Founding Fathers

#1330 Wilderness and War

#1330 Wilderness and War

"This book reveals [Washington] as a man of emotion, raw emotion."

— Clay S. Jenkinson

In anticipation of our conversation next week with Peter Stark, the author of Young Washington, we speak with Jefferson about our first president. Jefferson also comments on the time change, and the importance of using available daylight.

#1317 Madison's Letters

#1317 Madison's Letters

"Jefferson yielded to Madison's stronger concern. He needed him and he trusted him."

— Clay S. Jenkinson

#1316 James Madison (Part Two)

#1316 James Madison (Part Two)

"to the press alone, checkered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression."

— James Madison

We discuss James Madison again this week, President Jefferson's good friend and ally. The question is, what is America? Is it a compact of sovereign states? Or is it as a nation state whose constitution begins with the words, "We the People"?

#1301 Farewell Address

#1301 Farewell Address

"George Washington ... was as close to a perfect human being as we believed existed on Earth."

— Clay S. Jenkinson portraying Thomas Jefferson

This week, we speak with President Jefferson about George Washington's farewell address which was first published in Philadelphia's American Daily Advertiser on September 19, 1796, 222 years ago.

#1291 Circumstances

#1291 Circumstances

"The debate in American history is not between Hamilton and Jefferson, the debate is between Adams and Jefferson."

— Clay S. Jenkinson

This week, we answer listener questions on the Thomas Jefferson Hour, including a letter from a writer who wonders whether the Founding Fathers were geniuses who seized the moment, or simply average people living in extraordinary times. We also speak with our good friend Beau Wright.

#1283 The General Welfare

#1283 The General Welfare

"I would never consider [the Constitution] to be a sacred text."

— Thomas Jefferson, as portrayed by Clay S. Jenkinson

We present President Thomas Jefferson with a listener question about what the phrase "promote the general welfare," found in the Constitution, actually means.

#1278 Adams, Bees and Guns

#1278 Adams, Bees and Guns

"I believe that we have the right to revolution."

— Thomas Jefferson, as portrayed by Clay S. Jenkinson

President Jefferson answers listener questions about his relationship with John Adams, replacing the Constitution once every generation, bees at Monticello, and the Second Amendment.

The Nobility of Voluntary Renunciation of Power

I was really surprised to learn that Governor Jack Dalrymple has determined not to seek another term. And a little saddened. He has presided over North Dakota at the most prosperous and successful moment of its history. I believe he would have been re-elected effortlessly in 2016. He's popular and extremely well respected, well spoken, calm, unassuming, immune to the superficial trappings of power, without vanity or the slightest hunger for grandstanding or self-praise. When you run into him in the capitol, at the grocery store, or at a restaurant, you would not inevitably conclude he is the Governor of North Dakota. There is none of the Rick Perry huff and puff about him, no stern security detail, no glad-handing, and no inflated self-regard.

When a man of power leaves office before he would have to, two really interesting things happen. First, we suddenly remember that these are actual human beings, not just governors, presidents, or senators. We remember that they have families, interests, hobbies, friends, health concerns, personal goals, travel plans, bucket lists, and a growing pile of books they have neglected during their term of office. Whenever I remember that Barack Obama is a father--of two girls—I like him better. Second, it always makes me feel more hopeful about our system of government to realize that there are people, like Jack Dalrymple, for whom power is not the only measure. Paradoxically, the person who voluntarily relinquishes power restores credibility and dignity to the system.

Renunciation of power is always breathtaking. People ache for power. They calculate and coordinate every element of their existence to achieve it. They avoid glittering temptations and distractions to stay on track. Even when they just want to sit with a beer and watch a ball game on television, or have a quiet evening with their spouse and children, they drag themselves to that precinct dinner in some marginal zip code, because generally speaking you cannot achieve power without making it the central purpose of your life. Bill Clinton openly said that he had wanted to be president of the United States since he was 16 years old.

Think of the two dozen 2015-16 aspirants to the presidency, taking all of those oppressive donor calls, telling every audience as much of what they want to hear as possible, flying at dawn day after day after day to stand at a factory door, do four television interviews with "important" local TV anchors, read a book about whimsical goats to third graders at Lincoln Elementary, address the Rotarians of south Sioux City, then whisk off to Pahrump, Nevada, for a "major speech" about trade policy.

All this to achieve power. In the end, someone—some one—will achieve it. And then, for four or eight years, to have the pundits of the Other Network hammer at you every single day, taking everything you say out of context, gripping like a pit bull anything that could possibly be construed to discredit you, searching incessantly for the slightest crack in your private life, replaying the moment when you tripped off the helicopter like a continuous loop, or the one clip (from 10,000 solemn alternatives) of you smirking through the National Anthem. Look at the before and after photographs of any president. That gray and haggard survivor is who you are going to become.

And yet they line up like lemmings to win the prize.

The Founding Fathers understood the intoxication of power, and its danger to republican values, so they created a mythology of renunciation that they borrowed from ancient Rome. All the Founders read Plutarch's Lives (short biographies about ancient Greek and Roman leaders). Jefferson and Adams read them in the original Greek. Everyone else read them in John Dryden's English translation (1683). The most important of Plutarch's Lives, from this perspective, was his biography of Cincinnatus, a fifth-century Roman aristocrat who lived in great simplicity on a farm, was called to public service during a severe war crisis, served brilliantly, saved Rome, and then immediately retired and returned to his modest agrarian life. All of the Founding Fathers had to pretend they admired the example of Cincinnatus, and a few, like Jefferson, genuinely did.

The great American Cincinnatus was George Washington. As soon as the Revolutionary War was won, Washington resigned his commission and returned to Mount Vernon. This, one of the greatest moments in the history of America, occurred on December 23, 1783, in Annapolis. There, Washington quietly handed his commission as Commander in Chief to members of the Continental Congress. He had his horse waiting at the door. The next day he left for his farm. There were many things he valued more than power.

If he had been Napoleon or Julius Caesar he would have clung to power at the end of a sword or musket, would have installed himself as dictator for life, and ruled with as much force as necessary until death or a coup d'état. When King George III of England heard that Washington was planning to renounce power and return to private life, he said, "If he does that he will be the greatest man in the world.

I was sorry to hear Barack Obama hint recently that he would like to serve a third term as president, if the law permitted it. Bill Clinton loved being president so much that he is said to have slept hardly at all during his last few weeks in office. In Rudyard Kipling's terms, he wanted to "fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds' worth of distance run," or, to invite the inevitable gag, he sought to squeeze every possible joy out of his last moments in the White House. Theodore Roosevelt loved power so fiercely that he was really never fully happy after March 4, 1909, when he left the presidency.

Jack Dalrymple's path has been comparatively smooth. If he is a man of ambition, it doesn't show. Now he has the satisfaction of knowing that he leaves the state of North Dakota better than he found it. And it was already doing well on December 7, 2010, when he became our 32nd Governor.

Dalrymple's voluntary retirement leaves an open seat in 2016. The automatic advantage of incumbency will not be a factor in the next election. We all have a short list of likely candidates, but no matter who winds up running, the governor's withdrawal provides a great opportunity for the people of North Dakota. What we need now is a serious and sustained statewide conversation about the future. Thanks to the governor's decision, and the downturn in world oil prices, we have a unique opportunity to step back, take a deep breath, and assess the revolutionary developments of the last dozen years, to ask ourselves who we have been (1889-2008), who we now are, and who we are becoming; what we value, how we want to manage the future of this amazing state, how we should invest the surpluses and the Legacy Fund; what landscapes and habits of our North Dakota identity we should try to conserve as we move into the second phase of the Bakken Oil era; above all what kind of statewide community we want to sustain or create with all of this unprecedented opportunity and abundance.

Meanwhile, no matter what your politics or party affiliation, I think almost every North Dakotan agrees with Matthew 25:21. "Well done, my good and faithful servant."


Don't Throw Out the Rascals, Throw Out the System

This last week the U.S. Constitution reached its 217th birthday. When the Founding Fathers, 55 men, all prominent, completed their task in mid-September 1787 and emerged from Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the great sage of the delegates, Benjamin Franklin, was asked what exactly they had produced behind closed doors. He replied, "A republic, if you can keep it." 

In almost every meaningful respect, we have lost it.

Lately I have been reading about the last days of the Roman republic (146-44 BCE). Rome's long career of military conquest beyond its rational and defensible borders had put unbearable strains on the ancient senate. Roman armies had ceased to be manned by sturdy citizen soldiers from the small farms of Italy. They were increasingly replaced by foreign mercenaries who fought for money rather than liberty. Meanwhile, a motley potpourri of refugees had poured into the city of Rome from all the provinces and occupied territories. Many of them did not speak Latin. Most of them did not give a fig about the Roman constitution. They were less interested in becoming true Roman citizens than having access to the increasingly large and expensive grain doles that Rome established to buy off crime and urban unrest. Power-hungry men like Julius Caesar and Pompey bribed and hustled their way to the top, amassed large personal armies with which to overawe each other and all virtuous opposition, and provided the masses with mindless but showy entertainments to take their minds off of all that they were losing. (Today, we call that Keeping Up with the Kardashians).

Rome had gotten too large and unwieldy to be held together any longer by its ancient republican constitution. Earnest patriots like Cicero and Cato did their best extend the life of the old system with strenuous orations about virtue, simplicity, the rule of law, and why the republic still mattered. But when the inhabitants of a nation cease to share a common spirit, a common sense of mutual affinity and mutual sacrifice, a common sense of national identity, it's only a matter of time before the whole enterprise collapses.

Eventually, Caesar's grand-nephew Octavius (Augustus), gathered the shattered Roman state together under his personal dictatorship, solemnly staged a few faux-republican rituals now and then to allow people to pretend they still governed themselves, and got unapologetically with the real business of Rome: world empire. I believe we are approaching that moment.

Benjamin Franklin's republic was designed for a different time (when a musket was a high-tech weapon and the Atlantic Ocean was a moat of almost infinite width), and—frankly—for a different people (a largely English-derived population of highly educated farmers and small tradesmen). Our Constitution was designed to move public affairs forward at a glacial pace—which made sense in a three mile-per-hour world where nothing much was at stake. The Founders could not possibly have imagined the zip and frenzy and lethality of the modern world—cruise missiles, Internet commerce, the internal combustion engine, nuclear warheads, skyscrapers, or the capacity of a government agency (the NSA) to listen to every utterance of every single citizen whenever it wishes, for good reason or bad, instantly and secretly.

Like it or not, the United States is not a quiet and isolationist backwater any more. We somehow became the world's sole superpower and cultural hegemon, wealthy beyond dreams, with more than 750 foreign military bases scattered all over the planet, and a breathtaking, boundless appetite for resources, especially carbon. And yet we continue to try to govern ourselves with a constitution written by agrarians and isolationists dressed in wigs and waistcoats, who just wanted to be left alone by their national government.

Look at our national paralysis. We cannot pass immigration reform. While we dither 10,000 illegal immigrants cross our borders every single day. We cannot find consensus on a national health care delivery system. We cannot establish a sane national energy policy. We cannot agree on national educational standards, but by all measures we are slipping behind other nations in literacy, math, science aptitude, and engineering. We cannot decide who takes us into war, the House of Representatives (as the Founding Fathers insisted), or the president, who increasingly rules by executive order, mostly because nature abhors a vacuum and a great nation must do something.

Meanwhile, the people are fed a steady diet of what the Romans called "bread and circuses." We spend more time debating the felonies of football players Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson than we do the "high crimes and misdemeanors" of our public officers. I've watched some of the ESPN discourse about these crises in the NFL, and on the whole the discussions have been more thoughtful, civil, and nuanced than the political debates on Fox and MSNBC.

We need to take our lesson from the Romans, so that we do not suffer their fate. Here's what that would mean. Wisdom consists of calling things by their right names. We are no longer a republic, and we aren't in any meaningful sense a democracy. The evidence suggests that we are now a global consumerist empire, a worldwide military-petroleum resource complex, ruled behind the curtain by corporate interests whose principal loyalty is not to America, but to profit. Even before Citizens United (2012), moneyed "interests" had virtually unlimited access to members of Congress, and now their ability to choke the system with money is essentially infinite. Many members of Congress really do set out to be good public servants and to represent the will of their constituents, but they are so completely suffocated by privilege and surrounded by individuals of vast wealth and power and presumption, that they soon cease to have a meaningful link to average Americans. The Constitution we like to celebrate (every September 17) is a lovely relic, a sweet chapter in civics textbooks, but it now bears very little resemblance to the way we are actually governed.

Second, we need to step back and rewrite the Constitution to address the pace, and the technological and demographic conditions of our time. In other words, we need to jettison the mythology of America so that we can get back on track with the modern mission of America. Given our global reach and our colossal international power, given our insatiable material desires, and given how dangerous the 21st century is proving to be, we are going to need a more efficient national government with fewer of the checks and balances that hold up legislation. We are going to have to grant the president more power, because otherwise he is just going to have to take it. It's this simple: we can either rewrite the constitution to get on top of the actual dynamics of the way things are done, and thereby stay in control, or we can cling to the fiction of our "republic" and seek to restore it, while the actual work of our government is done in secret conclaves by people who have never been elected.  

I know I sound pessimistic, but I'm not. We are a very great nation, filled with of people of integrity and creativity and good will. We just need to take back our government from those who have hijacked it. We deserve better. If it ain't broke don't fix it, of course, but since it is clearly broken right to the core, we the people have to step up and renew America.

We need to become Jefferson's people again—with some updates.


Bread and Circuses, a Mythical State of the Union

I watched the opening bars of the State of the Union Message on Tuesday night, but I couldn't bear to watch the whole thing. Once I saw the guy from Duck Dynasty up there in the gallery, I lost heart. When's the last time you heard a good State of the Union Message? They tend to be endless lists of small policy initiatives, coupled with patently erroneous claims that the state of the nation is better than everyone knows it to be. At one point the President said we have cut the deficit by half—did anyone really believe that? At another point he said we've had truly impressive national job growth. While urging Congress to extend unemployment benefits (again) to 1.3 million good Americans who cannot find jobs.

I hope I live long enough to hear a President who just levels with us. If I were Obama I'd admit that the rollout of the Affordable Care Act was pathetic. I'd admit that we did not protect our diplomats in Benghazi well enough, and that the administration's immediate public relations response to the attack was a shameful act of deliberate deception. I'd admit that the deficit is out of control. Candor—a fundamental honesty about America's real situation—would, I believe, build bipartisan respect and perhaps even support. We know from the latest Wall Street Review poll that 63% of Americans think the country is heading in the wrong direction. That's worth noting if you really want to talk about the "State of the Union." Not great.

It seems to me the Thomas Jefferson had it right. He chose not to go up in person to Congress to deliver his Annual Messages. He broke with the habit of his two predecessors, George Washington and John Adams, whose annual appearances before Congress Jefferson saw both as a waste of time and quasi-monarchical. Jefferson didn't want America to be about pageantry. He wanted it to be about limited government, "a few plain duties performed by a few honest men." To fulfill his constitutional role, Jefferson wrote (no ghostwriters) an Annual Message and sent it by courier up to the Capitol.

It wasn't until Woodrow Wilson that Presidents returned to Congress for these annual processionals, in which all three branches of our national government face each other in the same chamber—and the black-robed Supreme Court, apparently, just sits there solemnly in the front row, unmoved by the political circus. It amazes me that Theodore Roosevelt wasn't the one to break Jefferson's precedent of silence. It must have nearly killed him when his dreaded rival Wilson read his Annual Message out loud in person before Congress on December 2, 1913. Surely out of one side of TR's mouth came, "The self-serving scoundrel!" and out of the other, "Why didn't I think of that, Edith?"

What we really need is a constitutional revolution. Presidents have recently been ruling more and more by executive order. That's not even slightly the spirit of the Constitution written in 1787. It's the legislative branch that is supposed to pass laws and set policy, the executive to enforce them. If the President can raise the minimum wage by presidential fiat, then we are no longer a republic in any meaningful sense of the term. This President is threatening to use executive orders to work around the Republicans in Congress, but the Founders wanted the people's work to be done exclusively by the people's representatives, and they were unambiguously committed to checks and balances in the national government. I find this trend towards government by executive order alarming, particularly since there is no grant of such authority in the Constitution itself.

We also need to address the question of war powers.

I went to see Lone Survivor the other night. If I had known how gory it would be I might not have gone. The film is about a special forces raid in Afghanistan that goes terribly wrong; only one individual of a cluster of Navy Seals survives the broken mission. The film is based on a true story. Lone Survivor was so harrowing that there were times when I had to cover my eyes, and afterwards I actually felt the need for a glass of wine. For me, two reactions were unavoidable. First, that we owe our men and women in uniform an unlimited quantity of respect. It's hard to believe that there are Americans who are willing to take such risks, to give (as Lincoln put it), "the last full measure of devotion" to the freedom and security of the United States. But they do.

Second, what the heck are we doing in Afghanistan? We all know that Afghanistan has been invaded by a range of empires in its long sad tribal history, and that the Afghanis always "win," because the occupiers eventually lose heart and go home. Our military troops have performed admirably under difficult conditions there, but we cannot even keep the US-backed puppet government under Hamid Karzai from openly decrying American actions and repeatedly betraying American interests. Who exactly are we fighting for, and to what end? Political stability? Easier to land an astronaut on Mars.

When we finally leave—after what the President called "the longest war in American history"—and the Afghani tribesmen settle into another chapter of their endless civil war, reprisal followed by raid followed by atrocity followed by temporary dictator followed by assassination, does anyone really believe it will have been worth the loss of 2,287 American soldiers (so far)? Who will be the last American to die in Afghanistan? And for what?

Over the past week I have been rereading Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, one of America's greatest books. He, like Jefferson, believed that it was too late in the world's history to settle our international disputes by way of war. It was Franklin, in the Autobiography, who concluded his section on the success of the American Revolution with, "There never was a good war, or a bad peace." The Founding Fathers wanted to make sure war wasn't one of our routine ways of dealing with the rest of the world. So they insisted that wars must be declared by the House of Representatives, the branch of government closest to the people themselves. They insisted that War Department appropriations must be re-authorized every two years, so that we did not fall into the habit of permanent and independent militarism. They believed that wars should be paid for with ready tax money, so that the people would realize how expensive they were and, in most cases, think twice before opening their checkbooks and committing the nation to a species of organized barbarism in which, as Jonathan Swift put it, "A soldier is a Yahoo (man) hired to kill in cold blood as many of his own species, who have never offended him, as possibly he can."

Modern Presidents have far too much independent authority to wage war, and of course we don't actually pay for those wars, except in the lives of the dedicated Americans who go fight them on our behalf.

The highlight of the State of the Union Message was President Obama's beautiful tribute to Army Ranger Sergeant 1st Class Cory Remsburg, who was grievously wounded in Afghanistan and who has endured a long series of operations merely to get about 50% of his body functions back. We owe him and tens of thousands like him way more than a standing ovation and solid veteran's benefits. We owe him a better U.S. government and a more authentic national purpose.


#903 Great Eight

#903 Great Eight

Prompted by a question from listener Jeff Alexander, President Jefferson talks about who he felt were the 8 most influential individuals during his time: George Washington, James Madison, Patrick Henry, John Adams, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamlilton and Lafayette.