Posts Tagged ‘constitution’

The world has changed since I wrote that piece on Joseph Goebbels just a couple of days ago.  In fact, I was just finishing that article when our son called and told us to turn on the news.  And of course, we heard what you all now know.  The most wanted man in the United States, Osama Bin Laden, was not only found, but was confronted by special forces and ultimately killed.  I’m sure that, like the events of September 11, 2001, many will remember what they were doing on the evening of May 1, 2011, when they heard that America’s #1 enemy had finally received justice for his crimes.

So far, this evening hasn’t provided any news that approaches that level, but it can’t be like that every day.  So let’s head back a couple of hundred years and spend a moment on a bit of news.  In May of 1789, America was young enough to still be in the hospital awaiting release.  President Washington had just taken the oath of office, the country’s flag had but eleven stars, and people were arguing about the Constitution.  In fact, the debate over the Constitution had been continuous and often contentious in the eighteen months since its approval in Philadelphia.

One of the biggest issues involved the rights of the people.  Many believed the Constitution didn’t say enough about them, and there was fear that, over time, the new government would begin taking power away from the people.  Others believed that the government only had the power to act on the powers it was expressly granted in the Constitution, and all other powers were, by extension, granted to either the States or the people directly.  But what was supremely clear was that the Constitution’s lack of a set of enumerated rights caused great concern for a great many people.  It had weighed heavily at the Constitutional Convention, to the point that a commitment to address it in the future was necessary to allow the document’s passage.  It had weighed heavily in several of the State conventions.  And it was one of the reasons North Carolina and Rhode Island still held out against statehood.

And now those in favor of a weak government were using the call for a “Bill of Rights” as a springboard to try to gut the federal government’s power.  Amendments were being proposed in Congress that would limit the power to tax, to make treaties, and regulate commerce.  In essence, what was being put forward was a return to an “Articles of Confederation”-style of government, which would have mortally wounded the Constitution.  James Madison, who initially opposed a Bill of Rights, came to see that it was necessary, not only as a way to keep his promise and end a lot of debate, but also to thwart an Antifederalist agenda to gut the document he (and others) had worked so hard to create and defend.

And so on May 4, 1789, he stood up in Congress and announced that, once more important getting-the-government-off-the-ground matters had been addressed, work would begin on a bill of rights.  Madison said, “If we can make the Constitution better in the opinion of those who are opposed to it, without weakening its frame, or abridging its usefulness in the judgment of those who are attached to it, we act the part of wise and liberal men to make such alterations as shall produce that effect.”  And James Madison didn’t have to look very far to find good suggestions for consideration, as the States (when debating ratification of the Constitution) had come up with hundreds of ideas.

Actual work on these enumerated “rights of the people” would not begin until August, and the process would be lengthy.  But in the end, the Bill of Rights we know today are vitally important (and often-debated).  As I wrote some time ago, they are ”Thou Shalt Nots” by which our government must abide.

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Confederate Cabinet

On March 11, 1861, the Confederate States of America unanimously (sort of) adopted a Permanent Constitution.  Rather than starting from scratch, they used the U.S. Constitution as a model and went line-by-line inserting the changes they wanted to make in their new country.  Let’s take a look at the interesting ones:

After some in-fighting (which was not a rarity), they maintained the prohibition on slave trade from foreign countries.  Rather than being seen as something progressive, they likely kept this provision because they had all the slaves they needed and importing more would only devalue what they considered their current property.  They also, not surprisingly, strengthened the fugitive slave law.

They eliminated the provision that members of Congress could not serve in the Cabinet.  It was thought that this would give the President a voice in arguing for his own legislation and, conversely, help the other legislators understand his point of view on different matters.

A few differences centered on money.  There was to be no protective tariff.  And all appropriations had to originate with the president, although they eventually conceded that Congress could raise money for navigation issues.  Having the president authorize all appropriations would eliminate any pork-barrel legislation from congressmen – already seen as a problem 140+ years ago.  Also, to further this end, the president would have line-item veto power on all appropriations bills.

The president and vice-president were limited to one six-year term, although they could run again after a six-year break.

And to make what they knew to be a hastily-prepared, contentious constitution more malleable, they made it so that only three states (already then a minority) could call for a convention to vote on a new amendment, and they changed the votes necessary to pass an amendment from three-fourths to just two-thirds.

Some interesting items that were in the initial provisional constitution but were eventually rejected included:

They reserved the right to restrict trade with any slave state not a member of the Confederacy; eligibility for president entailed being a citizen of one of the original states, thus diminishing the effect of the border states even if they were to join; the Supreme Court would only sit to hear cases when requested by Congress; and a provision that any state that abolished slavery could be expelled from the Confederacy.

Recommended reading: Look Away!: A History of the Confederate States of America

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