“From Time to Time”: Pelosi, Trump, and the State of the Union

By Kaleena Fraga

(To check out this piece in podcast form, click here)

Amid a contentious government shutdown, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has written President Trump a letter, suggesting that in lieu of delivering a State of the Union speech, as the president intends, he submit his address in writing.

Although Americans today are accustomed to seeing the president deliver the SOTU, Pelosi notes in her letter that “during the 19th century and up until the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, these annual State of the Union messages were delivered to Congress in writing.” Pelosi also notes that a SOTU has never been delivered amidst a government shutdown.

“I suggest,” Pelosi writes, “that we work together to determine another suitable date after the government has re-opened for this address or for you to consider delivering your State of the Union address in writing to Congress on January 29th.”

Although the State of the Union started as an oral address–both George Washington and John Adams delivered speeches to Congress–Thomas Jefferson was the first to balk at the tradition.

Jefferson had several reasons why he believed a written address was superior to a speech. First of all, the third president nursed a fear of public speaking. He also believed that a letter was more efficient than a speech–that it would take less time to read than to listen, and that a written document would give legislators time to think about their response. Historians have also noted that giving a speech had a king-like aura, something that a republican like Jefferson would abhor.

Then again, Jefferson could have simply found trudging to Congress to give a speech inconvenient.

In any case, the tradition that Jefferson set remained for over one hundred years, until Woodrow Wilson decide to return to the ways of Washington and Adams, and give a speech before Congress instead of simply sending a letter.

At the time this was considered far outside the norm. The Washington Post reported that “Washington is amazed” and that “disbelief” was expressed in Congress when members heard the president intended to give a speech. At the time, the paper seemed confident that such displays would not “become habit.”

Since then, a spoken SOTU has indeed become a national habit, even more so than in Wilson’s day thanks to mass communication tools like radio, television, and internet.

That’s not to say that the written version of the SOTU has been abandoned entirely–as lame duck presidents, Truman, Eisenhower, and Carter chose to submit a written message instead of giving a speech before Congress.

Whether or not Trump will heed Pelosi’s advice has yet to be seen, and certainly a president might balk at giving up the bully pulpit power of television. In any case, we’ll leave you with a cartoon of Theodore Roosevelt, who was thoroughly dismayed that Wilson had the idea of a SOTU speech, something that Roosevelt himself would have enthusiastically embraced.

Why Mitt Romney’s Op-Ed Matters

By Kaleena Fraga

Many on the left are frustrated by Republicans like Jeff Flake, and now, Mitt Romney, who speak out against the president but support his policies. It’s easy to dismiss their speeches, articles, and tweets as empty politicking, meant to let them toe the line of Trump’s conservative base, while courting Republican voters who are dismayed at the behavior of the president.

This time, it’s different.

Mitt Romney’s forceful op-ed in the Washington Post called out the president for his behavior–for his diminishing of the office of the president. Yes, Romney will probably still vote for the Wall. He is a Republican, after all. But his words do matter. Why? Any impeachment vote is a likely given in the House, controlled by Democrats. The real battle will be in the chamber where Romney will sit, in the chamber controlled by Republicans. The Senate.

Impeachment is a political act, with political motivations. Yes, that’s not exactly what the founders intended, but that’s the form it’s taken. Andrew Johnson was impeached for breaking a law that Congress passed to spite him, and Bill Clinton faced impeachment over a stupid lie about a romantic affair–in other words, neither had committed the “high crimes and misdemeanors” that the Constitution demands.

(Nixon, of course, got much closer to this bar, although his case came down to obstruction of justice. There is no physical evidence that Nixon himself ordered the break-in.)

In any case, an impeachment trial against President Trump in the Senate would require strong Republican support. Romney writes that Trump has not “risen to the mantle of the office.” This in itself is not a crime. But the politics of the moment could shift, giving the Republicans political reasons to think that removing the president would be the best thing for their party. In 1974, it took Barry Goldwater listing off names of Republicans and Southern Democrats who would vote for impeachment for Nixon to decide to resign.

Indeed, the founders left no provisions for what to do if the president is simply bad at being president. The 25th amendment does allow for the vice president, the Cabinet, and a majority of Congress to remove a president they see as unfit. This has never been invoked. If it were, dissident Republicans in the Senate would certainly be crucial to the cause.

Happy New Year from History First!

A look at the world in January 1919

By Kaleena Fraga

One hundred years ago today, Woodrow Wilson stopped in Rome, Italy on his way to the Paris Peace Conference following the end of WWI. His voyage capped off years of incredible violence and uncertainty, and Wilson was greeted throughout Italy with cries of “Viva l’America!”

Wilson’s trip to Europe was part of a six-month journey (the longest any president had ever spent outside of the country) meant to end the war for good. He came home triumphant in July–armed with the idea of the League of Nations, which Wilson believed would prevent future world wars. It was perhaps the high point of his presidency. Unfortunately, there was no where for him to go but down.

Despite initial widespread support, political infighting would doom American participation in the League of Nations. Mere months after he returned to the States, Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke, and much of his presidential duties were secretly assumed by his wife, Edith.

Although the 1920 election was just around the corner, Americans in 1919 were not as eager to start the election process as they are today. In the waning days of 2018, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) announced her candidacy, and other Democrats are expected to quickly follow suit. Politics moved at a slower pace in 1919. That year had seen the loss of political giants–Theodore Roosevelt was now dead; Wilson, a shell of himself after his stroke, was an increasingly unpopular president. The election would not start in earnest until the next year.

Warren G. Harding of Ohio would be nominated in June of 1920 with a promise of a “return to normalcy”.

“America’s present need is not heroics but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution but restoration…not surgery but serenity.”

Although not explicitly said, Harding’s determination for the country to turn inward is reminiscent of the America First sloganeering of today.

Harding, Malcolm Gladwell later wrote, was popular despite his general incompetence (which he even noted himself, stating “I am not fit for this office and never should have been here.”) Gladwell attributes this to Harding’s physical appearance (a political insider at the time of Harding’s nomination argued that he looked like a president), personality, and commanding voice.

Harding and the Republicans would win in a landslide, in a direct rebuke to Wilson and his internationalist policies. Harding did not have much time to enjoy his new job, however ill-suited he found himself: he died unexpectedly in 1923 after a sudden stroke. This catapulted Calvin Coolidge to the presidency.

The candidate for the Democrats, James Cox, would go on to be a footnote in history. Things turned out differently for his running mate, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who would later win election to an unprecedented and unmatched fourth term in the White House.

Despite the optimistic start of the year, 1919 would prove to be a tumultuous one. Half a million Americans would die from Spanish flu; Prohibition ushered in an era of bootlegs and speakeasies; violent race riots rocked the country. But it wasn’t all bad. The year 1919 also saw the introduction of dial telephones, the 19th Amendment which secured women’s suffrage, and new fiction by Sherwood Anderson and Virginia Woolf.

Certainly there are parallels to be drawn between 1919 and 2019–new technology making the world seem smaller, the precipice of another election year, the ongoing debate about America’s role in the world. No one can predict what next year will bring. Rather, we go into 2019 with Wilson’s words in mind:

“You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”

Impeachment from the Bench: Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Chase, and Brett Kavanaugh

By Kaleena Fraga

Even before the newest Supreme Court justice, Brett Kavanaugh, placed his hand on the Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution, Democrats in Congress faced pressure to remove him from the bench. A petition to impeach the judge quickly hit over 150,000 signatures and think pieces arguing for and against impeachment began to pop up across the Internet.

Faced with this, Democrats in Congress hesitated. “I have enough people on my back to impeach the president!” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi exclaimed, when asked if she would impeach Kavanaugh.

Hesitancy on their part is understandable: attempts to impeach justices from the Supreme Court have been few and far between, and have never resulted in an actual impeachment.

The first example of this came early in American history. Thomas Jefferson had swept to power in the “revolution of 1800”, a repudiation of the last twelve years of Federalist rule. Still, despite the ascension of Jefferson’s party to both houses of Congress, most of the Supreme Court remained staunchly Federalist.

One of Jefferson’s first moves as president was to repeal the Judiciary Act of 1801–an act with a dry title and a dramatic history. Jefferson’s predecessor, his frenemy John Adams, had passed the Act in the waning weeks of his one-term in office. It reduced the size of the Supreme Court, and, more importantly, created a lower level of courts which Adams briskly filled with like-minded Federalists with life-terms. Jefferson and his allies accused Adams of packing the court with so-called “Midnight Judges“, giving birth to the lore that the ink on Adams’ appointments had not dried by the time Adams left Washington, skipping out on Jefferson’s inauguration.

When the Judiciary Act of 1801 was repealed (and replaced with the Judiciary Act of 1802, eliminating the circuit judgeships that Adams had created), Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase–a Federalist with a “volcanic” personality–declared in front of a Baltimore jury that “Our republican Constitution will sink into a mobocracy–the worst of all possible governments.”

Jefferson already disliked the justices of the Supreme Court (his biographer Jon Meacham writes that Jefferson’s “hatred of his cousin John Marshall [the Chief Justice] was cordial, but it was hatred nonetheless”) and found that this outburst from Chase could not stand. He wrote to Congressman Joseph H. Nicholson asking: “Ought this seditious and official attack on the principles of our Constitution and on the proceedings of a State go unpunished; and to whom so pointedly as yourself will the public look for the necessary measures?”

Ever the behind-the-scenes man, Jefferson professed that it would be better “that I should not interfere.”

Jefferson’s cousin and friend, Congressman John Randolph, launched impeachment proceedings against Justice Chase. Chase argued he was being persecuted for his political convictions rather than any actual crimes. (Indeed, one of the articles of impeachment pointed to Chase’s political speech from the bench).

Chase escaped with an acquittal. His impeachment trial set two norms: that judges should not be removed based on their political beliefs, and that judges should remain non-partisan while speaking from the bench.

One hundred and sixty-five years later, a second Supreme Court justice, Abe Fortas, faced impeachment proceedings. Rather than face a trial, he resigned.

Between the dawn of the Republic and 2010, fourteen other federal judges (serving on lower courts) have faced charges of impeachment–eight were removed from office, three were acquitted, and three resigned. It’s no wonder that Democrats today hesitate to engage in impeachment rhetoric when it comes to Kavanaugh; given the history, it would be an extreme move on their part.

Still, for those who shudder at the partisanship plaguing the nation and the Supreme Court today, recall that amidst Jefferson’s time as president, he infuriated the Federalists by such actions as repealing the Judiciary Act of 1801 and attempting to impeach Samuel Chase. One frustrated American wrote to the president he hoped “that your Excellency might be beheaded within one year.”

Thomas Jefferson, Time, and the Supreme Court

By Kaleena Fraga

michelle obama voteAddressing a rally in Las Vegas, former first lady Michelle Obama likened young people’s dismal voting records to her daughters letting their grandmother pick out their clothes or their playlists.

“Now, no offense to grandma,” said Obama. “When you don’t vote, that’s exactly what you’re doing. You’re letting other people make some really key decisions about the life you’re going to live.”

Michelle Obama would have an ally in Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson, in a letter to his friend James Madison, professed his belief that each generation should play a role in determining their own destinies.

“The question,” Jefferson wrote Madison, in 1789, “whether one generation of men has a right to bind another, seems never to have been started either on this or our side of the water.”

Jefferson was writing from Paris, less than a month before he would travel back to the newly formed United States to serve as George Washington’s secretary of state.

“I set out on this ground,” Jefferson wrote, “which I suppose to be self evident, that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living.” After a lengthy piece describing how each generation should be free of the last generation’s debt, Jefferson mused:

“On similar grounds it may be proved that no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation…every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.”

Madison, having recently helped create a constitution which he hoped would last much longer than 19 years, refuted much of Jefferson’s claim, arguing that such a design would create anarchy.

Madison also belonged to the camp of Founders who believed  that judges should hold their positions as long as they exhibited “good-behavior,” a point which Jefferson routinely professed disagreement. In a letter written in 1822, Jefferson once mused to a friend, “Let the future appointments of judges be for four or six years and renewable by the President and Senate.” Jefferson oversaw the only attempted impeachment of a Supreme Court Justice, Samuel Chase, a George Washington appointee whom Jefferson believed was overtly partisan.

As Congress grows more partisan itself, unable to pass significant legislation without a fight, the Supreme Court, and its judges, have become more powerful. Certainly, the Court is not what the Founders envisioned–the first ten justices only served for ten years, whereas most justices since 1970 have spent upwards of twenty-five years on the court.

In 2005, 45 leading legal scholars agreed “in principle” to a plan that would limit supreme court justices’ terms to just 18 years. The proposal’s authors, Paul Carrington (a Democrat) and Roger Cramton (a Republican) note that: “the Founders could not foresee that increases in longevity would imperil the rotation in powerful office essential to representative government.” Their plan, a staggered eighteen year term for justices, would allow for an appointment every two years, or two per presidential term, thus resolving the randomness and the overblown significance of Supreme Court appointments.

Thomas Jefferson, in his belief that the Constitution should be reviewed every nineteen years, would have found this an interesting idea. But it’s a complex one, and would be a tough sell to Congress and the American people, especially as life-terms for justices are engrained in American political life.

In the meantime, for people who want to see change on the political stage, there’s only one thing to do: VOTE!

Ulysses S. Grant, Reconstruction, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965

By Kaleena Fraga

The 14th amendment guaranteed all citizens “equal protection of the laws”, effectively ending the 3/5 Compromise enshrined in the Constitution (stating that states could count black people as 3/5 of a person). As president, Andrew Johnson fought against the 14th amendment and convinced southern states to do the same. Following his lead, southern states refused to ratify it. Still, the amendment was ratified on July 9th, 1868. It was followed by the 15th amendment, which ensured equal voting rights, regardless of race.

This was, Grant said during his presidency, a mistake.

Grant was no racist–far from it–but he recognized the inherent problem of states disenfranchising voters, while using their bodies as tallies toward their power in the electoral college.

What was it about the 14th and 15th amendments that Grant didn’t like?

Grant’s secretary of state, Hamilton Fish, recorded Grant’s thoughts during a particularly tense point in his presidency. The recent presidential election–which would eventually put Rutherford B. Hayes in office–had been highly contested, and Grant and Fish had heard reports from Louisiana that stated that black voters had been so terrorized that “overwhelmingly Republican parishes had ended up in Democratic columns.” A Senate investigation even later uncovered that in one parish 60 black Republicans had been murdered before the election.

Fish wrote of Grant, “He says he is opposed to the XV amendment and thinks it was a mistake; that it had done the negro no good, and had been a hindrance to the South, and by no means a political advantage to the North.”

Grant later clarified what he meant: “[The South] keep[s] those votes, but disfranchise[s] the negroes,” he told journalist John Russell Young. “That is one of the gravest mistakes of reconstruction.” In other words, the 14th amendment increased the population of the South, which gave southern states more heft in the electoral college. So although the South suppressed the black vote, it could count them fully for election purposes. The result was an imbalance of power.

Grant saw it as his prime responsibility–indeed, the prime responsibility of the government–to ensure that everyone had safe, easy access to voting. “I will not hesitate to exhaust the powers thus vested in the Executive,” he said, “for the purpose of securing to all citizens of the United States the peaceful enjoyment of the rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution and laws.”

Grant oversaw the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which outlawed racial segregation in public accommodations, schools, transportation, and juries. Democratic states did not bother to enforce it, and it was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1883 as unconstitutional. It would take almost 100 years for Congress to attempt anything similar.

It wasn’t until 1957 that Congress passed another civil rights bill; and it wasn’t until 1964 that laws first proposed in 1875 were enshrined into law. Then, in 1965 the country saw the Voting Rights Act, which enabled fair voting to the very citizens that Grant sought to protect, 90 years earlier.

Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency was a long time ago, but his mission, to protect voters, is today more important than ever.

In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down key tenets of the Voting Rights Act. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing the majority opinion, stated that such protections were no longer needed because “our country has changed” for the better. “While any racial discrimination in voting is too much,” Roberts wrote, “Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy the problem speaks to the current conditions.”

Since 2013, it’s become harder for Americans to vote. In light of the 2013 ruling, southern states have closed at least 868 polling places–the Voting Rights Act of 1965 allowed the Department of Justice to stop closures like these, but that part of the legislation was struck down. Vox points out that these 868 closures are in about half of the counties that were once targeted by the Voting Rights Act because of their history of racial discrimination. This means that there could be hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of closures that are untracked.

In 2018, the United States faces the same problem it faced in the 1860s and 1870s. Americans have a limited ability to vote. Those who work long hours, or shifts, or live far away from polling places, face difficulties having their voices heard. Yet they are still counted, and states can use their bodies (even while it silences their voices) on the electoral stage. To Grant, this oversight on the part of the U.S. government would be nothing less than a dereliction of duty.

The Case of the Missing Monument: John Adams and Historical Memory

By Kaleena Fraga

The Washington Monument. The Jefferson Memorial. Washington D.C. is dotted with such landmarks testifying to the importance of America’s early presidents. But there is one founding father conspicuously absent from D.C.’s memorial scene–the nation’s second president, John Adams.

Even in life, Adams worried about his place in American history. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson written in 1815, after both of their presidencies had ended, Adams wrote:

“The essence of the whole will be that Dr Franklin’s electric rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington. Then Franklin electrified him, and thence forward those two conducted all the Policy, Negotiations, Legislations, and War.”

George Washington, he predicted, and Benjamin Franklin, would be celebrated while he, John Adams, faded away into oblivion.

A few years later, the question of Adams’ place in American memory continued to gnaw at him. On top of being forgotten, Adams worried that he would be misremembered. He lamented,

“Mausoleums, Statues, Monuments will never be erected to me. I wish them not——Panegyrical Romances, will never be written, nor flattering Orations pronounced to transmit my Character to Posterity in glorious Colours. No nor in true Colours neither.”

Adams is perhaps overshadowed in American history by the presidents whose administrations bookended his one term in office–George Washington, as the nation’s first president, and Thomas Jefferson, who called his own election “the revolution of 1800.” Yet Adams played a crucial role in the nation’s founding, no less so than either Jefferson or Washington.

One of the only founding fathers who did not own slaves, Adams participated in the Continental Congress, helped draft the Declaration of Independence, served as the nation’s first vice president, and as the nation’s second president. He was a determined advocate for the Declaration of Independence, passionately defending it while the quieter Jefferson preferred to listen and watch. Although his maneuvering to avoid war with France during his one-term in office made him unpopular–and his infamous Alien & Sedition Acts even more so–Adams once grumbled:

“I will defend my Missions to France as long as I have an Eye to direct my hand or a finger to hold my pen. They were the most disinterested And meritorious Actions of my Life. I reflect upon them with So much satisfaction that I desire No other Inscription on my Grave Stone than “Here lies John Adams who took upon himself the Responsibility of the Peace with France in the Year 1800.”

Recently, the House of Representatives took concrete steps to establish such an Adams memorial, after years of lobbying by the Adams’ family and their foundation, the Adams Memorial Foundation. Previous attempts to organize a memorial for Adams failed over indecision over the location, running into certain laws that prohibit construction on the Mall or Tidal Basin, the kind of places most of Adams’ proponents would like to see his likeness.

In July 2018 the House passed a bill that would “establish a commission to plan, fundraise and build a memorial to the country’s second president.” The bill’s sponsor, Stephen F. Lynch, who represents the district where Adams was born, Braintree, Massachusetts, believes that the entire Adams’ family deserves to be honored.

“John Adams’ legacy was instilled through his entire family,” Lynch said. “John’s wife Abigail is known as an advocate for women’s rights and his son, John Quincy Adams, later served as our nation’s sixth president.”

John Adams worried that he and his accomplishments would be forgotten. With the passage of the House bill, perhaps the second president will finally get the recognition that he deserves.