Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Some of the credit for “separation of powers” should go to Polybius

“It is well known that in the Roman republic the legislative authority, in the last resort, resided for ages in two different political bodies not as branches of the same legislature, but as distinct and independent legislatures, in each of which an opposite interest prevailed: in one the patrician; in the other, the plebian. Many arguments might have been adduced to prove the unfitness of two such seemingly contradictory authorities, each having power to ANNUL or REPEAL the acts of the other. … And yet these two legislatures coexisted for ages, and the Roman republic attained to the utmost height of human greatness.”

Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist No. 34

In the second century BC, there was an armed uprising against the rule of the “Roman Republic,” by an alliance of Greek states known as the “Achaean League.” There had been close military and religious ties between the two groups before this time, I should note here; but they were soon cast aside in a conflict known as the “Achaean War.” This was a bitter conflict, I might add here, in which the Romans quickly crushed the Achaean League; to make sure that all of Greece would soon be under their control. Greece was quickly annexed by the Roman Republic in 146 BC, the same year that Rome was laying siege to the city of Carthage in faraway North Africa. When the city of Carthage was finally sacked in the spring of that same year (after three long years of siege), the last of the three Roman wars with Carthage finally ended. The Roman Republic now controlled much of the Mediterranean.

Roman villas built on the site of Carthage

Polybius was present at the Fall of Carthage in 146 BC

One of the men present at the Sack of Carthage was a Greek historian named Polybius, who would later write an influential work called the Ἱστορίαι (“Historiai”), or “The Histories.” This famous work would cover the history of the Roman Republic from 264 BC to 146 BC, and conclude with his eyewitness account of the fall of Carthage in 146 BC. This work was originally written in his native Koine Greek as 40 different “books,” but only the first five of these “books” have survived in their entirety. The rest of these books survive only in bits and pieces, I should add here, and it is the surviving portion of the sixth book that I will be focusing on today. (This is the book in which he talked about separation of powers in the Roman Republic.) His analysis of checks and balances in this republic that had conquered his homeland would have a powerful influence on men like Montesquieu and Madison. By extension, it would thus eventually influence the United States Constitution as well.


Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Spying during the Cold War was a risky business

“Bond … JAMES Bond.”

In May 1960, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down by the Russians over Soviet territory, which caused something of a crisis in the free world at that time. Francis Gary Powers (the pilot) bailed out of the plane safely, but was quickly captured by the Russians, and forced to admit that he was a spy for the CIA (which he really was). The Soviets had all that was left of the crashed aircraft, I might add here, along with the spying technology that had survived the crash. They also had actual photos of the Russian military bases that the cameras from on board the plane had taken. After denying the military nature of the plane's mission, the United States eventually admitted that the aircraft was a spy plane; and not out on a “weather research mission” as it had originally claimed.

American pilot Francis Gary Powers, in a special pressure suit for stratospheric flying

What happened to the pilot of the U-2 spy plane shot down in 1960?

Unfortunately for Mr. Powers, the Soviets actually convicted him of espionage three months later. They thus sentenced him to a full three years' imprisonment and seven years' hard labor. Fortunately for Powers, though, his country had already captured Soviet agent Rudolf Abel for a like offense; and exchanged him for Powers in 1962. Powers was thus able to go home as a free man at that time, and thus got off relatively easily – after only serving two years of his sentence from the Soviets. But many other spies were not so lucky, as it turns out, and some were killed when the Russians discovered them. The Americans, too, engaged in some executions of convicted spies, of course; as did most other countries that participated in the Cold War. But the Soviet executions had a particular reputation for brutality (and wanton cruelty), and they could get away with sentencing more people because of their standards of evidence being somewhat lower than in the free world. Being a spy was not a “glamorous thing” like in the movies for most agents, it would seem. Thus, the casualties of the Cold War were not limited to actual “shooting wars” between the two sides.

American pilot Francis Gary Powers, when he was in Soviet custody

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Nixon's visit to China: Driving a wedge between China and the Soviet Union

This might seem a strange way to begin a blog post about American diplomacy in the Nixon era, but the year 1949 was significant for both the Russians and the Chinese. For the Soviets, it was the year that they became the second nation (after the United States) to get the atomic bomb. For the communist Chinese, it was the year that they proclaimed the "People's Republic of China" in the mainland, which is the communist government that still rules China today. Both of these were massive events that were of the utmost importance for this story, but it was the second event that has the most explanatory power for what went on there. Thus, it is the second of these two events that I will be focusing on here at the beginning of this post, as a way of setting up my discussion of the other things later.

Mao Zedong, dictator who proclaimed the "People's Republic of China"

Saturday, February 24, 2018

What did the Constitution say about slavery?

The original Constitution never used the words "slave" or slavery," but it sure did talk about them ...

In the Constitutional Convention, the Northern and Southern states agreed to a number of compromises about slavery. But in the Constitution itself, you will not find the words "slave" or "slavery" anywhere (at least, not until the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments of the 1860's).

Constitutional Convention, 1787

For example, it used euphemisms like "service or labour," or the "importation of such persons"

Instead, you will find a number of diplomatically-worded euphemisms that were meant to ease the consciences of Northerners on this issue, such as the ones that follow. Instead of "slavery," they say "service or labour." Instead of the "slave trade," they say the "importation of such persons." And instead of just saying "slaves," they say "three-fifths of all other persons" (which I will elaborate on later here.)

Slave dance to banjo, 1780's

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Who can vote in the United States?: The voting rights amendments

" ... that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

- Closing lines of Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" (November 19, 1863)

Many Americans have historically been denied the vote in this country ...

Voting rights are one of the most important rights that anyone can have in a free country. They are a right by which many others can be defended, and the essence of popular government in democracies and republics. But voting rights were long restricted in this country to white male citizens who had private property, and who were 21 years of age or older. They could be denied for failure to pay poll taxes, for having ancestors that had been enslaved, or for any number of other things that were used as restrictions on the right to vote.

Frederick Douglass, a notable advocate of African American voting rights

... and the changes in these policies were made somewhat gradually over a period of decades

It took a long time for this situation to be rectified, and the changes brought herein were made somewhat gradually over a period of some decades. Thus, it would seem appropriate to review them now, and show what categories are forbidden to be used as legal grounds for denying people the right to vote. (I should acknowledge that some would classify the Twenty-Third Amendment as a voting rights amendment as well; but since this amendment is more relevant to the electoral college than it is to individual suffrage, I'll save that discussion for another post. I will focus this post instead on the four amendments about voting rights at the individual level.)

Martin Luther King, another notable advocate of African American voting rights

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Why people will always find the executive branch more interesting than the other two branches

"If the present Congress errs in too much talking, how can it be otherwise in a body to which the people send one hundred and fifty lawyers, whose trade it is to question everything, yield nothing, and talk by the hour?"

- Thomas Jefferson

In every society that I know of, people are fascinated by power - whether their own power, or someone else's. Even in democratic societies, people fear the power of governments; and those who have to live under totalitarian regimes live in still greater fear. People in these countries usually take great care not to offend their governments, of course, because retribution from these governments can be so terrible and swift. Obviously, the governments of more democratic countries don't possess anything like this degree of internal power, of course, but they do possess a great deal of external power that makes them a force to be reckoned with. Nowhere is this more true than the United States, I think, where the resources at the government's disposal (military and otherwise) make it more powerful than any other.

The Pentagon, the headquarters of the United States Department of Defense

People do find the executive branch (including the police and military) more interesting

All three branches of our government have power, of course, but I think people are more fascinated by the executive branch than either of the other two. There have been movies about the legislative branch (such as "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington"), and there have been movies about the judicial branch (such as the John Grisham movies). But for every movie about one of these two branches, there is another movie about the federal police force or the United States military (parts of the executive branch), and some movies even focus on the White House itself.

Headquarters of the United States Department of Justice, or "DOJ"

Thursday, January 18, 2018

How to prevent tyranny: Separation of powers and checks & balances

"The political liberty of the [citizen] is a tranquillity of mind arising from the opinion each person has of his safety. In order to have this liberty, it is requisite the government be so constituted as one man need not be afraid of another."

- Baron de Montesquieu's "De l'esprit des lois" ("The Spirit of Laws") [published 1748], Book XI, Chapter 6

Montesquieu had some important ideas about how to prevent tyranny (and they're still relevant today)

The U. S. Declaration of Independence owed much to the work of John Locke, the English political philosopher; but the political scientist Donald Lutz said that "If there was one man read and reacted to by American political writers of all factions during all the stages of the founding era, it was probably not Locke but Montesquieu." (Source: The American Political Science Review, Vol. 78, No. 1, March 1984, p. 190) This is not to deny the importance of Locke, I should be clear here; as he was also an enormous influence on the Founding Fathers as well (see my blog post for evidence of this). Nonetheless, Montesquieu is definitely the author that had the greatest influence on both sides of the ratification debates, and perhaps even on the finished product of the United States Constitution itself. He's almost like a Founding Grandfather of the United States, his influence is so strong; which is why I recently finished reading his most famous work "De l'esprit des lois" ("The Spirit of Laws") in the original French. (He was a Frenchman, you see, who wrote his most famous work in 1748 - a book written over a quarter of a century before the American Revolution; which was one of the most important influences on the Founding Fathers.)

Baron de Montesquieu

How to prevent bad government: Keep any one group from getting too much power

Montesquieu is probably best known today for his important theory of a separation of powers in government. Put briefly, this theory is the idea that bad government is best prevented by keeping any one group from getting too much power over the others. James Madison referenced this danger in the Federalist Papers by saying that "the accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny." (Source: Federalist No. 47) Hence, the need for a system of government that divides up these powers as much as possible - something the United States Constitution does by dividing up this power into three branches of government (the legislative, executive, and judiciary). The legislative branch makes the laws, the executive branch enforces the laws, and the judiciary branch judges and interprets the laws; with as little overlap between these three kinds of power as possible. (More on that in a separate post - for now, I will confine myself to talking about the specifics of the theory, at least in basic form.)

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