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!

James Madison: Last Words and Lessons Learned

By Kaleena Fraga

When James Madison died on this day in 1836, he was the last surviving signer of the U.S. Constitution. Because his fellow ex-presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe had serendipitously died on July 4th, Madison’s doctor offered to prolong his life so that he too could die on the July 4th anniversary. Madison refused. He died six days before the 60th anniversary of the nation’s birth.

As Madison’s family gathered around his deathbed, one of his nieces noticed a shift in her uncle’s expression. When she asked him if he was alright, he responded with his last words: “Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear.”

Madison, often called the Father of the Constitution, accomplished a lot in the early history of the United States, including his two terms as president. (One of History First’s favorite political facts is that the U.S. has only had three consecutive two term presidents twice–Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Clinton, Bush, Obama). But on this anniversary of his death, we’ll focus on a lesson Madison learned early on. Madison, who once read the histories of every confederacy ever in order to systematically analyze what could work and what wouldn’t in the young United States, only had to learn his lessons once.

In 1777 Madison ran for the Virginia Assembly. These elections–nine months after independence was declared–would be the first elections which Virginia’s white male citizens could participate. County-based elections at the time had a festive atmosphere, and were treated like a public holiday. Those running for election customarily provided alcohol–beer and whiskey–to their voters.

According to Madison biographer Noah Feldman, from his work the The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President, there was a symbolic meaning to to this arrangement. “In a culture that emphasized deference to authority,” Feldman writes, “the candidates were presenting themselves as generous, gracious men of means, pleased to indulge the (slightly) lower orders.”

Madison at the time was flush with republican spirit, and the belief that all men were created equal. To provide alcohol to voters, he reasoned, would be akin to buying their votes. He believed that this election should reflect “the purity of moral and of republican principles.” Voters, he thought, could do their civic duty without the “the corrupting influence of spiritous liquors, and other treats.”

Big mistake.

Although Madison decided his voters would be flattered that he treated them as equals, and as men incorruptible by liquor, he had erred. Voters saw Madison’s decision to withhold alcohol as an expression of “pride or parsimony.” His opponent, Charles Porter, was a tavern keeper who happily provided alcohol to the gathered voters. Porter won the election.

“The ordinary voter,” writes Feldman, “did not want to have a pint of ale with James Madison; and the feeling, Madison demonstrated, was mutual.”

Madison learned his lesson. He’d never again fail to provide alcohol and “treats” to his voters. In any case, his legacy grew to overshadow a single lost election early in his political career.

James Madison, the Theory of Expansion, and Purity Tests in Politics Today

By Kaleena Fraga

Long, long before the presidency linked itself with Twitter, James Madison gathered with his fellow Americans to retool the government, discarding the Articles of Confederation for what would become the United States Constitution. The men who came to the Constitutional Convention came armed with different ideas and doubts. Madison lay out what he believed were the greatest problems with democracy, and how he proposed to solve them.

Madison believed in two things: that a large country would allow for a variety of ideas and opinions to thrive, safe from a looming majority, and that friendship was possible even when the two parties disagreed politically. However, the Internet Age has threatened both Madisonian ideas. In the United States, not only do most Americans belong to one of two parties, and view citizens of the opposing party with distrust, they are increasingly likely to demand purity tests within their own parties, and to cast out anyone with a nuanced opinion on a controversial subject.

At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia 1787, Madison laid out his view of democracy. “All civilized societies,” Madison told the assembled delegates, inevitably, “[divide] into different sects, factions and interest…in all cases where a majority are united by a common interest or passion, the rights of the minority are in danger.”

Madison’s response to this was his theory of expansion:

“The only remedy is to enlarge the sphere, and thereby divide the community into so great a number of interests and parties, that in the first place a majority will not be likely at the same moment to have a common interest separate from that of the whole or that of the minority; and in the second place, that in case they should have such an interest, they may not be so apt to unite in the pursuit of it.”

In other words, the size of the country would allow for so many different opinions and ideas that no one party could monopolize the national discussion. Madison wrote this at a time when many Americans were wary of changing the national makeup from a loose array of states into one country. Madison argued that doing so would multiply the number of interest groups, therefore protecting them from each other.

Future Madison-foe Alexander Hamilton jotted down his own notes on Madison’s proposal. He speculated that “paper money” would unite people no matter what their location. He also thought that even a large republic could be vulnerable to a demagogue, writing, “an influential demagogue will give an impulse to the whole.”

As the country became increasingly partisan, Madison eventually morphed this theory to fit his political aims. As the de facto leader of the Republican Party, opposing Hamilton and the Federalists, Madison relied on increasingly partisan language. He shifted his belief to say that while there could be disagreement among Republican ranks, anyone on the other side was an enemy to the notion of America itself (this in a time when leading Republicans believed that leaders of the opposing party, the Federalists, aimed to bring monarchy to America). In 1792 Madison wrote an article encapsulating this idea, entitled “The Union: Who Are Its Real Friends?” The answer: anyone who agreed with him and his fellow Republicans. Madison’s view of a large country, then, with many different views and opinions, had begun to wither on the vine.

Although he came to embrace partisanship, Madison believed strongly in maintaining friendships amid political disagreement. He believed in the difference of ideas, as long as he could trust that the other person shared his larger goals (i.e. the good of the nation, that is to say, that the nation would remain a republic instead of a monarchy). He and James Monroe are a good example. Although they ran against each other, Madison eventually made Monroe his Secretary of State. Similarly, although Madison’s friend Edmund Randolph didn’t support the Constitution, Madison later recommended him for a job in George Washington’s cabinet.

Although partisanship and distrust of those with opposing views may be a stance as old as the nation itself, the interconnectedness of the country in the Internet Age has not only deepened the divide between the two major parties–it has increased the demand for purity of its candidates. Senator Kamala Harris, speaking to David Axelrod on his podcast The Axe Files, argued that Democrats need to support candidates across the political spectrum–not just those furthest to the left or who ascribe to a strict set of liberal principals.

The political action committee “We Will Replace You” has vowed to do just that–vote out any Congressional Democrats (largely representing red states) who cooperate with the Trump Administration. On the right, the G.O.P. has seen an exodus of its more moderate members–Jeff Flake and Bob Corker chose to not run for reelection, citing their belief that, as Republicans who sometimes opposed the president, they could not win in their districts.

James Madison began his political career with two strong beliefs: that the size of the country would allow for a variety of opinions to thrive, and that friendships were possible even in the face of political disagreement. He faltered on his first point early on as partisanship ran rampant; but Madison applied it to his second–that a big country could allow for a variety of views as long as, overall, the people wanted the best for the country. In this way, Madison found it easy to remain friends with fellow Republicans who disagreed with him.

But today, as Americans are becoming more likely to identify people in the opposite party as endangering the nation, they also are turning on members of their own party.

Madison’s theory of expansion, then fails spectacularly in the Internet age. Americans still live far apart, but are closer than ever in their shared experience of national and international events. The two biggest political parties are able to spread information across a wider platform than ever before, leaving little room for competing voices or third party candidates (although American history is dotted with attempts by third party candidates, they have never succeeded).

As a result, Madison’s belief in friendships beyond politics is also in jeopardy. As American voters and their representatives drift further and further toward extremes, it’s becoming easier for candidates on the fringes to demand political purity across the spectrum, and to cast out any candidates who do not fit their desired, purist mold. Political compromise, in the age of social media, seems increasingly out of reach.

First Lady Feature: Dolley Madison

By Kaleena Fraga

Dolley Madison is best known for rescuing a portrait of George Washington from the White House during the British attack on Washington D.C. in 1814. She, like Nellie Taft, was an indispensable member of her reticent husband’s presidency.

dolley madisonIn David McCullough biography’s of Madison-foe John Adams, the nation’s fourth president is described as “a tiny, sickly-looking man who weighed little more than a hundred pounds and dressed always in black.” When Dolley Madison caught his eye and he asked for an audience with her (bonus trivia: mutual friend Aaron Burr set them up), she wrote her sister that “the great, little Madison” wanted to meet her. Great because of Madison’s political reputation; little because at 5’7, Dolley Madison was several inches taller than her future husband.

When Thomas Jefferson won the election of 1800, James & Dolley Madison moved in with the new president to the White House (James Madison was the new Secretary of State). Jefferson had been a widower for several years, and his daughters had not come to live with him in Washington. Although the Madisons eventually found a home of their own near the White House, Dolley Madison became the de facto First Lady.

Whenever Jefferson held dinners at the White House where women were invited, Dolley Madison was the hostess. To her husband, who was a prolific writer, and who had conducted much of his politicking through letters, Dolley was an immense asset–especially in a city like Washington D.C. where politics were based more on social relationships. Dolley thrived in such an environment.

As Secretary of State, Madison needed to become better at face-to-face interactions. In james madison1the James Madison biography The Three Lives of James Madison by Noah Feldman, Feldman writes that Dolley was instrumental in forming Madison’s ability to converse with diplomats and their wives. “Under Dolley’s tutelage,” Feldman writes, “Madison developed what would become a lifelong habit of telling witty stories after dinner, the ideal venue for his particular brand of dry wit.”

Dolley Madison presided over the first inaugural ball when her husband was elected in 1808. While Dolley “looked like a queen” according to an attendee, her less social husband remarked to a guest that he “would much rather be in bed.”

In the eight years of her husband’s presidency that followed, she went on to shape the role of first lady more than her predecessors. She was the first one to live full-time in the White House, and as such set out to transform the executive mansion, and to make it a social center of the nation’s capitol.

When the British invaded Washington D.C. in 1814, Dolley was alone at the White House, her husband out rallying the troops. He had sent messengers telling her to flee, but she white house burningwanted to wait for his return. According to an account by Paul Jennings, a man born into slavery at Madison’s estate of Montpelier and then working at the White House, the table had been set for dinner when a rider came charing to the mansion with the message that they must evacuate immediately. Dolley wrote her sister that she insisted on waiting until they could unscrew the portrait of George Washington from the wall.

“This process was found to be too tedious for these perilous moments. I have ordered the frame to be broken, and the canvas taken out.”

It was then rolled up and sent to New York, where it would be safe. Dolley Madison instructed its guardians that they should destroy the painting rather than allow it to fall into British hands. When the British troops arrived they found the table set for dinner. They ate their fill, and then burned the house to the ground.

Dolley outlived her husband by thirteen years, and continued to play a social role in politics after his death. She often told stories of the Founding Fathers and their generation, and advised other First Ladies on their role in the White House. Her last public appearance was on the arm of then-President James K. Polk.