20 February 2012

Is America Inherently Adverse to Autocracy?

"The Forgotten Man" by John McNaughton
As we celebrate George Washington’s birthday, it is worth considering a myth about the father of our country. It is said that after serving as the Supreme General of the Continental Army, George Washington turned down being king of America after winning the War of Independence.  Historians scoff at the Nicola Affair, which were correspondences between Col. Lewis Nicola, a five year veteran of the  Revolutionary Army and George Washington in 1782.  Nicola was distraught at the relative chaos of Continental governing under the fledgling Articles of Confederation. Nicola favored monarchism and suggested that Washington stage a coup d’etat and make himself king, which Washington quickly rebuffed.

While Col. Nicola may not have had the power to give Washington the throne, it should not be dismissed as merely a myth.  Myths are legendary stories without a determinable basis of fact which convey essential truths.  Only 40% of colonial Americans supported the Revolutionary War and 20% of populace were Loyalists who supported the crown.  Democratic Republics were not the norm among Europeans and the messiness of the Articles of Confederation may have fostered many to yearn for stability through autocracy under the guise of a monarchy.  In this fluid environment, Washington could have seized the reigns and crowned himself king.

Not only did Washington rebuff this pretorian proposal, Washington taught by example.  After winning the War of Independence, he returned home to Mount Vernon, Virginia to live as a Gentleman Citizen.  When his nation needed him, he reluctantly came out of public retirement to preside over what became the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787.  Washington was the natural choice to be the first U.S. President.  But Washington severed two four year terms and then left office. Washington established a tradition of term limits for the Chief Executive which lasted 144 years until F.D.R. in 1940 and was later enshrined in the Constitution by the 22nd Amendment in 1951.

This aversion to autocracy which Washington fostered is exemplified by the public reception to a statute that Congress commissioned for the Centennial of Washington’s birth.  Sculptor Horatio Greenough created a 30 ton marble which symbolically depicted Washington as an exemplar of liberty. Greenough’s sculpture of “Enthroned Washington” (1840) was fraught with symbolism. Washington was depicted as a demi-god (perhaps modeled after the great statue of Zeus)  in the motif of classical Greece, which was birthplace of democracy. The figure of Washington points upwards towards the heaven.  More importantly, Washington is depicted cradling a sheathed sword in his outstretched hands, showing how he relinquished power after the American War of Independence.

Greenough’s  “Enthroned Washington” statue has an inglorious history.  The commissioned statue was intended to be the centerpiece of the Capitol Rotunda. But many Americans found the bare chested Washington as offensive and even comical.  Enthroned Washington was soon moved to the East Lawn of the Capitol in 1843.  Continued derision moved the statue to the nearby Patent Office until 1908 until it was moved inside of the Smithsonian Castle.  In 1964, Enthroned Washington was finally moved to the Smithsonian American History Museum, where docents suggest that the public viscerally could not respect an “Enthroned” father of the country.

Based upon the news of the day, it is dubious if Americans still have an inherent aversion to autocracy.  President Obama’s style of governing seems imperial as he seizes upon opportunities to be above the rule of law or the Constitution.  Such arrogance of power is reminiscent of monarchical excesses in the History of the World Part 1.

For example, the Obama Administration has decided not enforce the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which it believes is unconstitutional for the Federal government to force same sex “marriages” among states through the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution. Obama officials may not like the law, but is it the role of the Executive Branch to determine what is constitutional?

Much of the Obama Administration has been marked by complaints about the prior administration. So it was no surprised that President Obama sought to circumvent inconvenient aspects of President George W. Bush’s education achievement, the No Child Left Behind Act.  In September, 2011 the Obama Department of Education indicated that it would start granting waivers to exempt states which do not meet the minimum standards. Congress had been trying for a year to craft legislation to correct some of the flaws of the NCLBA.  But the Obama Administration would not wait for the legislative process to work.

The Obama Education Department decreed that it would exempt states from the law so long as it met the Obama Administrations preferred policies.  Two problems with this educational ukase. First, the enacted NCLBA legislative language does not contain provisions for exemptions.  Moreover, what the Obama Administration issued were conditions based relief that further tethers states to the whims of the powers that be in Washington.

President Obama had been frustrated by the lack of confirmation by the Senate of his choices the new U.S. Consumer Protection Bureau which was authorized by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010. Obama’s first designee in July, 2010 was  Elizabeth Warren but she could not overcome Senatorial opposition to confirmation, so Warren acted as a Special Assistant to the President implementing the bureau.  President Obama shifted his choice to Richard Cordray in July 2011, but he could overcome a successful filibuster for his confirmation.  The Senate was meeting in pro-forma sessions to avoid a recess appointment but President Obama chose to sidestep Congress and the Constitution.

While in speaking in Shaker Heights, Ohio in January 2012 at what seemed more like a taxpayer funded campaign rally rather than a policy speech, President Obama said that he refused to “take no for an answer” while noting that he felt that he had an obligation to act when Congress does not.  Obama assessed that the Senate was not in session hence he could make a recess appointment of Cordray to the USCPB. This Executive decision abrogates a century of precedent and ignores the Senate’s exclusive constitutional power of advice and consent to Executive Office appointments.

Even the liberal George Washington Law Professor Jonathan Turley noted in USA Today:

The use of such unilateral power strikes at the very heart of our system of government and dangerously tips the balance of power. President Obama clearly wanted to make a point about his effort to protect consumers. But for the Constitution, that political point comes at too high a price. Replacing an intransigent Congress with an imperial president is no bargain for those who value our constitutional system.
 Obama made this move  even though the implementation language specifically indicates that the Bureau will lack authority until the director is “confirmed by the Senate”.  But this presupposes that Congress as well as the rule of law actually matter.

Then there is the HHS contraception mandate in Obamacare.  Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius issued her findings that qualified health plans which included all employers but houses of worship must cover contraception, sterilizations and abortifacients. After two weeks of political turmoil where religiously affiliated employers, such as Catholic hospitals and schools, objecting to paying for services to which their free exercise of religion objects, President Obama announced a contraception “compromise”.  Such family health services would not be paid directly by objecting employers but would be given free to requesting patients, with the costs being absorbed by their insurers.  Of course, this sleight of hand means that the religious institutions would have to pay for them indirectly through increases in rates.  And certainly this institutions would still have to violate their consciences by informing their employees where to get the free family planning stash from Obamacare.

Yet there are two ironies that stem from Obama’s contraceptive “compromise”.  On the same day Obama held his press conference, the Federal government published the very regulation that drew the religious objections.  Quoting the Federal Register “Accordingly, the amendment to the interim final rule with comment period amending 45 CFR 147.130(a)(1)(iv) which was published in the Federal Register at 76 FR 46621-46626 on August 3, 2011, is adopted as a final rule without change.” Apologies for the bureaucratic legalize but the language is important for the other irony in the contraception “compromise”.  The implementing language adopts “the final rule without change”.  Yet the Obama Administration is trying to foil court challenges to this HHS decree by arguing that it is not yet a final rule.  As Mel Brooks would say “It’s good to be the king.”

Although there are autocratic impulses demonstrated by President Obama, America is not necessarily fated to imperious tendencies.  Progressives like Presidents Woodrow Wilson and F.D.R. have imperiously attempted to overplay their hands while in the Oval Office.  And during the Watergate era, President Richard Nixon opined: “When the President does it, it means that it is not illegal”,  yet he was convinced to resign from office before he was impeached.

For any hope of change, citizens who love liberty must be educated and have the audacity to tell the truth to power.

And they must not worry about toiling in the muck, being impressed by a “superior” who gives the illusion of being unsullied or a farcical aquatic ceremony where some moistened bint lobs a scimitar at a political savior.

H/T: McNaughten Art

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