Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Republics and Commonwealths

This will be, I hope, the spot to debate the meaning of the old Latin term "republic" and its English cognate, "commonwealth." The United States of America seems to have been founded as a republican federation of republics, but over time our presidents and their appointees have demonstrated a growing distaste for the limitations placed on them by this ancient system.

A republic, in my view, is a state ruled by more than one person---a state without a king.

Try http://dhm.best.vwh.net/archives/wre-republics.html for a lengthy historical definition

A "unitary executive," if it goes on from enforcing law to thinking it can make law, is un-republican. With some help from Shakespeare, we might call the current executive branch a nest of "caterpillars of the commonwealth."

The philosophy emerging from the executive branch finds its fullest expression in the works of Professor John Yoo, now at Boalt Hall law school, and might be summed up as:

"Power to the presidency; all power to the presidency in wartime; in all times, all power to define, declare, make, and end war to the presidency; war without end; Amen."

Let me know if and how I might have gone wrong in this judgment.

-WR Everdell


Blogger WR Everdell said...

Senator Thomas Corwin (1794-1865), Whig, Ohio, excerpts from his speech against the Mexican War in the Senate on February 11, 1847.

No, sir, looking at the events of the last twelve months, and forming his judgment of these by the suggestions which history teaches, and which she alone can teach, he would record another of those sad lessons which, though often taught, are, I fear, forever to be disregarded. He would speak of a republic, boasting that its rights were secured, and the restricted powers of its functionaries bound up in the chains of a written Constitution; he would record on his page, also, that such a people, in the wantonness of strength or the fancied security of the moment, had torn that written Constitution to pieces, scattered its fragments to the winds, and surrendered themselves to the usurped authority of ONE MAN.

He would find written in that Constitution, Congress shall have power to declare war; he would find everywhere, in that old charter, proofs cclear and strong, that they who framed it intended that Congress, composed of two Houses, the representatives of the states, and the people, should (if any were pre-eminent) be the controlling power. He would find there a President designated; whose general and almost exclusive duty it is to execute, not to make the law. Turning from this to the history of the last ten months, he would find that the President alone, without the advice or consent of Congress, had, by a bold usurpation, made war on a neighboring republic; and what is quite as much to be deplored, that Congress, whose high powers were thus set at naught and defied, had, with ready and tame submission, yielded to the usurper the wealth and power of the nation to execute his will, as if to swell his iniquitous triumph over the very Constitution which he and they had alike sworn to support.

If anyone should inquire for the cause of a war in this country, [204] where should he resort for an answer? Surely to the journals of both Houses of Congress, since Congress alone has power to declare war; yet, although we have been engaged in war for the last ten months, a war which has tasked all the fiscal resources of the country to carry it forward, you shall search the records and the archives of both Houses of Congress in vain for any detail of its causes, any resolve of Congress that war shall be waged. How is it, then, that a peaceful and peace-loving people, happy beyond the common lot of man, busy in every laudable pursuit of life, have been forced to turn suddenly from these and plunge into the misery, the vice and crime which ever have been, and ever shall be, the attendant scourges of war? The answer can only be, it was by the act and will of the President alone, and not by the act or will of Congress, the war-making department of the government. . . .

When the makers of that Constitution assigned to Congress alone, the most delicate and important power—to declare war—a power more intimately affecting the interests, immediate and remote, of the people, than any which a government is ever called on to exert—when they withheld this great prerogative from the Executive and confided it to Congress alone, they but consulted in this, as in every other work of their hands, the gathered wisdom of all preceding times. Whether they looked to the stern despotisms of the ancient Asiatic world, or the military yoke of imperial Rome, or the feudal institutions of the middle ages, or the more modern monarchies of Europe, in each and all of these, where the power to wage war was held by one or by a few, it had been used to sacrifice, not to protect the many. The caprice or ambition of the tyrant had always been the cause of bloody and wasting war, while the subject millions had been treated by their “remorseless masters, only as “tools in the hands of him who knew how to use them. II They therefore declared that this fearful power should be confided to those who represent the people, and those who here in the Senate represent the sovereign states of the republic. After securing this power to Congress, they thought it safe to give the command of the armies in peace and war to the President. We shall see hereafter, how by an abuse of his power as commander-in-chief, the President has drawn to himself that of declaring war, or commencng hostilities with a people with whom we were on terms of peace, which is substantially the same.
The men of former times took very good care that your standing army should be exceedingly small, and they who had the most lively apprehensions of investing in one man the power to command the army, always inculcated upon the minds of the people the necessity of [206] keeping that army within limits, just as small as the necessity of the external relations of the country would possibly admit. It has happened, Mr. President, that when a little disturbance on your Indian frontier took place, Congress was invoked for an increase of your military force. Gentlemen came here who had seen partial service in the armies of the United States. They tell you that the militia of the country is not to be relied upon—that it is only in the regular army of the United States that you are to find men competent to fight the battles of the country, and from time to time when that necessity has seemed to arise, forgetting this old doctrine, that a large standing army in time of peace was always dangerous to human liberty, we have increased that army from six thousand up to about sixteen thousand men. Mr. President, the other day we gave ten regiments more; and for not giving it within the quick time demanded by our master, the commander-in-chief, some minion, I know not who, for I have not looked into this matter until this morning, feeding upon the fly-blown remnants that fall from the Executive shambles and lie putrefying there, has denounced us as Mexicans, and called the American republic to take notice, that there was in the Senate, a body of men chargeable with incivism—Mexicans in heart—traitors to the United States. . . .

It must have occurred to everybody how utterly impotent the Congress of the United States now is for any purpose whatever, but that of yielding to the President every demand which he makes for men and money, unless they assume that only position which is left—that which, in the history of other countries, in times favorable to human liberty, has been so often resorted to as a check upon arbitrary power—withholding money, refusing to grant the services of men when demanded for purposes which are not deemed to be proper.

When I review the doctrines of the majority here, and consider their application to the existing war, I confess I am at a loss to determine whether the world is to consider our conduct as a ridiculous farce, or be lost in amazement at such absurdity in a people calling themselves free. The President, without asking the consent of Congress, involves us in war, and the majority here, without reference to the justice or necessity of the war, call upon us to grant men and money at the pleasure of the President, who they say, is charged with the duty of carrying on the war and responsible for its result. If we grant the means thus demanded, the President can carry forward this war for any end, or from any motive, without limit of time or place.

With these doctrines for our guide, I will thank any Senator to furnish me with any means of escaping from the prosecution of this or [207] any other war for a hundred years to come, if it pleased the President who shall be, to continue it so long. Tell me, ye who contend that being in war, duty demands of Congress for its prosecution all the money and every able-bodied man in America to carry it on if need be; who also contend that it is the right of the President, without the control of Congress, to march your embodied hosts to Monterey, to Yucatan, to Mexico, to Panama, to China, and that under penalty of death to the officer who disobeys him—tell me, I demand it of you, tell me, tell the American people, tell the nations of Christendom, what is the difference between your American democracy and the most odious, most hateful despotism, that a merciful God has ever allowed a nation to be afflicted with since government on earth began? . . .
All this mass of undeniable fact, known even to the careless reader of the public prints, is so utterly at war with the studiously-contrived statements in your cabinet documents, that I do not wonder at all that an amiable national pride, however misplaced here, has prevented hitherto a thorough and fearless investigation of their truth. Nor, sir, would I probe this feculent mass of misrepresentation, had I not been compelled to it in defense of votes which I was obliged to record here, within the last ten days. Sir, with my opinions as to facts connected with this subject, and my deductions, unavoidable, from them, I should have been unworthy the high-souled State I represent, had I voted men and money to prosecute further a war commenced, as it now appears, in aggression, and carried on by repetition only of the original wrong. Am I mistaken in this? If I am, I shall hold him the dearest friend I can own, in any relation of life, who shall show me my error. If I am wrong in this question of fact, show me how I err, and gladly will I retrace my steps; satisfy me that my country was in peaceful and rightful possession between the Nueces and Rio Grande when General Taylor’s army was ordered there; show me that at Palo Alto and Resaca de las Palmas blood was shed on American soil in American possession, and then, for the defense of that possession, I will vote away the last dollar that power can wring from the people, [212] and send every man able to bear a musket to the ranks of war, But until I shall be thus convinced, duty to myself, to truth, to conscience, to public justice, requires that I persist in every lawful opposition to this war.
While the American President can command the army, thank Heaven I can command, the purse. While the President, under the penalty of death, can command your officers to proceed, I can tell them to come back, or the President can supply them as he may, He shall have no funds from me in the prosecution of a war which I cannot approve, That I conceive to be the duty of a Senator, I am not mistaken in that. If it be my duty to grant whatever the President demands, for what am I here? Have I no will upon the subject? Is it not placed at my discretion, understanding, judgement? Have an American Senate and House of Representatives nothing to do but obey the bidding of the President, as the army he commands is compelled to obey under penalty of death? No! The representatives of the sovereign people and sovereign States were never elected for such purposes as that.

When, in 1688, the doctrine of specific appropriations became a part of the British constitution, the King could safely be trusted with the, control of the army, If war is made there by the Crown, and the Commons do not approve of it, refusal to grant supplies is the easy remedy—one, too, which renders it impossible for a king of England to carry forward any war which may be displeasing to the English people, Yes, sir, in England, since 1688, it has not been in the power of a British sovereign to do that, which in your boasted republic, an American president, under the auspices of what you call democracy, has done—make war, without consent of the legislative power, In England, supplies are at once refused, if Parliament does not approve the objects of the war, Here, we are told, we must not look to the objects of the war, being in the war—made by the President—we must help him to fight it out, should it even please him to carry it to the utter extermination of the Mexican race, Sir, I believe it must proceed to this shocking extreme, if you are, by war, to “conquer a peace,” Here, then, is your condition, The President involves you in war without your consent, Being in such a war, it is demanded as a duty, that we grant men and money to carry it on, (ed., Daniel Walker Howe, in The American Whigs)
17 What has been the fate of all nations who have acted upon the idea that they must advance! Our young orators cherish this notion with a fervid but fatally mistaken zeal. They call it by the mysterious name of “destiny.” “Our destiny,” they say, is “onward,” and hence they argue, with ready sophistry, the propriety of seizing upon any territory and any people that may lie in the way of our “fated” advance. Recently these progressives have grown classical; some assiduous student of antiquities has helped them to a patron saint. They have wandered back into the desolate Pantheon, and there, among the polytheistic relies of that “pale mother of dead empires,” they have found a god whom these Romans, centuries gone by, baptized “Terminus.”

Sir, I have heard much and read somewhat of this gentleman Terminus. Alexander, of whom I have spoken, was a devotee of this divinity. We have seen the end of him and his empire. It was said to be an attribute of this god that he must always advance and never recede. So both republican and imperial Rome believed. It was, as they said, their destiny. And for a while it did seem to be even so. Roman Terminus did advance. Under the eagles of Rome he was carried from his home on the Tiber to the farthest East on the one hand, and to the far West, among the then barbarious tribes of western Europe, on the other.

But at length the time came when retributive justice had become “a destiny.” The despised Gaul calls out the contemned Goth, and Attila with his Huns answers back the battle-shout to both. The “blue-eyed nations of the North,” in succession or united, pour forth their countless hosts of warriors upon Rome and Rome’s always-advancing god Terminus. And now the battle-ax of the barbarian strikes down the conquering eagle of Rome. Terminus at last recedes, slowly at first, but finally he is driven to Rome, and from Rome to Byzantium. Whoever would know the further fate of this Roman deity, so recently taken under the patronage of American democracy, may find ample gratification of his curiosity in the luminous pages of Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall.”

Such will find that Rome thought as you now think, that it was her destiny to conquer provinces and nations, and no doubt she sometimes said, as you say, “I will conquer a peace,” and where now is she, the mistress of the world? The spider weaves his web in her palaces; the owl sings his watch-song in her towers. Teutonic power now lords it over the servile remnant, the miserable memento of old and once omnipotent Rome. (ed., W. J. Bryan, on Bartleby.com, taken by LawReader.com)

7:45 PM  
Blogger W.LindsayWheeler said...

Dear Sir, I hate to burst your bubble but all the ancient Republics started with Kings involved in them, Sparta being the best known republic or politeia of the Greek sphere.

My work has been published by an academic journal, "Sparta, Journal of Ancient Sparta and Greek History". Here is the article The Spartan Republic

In order to understand ancient terms---one must understand ancient thoughts and mentalities. Your book and thesis is sadly erroneous.

8:29 PM  
Blogger WREverdell said...

To Lindsay Wheeler, who said:

"Dear Sir, I hate to burst your bubble but all the ancient Republics started with Kings involved in them, Sparta being the best known republic or politeia of the Greek sphere."

I don't see that the dyarchy (double kingship) of the aristocratic republic of Sparta "burst[s my] bubble." The other "best known republic in the Greek sphere" was the democratic republic of Athens, which seems, indeed, to have begun as a monarchy, its kings like Codrus and Erechtheus lost in the mists of legend.

It is certainly true, as you write, that "In order to understand ancient terms---one must understand ancient thoughts and mentalities." The Greek word "politeia" should not be automatically translated into Latin as "res publica" or into English as "republic" because politeia means (especially in Aristotle) the way things work in a polis or city-state, and they worked in a great many ways, including monarchies and tyrannies. The modern European word "constitution" covers it rather well.

You write:

"My work has been published by an academic journal, "Sparta, Journal of Ancient Sparta and Greek History". Here is the article The Spartan Republic"

I'll look it up. Don't know the journal yet. You also write:

"Your book and thesis is sadly erroneous."

But I think I'll need more and better proof of that.

10:05 PM  
Blogger dhm@best.com said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8:43 AM  
Blogger dhm@best.com said...

The new address for "From State To Free State - The Meaning of the Word Republic from Jean Bodin to John Adams" is at http://www.geocities.com/dhm_at_best_dot_com/archives/wre-republics.html

The email address dhm@best.com is also defunct - use dhm_at_best_dot_com@yahoo.com

9:01 AM  
Blogger WREverdell said...

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's "bailout" proposal, now before Congress, would give the Secretary of the Treasury (Paulson) power to spend 700+ billion dollars of public funds without (says the draft) any of his decisions being reviewed by any court or administrative body.

How lucky we are that the sovereign people of the United States and their lawmakers in Congress still believe that such a grant of power has to be made by Congress.

I hope it's only a short step to the realization that since Congress still makes the law, Congress remains able to review any power it grants by law, whatever prohibitions the law may put on the courts and public administrations. And that Congress may remove the holder of this extraordinary executive authority whenever it may choose to impeach him.

Congress may make few of us cheer, but it is now the only place left in the Constitution where we can set up credible barriers to executive dictatorship.

And preserve the Republic for our children and grandchildren.

11:18 AM  
Blogger WREverdell said...

I have come to expect less and less every four years from presidential candidates. Possibly the only thing we should look for in a candidate is a promise to enforce--and obey--the law.

Does anyone see how it is possible to take an oath to faithfully execute the office of chief executive magistrate so as to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States without also agreeing to enforce and obey, for example, the War Crimes Act of 1996?

1:19 PM  
Blogger David said...

Hi Sir,

I am not sure if this blog is still active but I read your book "The End of Kings" and I enjoyed it very much. The history of Republics is fascinating - kudos!

My own opinion is that the only way we can get the US back on track from a republican perspective is not so much a change in structure as it is a change in attitudes.

Structural reform can always be reversed and power again concentrated through precedent and Common Law. Economic and foreign problems provide useful excuses for clever leaders to co-opt power. The congress in particular is all too eager to shift power to unaccountable agencies or to the Executive branch (weakening their other checks in the process)because they are too afraid to make unpopular decisions even if it means we will prosper more in the long run (they want to save their seats).

I think only a change in attitudes can create the virtue you mentioned in your book. The people would need to be enlightened as to what governing is and that they as citizens, must watch over their leaders but also understand that sometimes they must make sacrifices. Our leaders will then have virtue because they know an educated electorate is watching and wont fall for the same old political jargon. But they will also be able to make tough decisions as they know the people will understand.

I think at that point the virtue and the ambition of these leaders will take back some of its power to restore checks and fragmentation of powers.

Of course how you change the attitude is the question but I think its very probable - the past election has shown once again that an object (a person, issue, thing) can generate much attention and discussion around the theme of it.

In the last election it was Obama that was the object and the theme was "change" and dominated the discussions. With the right object I believe there could be a profound change that can last for a good while.

Once again Mr Everdell I want to thank you for writing "The End of Kings" and I hope one day you will write a new Preface discussing the trend of the last decade.



8:15 PM  
Blogger WREverdell said...

Thank you David. I can't disagree with what you wrote. I've produced a second edition of The End of Kings (U. of Chicago Press, 2000) and am working on a third.

8:49 PM  
Blogger Annie Leger said...

Yes indeed: to be a citizen is a key sentence but the citizen has been transformed into a consumer and "c'est le veau d'or qui est partout adoré". The roman empire knew how to give "DU PAIN ET DES JEUX à la plèbe", bread and T.V.
I guess you speak french: GO TO LUNEVILLE (LORRAINE) ON SEPTEMBER 10th!You'll enjoy yourself.
Annie Jourdain

7:10 AM  
Blogger Daniel Myers said...

Time really flies - I find it hard to believe this thread was started in 2006 - I found Bill's works in the 1990's, and he wrote his timeless writing "From State to Free State" back in 1987.

Since I first posted it I've gone through a few ISP's. Here is where I keep "From State To Free State" now:




7:28 PM  
Blogger farmentrout said...

Dear WR Everdell,

I have read your book on the "Moderns" and am now reading "The End of Kings", both of which I find strikingly relevant to our times and exceedingly good reads.

I'm especially taken with the sharp distinction you draw between our understandings of "republics" and "democracy" and wonder if you've written anything else on these distinctions, interactions and interdependencies in American or world politics.

After living for over thirty years in Asia, you have been a very welcome discovery on the American intellectual landscape, found only upon my return a few years ago.

Fred Armentrout

7:50 AM  

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