U.S. Constitution

Watergate: The cover-up begins

Posted on August 22, 2014. Filed under: Politics, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 2 of our series on the Watergate crisis, which ended 40 years ago this year. We left off in part 1 with the conviction of the CRP burglars for conspiracy, burglary, and violating federal wiretapping laws when they broke into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC in June 1972.

One of those burglars was Howard Hunt, a former CIA official who was identified as working for the Republican Party. Hunt was also one of the  White House “Plumbers”, a group created in 1971 to stop the leaking of classified documents to the press. The most notable example of a leak was the publication of the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst working for the RAND Corporation who had access to top-secret government documents on the Vietnam War that revealed that President Lyndon Johnson had lied to the American public about U.S. military operations in Vietnam, and their success, and that the U.S. had secretly begun bombing suspected Viet Cong bases and suppliers in Cambodia and Laos. Ellsberg had come to question the war before he got access to the secret papers, and once he saw them, he became firmly against the war. He copied the papers and gave them to the New York Times, where their contents were made known. They were commonly known as the Pentagon Papers, and they created deep controversy in the U.S., and gave new momentum to the already growing anti-war movement.

Nixon was furious about the Pentagon Papers, and determined to find a way to smear Ellsberg and make him seem crazy. Nixon’s top advisor, John Ehrlichman, told the Plumbers to break into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in Los Angeles, looking for notes that might cast doubt on Ellsberg’s sanity. They did not find anything, and Ehrlichman told Nixon only that there had been an “aborted” operation in Los Angeles. The Plumbers then used some of their members on the Watergate break-in, looking for documents that would reveal the Democratic election strategy, or some damaging evidence against their candidate, George McGovern.

When the FBI investigators on the Watergate break-in found Hunt’s name, Ehrlichman was afraid it would lead back to the Ellsberg break-in, and ordered John Dean, the president’s legal attorney, to open Hunt’s White House safe and burn everything in it. This was done by Dean and by Acting FBI Director Patrick Gray.

Nixon was told about the break-in at this point. He was also told about the attempt to erase Hunt’s connection to CRP, the Committee to Re-Elect the President, a group working to ensure Nixon’s victory in 1972. Nixon approved, and told his other top advisor, H.R. Haldeman, to have the CIA block the FBI’s investigation into the question of who paid the burglars to break into the DNC headquarters.

At a press conference a few days afterward, Press Secretary Ron Zieglar described the Watergate break-in in a phrase that would become infamous: he called it “a third-rate burglary attempt”. This was part of the White House strategy to downplay the event as the bizarre actions of a few unknown nobodies that no one should pay any attention to. On August 29, 1972, Nixon said that attorney Dean had investigated the break-in (which Dean had not) and that the result was that “I can say categorically that [no] one in the White House staff, no one in this Administration, presently employed, was involved in this very bizarre incident.” This was true to Nixon’s pattern of lying to the public; the disclaimer “presently employed” is a strange one: it plants doubt in the listener’s mind by giving them the idea that someone on Nixon’s staff had been involved in the break-in and been fired, so that as Nixon spoke, technically no one still employed by him was guilty. In reality, of course, men presently employed by the White House were responsible. So that addition made no sense, and may have been an indicator of Nixon’s nerves.

John Mitchell, the former Attorney General who resigned earlier in 1971 so he could run CRP, also claimed that he had no idea who had broken into the Watergate (when it was men working for him, who had told him the plan, which he had approved). The Nixon Administration ties to the break-in were being successfully covered up—until a check for $25,000 marked “Nixon re-election campaign” was found in the bank account of one of the burglars. The FBI investigated and found CRP money in all the burglars’ accounts, and also expense reports filed by the burglars and submitted to the CRP.

Next time—following the money trail

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What was Watergate?

Posted on August 14, 2014. Filed under: Politics, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

Hello and welcome to the second post in our series on the Watergate crisis. It was 40 years ago that this shocking series of events took place, and it’s amazing how little most people know about it. Watergate may have been the greatest challenge to our democracy in our entire history, because it was an attempt by a president and his advisors to undermine, and even overthrow, checks and balances of power between the three branches of government, judicial review, and equal protection under the law. No president that we know of had ever before, or has ever since, committed himself and his closest advisors to actual crimes: robbery, intimidation, blackmail, attempted murder. These were all things that President Nixon either ordered his men to do, or mapped out a plan for. It took all the accumulated power of our democratic system to stop this metamorphosis into dictatorship, and one crucial event was so terrible it was called the Saturday Night Massacre, and yet—few Americans today know what that was, or any of the main events, let alone the details and motives behind those events, that made up Watergate. Unfortunately, all that lives on of that crises are: a paradoxical, cruelly unwarranted, deeply heart-breaking lack of faith in our government on the part of Americans; and the suffix “-gate”, which we apply now to all sorts of idiotic pseudo “scandals”. We call Watergate a crisis, not a scandal, because it threatened the very basis of democratic government in this country, which goes beyond the minor thrill of shock and titillated interest that defines a scandal.

We will bring Watergate back in this series, because it was a forceful attack on our democratic system that was even more forcefully beaten back by Americans who understood that system and were willing to fight for it. Let’s go through the events in the crisis as they happened.

It all started in January 1972, when Gordon Liddy, leader of the Committee for the Re-Election of the President, came up with a plan to cripple the Democratic Party’s presidential campaign that year by spying on their headquarters, stealing documents, threatening members of the Democratic National Committee, and more. Winning the 1972 was beyond crucial to President Nixon. He was determined to win re-election, mainly so that he could continue the Vietnam War (which he believed the U.S. could win under his leadership) and continue his efforts to reach out to Communist China. Nixon also felt it was crucially important that a moderate Republican hold office for two terms to break the Democratic stranglehold on the presidency: since 1933, there had only been two Republican presidents, Dwight Eisenhower and himself. So the Committee for the Re-Election of the President was not some minor group of volunteers working in a basement office. Nixon was personally involved in their work.

One thing that has lingered in the public memory is that name: the Committee for the Re-Election of the President. It was known as the CRP in the Nixon administration, but once the Watergate crisis began to break, and public opinion turned against Nixon, it was popularly referred to as CREEP.

Liddy presented his criminal plan to the CRP’s chairman, Jeb Magruder, U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell, and Presidential Counsel John Dean (the president’s personal lawyer). That Liddy felt no qualms about suggesting illegal activities to two federal lawyers—one the nation’s top lawyer and the other the president’s top lawyer—is telling about the atmosphere in the Nixon Administration. It was clear to Liddy that Nixon would not disapprove of illegal activities in the name of winning the election. Attorney General Mitchell reviewed the plan and rejected it as too complicated, but two months later he approved a revised version that involved CRP members breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC. The men would bug the phones, so that all phone calls would be recorded and listened to by CRP, and then copy any important documents they found that revealed the Democratic strategy for winning the election. The men for the job were Liddy and two former CIA officials, Howard Hunt and James McCord. At this point, Mitchell resigned as Attorney General to take the job of Chairman of the CRP.

The “burglars”, as they came to be known, were not talented secret agents. They got into the DNC offices at the Watergate, and tapped the phones, but were unable to find any documents with important information. They broke in two more times looking for data, and on the third trip in, they were caught by a security guard. Frank Wills was working the overnight shift on June 17 when he saw masking tape covering the latches in a door (so the door would close but not lock). He took the tape off. An hour later, he came back and found the door had been re-taped. Wills called the police, and the burglars were caught red-handed in the DNC offices. Hunt, McCord, and three other men hired for the job were charged with attempted burglary and wiretapping. On September 15, they were indicted by a grand jury, as was Liddy, for conspiracy, burglary, and violating federal wiretapping laws. Judge John Sirica was the man who oversaw the grand jury, and he convicted the five men on January 30, 1973.

That is the description of the Watergate break-in that began the crisis. We see that there was already a crisis in the Nixon Administration, even before the break-in(s) took place, in that it was committed to a by-any-means-necessary election strategy that condoned criminal activity in the name of re-election. Whether Nixon knew about the break-in before it happened remained a question for many years; it seems clear now that he did not know in advance. But his men were sure he would not disapprove. They did not tell him about the break-in beforehand simply because they didn’t think they needed to—they felt sure it would have his approval. The HBO documentary “Nixon on Nixon: In His Own Words” that is airing now is powerful proof of this. By playing some of the thousands of hours of recordings made of Nixon talking to his advisors and other people, it shows that Nixon was constantly urging his men to commit crimes to stop people he considered to be his enemies, long before Watergate. He ordered his men to break into the Brookings Institute, a Washington think tank which he considered too liberal, and commanded that they blow up the safe there and destroy its contents. When Senator Edward Kennedy requested Secret Service protection because of death threats, Nixon tells his advisor to get Kennedy two men who will spy on him and find some scandalous information that Nixon can use to ruin Kennedy’s career. The advisor replies instantly that he has a Secret Service agent who has pledged to do anything for him, including committing murder, if he is asked. Nixon approves this man as Kennedy’s bodyguard, saying “Good, good” when he hears about the man’s willingness to kill for the president. If murder was okay, mere robbery and wiretapping were nothing at all.

We’ll end this installment by clarifying something that, like so many features of this crisis, was once common knowledge but is now mostly lost. Presidents before Nixon had sometimes tape-recorded their conversations in the Oval Office, but he was the first to record all conversations—phone calls and face-to-face. He only told three men in his administration about this. Everyone else was unaware that they were being recorded. These tapes would be discovered during the Watergate investigation, and used to prove Nixon’s involvement in criminal activity, as well as his overall coarseness, bigotry, racism, and aggression, all of which shocked the nation. Nixon used so many four-letter words that had to be bleeped out that the transcripts of the tapes read “expletive deleted” wherever they appeared, and this became a bitter catch-phrase Americans used at the time to describe the president’s overall negative and hateful agenda.

Next time, we’ll explore the shift from minor burglary to major investigation that was Watergate.

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Watergate Recap by the Colbert Report

Posted on August 6, 2014. Filed under: Politics, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , |

It’s the 40th anniversary in 2014 of the end of the Watergate investigation, and a good broad outline of what happened is available from a not-completely unexpected source: Stephen Colbert and the writers of the Colbert Report. Everyone, by now, knows the premise of this show is that Colbert is an extreme right-wing commentator, and so would be supportive of Nixon to the end. But as usual, real historical facts are presented clearly and briskly, and Colbert’s cartoonishly neo-con interpretations do not detract from what the average viewer can learn about the topic at hand. 

We’ll begin our series on Watergate by linking you to the Colbert Report’s “A Nation Betrayed—A Fond Look Back: ’74”. Enjoy!

 

Next time, we enter the world of the Watergate break-in that started the crisis.

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The Declaration of Independence misread

Posted on July 3, 2014. Filed under: American history, The Founders, U.S. Constitution |

Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, has come to the conclusion that the most famous line in the Declaration of Independence, and perhaps in all American documentary history, is not what we think it is.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

That’s the way we learn it. But Allen has convincing evidence that in the original document there was no period after “happiness”, which means that first line should read like this:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

In their regular waves of anti-government passion, which recur throughout our history, Americans often claim that the federal government in Washington interferes with our “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness”, and even that the federal government—or the bare concept of having a federal government—is at odds with Americans being able to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. But if the Declaration’s famous line has no period (as Allen seems to prove), then the only way Americans can pursue those rights given by God to all people is if they institute a government that derives its just powers from the consent of the governed.

This is how we have always seen it at the HP: what makes America great is not, as is so often suggested, “our freedoms”. It is the fair, representative, democratic government that makes those freedoms possible, that makes preserving those freedoms its first priority and understands them as its reason for being. Without a fair and free government, we cannot long maintain any national, political, or individual freedoms we currently possess. In our posts “What are the freedoms we have as Americans?” parts 1 and 2, we put it this way:

“Many Americans have come to see our individual freedoms as the wellspring from which national freedom is born, and thus individual freedoms are the most important. But these individual freedoms come from our government, from the Constitution, and last only as long as we have our national freedom. Without national freedom, there is no individual freedom, and national freedom only lasts as long as we have political freedom. Giving up our right to vote—for refusing or failing to vote is tantamount to giving up that right—is a dangerous step toward losing national and individual freedom. Once we stop demanding that our government really represent us, our democracy is crippled, and then the nation is open to outside threats. If individual freedoms are seen as separate from or at odds with national and political freedom, then we begin to prioritize our liberty to do whatever we want at the expense of national safety.

Individual freedom is really our freedom to live up to the founding principles of our nation. It’s our freedom to speak and worship and serve our country as we each see fit, and not really the freedom to be lazy and uninvolved and prioritizing our own choices over other people’s choices. It is the freedom to live together as one without having to be the same, not the freedom to push our own ways at the expense of everyone else’s.

Political freedom is our freedom to have a democracy, to be represented accurately in the federal government, and to preserve the individual freedoms we enjoy.

National freedom is the end result of the first two freedoms, because we who value our individual and political freedom will not allow our country to be destroyed by outside forces—or by those Americans who don’t believe in the full triad of freedoms.”

The idea that the Founders did not want us to have a strong government is ludicrous. Their whole aim in breaking away from Great Britain was to create a new kind of government—the government was the point, the goal, the prize, the crowning achievement of the United States. They would create a government that was democratic and representative, strong but flexible, responsive yet authoritative enough to enforce its laws (which would be written by popularly elected representatives of the people). Without that kind of government, there could be no guarantees of life, liberty, or happiness. As Jack Rakove of Stanford puts it in the New York Times article on Allen’s quest to remove the inaccurate period from the Declaration puts it, “Are the parts [of the Declaration] about the importance of government part of one cumulative argument, or—as Americans have tended to read the document—subordinate to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’?”

It takes energy to maintain a fair and free government. Energy on the part of citizens. We are so often lacking that kind of energy, particularly in the new millennium. George Washington warned us in his Farewell Address that the greatest threat to American life, liberty, happiness, and the government that provides them all comes from within America itself:

“The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for [the government] is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.”

Washington urges us to love our democracy and our democratic government, and to remember that it is a painfully new kind of government, and there are going to be many people—outside the U.S. and even within it, your fellow citizens—who don’t believe it will really work. They will try to tear it down, and tell you you’re crazy to defend it. You’ve got to remember that being united under your unique government is your greatest treasure. Forget the things that make you different, like religion or customs and focus on what you have in common, what you share that no other people on earth share: a democratic government of the people, for the people, and by the people.

That’s why we are quick to believe there was no period after “happiness” in the original Declaration of Independence. The Founders knew that good, tireless government was the only safeguard of life, liberty, and happiness. As the Fourth of July approaches, we would do well to remind ourselves of that fact.

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The American Promise of Johnson’s We Shall Overcome speech

Posted on May 1, 2014. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , |

As we enter part 6, the last post in our series on President Lyndon Johnson’s March 1965 “We Shall Overcome” speech, we look at the context of the speech—how it was made, delivered, and received.

President Johnson had not planned to give the speech at all; he was sending his Voting Rights Act bill to Congress and usually when presidents send a bill to Congress they attach a brief message to it and that’s all. Few presidents will make a public speech to Congress urging the passage of a pending bill because a) members of Congress don’t like being pressured publicly to pass things, and b) if the bill is not passed, then the president loses some clout. But at the last moment—the day before the speech was given—Johnson decided this particular bill needed more than a note. We have applauded speechwriter Richard Goodwin for drafting the We Shall Overcome speech in record time, working overnight on the 14th/15th, with Johnson’s direct order to use “every ounce of moral persuasion the Presidency had… with no hedging, no equivocation”. Goodwin delivered on that request. The actual title of the speech was “The American Promise”, but like so many things in U.S. history and culture it became known by a different name—Johnson’s use of the dynamic civil rights promise “We Shall Overcome” destined the speech to be known by that name.

The genius of the speech, and of Johnson’s delivery, lies in its ability to make voting rights for black Americans personal for all Americans. As Americans, they inherited a mission, and if they refused to carry out that mission, they were betraying their country. This was at the very start of some public doubt about the nation’s involvement in Vietnam, when calling on people to fight for their country was beginning to ring hollow, but here was a forum where everyone could be on board—or, at least refusing to get on board was much more difficult. If Americans weren’t sure they were fighting for liberty and justice in Vietnam, they could be very sure they were fighting for it at home, in the form of voting equality. This was a goal that suited both the radical agenda of social revolutionaries and the more square patriotic agenda of their elders. It even made “summoning into convocation all the majesty of this great government” (not something many average Americans, let alone hippies, could have said without blushing) seem not only necessary, but just and commendable and faith-inspiring.

By calling on the nation to fulfill its covenant with God and man, Johnson made passive acceptance of racial discrimination impossible and a kind of passive action to end it possible: that is, Southern Congressmen who did not want to vote for civil rights legislation could do it with the excuse to their constituents that the president had made it impossible not to, that the tide had turned, and that everyone was going to have to find a new way of getting around. No one likes it, they might say, but that’s how it has to be now. Appealing to the ideal of America itself, rather than existing constitutional amendments that some might say should be overturned, forced opponents of civil rights into the untenable position of arguing against America itself, of betraying the nation’s identity, of being un-American.

Reaction to the speech was very positive and action was swift. As Garth Pauley puts it in his book LBJ’s America: the 1965 Voting Rights Address:

In their coverage of his speech, many journalists lauded the president for invoking and affirming “the most sacred and deeply held convictions of a nation,” which brought “the present chapter of the struggle for human rights into proper perspective.” Citizens echoed these sentiments in their letters and telegrams to the White House. And when editorialists urged swift passage of the president’s bill, their appeals employed the language of Johnson’s narrative: The New York Times even suggested passage was a foregone conclusion because a “people that has responded unflinchingly to every trial of national purpose . . . will not fail this test.” Moreover, following President Johnson’s speech, members of Congress deliberated voting rights legislation using the language of America’s destiny, promise, and purpose. Senators and congressmen claimed that the nation must “make good on its promise… [to] fulfill the revolutionary dream of freedom and equality for all Americans” by “passing a bill which [sic] fully insures that every American… has the right to vote”—which will represent a step “along this nation’s honored march toward further fulfillment of our traditional goals of equal opportunity and equal treatment.” Congress indeed passed the final voting rights bill less than five months after Johnson’s speech. The president signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law on August 6, emphasizing at the signing ceremony that America had righted a historical wrong, enacted its sacred principles, confirmed its promise, and now would endeavor to “fulfill the rights that we now secure.”

Pauley goes on to speculate about the ability of a president today to refer to and rely on a shared moral high ground in America to gather support for a bill, and it’s a thoughtful note to end this series on:

Finding a shared moral language out of which a president can fashion a persuasive appeal is difficult. President Johnson effectively grounded his appeals in a potent narrative that focused on public morality–his listeners’ civic duty to keep and fulfill the sacred American Promise. But as the citizenry continues to become more religiously and culturally diverse, less schooled in the narratives of the nation’s history, more aware of how such narratives can be used to justify depraved causes as well as honorable ones, and perhaps less influenced by the moral authority of the presidency, presidents may find it especially tricky to build moral consensus through oratory. Consider this problem from a perspective afforded by studying Johnson’s speech. He used oratory to help secure the significant public good of equal voting rights, primarily by appealing to the American Promise–of which the Constitution is one expression–rather than the Constitution itself. But could Johnson have crafted such a stirring, persuasive appeal on the basis of constitutional guarantees alone? Would his listeners have found it as moving, meaningful, and motivational? Would we find it as eloquent today?

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“You never forget what poverty and hatred can do”: Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech

Posted on April 23, 2014. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 5 of our series on President Lyndon Johnson’s March 1965 “We Shall Overcome” speech, a clarion call for voting equality in the U.S. We wrap up the speech itself here, which embraces the general and the very personally specific in its range:

[UNDER THE HEADING "RIGHTS MUST BE RESPONSIBILITIES"]

“The bill that I am presenting to you will be known as a civil rights bill. But, in a larger sense, most of the program I am recommending is a civil rights program. Its object is to open the city of hope to all people of all races.

Because all Americans just must have the right to vote. And we are going to give them that right.”

—The return to simple language here after the impressive rhetoric of the midpoint of the speech is in itself powerful, because it is the gateway to President Johnson speaking about his personal experience with race. It also makes a simple point simply: All Americans just must have the right to vote. It’s hard to argue with an idea so simple and so just.

“All Americans must have the privileges of citizenship regardless of race. And they are going to have those privileges of citizenship regardless of race. But I would like to caution you and remind you that to exercise these privileges takes much more than just legal right. It requires a trained mind and a healthy body. It requires a decent home, and the chance to find a job, and the opportunity to escape from the clutches of poverty. Of course, people cannot contribute to the Nation if they are never taught to read or write, if their bodies are stunted from hunger, if their sickness goes untended, if their life is spent in hopeless poverty just drawing a welfare check.

So we want to open the gates to opportunity. But we are also going to give all our people, black and white, the help that they need to walk through those gates.”

—Johnson had just won a landslide election in November 1964, and in January 1965 (two months before the We Shall Overcome speech), Johnson gave his State of the Union address outlining his Great Society program, which would comprehensively reform civil rights in this nation. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was the first plank in the Great Society, the “program I am recommending”, and so we see Johnson not only pushing hard on voting rights, but saying it is only the first part of a huge, long-term, thoroughgoing, exhaustive process of national change. It’s unusual to end a major speech with a major add-on to the topic you have been speaking on, but Johnson wanted the nation to be prepared for the other changes he would be introducing in 1965.

[UNDER THE HEADING "THE PURPOSE OF THIS GOVERNMENT"]

“My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas, in a small Mexican-American school. Few of them could speak English, and I couldn’t speak much Spanish. My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast, hungry. They knew even in their youth the pain of prejudice. They never seemed to know why people disliked them. But they knew it was so, because I saw it in their eyes. I often walked home late in the afternoon, after the classes were finished, wishing there was more that I could do. But all I knew was to teach them the little that I knew, hoping that it might help them against the hardships that lay ahead.

Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child.”

—Johnson would always claim that in his crusade for the Great Society, he was only fulfilling the late President Kennedy’s dream of civil rights legislation. He did this because Kennedy was popular in life and untouchable, at that point, in death. But it is hard to picture John Kennedy ever telling the story Johnson tells here. It’s not only because it’s hard to imagine Kennedy being pierced by an encounter with racism. Had any president to that time ever told a story of witnessing racism at work in his home town? Of feeling like a helpless bystander or witness to the poison of racism as administered to children? Of watching children accept their place as despised minorities in their society? One gets the real feeling that Johnson was pierced by this experience, and that he did not ever forget it, and he could not rest easy with this facet of American society. Just as Abraham Lincoln witnessed racism in his youth but did nothing to intervene—did not believe intervention would ever be possible–but then underwent a powerful change that led him to commit himself to a political solution to slavery, so Johnson has now changed and is committing himself, in this speech, to a political solution to racism.

“I never thought then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country.

But now I do have that chance—and I’ll let you in on a secret—I mean to use it. And I hope that you will use it with me.”

—Those who knew him knew that when Johnson meant to do something, he did it. So the president was going ahead with civil rights reform, whether the rest of the nation is on board or not, but he believes we will take our chance to end racism and inequality, as he does.

“This is the richest and most powerful country which ever occupied the globe. The might of past empires is little compared to ours. But I do not want to be the President who built empires, or sought grandeur, or extended dominion. I want to be the President who educated young children to the wonders of their world. I want to be the President who helped to feed the hungry and to prepare them to be taxpayers instead of tax eaters. I want to be the President who helped the poor to find their own way and who protected the right of every citizen to vote in every election. I want to be the President who helped to end hatred among his fellow men and who promoted love among the people of all races and all regions and all parties. I want to be the President who helped to end war among the brothers of this earth.”

—Johnson would be haunted by claims like this as Vietnam grew and grew, and the American drive to fight Communism began to seem like just another imperial compulsion. But no matter how his foreign policy soured, Johnson would always believe in his domestic policy, the Great Society, that he outlines here. It was one of his deepest frustrations that the Great Society seemed to fade into oblivion as opposition to the war grew, and took center stage in the American mind.

“And so at the request of your beloved Speaker and the Senator from Montana; the majority leader, the Senator from Illinois; the minority leader, Mr. McCulloch, and other Members of both parties, I came here tonight—not as President Roosevelt came down one time in person to veto a bonus bill, not as President Truman came down one time to urge the passage of a railroad bill—but I came down here to ask you to share this task with me and to share it with the people that we both work for. I want this to be the Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, which did all these things for all these people.”

—This is not just another example of pork, of a president pushing or killing a particular piece of legislation for short-term gain. This is about the heart and soul of the nation. Johnson ropes in many other political leaders to stand with him, to emphasize his intention to get everyone on board with the program.

“Beyond this great chamber, out yonder in 50 States, are the people that we serve. Who can tell what deep and unspoken hopes are in their hearts tonight as they sit there and listen. We all can guess, from our own lives, how difficult they often find their own pursuit of happiness, how many problems each little family has. They look most of all to themselves for their futures. But I think that they also look to each of us.”

—Johnson reminds the Congressional leaders he has just named that they are supposed to be helping people. They sit there in the Capitol building not for their own power and reputation, but to accomplish things for the people, to help people lead better lives. And one can see that Johnson may be referring to black Americans watching out yonder in the 50 States, with deep and unspoken hopes in their hearts that maybe, at last, finally, something is really going to change.

“Above the pyramid on the great seal of the United States it says—in Latin—“God has favored our undertaking.” God will not favor everything that we do. It is rather our duty to divine His will. But I cannot help believing that He truly understands and that He really favors the undertaking that we begin here tonight.”

With an invocation of both God and John Kennedy, Johnson may have wrangled enough of a blessing to win over the American people. If the American people do not or will not understand the need for civil rights reform, Johnson hopefully states that God does, and God approves. At any rate, regardless of who approves and who doesn’t, the work begins now: the undertaking begins tonight, it’s already in motion, it’s on. With these words, Johnson closed his speech.

Next time, we’ll look at the reaction it provoked.

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“This is one Nation”: Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech

Posted on April 17, 2014. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 4 of our series on President Lyndon Johnson’s March 1965 “We Shall Overcome” speech demanding not only equal voting rights for black Americans, but an overhaul of American society to embrace justice. Last time, we were asking whether any voting rights law passed by Congress could really be enforced. Many pieces of legislation guaranteeing voting equality were already on the books, and gathering dust there as states went their own way and continued to deny black citizens their rights, loudly claiming that they had state sovereignty and a “special” way of life to protect.

Johnson addresses this concern as we go forward, so let’s pick that up:

[under the heading "WE SHALL OVERCOME"]

“But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.

And we shall overcome.”

—Here, listeners would have wondered if they had really just heard their uptight-looking, cantankerous white Southern president quote the famous rallying cry of the civil rights movement. And had he really just said that all Americans inherit the burden and shame of racism and injustice? Again, we see Johnson’s insistence that racism was not a “negro problem”, an issue that trouble-making radicals kept bringing up or making up, but part of the fabric of American life and the part that needed to be ripped out and replaced, not honored and enshrined as “tradition”.

“As a man whose roots go deeply into Southern soil I know how agonizing racial feelings are. I know how difficult it is to reshape the attitudes and the structure of our society. But a century has passed, more than a hundred years, since the Negro was freed. And he is not fully free tonight. It was more than a hundred years ago that Abraham Lincoln, a great President of another party, signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but emancipation is a proclamation and not a fact. A century has passed, more than a hundred years, since equality was promised. And yet the Negro is not equal.

A century has passed since the day of promise. And the promise is unkept.”

—That first sentence is enormous. It says that Johnson is proud of being from the South. That he has seen racism in the South, and the damage it does. Between the lines, but not invisible, is the idea that racism causes “agony” for its victims and its perpetrators, which may well include Johnson who, growing up in the South, likely perpetrated racism in his youth. Racism causes agony in a few ways: it forces white people to be dissatisfied with society, and to long for a whites-only world where they are unchallenged; it leads white people to believe they must commit crimes and terrible acts to bring that whites-only world into being; it forces black people to live apart from and in fear of white people; it exposes black people to the agony of death, injury, rape, and terror at the hands of racists; and finally, it eats away at the nation and our founding beliefs. It is time, 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, to exit this horrible trap of racism and the endless churn, murder, anguish, and rage it produces.

“The time of justice has now come. I tell you that I believe sincerely that no force can hold it back. It is right in the eyes of man and God that it should come. And when it does, I think that day will brighten the lives of every American. For Negroes are not the only victims. How many white children have gone uneducated, how many white families have lived in stark poverty, how many white lives have been scarred by fear, because we have wasted our energy and our substance to maintain the barriers of hatred and terror?

So I say to all of you here, and to all in the Nation tonight, that those who appeal to you to hold on to the past do so at the cost of denying you your future. This great, rich, restless country can offer opportunity and education and hope to all: black and white, North and South, sharecropper and city dweller. These are the enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease. They are the enemies and not our fellow man, not our neighbor. And these enemies too, poverty, disease and ignorance, we shall overcome.”

—Again Johnson invokes God, and firmly re-settles him on the side of equality rather than racism, which was a significant change of address for the Lord for many Americans. Then he goes deeper into the “agony” of entrenched racism, describing how it divides whites and uses terror on those who don’t live up to their perceived duty to keep black people down, and describing the poverty of white people in states where so much time and money and resources are devoted to keeping black people down that there is nothing left to raise poor whites up—they are told that their membership in the white race is enough for them. It was daring of Johnson to address this directly, as so many poor whites clung on to that trade-off of racial superiority in place of real security, comfort, and achievement. To blame white Southern society for this situation rather than fall back on the old yarn that the North victimized the South so cruelly after the Civil War that the South could never fully recover was a step in a new direction. Even addressing this issue was a step in a new direction: name the president who had dared to talk openly about white poverty in the South and describe its real cause.

[under the heading "AN AMERICAN PROBLEM"]

“Now let none of us in any sections look with prideful righteousness on the troubles in another section, or on the problems of our neighbors. There is really no part of America where the promise of equality has been fully kept. In Buffalo as well as in Birmingham, in Philadelphia as well as in Selma, Americans are struggling for the fruits of freedom.

This is one Nation. What happens in Selma or in Cincinnati is a matter of legitimate concern to every American. But let each of us look within our own hearts and our own communities, and let each of us put our shoulder to the wheel to root out injustice wherever it exists. As we meet here in this peaceful, historic chamber tonight, men from the South, some of whom were at Iwo Jima, men from the North who have carried Old Glory to far corners of the world and brought it back without a stain on it, men from the East and from the West, are all fighting together without regard to religion, or color, or region, in Viet-Nam. Men from every region fought for us across the world 20 years ago. And in these common dangers and these common sacrifices the South made its contribution of honor and gallantry no less than any other region of the great Republic—and in some instances, a great many of them, more. And I have not the slightest doubt that good men from everywhere in this country, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Golden Gate to the harbors along the Atlantic, will rally together now in this cause to vindicate the freedom of all Americans. For all of us owe this duty; and I believe that all of us will respond to it. Your President makes that request of every American.”

—How is it that Americans, Southern and Northern, will fight around the world for peace and justice, and enter without fear the worst maelstrom of war in human history, World War II, without a look back, and fight even now in Vietnam for freedom from Communism, but find fighting in the war against racism too hard, too doomed, too unconvincing? Is it because they don’t feel they have a mandate? Let the president offer one now.

[under the heading "PROGRESS THROUGH THE DEMOCRATIC PROCESS"]

“The real hero of this struggle is the American Negro. His actions and protests, his courage to risk safety and even to risk his life, have awakened the conscience of this Nation. His demonstrations have been designed to call attention to injustice, designed to provoke change, designed to stir reform. He has called upon us to make good the promise of America. And who among us can say that we would have made the same progress were it not for his persistent bravery, and his faith in American democracy.”

—As we saw in part 2, Johnson is again saying black Americans are the true Americans. As he did earlier in the speech, Johnson says black Americans are the heroes of justice and liberty, the Minutemen of the national conscience, the lonely supporters of American ideals.  Black Americans have been carrying white dead weight for 200 years, dragging whites along the road to freedom, dealing with white crimes, lies, and selfishness along the way in hopes of achieving real democracy for all. It’s time for white Americans to get down off black Americans’ backs and do their part.

“For at the real heart of battle for equality is a deep-seated belief in the democratic process. Equality depends not on the force of arms or tear gas but upon the force of moral right; not on recourse to violence but on respect for law and order. There have been many pressures upon your President and there will be others as the days come and go. But I pledge you tonight that we intend to fight this battle where it should be fought: in the courts, and in the Congress, and in the hearts of men. We must preserve the right of free speech and the right of free assembly. But the right of free speech does not carry with it, as has been said, the right to holler fire in a crowded theater. We must preserve the right to free assembly, but free assembly does not carry with it the right to block public thoroughfares to traffic. We do have a right to protest, and a right to march under conditions that do not infringe the constitutional rights of our neighbors. And I intend to protect all those rights as long as I am permitted to serve in this office. We will guard against violence, knowing it strikes from our hands the very weapons which we seek—progress, obedience to law, and belief in American values.”

—The courts, the Congress, and the hearts of men: that’s a pretty expansive theater of war. But Johnson knows that just passing more laws that aren’t enforced in the courts, or never reach the courts because they are never put into effect on the local level, won’t help, and will even set back the cause of civil rights. In the immediate term, Johnson will uphold the rights of black and white Americans to march in civil rights protests. Remember that he is giving this speech in response to Alabama state troopers viciously attacking peaceful marchers in Selma, Alabama. Those police officers had no justification for doing that—they were breaking the law, preventing citizens from upholding the Constitution, and fostering crime. Johnson is ready to take on the entrenched force for racism that was “law enforcement” in the South and the rest of the nation.

“In Selma as elsewhere we seek and pray for peace. We seek order. We seek unity. But we will not accept the peace of stifled rights, or the order imposed by fear, or the unity that stifles protest. For peace cannot be purchased at the cost of liberty. In Selma tonight, as in every—and we had a good day there—as in every city, we are working for just and peaceful settlement. We must all remember that after this speech I am making tonight, after the police and the FBI and the Marshals have all gone, and after you have promptly passed this bill, the people of Selma and the other cities of the Nation must still live and work together. And when the attention of the Nation has gone elsewhere they must try to heal the wounds and to build a new community. This cannot be easily done on a battleground of violence, as the history of the South itself shows. It is in recognition of this that men of both races have shown such an outstandingly impressive responsibility in recent days—last Tuesday, again today.”

—Saying that the president will uphold the rights of citizens is easier than making it happen. How can Johnson really guarantee the safety of black people in Selma once federal forces are gone, and the white establishment is left alone to deal with black people as it will (as it always has)? Johnson holds out hope that people on both sides, black and white, are ready to start something new which, crucially, means that at least some white people are willing to opt out of the predictable, socially mandated retribution that would leave more black men lynched, more black houses burned, more black women raped, more black families intimidated. Maybe, at last, some people are tired of living in a perpetual “battleground of violence”, and that, combined with federal scrutiny and TV cameras, will make change possible.

In this section of the speech, Johnson spoke as an insider pulling back a thick, heavy curtain to show the world the workings of the society he grew up in. He minced no words about the necessity of racism to the Southern status quo. He intimated that he too necessarily participated in that racism growing up in the South. Next time, he will do more than intimate about his own past, and he will conclude his speech with a personal call to the nation.

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“The command of the Constitution is plain”: Johnson’s We Shall Overcome Speech

Posted on April 10, 2014. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , |

Hello and welcome to part 3 of our series on President Lyndon Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech, delivered on live TV on March 15, 1965. Today we jump right back in where we left off in this groundbreaking speech in part 1, as Johnson moves on from his powerful re-definition of the “Negro Problem” as the “American Problem”.

[under the heading "THE RIGHT TO VOTE"]

“Our fathers believed that if this noble view of the rights of man was to flourish, it must be rooted in democracy. The most basic right of all was the right to choose your own leaders. The history of this country, in large measure, is the history of the expansion of that right to all of our people. Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and most difficult. But about this there can and should be no argument. Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.

Yet the harsh fact is that in many places in this country men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes.”

—Again, Johnson is direct. (We have already shouted out to the man who wrote this speech, presidential speechwriter Richard Goodwin. He put into powerful, unafraid, and unapologetic words what Johnson believed.) Democracy exists to protect and promote individual rights, primarily the right to be governed by free consent. There is absolutely no justification for denying any citizen of a democracy their civil rights, including the right to vote. Race, the ultimate justification for discrimination, is shut down and ignored.

“Every device of which human ingenuity is capable has been used to deny this right. The Negro citizen may go to register only to be told that the day is wrong, or the hour is late, or the official in charge is absent. And if he persists, and if he manages to present himself to the registrar, he may be disqualified because he did not spell out his middle name or because he abbreviated a word on the application. And if he manages to fill out an application he is given a test. The registrar is the sole judge of whether he passes this test. He may be asked to recite the entire Constitution, or explain the most complex provisions of State law. And even a college degree cannot be used to prove that he can read and write. For the fact is that the only way to pass these barriers is to show a white skin.”

—Johnson would have seen all of these barriers to black voting in action growing up in Texas. They would have been accepted as necessary to the democratic process: if black Americans voted, they would vote in liberals who would change national law to get rid of Jim Crow (legal racial segregation and discrimination). You couldn’t let black citizens vote because they would vote to destroy the Southern way of life. Everyone was better off in their place, whites on top, blacks on the bottom, and so all the tricks Johnson describes were played to maintain the status quo.  But Johnson strips away this social justification, this threat of political and social anarchy, to leave racial discrimination exposed for the world to see and to judge as the primitive, tyrannical beast that it is.

“Experience has clearly shown that the existing process of law cannot overcome systematic and ingenious discrimination. No law that we now have on the books—and I have helped to put three of them there—can ensure the right to vote when local officials are determined to deny it. In such a case our duty must be clear to all of us. The Constitution says that no person shall be kept from voting because of his race or his color. We have all sworn an oath before God to support and to defend that Constitution. We must now act in obedience to that oath.”

—“What can I do about it? I’m just one person against a whole system”: this is the easy stand that Johnson assails next. If you see something, you have to do something. If you see injustice, you have to end that injustice. Americans have a duty not only to justice but to God himself to defend the Constitution that grants civil rights to all. God is decisively moved from the side of racism (“God made the races unequal”) to the side of equality. It’s also noteworthy that Johnson mentions his own legislation as part of the impotent failure of law to address injustice thus far: Johnson was not a man who brooked failure, and he would move heaven and earth, as most people knew, to accomplish something he wanted to see accomplished. This was the type of man who was now dedicating himself to real equality in America.

[Under the heading "GUARANTEEING THE RIGHT TO VOTE"]

“Wednesday I will send to Congress a law designed to eliminate illegal barriers to the right to vote. The broad principles of that bill will be in the hands of the Democratic and Republican leaders tomorrow. After they have reviewed it, it will come here formally as a bill. I am grateful for this opportunity to come here tonight at the invitation of the leadership to reason with my friends, to give them my views, and to visit with my former colleagues. I have had prepared a more comprehensive analysis of the legislation which I had intended to transmit to the clerk tomorrow but which I will submit to the clerks tonight. But I want to really discuss with you now briefly the main proposals of this legislation.”

—We are in real time here: there’s no misty and ill-defined future date at which Johnson will begin unspecified efforts to make sure black Americans can vote. Johnson was speaking on Monday the 15th. On Wednesday the 17th, he will have a draft law before Congress, and they will have been prepped for that by the analysis he is giving the Congressional clerk that very evening, once he’s done speaking to the nation.

Where does Johnson get the confidence to move so quickly? He had been the master of Congress during his many years there. He was a man who knew every member of Congress: knew them personally, sought them out, knew their families, their constituents, what they wanted, what they hated, who they needed to be introduced to, what they would and would not be willing to trade to achieve their goals. Johnson was renowned for turning a handshake into an intimate encounter, putting his face just millimeters from the other man’s face, gripping his arm, telling him what he had to do for Johnson, and asking him what he needed in return. When he comes now as president to “visit with his former colleagues”, they know he will drill right down to their souls from the word go.

“This bill will strike down restrictions to voting in all elections—Federal, State, and local—which have been used to deny Negroes the right to vote. This bill will establish a simple, uniform standard which cannot be used, however ingenious the effort, to flout our Constitution. It will provide for citizens to be registered by officials of the United States Government if the State officials refuse to register them. It will eliminate tedious, unnecessary lawsuits which delay the right to vote. Finally, this legislation will ensure that properly registered individuals are not prohibited from voting.”

—That’s one powerful piece of legislation. Is it really possible to create a law or a standard that cannot be perverted or denied? The only way to ensure that the law Johnson gets passed is upheld is for every American to take up its banner and get out on the streets and uphold it. See something, say something. Johnson believes we will do this.

“I will welcome the suggestions from all of the Members of Congress—I have no doubt that I will get some—on ways and means to strengthen this law and to make it effective. But experience has plainly shown that this is the only path to carry out the command of the Constitution. To those who seek to avoid action by their National Government in their own communities; who want to and who seek to maintain purely local control over elections, the answer is simple: Open your polling places to all your people. Allow men and women to register and vote whatever the color of their skin. Extend the rights of citizenship to every citizen of this land.”

—The understatement of the clause in the first sentence is classic. Johnson goes on to address the heart of the refusal to let black Americans vote (that they will elect national leaders who will force state governments to remove their racist laws) here: “those who seek to avoid action by their National Government in their own communities; who want to and who seek to maintain purely local control over elections”. Johnson does not offer these people a safety net. He flatly says there is no way forward but to give up that control over local elections.

[Under the heading "THE NEED FOR ACTION"]

“There is no constitutional issue here. The command of the Constitution is plain. There is no moral issue. It is wrong—deadly wrong—to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country. There is no issue of States rights or national rights. There is only the struggle for human rights.”

—Once more our hats are off to Richard Goodwin for writing this, and Johnson for delivering it. There is absolutely no legal justification for denying black citizens the vote. None. The old arguments about the Constitution guaranteeing states the right to conduct their own elections, about black people threatening our democracy with an ignorant vote, about some people being qualified intellectually to vote and others not being qualified—all are put into the bonfire. Nothing in the American founding principles justifies or calls for or condones racial discrimination in voting. The end.

“I have not the slightest doubt what will be your answer. The last time a President sent a civil rights bill to the Congress it contained a provision to protect voting rights in Federal elections. That civil rights bill was passed after 8 long months of debate. And when that bill came to my desk from the Congress for my signature, the heart of the voting provision had been eliminated. This time, on this issue, there must be no delay, no hesitation and no compromise with our purpose. We cannot, we must not, refuse to protect the right of every American to vote in every election that he may desire to participate in. And we ought not and we cannot and we must not wait another 8 months before we get a bill. We have already waited a hundred years and more, and the time for waiting is gone.’

—You think Johnson is going to say, “I know your answer will be Yes! Yes, I’ll get on board! I support you, President Johnson!” But we are thrown for a loop as he basically says, I know you don’t want to do this. Southerners don’t want this because it wrecks up their system; Northerners don’t want it because they are sick of racial violence in the South and want to forget about it. Johnson references Kennedy, saying if this popular president couldn’t inspire you to do this work, I know I can’t. But he doesn’t give up. He takes the nation in close, puts his face close to ours, and says into our ears, “You have to do this for me. This has to be done.”

“So I ask you to join me in working long hours—nights and weekends, if necessary—to pass this bill. And I don’t make that request lightly. For from the window where I sit with the problems of our country I recognize that outside this chamber is the outraged conscience of a nation, the grave concern of many nations, and the harsh judgment of history on our acts.”

—Again, Johnson tells us we now have a full-time job: upholding and extending the right to vote. We all just signed an employment agreement, and now we’re on the clock, no breaks, no vacations. Why? Because U.S. failure to live up to its founding ideals has torn this country apart, and inspired the disdain and contempt of the world, and while it’s too late to prevent history books from displaying our past failures, we can provide a date on which racial prejudice in the U.S. ended and a new era began: March 1965.

So we see the definition, the existence, the quality of the nation itself is in the balance here. What is more important than swinging that balance toward the good, the admirable, the American? What is more important than America being American by living up to its defining ideals? Nothing.

Next time, we will pick up with Johnson as he embraces the logic and the passion of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech

Posted on March 27, 2014. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , |

March 2014 marks the anniversary of a crucially important milestone in U.S. history: President Johnson’s 1965 speech calling on Americans—white Americans—to commit themselves to voting equality for black Americans.

The Fifteenth Amendment had guaranteed all U.S. citizens the right to vote regardless of race. But the concerted efforts of whites, particularly in the South, to prevent at first black American men, and then women, from exercising that right, meant that by 1965 only about 20% of black Americans qualified to vote (that is, at least 18 years of age and a U.S. citizen) were voting. Intimidation, torture, and murder were regularly used to keep black Americans from voting. Southern states passed laws requiring black Americans to pay poll taxes and pass literacy tests to be able to vote.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which Johnson pushed through Congress with all his considerable energy and powers of persuasion, outlawed discrimination in hiring and housing, but it had little impact on the number of black Americans being registered to vote. On March 7, 1965, nonviolent, unarmed marchers protesting repression of the vote in Selma, Alabama were brutally attacked by state police armed with clubs, bull whips, and tear gas. The attack was filmed by national television crews and broadcast to the nation. It was one thing to hear about police brutality, and to speculate that it must have been justified somehow; it was another thing entirely to see young people being beaten to the ground and then kicked and beaten further, all for asking that they be allowed to exercise a right they had been granted by the U.S. government almost exactly a century before.

President Johnson was one of those Americans who watched the footage from Selma and was infuriated and repelled by what he saw. Johnson was a sincere proponent of civil rights, and he had staked a lifetime of political clout on passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Everyone expected him to back down after that, and not “push” the Southern Democrats for anything more on the race front. Instead, Johnson went on TV himself, and spoke to the nation, one week after the attack at Selma, and asked the American people to live up to their creed and ensure the voting rights of black Americans.

We’ll go through his powerful address in the next few posts, and then talk about the reaction it provoked and the legislation it enabled.

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Federalists and Anti-Federalists: what did the debates do?

Posted on March 12, 2014. Filed under: Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , |

In our conclusion to our series on the Federalist debates that gave us our constitution, we try to wrap up their overall impact on the U.S., in their own time, and over the centuries since 1787.

We haven’t hit all the topics of debate in this series; for example, we haven’t looked at the worthy Anti-Federalists criticisms of the Supreme Court (they balked at the idea of having an unelected, lifetime-term body that could overturn the laws of Congress as it pleased; as usual, the Federalists replied that any body in service of the just Constitution would never become tyrannical). We have also left out the demand for a Bill of Rights, which was general on both sides, Federalist and Anti-Federalist (more on that in a later series).But we have gotten a sense of the categories of debate in general: the Anti-Federalists wanted to keep government as small and, crucially, as local as possible to avoid its corruption; and the Federalists wanted to give the federal government elastic powers to meet unforeseen dilemmas in the future, as well as to control the all-too-real and familiar dilemmas the young nation was already facing.

But in a larger sense, the Federalist debates were important not for their content, but for their happening at all. After popularly elected delegates met to create a new body of national laws, the entire nation was invited to participate in the debate over their ratification as our Constitution. Every aspect of the proposed Constitution was dissected and put under the microscope, and dissenters were free to publish their dissent, their criticisms and fears, in the free press. 85 Federalist Papers were published between October 1787 and August 1788. This is a far cry from the usual press treatment of big issues today, which usually feature a flurry of intense coverage for a week or so, then a near-complete dropping off of interest. For nearly a year the nation weighed the pros and cons of the proposed Constitution and the government it would create in a public forum where no holds were barred. Then the states elected delegates to participate in ratification conventions, and in most states people thronged outside the building where the conventions met, waiting to hear what they had chosen—to accept the new Constitution or not. Over 10 months, the required 9 states voted to ratify, which the caveat that a Bill of Rights be written and added to the Constitution as the first order of business of the  new government.

This democratic process must have inspired some Americans to believe in the Federalist promise that republican virtue could be relied on  even in a large population. No one had been censored, no one arrested or imprisoned, no one lost their property or their livelihood as a result of the position they took on the Constitution. Americans must also have been inspired by the near-blinding modernity of the ideas in the Constitution, and the futuristic nation they at once created and imagined.

We have seen over the centuries since 1788 that the Anti-Federalists got a lot right; their questions about state power to counter federal power, the danger of giving any government body unlimited power to act in the name of national security, and the tendency of power to corrupt have been proven pertinent many times over. Yet we see that the Federalists’ main precept was correct: any government, even a small, local, state government, can become corrupt if people lose faith in the principles of democracy. Keeping things local is no guaranty against corruption. And we can’t rely on one segment of the population—the small farmer or, to add today’s like category, the blue-collar worker—to provide all the republican virtue. Everyone has to be raised up in the tradition and discipline of democracy. Every citizen has to be committed to upholding the Constitution. And the most committed citizens should serve in our government—not the richest or celebrity citizens. If we believe in the principles the Constitution offers, we will send people to Washington who also believe in them, and will actively uphold them in the face of temptation to corruption.

And so we leave the U.S. in 1788, with its newly ratified Constitution, and centuries ahead of it to work out the million problems old and new, expected and completely unanticipated, that would challenge the strength of that document and the commitment of those citizens. We should take with us as we go a bit of their republican virtue to solve the problems we face in our own time.

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