Emerging from deliberations during the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked by a woman what kind of government the delegates had crafted for the new country. “A republic,” he told her with a warning, “if you can keep it.” Doctor Franklin’s message has become eerily prophetic, as our republic, once the envy of the world, is in tatters. And whom can we blame? To quote Ross Perot, “Go look in the mirror.”
A Republic is the hardest form of government to maintain because it requires a wise and virtuous citizenry, one that is also highly educated and vigilant, and views the government with suspicion, ever mindful and jealous of its liberty. It is laughable to think that description can, in any way, define the state of our people today.
In the days of old, however, the great masses in America were just such a people. They did not have their heads stuck in the television or in video games. They didn’t concern themselves with the latest fads and fashions, or having the finest cars, or in their case the finest horse and buggy. To entertain themselves they read. Many subscribed to the Congressional Globe, the journal of the debates in the House and Senate. Even the lowliest of farmers knew exactly what Washington was up to.
Case in point. Congressman David Crockett, a Whig from Tennessee who later died at the Alamo in 1836, found himself in the crosshairs of a farmer back home in his district as he made his rounds campaigning for another term. During the previous session, Crockett had voted to appropriate $20,000 to help the victims of a fire in Georgetown. The farmer had read about it in the papers.
“You have violated the Constitution,” the angry farmer told the Congressman. “It is a precedent fraught with danger to the country, for when Congress once begins to stretch its power beyond the limits of the Constitution, there is no limit to it, and no security for the people. I have no doubt you acted honestly, but that does not make it any better, except as far as you are personally concerned, and you see that I cannot vote for you.”
Crockett was stunned. “What you have said there at your plow has got more hard, sound sense in it than all the fine speeches I ever heard,” he told the farmer. He vowed to study the Constitution more diligently and to never to vote for any other charity bills in Congress. And he didn’t. When the next charity bill came before Congress, this one to help the widow of a fallen naval officer, Crockett reminded his colleagues: “We have the right, as individuals, to give away as much of our own money as we please in charity; but as members of Congress we have no right to appropriate a dollar of the public money.” The bill was defeated.
Thievery has always been a constant part of Congress, which tried twice in the 19th century to enact a pay raises and an annual salaries. Originally, members of Congress received no salary, only a per diem. In 1816, after the unpopular War of 1812, Congress, just before leaving for the year in the hopes that it wouldn’t be noticed, voted themselves an annual salary of $1500, a tidy sum in those days. In the midterm elections the people threw them out in droves, reminding the members that their job was not to enrich themselves at the people’s expense but to serve the people’s interests. When Congress convened in December, their first order of business was to repeal the salary act that has costs so many of their colleagues their seats.
In 1875, figuring that half a century was enough time for people to forget, members of Congress, working in secret, doubled the president’s salary and awarded themselves a nice raise, including a retroactive $5,000 sum. Again the people exploded in rage. It became known as the “Salary Grab Act,” and the result was the same. Members went down to defeat and the bill was soon repealed.
In each of these cases, a well-informed citizenry stopped congressional shenanigans before they got off the ground. Now the politics of personal interest has replaced the desire to maintain the republic. Today members of Congress arrive with little personal wealth and leave multi-millionaires. Now, rather than having to vote themselves a raise, their salaries and perks are on automatic pilot, increasing routinely every few years. Is yours?
Both parties hand not millions, and not billions, but now trillions to their favored constituents – big businesses and corporations, big banks, Wall Street firms, and the like. The poor are given more than a trillion dollars a year in appropriations. It’s the great middle class caught in between with nothing to show for it but taxes that are proportionally higher than any other group.
But long past time for a great middle class revolution, for the working folks to rise up and reclaim what is rightfully ours – the Constitution, our republic, and our future. We must be ever vigilant, studious, and suspicious of every officeholder, from the local city hall to the halls of Congress. As Pat Buchanan once said, “It’s time to break out the pitchforks and clean out the pig pen.”
Thomas Jefferson warned us, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” And we are seeing this right before our very eyes to the detriment of our liberty. We must remain vigilant or lose what remains of our very birthright – a free and independent republic.
Laurel Leader Call, Saturday, August 17, 2013