Thursday, November 9, 2017

Reagan and “Star Wars”: Bringing the fall of the Wall and the end of the Cold War

"Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate ... Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

- President Ronald Reagan, standing at Brandenburg Gate on 12 June 1987

Two rival superpowers with nuclear weapons

People in my generation may not always be aware of it today, but the world was afraid of a nuclear war for over forty years of the last century. It was called the "Cold War," for those who don't know, and the scariest thing about it was that this nuclear holocaust could actually happen. Two superpowers had nuclear weapons, you see - which were, of course, the United States and the Soviet Union - and these two superpowers disliked and distrusted each other greatly.

Berlin Wall, 1986

An eerie description of the Cold War from a previous century

The words of a philosopher from 300 years ago could be seen as an accurate description of this twentieth-century conflict, and an eerie one at that. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote that "persons of sovereign authority [or in this case, nations] ... [are] in the state and posture of gladiators; having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another; that is, their forts, garrisons, and guns upon the frontiers of their [nations]; and continual spies on their neighbors; which is a posture of war." (Source: "Leviathan" [published 1651], Chapter XIII, the subsection entitled "The incommodities of such a war") Thus, in many important ways, Thomas Hobbes' timeless quotation is an apt description of the Cold War.

Blockade (or "quarantine") of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Constitution keeps our elected officials on a short leash

"Before he [the president] enter on the execution of his office, he shall take the following oath or affirmation: I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States."

- Article 2, Section 1, Paragraph 7 of the Constitution

Politicians: The problem of every society ...

Virtually every nation in the world resents politicians, I think, even if they don't have the freedom to say so openly. The ones who can, do so often, as a group; and they are filled with resentment of incompetence and corrupt leadership. They tend to care deeply about who can hold political office, about the laws that they are required to follow, and even about what times the people can vote on the next batch of them in elections. They watch their legislatures carefully, and are suspicious of all attempts to keep something secret from the public. They pay close attention to how many tax dollars go to supporting the bureaucracy, and monitor the public records of these things that the Constitution requires. Americans may pay especially close attention to how much money goes to supporting the only federal institution that can determine its own salary - Congress. These issues are often touchy ones for Americans, and can bring more than one sharp word from many a suspicious American. Thus, some comments might be appropriate here about what the Constitution says on these subjects. There are a number of solutions therein for these kinds of problems.

Constitution of the United States

Friday, October 27, 2017

“Publius”: The secret pen name of three Founding Fathers

"As the perusal of the political papers under the signature of Publius has afforded me great satisfaction, I shall certainly consider them as claiming a most distinguished place in my library. I have read every performance which has been printed on one side or the other of the great question lately agitated (so far as I have been able to obtain them) and, without an unmeaning compliment, I will say that I have seen no other so well calculated (in my judgment) to produce conviction on an unbiased mind, as the Production of your Triumvirate. When the transient circumstances & fugitive performances which attended this crisis shall have disappeared, that work will merit the notice of Posterity; because in it are candidly discussed the principles of freedom & the topics of government, which will be always interesting to mankind so long as they shall be connected in Civil Society."

- George Washington, in a letter to Alexander Hamilton (August 28, 1788)

It was common at this time for Americans to write under pen names named after great Romans

During the debates over whether or not to ratify the Constitution of the United States, authors on both sides of the debate wrote a series of anonymous "letters to the editor[s]" of newspapers under various pen names. There were advantages to writing these articles anonymously, of course, when one wished to say controversial things in these debates that could offend one's friends if they were known publicly. Among these authors were many who had actually named their alter egos after people in Roman history, whose accomplishments that they wished to invoke in their arguments. The Constitution's opponents, for example, included "Brutus" (possibly Melancton Smith or Robert Yates or even John Williams), and "Cato" (possibly New York governor George Clinton). These were both names of people who had opposed the Roman monarchy (or at least, a particular manifestation of that monarchy), which thus implied that they were opposed to a repeat of such monarchy in America.

George Clinton, a possible identity of the author that called himself "Cato"

Alexander Hamilton considered Gouverneur Morris and William Duer to write as "Publius"

The Constitution's supporters wrote under classical pen names, too; and theirs were equally indebted to Greek and Roman history. Alexander Hamilton made the unfortunate mistake once of using the pen name "Caesar," and the condescending tone that he used when writing under this pen name made him almost as many enemies as the ill-chosen pen name itself. When he finally learned his lesson (and it fortunately didn't take him long to learn it), he returned to another pen name that he had used before, which was the pen name of "Publius." (Hamilton's prior use of this pen name, incidentally, was to attack fellow Federalist Samuel Chase for using some inside knowledge from Congress to try and dominate the flour market. Specifically, Hamilton used three letters under this name to question Chase's patriotism in 1778.) When he began recruiting collaborators for the now-famous Federalist Papers in 1787, Hamilton apparently approached Gouverneur Morris and William Duer about becoming contributors, before finally setting on James Madison and John Jay instead. Gouverneur Morris apparently turned down the invitation to work on the "Publius" papers, and Hamilton actually rejected three essays later written by William Duer, despite having invited him to participate in the first place. (William Duer would later write under the alternate pen name of "Philo-Publius," or "Friend of Publius," instead.)

Gouverneur Morris, who turned down the opportunity to write a portion of the Federalist Papers

William Duer, who wrote three essays that Hamilton later rejected as part of the Federalist Papers

Monday, September 25, 2017

The amendment that never made it into the Bill of Rights

"The Senators and Representatives shall receive a compensation for their services, to be ascertained by law, and paid out of the Treasury of the United States."

- Article 1, Section 6, Paragraph 1 of the original Constitution

The Bill of Rights was the first ten amendments to the Constitution ...

So most people in this country today have heard of the Bill of Rights, and how it consisted of the first ten amendments to the Constitution - although many who once knew this have since forgotten in the years since they left high school. Here's the part of the story that your history classes might not have taught you, about the amendment that never made it into the Bill of Rights.

United States Bill of Rights

Thursday, September 7, 2017

A review of David Starkey's “Elizabeth”

Queen Elizabeth the First

The most powerful queen in English history

Elizabeth the First may well be the most powerful queen in English history, because she held actual political power in a way that most later queens of England did not. Victoria and Elizabeth the Second had their power limited by the British Constitution to a degree that Elizabeth the First did not. All of them had to contend with Parliament, it is true; but the monarchy still had real power in the years that we today call the "Elizabethan Era." This power was all the greater when the state religion was still under royal control. Just years before this, you see, the church had actually been under the control of the Vatican in faraway Rome. But her father's divorce from his Catholic wife had brought him the ire of the Catholic Church, and led to England's conversion to the new Protestant faith - a faith led by the monarch personally during the lifetime of Elizabeth.

King Henry the Eighth, Elizabeth's father

Monday, August 28, 2017

The First Amendment: Protecting freedom of speech and freedom of the press

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

- Evelyn Beatrice Hall, in a statement often misattributed to Voltaire (although the author rightly viewed this as an accurate paraphrase of Voltaire's sentiments)

The first thing many people think of about the Constitution

The Constitution is filled with passages that are of the utmost importance to this country, from separation of powers in the original Constitution to the Bill of Rights in the amendments. But if I were asked which passage may be the most important to the majority of Americans, my vote might well go to this part of the Bill of Rights: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." (Source: First Amendment) This is the Constitution's famous First Amendment, and it is indeed the first of the ten amendments that make up our modern "Bill of Rights." It is also the first thing that most people think of when they talk about what's important to them in the Constitution, since the rights that we have are easier to visualize than abstract concepts of separation of powers and checks & balances. (Although these things are vitally important, too, as I detail in another post that I wrote elsewhere.)

United States Bill of Rights

Freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and the right to "petition the government"

The bedrock of American political life today may be the parts about freedom of speech and freedom of the press. These are both forms of a larger concept called "freedom of expression" - one in the spoken form, and the other in the written form. (Although I'm sure that sign language and other gestures would also be considered to be "freedom of speech" under this constitutional definition, and free expression on the Internet has long been held to be included under this amendment as well.) The right to "petition the government for a redress of grievances" is another specific form of this freedom of expression, which is usually written down on paper and other hardcopy material. But it is also sometimes found in the Internet form that I have mentioned as well; and it is well that this freedom of expression (in all of these forms) is protected by the First Amendment. It has been codified as a general principle in all political communication throughout this country - and other communication, for that matter.

Martin Luther King giving his "I Have A Dream" speech, 1963

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Impeachment is an important check even when it's not used

"Therefore, I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office."

- President Richard Nixon, in the Oval Office at the White House, on August 8, 1974

Richard Nixon

Impeachment alone doesn't remove presidents ...

In the entire history of the United States, only two presidents have ever been impeached, which were Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Richard Nixon was never actually impeached by either house of Congress. He was, however, credibly threatened with it during the Watergate scandal, and thus forced to resign in this way. It takes both houses of Congress, you see, to remove a president from office. Thus, when the Senate refused to remove Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton during their impeachment trials, the fact that they had been impeached by the House of Representatives to start this process had only a symbolic value. They had to be convicted by the Senate after this to be actually removed from office.

Andrew Johnson

Bill Clinton

... although one president resigned under the threat of impeachment (and subsequent removal)

It is thus one of the ironies of presidential history that both of the impeachments of an American president in our history failed to remove their intended target, while the only president ever to be forced out of office did so only under threat of it. Besides making the point about how both houses of Congress have to be on board with this to pull off a successful removal (as with Nixon), there is one other point to be made here about the power of impeachment, which is that it doesn't have to be actually exercised to fulfill its intended purpose - the mere threat of it (when made credibly) is the only thing that has ever removed a president from office (so far, at least).

White House

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