James Madison and the Indispensable Provision

James Madison

Since the U.S. House of Representatives voted to formalize an Impeachment Inquiry today, I thought it a good time to reflect on first principles.

In July of 1787 the Founding Fathers were still in Philadelphia drafting our Constitution. James Madison, known in our history as the Father of the U.S. Constitution, played a major part in organizing the convention and constructing the final draft of the Constitution and then getting it ratified by the states.

Below is a segment from a transcript taken on July 20th during the constitutional convention, as the debate turned to a provision for removing a President from office. Here is Madison discussing why this provision was so important:

Mr. MADISON thought it indispensable that some provision should be made for defending the Community against the incapacity, negligence or perfidy of the chief Magistrate. The limitation of the period of his service, was not a sufficient security. He might lose his capacity after his appointment. He might pervert his administration into a scheme of peculation or oppression. He might betray his trust to foreign powers. The case of the Executive Magistracy was very distinguishable, from that of the Legislature or of any other public body, holding offices of limited duration. It could not be presumed that all or even a majority of the members of an Assembly would either lose their capacity for discharging, or be bribed to betray, their trust. Besides the restraints of their personal integrity & honor, the difficulty of acting in concert for purposes of corruption was a security to the public. And if one or a few members only should be seduced, the soundness of the remaining members, would maintain the integrity and fidelity of the body. In the case of the Executive Magistracy which was to be administered by a single man, loss of capacity or corruption was more within the compass of probable events, and either of them might be fatal to the Republic. (Bolding added)

The evidence before us brings Madison’s concerns front and center. For most of us, at least, there is no denying what stands in front of us. The only real question now is whether Americans will act to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America…”.*

In overcoming this historic challenge we should draw inspiration from the words of Abraham Lincoln: “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”

WWII began 80 years ago today

Hitler watching German soldiers marching into Poland in September 1939 (Photo: Wikipedia)

Today marks the 80th anniversary of beginning of World War II.

On September 1, 1939, Hitler’s German army—the Wehrmacht—invaded Poland. Two days later Britain and France declare war on Germany. By the time WWII ended in September of 1945, between 70 and 85 million people had perished.*

Of course Hitler was the central villain of WWII (Europe), and so he’s the focus. There are a lot of books about the Nazis and Hitler’s rise to power. Just type in “Hitler” on Amazon’s search engine for books and you’ll get 20,000 “results.” Just casually scan the hundreds of cable TV channels at your fingertips, and the odds are fairly good you’ll find a program or documentary about the Nazis or Hitler. A friend of mine nicknamed the History Channel, the “Hitler Channel,” because he noticed throughout the year so many programs on the channel seemed to be about the Nazis or Hitler.

But while Hitler himself continues to attract the consternation of many, I believe we’d be far better served if we better understood the psychological dynamics or emotional forces moving Hitler’s followers. Would-be tyrants and demagogues are always present in any society. There’s always someone saying he—and “only” he—can make us great again. But why, especially in modern democratic societies, like, say, Germany in the 1930s, would so many people come to support and believe in such a man? I realize this is a complicated question. And before anyone says: “Well most Germans didn’t know before the war, before Hitler came to power, that he’d do so many horrendous and cruel things,” I’ll remind them that Hitler, long before he came to power, had published his extreme views in a book called Mein Kampf—which was a best selling book in Germany! Hitler views were well known.

Hitler’s hate for Jews, for example, was red hot. Not something that could stay hidden. In 1922, that’s 11 years before Hitler became German Chancellor, Jospeh Hell asked Hitler: “What do you want to do to the Jews once you have full discretionary powers?” Hitler didn’t mince any words:

Once I really am in power, my first and foremost task will be the annihilation of the Jews. As soon as I have the power to do so, I will have gallows built in rows—at the Marienplatz in Munich, for example—as many as traffic allows. Then the Jews will be hanged indiscriminately, and they will remain hanging until they stink; they will hang there as long as the principles of hygiene permit. As soon as they have been untied, the next batch will be strung up, and so on down the line, until the last Jew in Munich has been exterminated. Other cities will follow suit, precisely in this fashion, until all Germany has been completely cleansed of Jews.

No doubt Hitler’s views weren’t secret. And yet many Germans, fully aware of Hitler’s spoken intentions, at least in Mein Kampf and what they’d read in the newspapers, voluntarily attended his massive rallies and flocked to the streets to throw the Nazi salute as their fuhrer past. Many Germans willingly surrendered their democratic freedoms, their personal liberties, and without a doubt their conscience, to a fascist, authoritarian leader.

Besides Hitler’s hate of the Jews, Hitler’s plans to expand Germany—which any sentient person knew meant war—was also well known. And once Hitler’s mission to expand Germany began, Hitler held nothing back in how this expansion would effect, not just Jews, but all non-Germans, non-Ayrans. In an August 22nd speech to the group of German military commanders leading the invasion of Poland, Hitler said:

The object of the war is … physically to destroy the enemy. That is why I have prepared, for the moment only in the East, my ‘Death’s Head’ formations with orders to kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of Polish descent or language. Only in this way can we obtain the living space we need.

That a whole group of educated, and supposedly civilized, German officers could be informed of the coming systemic slaughter of innocent men, women, and children—just because they were Polish!—and not immediately reject Hitler, should remind us of just how fragile so called civilized people’s commitment to civilized values, basic humanity, can be. After the invasion and occupation of Poland, the Nazi SS carried out Hitler’s orders with cold-blooded efficiency. By the time the war ended 6 million Poles had been killed.

So I think the bigger, more important, challenge for us is to understand the social factors, the social pathologies, that caused so many German people to accept and support Hitler and his dark Nazi ideology. Again, there are always authoritarian types in the crowd, but these types can only take power if a large number of people in democratic societies go along and buy into it. If anything, Nazi Germany serves as a reminder that the real danger to peace and civilized values isn’t so much the sociopaths and authoritarian personalities, but the social environment where authoritarianism is welcomed, accepted, and saluted as it passes by.

“Yet again in America”

“And uniquely American, this happens with regularity, in large numbers, as a pattern, just here, nowhere else.”

“Now, gun laws, regulations, background checks, soft targets, body armor, death penalty, mental health, time for action, I promise, thoughts and prayers. We hear yah. We heard you last time, and the time before that. And we’ll likely do it all soon…yet again in America.”

Ron Chernow as guest speaker at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner

Last night was the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. Now, if you haven’t watched this annual event before then you should know that the the guest speaker is usually a comedian who roasts the President, his administration, the media, and any other opportune target in the audience. In the past, when we had a President with a sense of humor, humility, and the ability to laugh at himself, the President would actually take the podium and make fun of himself, his administration, and, yes, take humorous jabs at the media. It’s all in good fun. The whole idea is to celebrate our nation’s constitutional protections of a free press and its function of ensuring our political leaders are held accountable.

As I said, typically the guest speaker is a comedian, but after last year’s speaker pushed the limit, it was decided to tame it down a bit. Last night’s guest speaker (video below) was the biographer and historian Ron Chernow. If you haven’t read any of Ron’s books, let me recommend his biography on Alexander Hamilton. A superb book that was the inspiration for the awarding winning broadway musical, Hamilton. Ron’s most recent biography is on Ulysses Grant, which is the inspiration for a new movie (in production) about Grant, reportedly being directed by Steven Spielberg.

I must admit when I originally heard Ron Chernow had been chosen as the guest speaker, I thought “Well, that’s a very tall order for a scholar to deliver on. They’re not usually funny people.” I mean a historian taking the slot reserved for a professional comedian? I had heard Ron Chernow discussing his books and answering questions about them, and he is a good speaker for the most part, but as the primary guest speaker at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner? I was struggling even if a side of me thought it was a good turn.

Anyway, Ron was indeed far more tame. But I must say he acquitted himself quite well in my opinion. He did provide some humorous and well delivered and deserved jabs at the current administration. Had he not, to be sure, it would have been far too great a retreat from the spirit of the freedoms being celebrated by the event. Ron found that fine balance between pure joke and the jokingly serious. It was, in the best of ways, an instructive and entertaining speech. Ron showed intelligence, grace, wit, humor, and humility. All qualities that are sorely lacking on Capitol Hill and especially at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Watch the speech:

“Patriotism means to stand by the country”

Certainly a quote with special resonance at this time in our nation’s history.

Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country. In either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president or anyone else.

― Theodore Roosevelt