Tag Archives: US Constitution

Forgotten Fragments

“Mr. Watson, come here. I need you!”

Alexander G Bell, age 29

A.G. Bell, inventor of telephone age 29 (most photos show him much older)

Memory.  One way those of us without photographic memories can maintain the vitality of some facts fresh in our minds is to repeat them often to ourselves, like flashcards.  Sometimes we do this by sharing with others; story telling is a form of memory re-enforcement.  For example: the date, time and place you met your true love.  “In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Perhaps the date of an election: 1948, “Dewey Defeats Truman!” 

Likewise, key facts of our nation’s founding and early years are kept fresh by repetition; they are well-known and often repeated. 

  • 1776: Declaration of Independence. 
  • 1781: Victory at Yorktown. 
  • 1787: Constitution is written. 
  • 1791: The first 10 Amendments, AKA the Bill of Rights, become part of Constitution. Et cetera, et cetera.

Gonna shake the tree here, maybe turn over some rocks, and see if we can get a few more interesting, fragmental facts rejuvenated.

The thirteen “original” American colonies.  Why only 13 colonies?  Could there have been more? Weren’t there?

At the dawn of the US’s independence, let’s say we go south, and recall both Floridas: East Florida and West Florida, divided by the Apalachicola River. La Florida had been claimed by Spain since 1565. Spain had made an ill-timed poor decision to enter the Seven Years War (or French and Indian War, according to your preferred history) on the side of France near the end of that war.  Through the British victory and the 1763 Treaty of Paris, both Floridas became British possessions. (As did all of the French lands between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, and all of Canada). In fact, the Floridas became British colonies. Yet, the Floridas did not join “the thirteen” for Independence; they had yet to build up a sense of disdain for Britain and the Crown: they had only recently been acquired and were lightly populated. But they were certainly British American colonies.  So, already up to fifteen British colonies in the New World.

Henry Knox, about age 56. Somehow he failed to maintain his figure, perhaps too much good living [Painting by Gilbert Stuart, 1806, Public Domain]

What about Vermont?  Your mental Rolodex and flashcards will quickly show that Vermont was not among “the Thirteen.”  Yet – thanks to Ethan Allan and the “Green Mountain Boys” – they fought with the Americans against the British, helping Benedict Arnold win an important early revolutionary war victory at Fort Ticonderoga in May, 1775.  The 60 guns captured there (brilliantly transported over hill, dale and frozen river, by Gen Knox in his “Noble Train of Artillery” about 250 miles in wintery conditions) led to the American rebels ability to fire upon, and surprisingly dismiss, the British Navy from Boston Harbor in March, 1776. [Knox was only 25 at the time. ]

How did Vermont even come to exist?  Why was it not part of “the Thirteen?” Conflicting charter definitions left the area we know as “Vermont” in limbo: the colonies of New York and New Hampshire both laid claim to it.  And, at one time, even Massachusetts.  Even Quebecois traipsed fairly freely through the area, setting up camps, exploring and fur trapping.

Vermont took the opportunity presented by such disorder to become a de facto separate colony, beginning in 1770.  The “cities”, i.e. centers of administration, for New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts colonies were distant, and Vermonters felt no connection to them at all. The aforementioned “Green Mountain Boys” defended Vermont’s “independence” from other colonies fiercely.

Knox Cannon Trail. Many walk/hike this 250 mi trek to commemorate Knox’s achievement. Historic towns along the way offer lodging and refreshment options

When “America” formally declared its independence from England, the Vermonters deigned not to join, and formed their own Republic, in 1777 (although they continued a military alliance with the rebel Americans).  Much later, when New York finally acceded to Vermont’s discrete separateness, the Green Mountain Republic folded its tent and was incorporated into the union, in 1791 – after 14 years of formal independence.  It became, coincidently, the 14th state.

Aside: The only other state I can think of that was subsumed directly from independent nation status into the US as a state is Texas.  Any others?  [Hawaii went from independence through a lengthy Territory status].

Vermont was never formally granted its own charter of any sort by Britain.  So, it was not a “colony”, per se.  Our historical scavenger hunt did turn up some revolutionary factoid fragments: Ethan Allan and his Green Mountain Boys, Vermont’s short lived independence as a republic, the defeat of the British at Fort Ticonderoga and Boston Harbor, and Henry Knox’s 250-mile Noble Train of Artillery.

Our New World Colony tally remain at 15; i.e. “the Thirteen” plus the two Floridas.

But were there more?  Well, we mentioned Canada. Canada is surely part of America – North America. The Canadian half of me is a bit ill-at-ease by lack of thorough knowledge here, but we’ll give it a shot.  In 1776 Quebec had been its own chartered provincial colony since 1763.  As was St Johns Island (later Prince Edward Island), split off as a separate chartered colony from Nova Scotia in 1769.  At this period we should also count Nova Scotia and Newfoundland as colonies.  The Hudson Bay Company had also been granted a special charter, but I don’t believe it was of anything like formal colony status.  [Notes on Canada and British colonial status in footnotes below].   

So, how many Colonies did the Brits have in America at the time of the US War for Independence?  I count 19, or perhaps 20.  Not including Vermont.  And that’s just mainland colonies.  We’d find more British American colonies in the Caribbean, like Jamaica, the West Indies, the Bahamas, and others. So much for 13. But that is the number we tell ourselves, on our mental flashcards, over and over.  13 … 13 … 13.

The Bill of Rights.

We know the Bill of Rights as the original ten Amendments to the US Constitution.  Lost in the shuffle is that there were twelve original amendments passed by Congress in 1789. Twelve was the number of Amendments submitted to the states for ratification.

Turns out Amendments #1 and #2 failed.  Well, sort of.  The remaining ten – which we Americans fondly study and recite – were ratified by the requisite number of states (three-quarters), finally, in December, 1791.  These thus became formally part of the nation’s Constitution … these are the first 10 of its 27 Amendments.  So, our current #1 was actually originally #3.

Strangely often forgotten are Amendments numbered as #9 and #10. These clearly imply that the power of the federal government is limited; and suggest that the “Founders”, including James Madison, the principal author, clearly feared a powerful and unrestricted central federal government. You can refresh your memory here and here.

Well, what about the original first two Amendments? 

Amendment 1.  What happened?  Didn’t pass.  Probably a good thing. It would have allowed the House of Representatives to grow to approximately one representative for each 50,000 inhabitants.  Positives? On the one hand, it would have had at least two benefits.  First: it would certainly give us much more granular representation, possibly eliminating the drive for gerrymandering.  Second, it would have adjusted the Electoral College to almost entirely obviate the advantage of smaller states. But it had a serious downside: the House of Representatives would currently have to accommodate up to about six thousand butts and noses (that’s 6,000 – compared to 435 now).  With some foresight, the states did not ratify this.  [More here].

The original Amendment #2 has a significantly different story – although for nearly two centuries it followed the same moribund track as #1.  This originally proposed Amendment  #2 concerned Congressional salaries.  It forbade any sitting Congress from voting itself a pay raise.  They could, however, vote for an increase for the next and following Congresses.  I don’t know why it didn’t pass, but it didn’t. Seems like a good idea.  In fact, at this very time, in 1789, Congress voted itself a 17% pay raise (from $6/day to $7). Passed by Congress, but unratified by the requisite number of states, it lay in limbo, like a genie in a lamp. 

Jump to 1982.  An otherwise regular and inconspicuous student at the University of Texas, young 19-year old Mr Gregory Watson, was doing some research hoping to find a good topic for a term paper for his government class.  He stumbled across this proposed Amendment. 

“No law varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.”

He found, upon further investigation, that this amendment was still “alive”; seven of the Thirteen states at the time had ratified it.  But, it had no sunset. It was still alive. That is: it could still be ratified by the states without going back to Congress.  What a novel idea!  Congress cannot vote itself a pay increase. Now, let’s get it ratified by 31 more states.

Watson proposed such a revival in his essay.

His professor thought he was rather silly and gave him a grade of “C” – that is: average.  Grades were inflated a bit even then. In short: He was regarded as below average. [Greg Watson, the bad grade that helped change the Constitution]

Gregory Watson, in 2017

Undeterred, Watson undertook a one-man campaign to get the amendment passed.  With enough letters and phone calls, and ten years of persistence – and more than a few states getting pissed that Congress continued to vote itself pay increases – it eventually got momentum.  The number of states that ratified went from 7, to 10, to 20.  To 30. 

It took a decade.  In 1992 Michigan became the 38th state to ratify the amendment. It has passed the ¾ threshold.  It passed!  It became part of the Constitution and is now the 27th Amendment.  It’s the law of the land: A sitting Congress cannot vote to increase their own pay.  It remains the last change to the US Constitution.  It was ratified and became law 202 years after it passed Congress; a record that will surely never be broken. [Watch recent video of Watson and his story here.]

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Our lost fragments of history can be significant.  Our past is much more interesting and its texture much more complex than our day-to-day notions give credit to it. And more than our flashcards of rote memory. Not only that: it shows that a diligent, young, energetic, inspired and undaunted person – one who is blessed with fortitude and idealism, whether Henry Knox, Alex Bell or Greg Watson – can change the nation.  Even if it’s just one thing. 

To all the lost fragments … let’s not lose the threads of our past, nor the possibilities of our future. 

And to all the potential Greg Watsons out there.  Just do it! Be Greg Watson.  Wherever you are, Mr Watsons of the world, we need you.

Peace out

Joe Girard © 2020

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing joe@girardmeister.com

Status of British colonies in Canada at time of American Revolution:

Upper and Lower Canada formed 1791, to account for influx of Loyalists from America

Quebec Province was a colony from 1763 (when it was taken from France) until the forming of Upper and Lower Canada, in 1791

Nova Scotia was a British Colony from 1654 until 1848, when it received significant self-governing status.  It later became part of the Dominion of Canada on July 1, 1867 (Canada Day, eh?)

Newfoundland was a British Colony from 1610 until 1907, when it attained Dominion status.  It was confederated into Canada after WW2, in 1949.

Prince Edward Island was acquired during the Seven Years War, from France, and formally became a British colony in 1769.  The French called it Saint John’s Island (Île Saint-Jean).  The Brits retained the name until formally changing it to PEI in 1791. Excessive debt drove the colony to seek confederation with Canada, which became official on Canada Day, 1873.

New Brunswick was part of the British Empire during the American Revolution, but not a colony itself; it was attached at the time to Nova Scotia.

Labrador, to my knowledge has never held colonial status.  It is currently attached to Newfoundland.

To my knowledge and research, neither the Hudson’s Bay Company nor any part of Rupert’s Land was ever a colony.  These were pure business propositions from their founding up through the American Revolution.

Other stuff

Who Really Invented the Telephone?     

Henry Knox: The Noble Train of Cannons is also called the Henry Knox Cannon Trail.

Plaque noting where Knox’s Canon Trail saga ends
Sketch of Knox Winter transport of cannons, artist unknown, US Military Archives, Public Domain

Correction:  A few essays ago I wrote in Driving me Dazy that no state has an Interstate Highway with the same number as a US (Route) Highway number.  Wrong!  Wisconsin now has I-41 (which overlays US-41 over its entire length, to avoid confusion).  I-41 stops in Green Bay, but US-41 continues well north into the Keweenaw Peninsula on Michigan’s UP (Its other end is Miami: no confusion there).  And Arkansas has US-49 in the eastern part of the state, and a few fragments of I-49 in the far west part of the state.  Those happened long after I lived in those states.  Sorry.

Supreme Thoughts

Supreme: 1) Highest in rank or authority; 2) Highest in degree or quality; 3) ultimate or final
–  Merriam-Webster

I recently read a fun and interesting article by Jonah Goldberg.  (Yes, I know – that Jonah Goldberg – please don’t roll your eyes and give up on me). At once randy and riveting – sending insults in many directions –  he does cite and make some interesting points.

After starting out on the topic of the weird magic of orbs, he quotes an Annandale Public Policy survey that determined 75% of American adults cannot identify all three branches of government. (Yes, I know – shocking).  And more than one-third of Americans cannot name a single right conferred by The Bill of Rights.  (As my wife and I say at this point: “And they vote.”)

Trump touches “The Orb” in Riyyad, Saudi Arabia, with Saudi King Salman and Egyptian President al-Sissi.

It’s a good enough starting point for me, but I’ll go off into theory and conspiracy-land instead of slinging poison-dart words.

The US Constitution’s first three Articles deal with the three branches of government.  Article I – The Congress; Article II – The Executive Branch; Article III – The Judicial.

Digging into Article III, it is interesting to note that the Constitution does not – I repeat: the Constitution does NOT – set the number of Supreme Court Justices.

Seal of the Supreme Court of the United States

In fact, the number we have come to know and grow accustomed to – specifically, nine – has not always been the total number. The number is set by acts of Congress. And can be modified by acts of Congress.

When the Supremes first sat, in 1790, the odd number was six. [1].  Why is six odd? It is not, generally speaking, a good idea to have an even number of people deciding things.  Ties can result, and in the Supreme Court, ties lead to no action at all.  Whatever was law before is law after.

In 1807 they judiciously raised the number to seven.  In 1837 it was raised to our familiar nine (perhaps some sort of north-south compromise … I’ll have to look into it).  Oddly, in 1863 it was raised to an even ten.  [At this time the South had virtually no representation in Congress, they bolted to their own government, and it was pretty clear that the North would probably win the war. Not sure if that’s why a seat was added.]

Finally, in a fuss over President Andrew Johnson (Lincoln’s successor … remember, he was impeached and avoided getting removed from office by a single vote), the number was reduced back to seven.  This precluded Johnson, a Tennessee southerner, from appointing any judges.

Then in 1869, with Johnson out and Grant in office, the number was raised back to nine – I suppose to re-enforce the government position on Reconstruction. Or to spite Johnson.

And there, at a total of nine, is where the number of justices has remained for nearly 150 years.

The Supreme Court has had its own building, shown here, since 1935.

Upshot #1 is that Roosevelt’s plan to “pack the court” was not the least bit unconstitutional; although it did represent the sort of power grab that was a hallmark of the his presidency.  Roosevelt believed in “go big, or go home”; he attempted to jack up the number to fifteen, thus giving himself a slam dunk on any issue before the court. Probably no other president did more to establish the tradition of a very powerful executive branch.  [After Obama, and, especially, now Trump, it looks like people in both parties have recognized this danger].

Upshot #2 is a wild long-shot prediction – or perhaps observation of the possibility – that something supremely weird could happen, most likely in 2021: Expansion of the court to 11 members, or more.

My thought process. The backlash against the Republicans for painting themselves into a corner: first with Trump, and then with Moore. These will yoke their general popularity numbers in the ditch for years – and will almost surely result in Congressional seat losses in 2018.  Even popular presidents lose seats in off-year elections (see Obama in 2010).

Unless the Reps can bump Trump and field a Knight (or Dame [2]) in shining armor for 2020 – or the Dems run another truly “horrible” candidate, as in 2016 – there is a good chance the Dems will hold the Whitehouse and both branches of congress come 2021.

Here’s where current events come into play.

  • The Senate has gone “nuclear”. That means the good old days of needing 60% and plenty of compromise to get anything passed (used to be two-thirds) are basically gone.  No one plays nice anymore.  Could blame Harry Reid, but there’s not enough mud or ink for all the villains.  Now it takes only 50-50 (if you have the Whitehouse … the VP casts tie-breaking votes in the Senate).

[The lower house of Representatives has always been designed to go fast: only a simple majority has ever been required … except to commence the Amendment process]

  • Some Supremes are destined to retire, or pass away, soon. So, look for good odds that Trump will get to appoint at least one more judge, securing the Right’s slight advantage (currently approx. 5-4, even noting that Kennedy and – in a few cases – Roberts have swung left a few times).
  • Anthony Kennedy is 82. Although the left sees him as a hateful ideological enemy, he sides with them frequently and is always the “swing” vote in closely decided 5-4 cases.  He probably isn’t sure about Trump (who is?), and, as a relative moderate among right and left sharks, might be hanging on to see what happens in 2020.
  • Even older is Ruth Bader Ginsberg. She is 85 years old and looks 105; her energy is visibly dwindling to all court observers.  A true Progressive/Leftist believer, she is surely hanging on, hoping that Dems win the Whitehouse in 2020.  But she could pass any day, and no one would be surprised.
  • Steven Breyer, at 79-1/2 could keel over too.

If Trump gets to appoint even one more judge, look for the Left and Dems to get super energized. Even more than the hornet’s nest we are observing now. Why? This could “lock in” a perceived rightward slant for at least another decade (even though this court did uphold “Obamacare”, AKA The Affordable Care Act, and Same Sex Marriage rights).

They will seek to overturn any perceived disadvantage by adding at least two seats to the court.

That’s my Far-Out-From-the Center-Field-Peanut-Gallery prediction for now.  Call me out on it in a few years if the Dems take the elections in 2018 and 2020.

Well, the future beckons.  Let’s be careful servants out there!

Cheers and best wishes for 2018.

Joe Girard © 2018

 

[1] Actually the number was five, although Congress set the number at six.  The sixth justice was not confirmed by the Senate until a few months later.

[2] The equivalent of Knight for females is Dame. When she receives her title, she is said to be “daymed”, not “knighted.”  Link

Democracy, No!

Democracy NO!

 

The much revered founders of the United States are guilty.  Guilty of disliking democracy — even fearing it.  They did not want this new country to have democracy.  Ever. They erected statutory barriers to it.

Image

 

“The years leading up the Declaration of Independence gave them them the motive.  The years during and immediately after the war for Independence confirmed that motive. The drafting of the Constitution in 1787 gave them the means to carry out this crime.  Their intent is confirmed by the writing and  passage of the so-called ’Bill of Rights’ — the Constitution’s first ten amendments.

 

So begins the prosecution’s opening statement against the founders of the United States – and its Constitution’s esteemed framers.

 

The defense statement: “The founders were many things.  They were first, anti-royalists … abhorring ancestral rule by monarchs. Similarly, they distrusted peerage: the archaic protocol by which great titles and seats to government were granted by heredity.  They were believers that government — the state — derives its ‘just powers’ from the consent of the governed.  That is to say: the government might have any number of powers at any time, but those that are just and righteous can only be conferred by consent through contract with the people who are governed.

 

In all these ways the founders and framers were radically protective of ‘we the people.’  The charge itself, then, is unjust. It is not appropriate.”

 

The prosecution presents its case.  To establish the motive, we see videos of angry, shouting mobs.  In one, on King Street in Boston, a large crowd of hundreds is spurred on by chants and slogans memorized in dingy pubs from the shallow words of pamphleteering provocateurs.  Hundreds scream crude obscenities at a solitary young British sentry.

After a while, eight other soldiers – all but one quite young also – appear to relieve the poor lad.  The crowd continues to shout profanities and inane insults. They yell “fire”; actually daring the soldiers to shoot at them. When they still get no response, they begin hurling feces covered rocks. Hooting shouters urge them on.  A jar of urine is flung upon the soldiers.  Shouting back and forth.

Finally, a soldier opens fire.  A struggle and yelling.  Then more gunshot. The mob would call it the Boston Massacre. Even founder and patriot John Adams could see the horror of giving the power of law making to a people so easily agitated and manipulated; he defended the soldiers in the King’s Court, earning acquittal for six, and light sentences for the other two… despite a jury of American locals.

In other video clips, we the jury, are shown scenes of similar mobs — yelling, shouting, literally drunk; drunk with spirit, drunk with mob mentality — breaking into the residences of government officials.  One after another, in city after city, they are pulled out of their homes, often dressed only in a nightgown.  They are stripped naked. To the huzzahs and hollers of the mob — those spurred on by slogans and chants and pamphleteers — we cannot bring ourselves to avert our eyes as the videos show hot oily tar inhumanely poured over bare flesh. They are then covered in feathers.

During the war, popular movements, supported by vox populi, led to harassment of Tories.  Those loyal to the established government were subject to all sorts of vengeful acts, not limited to the taking of life and property.

 

Even after independence, and after the War for Independence (but before the Constitution), the rule of law was subject to the rule of the populace .

“Serious rioting recurred in many of the major cities … Extralegal groups and conventions repeatedly sprang up to take public action into their own hands, to intimidate voters, to regulate prices, or to close courts.  … In the 1780s … mobs were taking over the functions of government.  This was not simply a chimerical fear, for the legislatures in the 1780s appeared to be extraordinarily susceptible to mass demonstrations and mob violence.  State governments were continually forced to submit to various kinds of popular pressures, often expressed outside the regular legal channels.” [1]

 

Before, during and even after the revolution.  All of these actions, the prosecution points out, were done with the look and feel of popular democracy; And so the framers had the motive to suppress the will of the people, the will of the demos.

 

Now the prosecution directs our attention to the deed itself: Restricting democracy.  The framers gave us – we the people – three branches of government, and yet only one-half of one branch is “chosen by the people”; so says Article 1, Section 2.

 

How crafty they were to throw “the people” a “democratic bone.”  This House would turn over rapidly, every two years, as “chosen by the people.”  It served the framers doubly well: 1) this house would give vent to the popular current trends; they could be more responsive to democratic populism and even recite popular chants in the halls of government; and 2) they would probably,  hopefully, go back to their plows,  mills, and shops after a term or two.

 

The Senate, the more powerful house of the Legislature, would be chosen not by the people, but by the Legislatures of the States themselves (Article 1, Section 3).  These terms were six years, thus allowing the members to take a less populist view, (the defense interjects: “And a more long term view.”  The judge pounds the gavel: “That’s out of order and enough of that, counsel!)  … ahem, the Senate would naturally take a less populist view, a less democratic view, of legislative issues.  Note: Not chosen by the people.  Not reflecting the view of the people. Not democracy.

 

And then, look what they did to the Executive Office.  The framers did not want this person to be fawned over by the public, worshiped as some regal or charismatic persona.  Consequently, they struggled mightily with what to call this person, and how to choose him.

 

By what simple non-populist title to address him in person and in legal documents?  They feared anything that might smack of privilege or royalty. They desired to convey a humble, yet appropriate title.  A struggle for sure; after all, no country yet known had done such a thing.  They settled on such a wonderfully simple solution that it was doomed to fail. The executive is the person who presides over government and presides over the highest meetings of government.  They called him, simply, President.

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