Convention probes uses of history."Think of your ancestors and your descendants."
It may seem odd, but in writing editorials and columns about Rhode Island's grubby grub·by
adj. grub·bi·er, grub·bi·est
1. Dirty; grimy: grubby old work clothes.
2. Infested with grubs.
3. politicsduring the past few years, I've thought a lot about America's Founding Fathers.
As a 1999 transplant to the smallest (and, in some ways, weirdest) state, I quickly discovered that its politicians were happily propping up a 340-year-old structure of government that encourages corruption. In Rhode Island Rhode Island, island, United States
Rhode Island, island, 15 mi (24 km) long and 5 mi (8 km) wide, S R.I., at the entrance to Narragansett Bay. It is the largest island in the state, with steep cliffs and excellent beaches. , power is almost entirely concentrated in the legislature, which exerts executive authority through its role in various boards and commissions.
By far the state's most powerful figure is the House speaker, accountable to few and elected by only a couple of thousand of Rhode Island's one million people. No other state gives so much power to one branch.
It is a system that dates to the 1663 charter granted by King Charles King Charles can refer to:
Not to be altered; immutable: the unchangeable seasons.
un·change reality as foggy fog·gy
adj. fog·gi·er, fog·gi·est
a. Full of or surrounded by fog.
b. Resembling or suggestive of fog.
2. mornings off Newport.
Having covered government at the local, state, and federal levels, I found that extremely bizarre.
I had seen, on the beat--in practice, not theory--the way the Founders' insights into human nature translated into government that balanced power, pried pried 1
Past tense and past participle of pry1. loose information, and placed at least some restraints on corruption. The Founders had gotten there by steeping themselves in history--especially the unremittingly bleak vision of the Roman historian Tacitus. They understood that human beings lust for power and that it is extremely dangerous--and disastrous for republican government--to allow that power to go unchecked.
Their insights provided plenty of fuel for the columns and editorials I began to pound out on the topic. James Madison: "The accumulation of all powers ... in the same hands ... may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny." John Adams: "If there is one central truth to be collected from the history of all ages, it is this: ... If executive power, or any considerable part of it, is left in the hands of an aristocratical or democratical assembly, it will corrupt the legislature as necessarily as rust corrupts iron, or arsenic poisons the human body; and when the legislature is corrupted, the people are undone."
I wrote about Montesquieu, the French philosopher whose understanding of the balance of powers profoundly affected the American Founders; I wrote about arguments in the Federalist Papers Federalist papers
formally The Federalist
Eighty-five essays on the proposed Constitution of the United States and the nature of republican government, published in 1787–88 by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay in an effort to persuade . In scores of columns and editorials, I argued that Rhode Island needed to leap forward--into the 18th century! I found that readers could grasp the Founders' reasoning easily if expressed in plain language; and I discovered that the Founders' arguments gave mine great force.
Last fall, in a nonbinding referendum, a stunning 76% of Rhode Island voters demanded a change in the state constitution in order to balance power. Lawmakers in both chambers of the General Assembly--barraged with calls and letters--acted on the public's wishes; as I write this, the legislature is on the verge On the Verge (or The Geography of Yearning) is a play written by Eric Overmyer. It makes extensive use of esoteric language and pop culture references from the late nineteenth century to 1955. of putting historic binding change on the 2004 ballot.
Constitutional reform is not always on an editorial writer's platter. Still, we confront the work of the Founders every day. We ponder the core issues they faced: the relationship between the individual and the community, between personal responsibility and social responsibility; the dangers of concentrated and unchecked power; the dark side of human nature; the need to create an educated electorate grounded in moral values.
In writing about our country, we ask: How much sense does an 18th-century design of limited government make in an extraordinarily complex 21st-century world? Does the Founders' vision even translate to our time and place? How can freedom survive in the face of terrorists who benefit from limits on government power? As the world grows smaller, where do we draw the boundary between cooperating internationally and preserving America's identity? When does a safety net begin to smother individual responsibility, and when does liberty become an opportunity for preying on the weak?
The Supreme Court has at times ignored much of what the Founders held dear (H.L. Mencken opined half a century ago, not entirely facetiously, that "Judges are chosen not because they know the Constitution and are in favor of it, but precisely because they appear to be against it.") Yet the basic structure of the Founders' remarkable work survives.
On September 19, at the NCEW NCEW National Conference of Editorial Writers convention in Providence, I'll be moderator of what I am certain will be a fascinating panel discussion ("The Founding Fathers: What They Really Meant"). Three marvelous historians have agreed to share their thoughts: Gordon Wood Gordon Wood can mean:
"What's past is prologue," Shakespeare wrote. That is certainly the case with the American experiment. Hope you can join us!
Edward Achorn is deputy editorial page editor of The Providence Journal. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org