Turning back the clock on democracy
Americans are generally taught that the Declaration of Independence sprung whole from the mind of Thomas Jefferson, to launch America to greatness. But in fact that great work was preceded or accompanied by 90 like minded state and local "declarations of independence."
As Bill Bigelow of the Zinn Education Project put it, "Jefferson was not a lonely genius conjuring his notions from the ether; he was part of a nationwide political upheaval."
That upheaval was a long time coming, as Jefferson and all the "Founders" and "Framers" of the United States and its Constitution well knew.
The American Revolution was a step forward in more than 500 years of struggle, beginning in England in 1252 with the Magna Carta, which set the first limits on the old feudal order of arbitrary, aristocratic privilege and "royal" executive authority.
The language of the Declaration and the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution echo earlier democratic writers and an English Bill of Rights promulgated in 1689, which the Founders and Framers of our democracy also knew well.
The protection against
"cruel and unusual punishment" was written into American law because they knew
the savage punishments common in English law up to the decades of the
colonization of the New World.
The right of the accused
in American courts to a speedy, public trial at which evidence must be
presented and can be contested was written into our law precisely because the
Founders and Framers well knew the secret courts of English "justice" and the
prisons in which those arrested by royal command could languish for years, or
have their confessions "extracted" (read torture), to be condemned and executed
on trumped up evidence or a mere assertion of guilt.
The Declaration and the
Constitution followed from the long struggle to establish democracy and the
rule of law against feudal privilege and power.
That history is still
The Member of Congress
for the 8th district of Pennsylvania championed two bills, the
Enforce the Law Act and the Faithful Execution of the Law Act. The point of
these bills is that the president is deciding what parts of legislation the
Congress enacts he will choose to enforce.
To some extent, these bills are part of the GOP's never ending hissy fit over Obamacare. That's unfortunate, because what the Congressman rightly calls "executive over-reach" is a real threat to our democracy and the rule of law.
Under our Constitution,
the representatives of the people in Congress are empowered by the people to
make the laws. The president, the executive, is charged to "faithfully execute"
his office; that is, to carry out those laws.
This arrangement is not
accidental. As the American jurist and diplomat, Craig S. Barnes notes in his
seminal book, Democracy at the Crossroads, the intended purpose was to insure
that in America, "The chief executive [the president] would have no royal
prerogative to act on his own"Law would come from the compromise fashioned in
the assembly [Congress] drawn from the people. The [president's] oath of office
would be an explicit and solemn remedy for the severe grievances against which
the colonists' ancestors had been struggling for more than five hundred years."
But beginning with
Richard Nixon and his chief of staff, Dick Cheney, American presidents have
been embarked on a power grab, and now issue "Signing Statements" to accompany
the laws Congress has passed, indicating which parts of the law they will and
will not enforce.
On whose authority does
the president assert this extraordinary power? His own.
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