Archive for June, 2011

Judge’s Lesson

Sunday, June 19th, 2011

The observation that slavery was the original sin of the United States is hardly novel. The US was born with the moral scar of this sin. The 600,000 dead in the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s largely exculpated the US though there are undoubtedly remnants of the debt that have not yet been repaid.

One important lesson that some who suffered under slavery generously taught the rest of the country is the inherent value of freedom, a moral value ranking higher than comfort or safety. One poignant example was offered by Ona Judge.

Ona Judge was a slave in the household of George Washington. Measured by the standard of other slaves of the time, Judge’s physical situation could have been far worse. She lived in relative comfort at mansion at Mount Vernon tending to the needs of Martha Washington. She was so important to the Washingtons that she was one of the seven slaves they took with them to Philadelphia while Washington served as president.

Fearing that her opportunity for freedom would would be lost once her masters returned to Mount Vernon, she escaped and ultimate married John Staines, a free black sailor. The Washingtons, particular Martha were distraught at the loss. They viewed themselves as kind and just masters and could not fathom why she would run off. They were convinced that she must have been lured from her position by free blacks or abolitionists.

The Washingtons unsuccessfully tried to retrieve her. When the young Elizabeth Langdon, an acquaintance of the Washingtons, ran into Judge in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Langdon queried Judge. Langdon could not understand why Judge had run away “…from such and excellent place? You had a room to yourself and only light nice work to do and every indulgence.’’

Judge acknowledged her situation with the Washingtons, but still desperately clung her freedom. “Yes, I know, but I want to be free, misses; wanted to learn to read and write.’’ [1] Judge lived out here life in freedom, but still liable to be enslaved if successfully returned to Virginia.

What Judge intuitively understood and teaches us is that freedom is more important than comfort. Although our current situation does not compare to the overwhelming evil of slavery, as the government grows larger and more intrusive, we are offered the bargain a little more safety and comfort for a little less freedom. Even if that were really the tradeoff, Judge reminds us that the safest choice is not always the most noble.

[1] Chernow, Ron, Washington: A Life, Penguin Press, 2010.

The Quiet Death of the War Powers Act

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

When the War Powers Act was passed in 1973, the country ached from the pain of the Vietnam War, an experience no one wanted to repeat. The conventional wisdom was the Vietnam catastrophe was caused by too much executive war-making discretion. Hence, Congress tried to limit the time the president could deploy troops without explicit Congressional authorization, constraining executive authority.

The Constitution is vague about separation of authority with respect to the use of military force. Congress is entrusted with the power to declare war, but the President is the commander and chief. The courts have been reluctant to intervene in this battle of separation of powers, leaving Congress and the President to contend in the political sphere.

Typically, Republicans incline to according more discretion to the executive, whereas Democrats tilt toward Congressional supremacy. Ironically, Republicans have observed the War Power constraints, even while arguing that the President is not required to. President George W. Bush sought and received Congressional authorization for the actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The authorization provided political cover in the conflicts. If Bush had pursued those wars without Congressional approval, the country would have been even more divided than it was.

By contrast, Democratic presidents has asserted Presidential authority to act without Congressional approval, seeking instead international sanction. President Bill Clinton did not receive approval for his actions in Bosnia and Haiti. President Barack Obama has further eroded the War Powers Act, by not even making motions to comply with its limitations in the War Power in actions against Libya. International approbation rather than Congressional authorization legitimized the intervention in the eyes of the President. This is particularly surprising given that Obama opined during the 2008 campaign that:“The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.’’

While Vice President Joe Biden was so convinced that a President does not have the authority to act unilaterally without Congressional authority that, when a senator, he boasted that would move to impeach Bush in the event Bush ordered and attack Iran.

“I want to make clear and submit to the Untied States Senate pointing out the president has no authority to unilaterally attack Iran. And I want to make it clear, I want it on the record, and I want to make it clear, if he does, as chairman of the foreign relations committee and former chair of the judiciary committee, I will move to impeach him.’’

I am sure that Biden meant that he would encourage the House to impeach since the Senate does not so.

The sorry situation is that Republicans will not bring the Libyan action to a vote for fear of looking like that they are not supporting the troops and most Democrats don’t want to impede a president of their party.

The War Powers Act has been dying almost since the moment of its passage, and perhaps is should. It has been honored more by Republicans than Democrats. However, it would have been more poetic if a Congressional-Executive conflict on war powers would have been effectively settled on something more relevant to direct US interests than Libya.