I was weeding some of my papers last Saturday and found a copy of a letter sent by Thomas Jefferson from Paris, where he was representing this country, on December 20, 1787, to James Madison here in America. As a slave-holder, Jefferson committed grievous wrongs, but Thomas Jefferson wasn’t stupid and what he wrote struck me because he was precisely describing what we most fear today. Jefferson’s letter was about the Constitution. He played no part in writing it, stationed in Paris as he was. But having gotten a look, he wrote his friend about what he did and didn’t like.
He wrote Madison, “I like much the general idea of framing a government which should go on of itself peaceably.” He also wrote:
"The second feature I dislike, and greatly dislike, is the abandonment in every instance of the necessity of rotation in office, and most particularly in the case of the President.
That has now been limited to two terms by an amendment, but listen to Jefferson’s reasoning. The president [quote]:
"...becomes of so much consequence to certain nations to have a friend or a foe at the head of our affairs that they will interfere with money and with arms. A Galloman [Frenchman] or an Angloman [Englishman] will be supported by the nation he befriends. If once elected, and at a second or third election outvoted by one or two votes, he will pretend false votes, foul play, hold possession of the reins of government, be supported by the states voting for him, especially if they are the central ones lying in a compact body themselves and separating their opponents: and they will be aided by one nation of Europe, while the majority are aided by another. The election of President of America some years hence will be much more interesting to certain nations of Europe, than ever the election of a King of Poland was. Reflect on all the instances in history, antient and modern, of elective monarchies, and say if they do not give foundation for my fears, the Roman emporers, the popes … [from their alliances], the German emporers til they became hereditary in practice, the Kings of Poland, the Deys of the Ottoman dependencies."
The timeliness of Jefferson’s fears stunned me.
Many Americans tend to be romantic about our presidents – if they like one thing about a president they think they’re all good. A star on a popular TV show must know how to govern America, protect it from disease, and foreign powers, and raise the people’s income and welfare by bellowing about whom they hate. Please forgive my sarcasm.
The same afternoon, my wife tuned into a town meeting run by the National Peace Corps Association, with the current head of the Peace Corps among the speakers. My mind drifted back. John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps. Many people liked him because he was young, vigorous and handsome. But the gifts most valued by the people where we served were John F. Kennedy half dollars. They valued Kennedy because he showed respect for people all over the globe – not necessarily the leaders of their countries, but always the people. It was a nonpartisan tradition, followed by presidents of both parties ‘til it was up-ended by a man who thought all a president has to do is talk tough and tell people who’s fired.
But he has no right to fire voters. In the same letter, Jefferson remarked that it is crucial to protect the fundamental principle that the people are not to be taxed [and I would add or otherwise governed] but by representatives chosen immediately by themselves.
Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.
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