.

Hoover was the one real instance of someone whose path to the presidency was largely through the private sector, having made a fortune as a mining engineer; however, he then became well known and respected for his work organizing humanitarian activities during and after the First World War, and served in the cabinet during the 1920’s.

As I said, no honest job should be seen as necessarily disqualifying a candidate; but even at its most pro-business, the Republican Party always had a certain respect for public service and political life. Romney, who often seems to be running away from his one term in public office, is something new, the culmination of the post-World War II conservative movement’s delegitimization of government itself. I’m really looking forward to seeing how this plays itself out in the coming campaign.

3) But how did it come about that a lame-duck Congress – the one with a Federalist majority, which had just been resoundingly overturned – came to be responsible for not only counting and certifying the electoral vote, but also stepping in and picking the winners if no one had the necessary majority? I used to think it was a simple straightforward matter of timing; whereas now, under the 20th Amendment, the Congressional term starts on January 3 and the Presidential term on the 20th, in those days all terms started on March 4. Well, that’s true as far as it goes, but why? I assumed that the Constitution had originally specified the March date, but no, it seems that was introduced more or less by accident; all the Constitution said was that Congress was to meet on the first Monday in December every year unless it voted to change the date. The original intent seems to have been that the states would arrange elections in the fall of every even-numbered year, and the new Congress would convene that December. (It occurs to me that this meshes well with the provision later adopted by the second Congress, that the Electors would cast their ballots on the first Wednesday in December. If things had gone as originally intended, the new Congress would have been in place by then, to receive and inspect the ballots, hold its own election if no one had the necessary majority, and have a new President in office by maybe sometime early January.)

But by the time there were enough ratifications to put the Constitution into effect, it was already September of 1788, and when the old Continental Congress met for the last time to certify the result and arrange the transition, they considered it too late to get the new Congress elected to meet that year. At the same time, no one wanted to wait till the following December, so they split the difference and came up with the March date for the first Government under the Constitution to take office. As it happened the new Congress wasn’t able to assemble a quorum till April 6, when they counted the electoral votes which, to no one’s surprise, unanimously elected George Washington.

Well, a month wasn’t a long time in those days, so no one saw a problem in Congress pre-dating the start of its own term and Washington’s to March 4, the date originally intended; but then, because the President’s term was specified as 4 years, and their own as 2 for Representatives and 6 for Senators, subsequent Presidents and Congresses could not take office before that date (in the odd-numbered, non-election year), and the country was stuck with a lame-duck period unlike anything else in the modern world; worse yet, they never saw fit to provide (except sometimes on an ad hoc basis) an alternative to the December date for Congress to actually convene, so we were stuck with a really absurd rhythm in which a Congress would be elected in the fall of an even-numbered year, but not be able to meet (unless the old Congress specifically summoned them, which happened occasionally) until the  December of the next year; it would then have a “long session” which would last as long into the year after that as needed, i.e. the next election year, and then re-convene for a “short session” in December after the election, to take care of business through March 3; then there would be no Congress in session until the next December.

Again, that’s enough for one day. It will take me a while longer to digest the next major section of Ackerman’s book, devoted to issues relating to the Federal judiciary in the wake of the 1800 transfer of power: the “midnight judges,” the Jeffersonians’ attempts to get rid of as many of them as possible, and the resulting court cases, including of course Marbury v. Madison.

Maybe I’ll write of other things in the meanwhile. Bear with me!

The Constitution we have…

September 13, 2011

The other day I noticed the cover of the current edition of American Prospect – not the 9/11 one but the following month’s, not online yet (or I’d post a link, of course) but on the stands and in libraries already. It shows a standard portrait of George Washington with a mouth balloon saying “Oops!” – illustrating an article by Harold Meyerson entitled “Did the Founders Screw Up? – Why presidential democracy no longer works for America.”

I don’t wish to get into the details of the article right now, but rather report what came to my mind first when I saw the cover: first, I thought the title was perhaps inaccurate in its provocative tone, in that there is considerable middle ground between (1) not quite anticipating developments two centuries in advance, and (2) screwing up; but then I was reminded of how the Constitution as originally written caused a near-disaster just 12 years later, in the election of 1800; though there have been several books on that subject recently, the one I immediately thought of  was Bruce Ackerman’s similarly titled The Failure of the Founding Fathers. So I went back to it to remind myself of some of its contents.

What is well known, or at least what I’ve known about the 1800 election since I was a kid, is that the Constitution origially had the Presidential Electors each cast  two ballots for the Presidency, at least one of which had to be for a candidate from outside the Elector’s own state; to be elected, one had to have the votes of a majority of the Electors; and the runner-up became Vice President. This failed to anticipate the formation of national parties putting forward candidates for both offices as a single “ticket;” thus Jefferson and Burr, the winners in 1800, ended up with an exact tie in the electoral vote, with nothing to indicate which should be Pres and which VP (though it seems clear that everyone intended Jefferson to be the head of the ticket). This threw the election into the House of Representatives, where the defeated Federalist party was still in charge and came close to electing Burr over Jefferson out of sheer mischief, until wiser heads prevailed. Promptly thereafter the 12th Amendment was adopted, giving us more or less the system we have now.

Things I hadn’t known, or hadn’t paid sufficient attention to, before I read them in Ackerman:

1) Only under the original system could there have been both an exact tie and an absolute majority of the Electors. There were 138 Electors that year; thus 276 votes were cast, but the necessary majority was a majority of the 138 only, that is 70. As it happened, Jefferson and Burr each got 73. This is why the run-off in the House was just between the two of them; if neither had gotten to 70, a more familiar provision would have taken effect allowing the House to choose between the top 5 candidates (changed by the 12th Amendment to top 3). This is why the Federalists weren’t able to simply elect their own candidate, presumably Adams though Ackerman suggests they might have preferred C. C. Pinckney as marginally more acceptable to at least some Jeffersonians.

2) In fact it could have turned out that way;  the ballot submitted by the four Georgia electors was technically deficient, and the Congress could have voted to dismiss them, leaving Jefferson and Burr tied at 69. Now, in accordance with the Constitution, the presiding officer of the joint session where the votes were counted was the President of the Senate, i.e. the sitting VP, Jefferson himself… but he could have been overruled on this if anyone had really wanted to make trouble, or if anyone really suspected hanky-panky in Georgia (which everyone knew intended to vote for Jefferson-Burr).

The plot thickens; but this is already long enough for a post, so I’ll end here for now and put up more tomorrow (a good bit is already written, so you can be pretty sure something will appear).

The other night I went to see Bertrand Tavernier’s new film, The Princess of Montpensier. In general I’m not that much of a film buff, but I’ve been through phases of it. In particular, at a certain point back in the last millennium  I had a cluster of friends with whom I regularly went to see all the latest French stuff, and it was just then that Tavernier’s first big hit The Clockmaker came out. So when his name began appearing again  in the papers a couple of weeks ago, it rang a bell and I decided to take a look and see what he’s been up to lately.

Also,  as my friends know, I am an avid reader of history, and Princess is nothing if not deeply rooted in French history. Based on a story by Mme de La Fayette, better known for another Princess novel, the film takes place during the first part of the 16th century Wars of Religion and climaxes with the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre. So there’s plenty of blood and guts and snazzy swordplay in it; but it’s fundamentally a love story, about a young woman with too many men in her life. Four, to be exact… The historical details aren’t spelled out in too great detail; I think the original French audience was expected to know the basic outlines and to realize, for example, that two of the heroine’s suitors were among the Three Henries whose bitter rivalry was to dominate the final phase of the Wars two decades later.  I certainly felt that knowing things like this added a certain flavor to my experience of certain scenes; but the important stuff I think was self-explanatory.

I liked the fact that all four of the men who professed an interest in the poor Princess were very clearly delineated: the young husband  preoccupied with propriety, honor and family duty; the passionate Guise with his scarred face; the King’s brother Anjou (later to reign as Henri III after a brief stint as King of Poland) for whom it all seems to be very much a game; and the older, sadder, ineffectively wiser Chabannes. And her father-in-law with his incessant blather about food and wine…

Given my interests I always pay attention to how historical fiction tweaks the known facts to make a better story. I’m no purist, Macbeth’s 17-year reign which Shakespeare somehow bypasses doesn’t bother me at all, but I like to notice the details.  The love plot seems to have been created by Mme de La Fayette, but all the main characters are clearly historical except perhaps for Chabannes. I cannot imagine why Tavernier saw fit to change the given names of the Montpensier couple from François and Renée to Philippe and Marie… More interesting is the fact that  in  real life the Princess, though she did in fact die young, lived long enough to bear a son to her Prince; Mme de La Fayette wants none of this, and simply has her die in despair at Guise’s final betrayal; whereas Tavernier has a softer ending, with the Princess alive, finally renouncing love and passion and expecting to die soon. And the last straw for her in the movie is Guise’s marriage to Catherine of Cleves; in real life this had already happened several years earlier, and in Mme de La F.’s version his abandonment of the Princess is marked by an affair with another woman entirely. I think Tavernier wanted him to appear more noble than that…

Anyway, a most enjoyable evening, and I’d recommend the film to anyone.

Murder Most Foul

January 15, 2011

I just stumbled upon a book that I absolutely must read: Murder Was Not a Crime: Homicide and Power in the Roman Republic, by Judy E. Gaughan.

It doesn’t surprise me to find that Roman law treated homicide differently than we do. Other pre-modern peoples also, including the Anglo-Saxons who were in so many ways our cultural predecessors, tended to treat it primarily as a matter between the families of the parties involved, to be dealt with by private compensation or vengeance, rather than as an offence against whatever was conceived to be public or state authority.

I have read several times that “murdrum” was first introduced into English law to protect the new Norman ruling class, who weren’t part of the Anglo-Saxon system of mutual compensation; now however upon Googling I find several references to the Danes having originated the idea earlier, for much the same purpose, during their overlordship of much of England.  (The idea of an unidentified corpse being “presumed” to be a member of the protected elite, and thereby triggering a heavy fine, is interesting; of course this may have had the salutary effect of encouraging diligence in identifying the corpses that could be identified.)

Also, in reading the Greek orators – tragedy too, think Eumenides – I have come upon what looks like a similar distinction between types of what we would consider “crimes,” some of  them involving danger of ritual pollution to the whole city and so requiring a more intense and public form of prosecution.

Mind you, I’m not primarily interested in crimes of violence per se; for me what is interesting is the history of the idea of a public power, a “state.” I’ll report back if I turn up anything I can write about coherently…