Death to the Republic? - Part One
Not since Rome have men and women managed to hold on to a government based on the popular will as long as the American republic has survived. I find reasons now to fear the end is near.
The English may brag about their brave history, especially the Magna Carta and the world's oldest surviving legislative body, the Parliament. But the tight little island remained in autocratic and noble hands until roughly 100 years ago when the House of Lords lost the tradition to veto anything the honorable members chose to dislike.
The French tossed out their absolute monarchy shortly after our revolution; their venture into self-rule, however, was interrupted by Napoleon, the restored Bourbon Louis XVIII, Charles X, Louis-Philippe and Louis Napoleon, old Bonaparte's nephew, who was brought to the throne by citizens rushing to the barricades. Paris came close to welcoming a communist form of government long before Moscow, whose 72-year experiment went bust - in 1989, exactly 200 years after the Articles of Confederation began to shape the United States of America, as we know it.
Reaching for the Declaration of Independence, which scarcely marks the birth of the present form of government, this republic still stands shy of 230 years (1776-2005). The records show that Romans ruled through their senate from 510 BC until 44 BC when the mob awarded "perpetual dictatorship" to Julius Caesar. Everybody knows what happened to him.
Efforts to undermine this republic began very early.
John Adams lived to witness the finishing of the President's Mansion that started during his single term; legend has wife Abigail hanging up the family wash in what became the West Wing. His job never became president-for-life, an uncrowned monarch, as he wanted from the start, despite the alien and sedition acts that sought to crush the Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson.
While France had ensured victory for the original 13 colonies' rebellion against London, in 1798 Paris was in the hands of those whose egalitarianism trampled down the rights of property and wealth. Mr. Adams and his Federalists recognized the threat to their privileged status. They firmly believed the common good was much too precious to be left to the common man.
This earliest version of today's Homeland Security laws first extended the residence requirement for naturalization from five to 14 years; secondly, authorized the president during peacetime to deport aliens he deemed "dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States;" and gave the White House the mandate to arrest and kick out anyone holding foreign citizenship during wartime, without the niceties of recourse to the legal system.
Enacted in three weeks during a summer session members of Congress normally spent carefully removed from Washington's heat, humidity and malarial mosquitoes, the initial laws scarcely caused a beep among the general populace.
But the mood changed in the fourth week when Mr. Adams and his cohorts clapped down on the press, tossing into jail 25 editors, mostly Republicans, for publishing "false, malicious and scandalous writings." Criticism of the president, in any form, became seditious, putting in jail a New York congressman who owned a county weekly. But arresting Benjamin Franklin's grandson was the final straw; in the footsteps of his illustrious forebear, he ran a Philadelphia paper.
Reportedly, Mr. Adams took an early morning Potomac swim and got out of town the day Thomas Jefferson's inauguration affirmed the people were to be governed by their chosen representatives.
While there is little to suggest John Quincy Adams actively sought to imitate his father's pursuit of preserving upper-class privileges, his move into the mansion where his mother once hung laundry touched off what amounted to what has been cited as the second American Revolution. It wasn' t.
Ignoring Andrew Jackson's commanding (one-third higher than Mr. Adams' tally) lead in the popular vote, the House of Representatives stepped into the breach created by an Electoral College badly divided among four candidates on the presidential ballot. Choosing the Federalist son of the father of Federalism guaranteed an uprising among the nations' "great unwashed," as a later politician characterized the general electorate.
The next time around "Old Hickory" not only cleaned the clock of the Massachusetts clan, but destroyed their party, installing the country's "spoils system" that sought to root out any and all adherents to the old regime. It worked.
Contrary to the image that continues to abound, Mr. Jackson had not been raised in a log cabin but a mansion; he was a lawyer, a Congressman and a Senator before succeeding to the White House. For all his rough-and-ready willingness to endow his followers with the trappings of power, his administration had less to do with sharing rule than favoritism.
In fact, his popular revolution posed no threat to the Republic but only to the national economy; Andrew Jackson's policy of depositing treasury funds with friendly bankers sparked the 19th century's worst depression.
Aside from the earliest days when America's future hung in delicate balance, the Republic faced its greatest perils during the first Republican administration. The wartime authority exercised by Abraham Lincoln that virtually wiped out constitutional guarantees was temporary, if no less destructive. The open warrant never subverted due process more than in the hasty hangings of the woman and men accused of participating in the assassination.
The Republic's greatest crisis, until now, was provoked by politicians waving bloody shirts, red with Mr. Lincoln's blood and those killed on the Northern side during the Civil War.
In the name of preserving the Union, reigning Congressional leaders sought any and all means to perpetuate their grip over Washington. As in today's debates, they staked claim to higher morality than their opponents whom they blamed for supporting slavery, which was - generally speaking - simply not true. Those truly culpable had been swallowed up by the war and the ensuing Reconstruction.
The division within the Democratic Party, which had enabled Mr. Lincoln's victory, had been caused by the Northern chapters' unwillingness to support "the peculiar institution." Never mind. Except for 16 intermittent years, the reins of national domination rested firmly in GOP hands. From Mr. Lincoln's 1861 inauguration until Mr. Roosevelt swore the oath in 1933, Democrats glanced into the White House during Grover Cleveland's two separate terms and for Woodrow Wilson's administration.
Republicans were finally ousted from Washington's corridors of power not by the opposition but by the arrival of the Great Depression, which dwarfed the painful crisis prompted by Democrat Andrew Jackson's finagling favoritism. Without Wall Street's collapse, months after Herbert Hoover slipped into the Oval Office, the Republic might have easily remained a Republican exclusionary preserve. It didn't.
The present threat to this Republic first surfaced during Watergate, the illegal attempt to ensure that power would remain within self-selected hands beyond Richard M. Nixon's second term, as we discuss tomorrow.