Friday, February 22, 2008

Living the Nightmare of the Founders

No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

-- James Madison

We can't have acquittals. We've got to have convictions.

-- William Haynes, general counsel of the (U.S. ) Department of Defense
To its legalizing of torture, evisceration of habeas corpus, and numerous other assaults on the rule of law, the Bush administration has now added show trials to its accomplishments. The new report by Ross Tuttle with the utterly-devastating- if-you-care-about-justice quote is here, but I recommend starting with this piece by Scott Horton who gives you some context. Both Tuttle and Horton are interviewed by Amy Goodman (who has to be on the short list of the best journalists working at the moment) at the link.

This is a personal issue for me -- in (thankfully!) a very oblique and tangential way. You see, I'm teaching a U.S. history (to 1865) survey this semester at Hobart & William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y. We're just at the point in the semester where we're talking about the ratification of the Constitution -- reading selections from the federalist and anti-federalist papers, talking about the theories of government and politics and power that lay behind both, drawing connections back to the debates around the Revolution, etc.

And it is damn hard talking at length, for weeks, about late Eighteenth Century theories of power and government to students who were born in 1989 or 1988 (all but one of my students are First-Years or Sophomores) without specifically referencing the current King George. Oh, I manage -- I try really hard to be totally political neutral: my students presumably include some conservatives, possibly even Bush supporters (still nearly 1 in 5 of us), although HWS is a pretty liberal school. I may fail but I certainly haven't explicitly referenced King George in class in anything but a politically neutral context (e.g., the answer to a student question about the constitutional timing of Congressional meetings* included the note that the current system was that the Congress elected in November, 2008 would meet a few weeks before the end of W's term). All of which is to say, it's damn hard, but I try damn hard, and I think -- I hope -- I succeed. (I most certainly don't point them to my blog!)

But it's hard because Bush is, to such an extraordinary extent, the nightmare of the founders. They worried that the presidency would be the "fetus of a monarchy", worried that war-making powers in particular would be used by Presidents to run roughshod over the liberties they fought for. It's an obvious point -- so obvious that my particular title, I found as I was googling for a citation for this blog post, has been used before.

We are living the nightmare of the founders. They would be saddened -- but not, I think, surprised -- to see what we have come to. Benjamin Franklin was asked upon emerging from the Constitutional Convention whether they had created a Republic or a Monarchy and he, famously, replied "a Republic -- if you can keep it". They knew that what they had created was fragile; they knew it could be easily lost. And they knew that "loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provisions [against] danger real or pretended from abroad."

But they also knew the answer to that:
..when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
Emphasis added.

My job is to teach the students what happened in the past -- to explore the arguments and beliefs and actions and debates that lead to the founding of this country. I can't draw the connections for them. But they are as plain as day: I shouldn't have to. And I hope, for all our sakes, that they are drawn by our citizenry.

And soon.

* A good question, actually, since this seemingly bureaucratic matter was surprisingly important in early American history, since lame duck congresses would meet for (roughly) a year after a new Congress was voted in, which had all sorts of implications at various points...

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