Of Slavery and the Constitution

Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

Slavery in America was doomed under the Constitution, and the slavocrats knew it.  For more than four score years they had been fighting and steadily losing ground to preserve slavery.  When Abraham Lincoln was elected President, the slavocrats understood that things would not get better for them.  They saw getting out as the only way to continue slavery.

They pushed their states to leave after the election of 1860 not because they disputed the results.  They recognized that Lincoln had been duly elected.  What the slavocrats feared was that under his administration and his support in Congress their ability to preserve slavery would be irreparably eroded and eventually ended.  They sought to exit the Union before that happened.

By necessity, forming a “more perfect union” under the Constitution required compromise to accommodate diverse peoples and experiences.  The miracle of the Founders was to bring all the states in.  Compromise and accommodation are at the heart of a republic. 

There is an art to compromise.  I saw that during the days of the Reagan administration.  President Reagan was a highly principled man, yet he often compromised.  I marveled how, in his compromising, he resisted compromise of principle.  Again and again he advanced his principles while accommodating on details.   

The Founders establishing a Constitution sought to preserve essential principles by which a government of liberty would act.  A key example was the slave trade.  Some vociferously argued for its end.  Slave state representatives argued for the matter to be left to individual states.  The Constitution enshrined the national principle that the slave trade must end.  Placing regulation of trade in general with Congress, the compromise set 1808 for the complete end of the slave trade.

A similarly important example where compromise embraced the principle was the apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives.  The number of a state’s representatives was based on population.  Representatives from slave states wanted to count slaves.  Others objected that if your state treats these people as property, then they should not be counted any more than other property.  The principle in the compromise was to recognize the humanity of people held in slavery, but to count a person only as three-fifths for congressional apportionment so long as he was held in slavery, reducing southern congressional representation.

With these two compromises, resting on anti-slavery principles, all the states came into the union, accepting a Constitution that would progressively lead to abolition.  As the reality of that became abundantly clear to the leadership of eleven of the states, they tried to renege on the deal and leave.  The slavocrats failed.  Rather than let the Constitution end slavery peacefully, they forced a horrid war that ended it all the sooner, but at the cost of more than 600,000 dead, greater than the total of Americans killed in both World Wars I and II. 

The power of the principles of the Constitution continued its work.  Amidst a Civil War that, in the words of Lincoln, tested “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure,” elections were held.  The voters chose liberty and the nation endured.

The American Founders were sober people, sobered by a long and difficult war of Independence followed by several years of economic and social confusion.  They understood that people were flawed and make mistakes.  They believed that people are also good, who can and do make good decisions.  The Constitution on which they established the United States recognizes and is designed to offset the bad and allow good to succeed, which it more often than not does.  

Tested by myriad difficulties and unparalleled prosperity, the Constitution has worked better than any other system of government on earth.  That is why enemies of freedom hate it and why so many people want to come here to live.

Of Easter and the Constitution

Photo by Joshua Cotten on Unsplash

One morning in Tennessee, almost 160 years ago, many thousand U.S. soldiers were quietly enjoying breakfast on a beautiful spring Sabbath, thinking of little more than passing a quiet Palm Sunday and sometime soon thereafter continuing the destruction of the rebel army in nearby Corinth, Mississippi. That was, until the rebels came calling and rudely interrupted breakfast.

By the end of the battle the next day the rebels were in full retreat, but over 13,000 Union soldiers were dead, wounded, or missing, and nearly 11,000 rebels had met the same fate. Shiloh turned out to be a major victory for the United States Army, opening up nearly the whole western part of the rebel confederacy to reunification. The import of the victory was missed by much of the population of the loyal states, however, whose senses reeled from a bill of losses of husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers never seen before in the life of the Republic.  General U.S. Grant, whose coolness under pressure made the victory possible, was mercilessly criticized in the press.

The nation little understood that the casualties of Shiloh would be only the first of many tens of thousands more who would suffer from civil war in the land of Washington and Jefferson before 1862 would be over. Then there would be 1863, 1864, and 1865 to follow, running the tally of destruction ever higher.  In 1865, near the end of the war, Abraham Lincoln summed up in his marvelous second inaugural address—for a term of office that would last the rest of his life, less than 6 weeks—“Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. . . . Each looked for an easier triumph and a result less fundamental and astounding.”

All Americans today benefit from that profound victory and the others that brought an end to the rebellion and that upheld the Constitution. It was a strange and new thing for the world that the words on a piece of paper, written by men of an earlier generation, could create a system of government and affect so many lives. It was the lives of those who fought to sustain the Constitution that gave it that life, men who insisted on living by those words and organizing a free society within the protections of its provisions.

The same is true today, as with each generation:  we are called upon to uphold that Constitution, those words on a piece of paper, and hand it on down, as strong as ever, to our children. Those men who died at Shiloh cannot do our work for us today. Neither can the men who fought and died in Europe and the South Pacific and on many other places of battle.  Just as important as those who died to preserve the Constitution are those who have lived to maintain the Constitution. They, however, could do no more than pass that freedom under constitutional law to us. We have it today. What will we do with it?

As Ronald Reagan taught in his 1967 inaugural address as Governor of California,

“Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction.”

We must not let it become extinct. It is under challenge from enemies without, who hate the liberty and worth of the individual enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, and it is endangered by those within the nation—some in very high places of power and responsibility— who see the Constitution as a barrier in the way of their plans to replace individual rights, value, initiative, and worth with the ages old system where the government and the governors run the lives of the people and decide who wins, who loses, who gets what, and how much.

Our forebears fought a revolution and crafted a new system in the New World to get away from that rule by the few. The lesson we need to learn anew, is that it is the job of the many individuals who make up each generation to win that freedom again, because there will always be those eager to impose their will on others and use and direct and take the resources that they themselves did not earn, who will want to have their way with other people’s money and other people’s lives.

No one’s sacrifice is the same as anyone else’s. Read no unfairness in that, because to sacrifice is to absorb unfairness. We cannot avoid the call to sacrifice.  Not even Christ, the greatest of all, could.

As we celebrate Easter we should remember the sacrifices of the Savior, by which He absorbed all unfairness. His sacrifices made Easter possible, by which all that is wrong is overcome and ultimate freedom bought for each person born into this world. We are privileged by Christ to be given the chance to join in that effort to preserve and extend the blessings of freedom to our families, our friends, and to people we do not know and may never meet.

At Gethsemane, then Golgotha, and from the Garden Tomb, Christ has created the framework that makes freedom possible. He inspired the founders who built a nation of liberty as the beacon to all mankind that it has been for almost 250 years. As our Easter worship, let us take up the last call given by Abraham Lincoln to the nation as the Constitution was reaffirmed in struggle, who recognized the great value of America for the world:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Of Overreaching Concerns and Asset Allegation

Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

What’s in a word?  That is an old question.  Often what is in the word may not be what the author intended.  The result can be humorous, and sometimes insightful.

Before retiring from the American Bankers Association, I became acquainted with a couple of examples where perhaps the wrong word presented an insightful meaning.  Listening to a seminar broadcast I heard the speaker explain the “overreaching concern” of his particular program.  Since the beginning of the Great Cessation and related lockdowns, I have heard many overreaching concerns expressed.  Perhaps we may learn from them.

On another occasion, in reference to money management, I became acquainted similarly by insightful accident with the term “asset allegation.”  I think that many a loan officer or bank examiner has had to come to terms with cases of asset allegation.

In 1775 the English playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan introduced us to Mrs. Malaprop, who delightfully uses words in unintended ways, at least unintended by whoever created the words.  His play, “The Rivals,” is a classic of English comedy.  In one example, Mrs. Malaprop, trying to convince her niece to give up on a young man of interest, expresses the wish that Lydia, the niece, would “illiterate him” from her memory.  In recent days, I think that we have all come across efforts by some to “illiterate” events from our historical memory.  Much to her happiness, Lydia ignored the advice.

Mrs. Malaprop, quite displeased with Lydia’s response, cautions her niece not to “extirpate” herself from the matter, explaining to the young girl that Malaprop has “proof controvertible” for her case.  Again, in recent days many have indeed been called upon to “extirpate” themselves or their ideas, prodded by noisy voices offering much “proof controvertible.”

In conversation, discussing what she considers proper education, Mrs. Malaprop recommends boarding school, where the student could obtain “a supercilious knowledge in accounts”.  I may admit that considering the CECL financial accounting rule, I have been tempted to wonder to what degree “a supercilious knowledge in accounts” might have had a role in its development.

I would also wonder, as I compare the variety of approaches across the globe to the current virus, whether some policymakers were subjected to Mrs. Malaprop’s advice that youth be “instructed in geometry” that they “might know something of the contagious countries”.

As a final reference, of many wonderful examples in the play, I would call upon Mrs. Malaprop’s advice that proper education of Lydia might lead the dear niece to “reprehend the true meaning of what she is saying.”  I have heard and read many things in recent days by many people and mused whether the time would arrive when these people would come to reprehend the true meaning of what they were saying.

In my days of Civil War reenacting I became familiar with the Union song, “Grafted Into the Army.”  Composed by Henry Clay Work, it pretends to be written in the words of a widow, immigrant to the United States, lamenting her son Jimmy being “grafted” into the army.  Military jargon can be difficult enough for those not in the army, even more so for someone arrived in a new society.  Jimmy’s mother does express pride in her son “Dressed up in his unicorn.”  Intended to provide lighthearted moments in a dark time, the song also tells of the widow mother complaining at “the captain’s fore-quarters” about her son being too young.  Many sons were too young, and too many did not return.  Mixed in the mirth is the sad message that Jimmy’s “brothers fell / Way down in Alabarmy.”

An anecdote from dining at a restaurant:  I had occasion to visit the restroom.  The following instruction, printed in large letters, was displayed prominently over the sink:  Employees must wash hands.  I waited there some minutes, pondering the appearance lately of many strange requirements, but at last I gained the courage to break the rule and washed my hands myself.

Of Presidents and Derelicts

Barack Obama is no fan of the Constitution. He has been known to criticize it for its focus on limiting government, for telling governments what they can and cannot do. He prefers a Constitution that focuses more on telling governments what they should do, at least telling governments to do what he would like, including seeing to the “redistribution of wealth,” or what he calls elsewhere “redistributive change.”

Of course, that is a mischaracterization. Not a mischaracterization of Obama’s views but of what the Constitution says. It does limit government, but it also gives government specific responsibilities and the power to exercise those responsibilities. Article I, Section 8 provides a very clear list of the federal government’s duties. It is noteworthy that those enumerated responsibilities and powers are in the Article that establishes the Congress. The list includes such things as providing for the common defense, borrowing and paying government debts, regulating foreign and interstate commerce, establishing standards for weights and measures, and so forth.

There are plenty of other provisions that limit the powers of the government and how it operates. The Constitution is a balance of governmental duties within a structure intended carefully to limit the government. As a limited government our Republic has prospered. It has struggled either when its duties were neglected (as in the days of President Buchanan, who did nothing while he watched state after state rebel from the Union) or when the limitations have been eroded (as we have witnessed through much of the twentieth century and in the first 14 years of the twenty-first).

The President has specific powers and duties, too, nearly all of which are carefully linked with the role of the Congress. For example, while the President does not make the laws—Article I, Section 1 gives “All legislative Powers” exclusively to the Congress—the President is authorized to make proposals to Congress and has the authority to veto legislation (but not change it) that Congress has approved. Once an act of Congress becomes law, the President then has the explicit obligation to, “take Care that the Laws be fully executed” (Article II, Section 3).

Note the words, “fully executed”. The President takes an oath to fulfill those duties, and nowhere in oath or Constitution is the President authorized to execute the laws only as much as he likes or agrees with them. Once something has become a law, the President may not set aside this or that part of the law or decide that he will only enforce the law so far. His obligation is to take Care that the laws are fully executed.

Average Americans may not like this or that provision of law, but we are not at liberty to ignore any law that applies to us just because we do not like it. The President is not exempt from that common responsibility of all citizens, either. As the chief government executive, who sought to hold his high office of public responsibility, he is even more obligated not only to obey the laws but to execute them, fully. The President may not make the laws, he may not amend the laws, he may not change the laws, and he may not disregard the laws. His duty is to execute the laws, and when he does not he is derelict in his duties.

This is all in accordance with the important division of labor, the separation of powers that the Founders put into the very structure of the Constitution to combat the tendency of all humans to abuse power once it comes into their hands. By dividing the power of government among three separate but coequal branches, dividing legislative power even further between House and Senate, and yet again separating government power between federal and state governments, the Founders went to clear and elaborate lengths to create checks and balances.

Under the American system of government no branch, no person, no group of people in government, are to be able to do very much on their own without getting the other elements of government to go along. Where they are not able to agree, where there is no consensus, for the safety of our freedoms government is prevented by constitutional law from moving forward unless substantial consensus among the different branches can be reached. Those checks and balances again and again, throughout the more than two centuries of our Constitution, have forced the very human people in government to revisit their differences and come to terms with one another, however much they may disagree and be disagreeable. There is safety for you and me in that. And it helps keep our Union together, repeatedly forcing our leaders (and the parts of the nation that they represent and whose authority they exercise) to work with one another, like it or not.

Recently, President Obama has expressed impatience with the Constitution’s checks and balances. After all, he personally, in and of himself, embodies an entire branch of government. The other branches, Congress and the courts, have many different people with a messy variety of ideas. President Obama complains that Congress cannot decide what it wants to do as quickly as he can. In his view, why wait?

By design, Congress of course has something of a multiple personality. It is a gathering of elected representatives, reflecting the diversity of views among the people of the nation. Appropriately, it takes time to build a consensus that accommodates those views, as it should. But President Obama cannot wait. He sees the need to accommodate no ideas other than his own. He has decided that on this issue or that—today it is immigration laws—there is a limit, defined by himself, as to how much time Congress can take to consider things. When time is up, he, the executive branch, will take the matter into his own hands, and pretend to the authority to do it.

His tool of choice today is to abjure his duty to execute the laws fully and instead to execute them partially, just to the extent and manner that suit his own desires, as he engages in another round of redistributive change. That he is endeavoring to violate rather than execute our national, founding law, and his constitutional oath of office, apparently does not trouble him. It is the Constitution itself that troubles him.

But from where does he think he gets his authority to do anything. When he breaks the Constitution, does he not break his very authority to act in the office that the Constitution created?

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