This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Death Panels in the U.S. Constitution

            When the Founding Fathers rolled out the new Constitution in 1787, it was not entirely a critical success. In fact the debate over the Constitution made the debate over President Obama’s health care bill sound downright civilized by comparison.
            Benjamin Workman, writing as “Philadelphiensis” in the Freeman’s Journal, objected, “Except you are tired of freedom; except you are determined to entail slavery on yourself and your posterity, for God’s sake reject with that dignity becoming freemen that tyrannical system of government, the new constitution. If you adopt it in toto, you will lose everything dear to freemen and receive nothing in return but misery and disgrace.”
            Nor did everyone back then regard our founders as paragons of virtue and wisdom. Samuel Bryan, writing in the Independent Gazetteer of Philadelphia in January of 1788, minced no words as he spoke of the federalists’ continuing reference to George Washington’s support for the new document:
            “This impotent attempt to degrade the brightest ornament of his country to a base level with themselves will be considered as an aggravation of their treason, and an insult on the good sense of the people, who have too much discernment not to make a just discrimination between the honest mistaken zeal of the patriot and the flagitious machinations of an ambitious junto.”
            Flagitious machinations? Bryan was the Spiro T. Agnew of his time. And to save you the trouble of looking it up, flagitious means “marked by outrageous or scandalous crime or vice.”
            In the North Carolina convention, on July 30, 1788, Henry Abbot, a Baptist pastor, questioned the clause against religious tests for public office. “The exclusion of religious tests is thought by many to be dangerous and impolitic. They suppose that if there is to be no religious test required, Pagans, Deists and Mahometans might obtain office among us.”
            James Iredell, who was later appointed by Washington to the U.S. Supreme Court, dispatched that question with brief eloquence. “How is it possible,” he said, “to exclude any set of men without taking away that principle of religious freedom which we ourselves so warmly contend for? This is the foundation on which persecution has been raised in every part of the world.”
            Iredell went on to address what I would call a “Death Panels” question — one that looked at the letter of the proposed law and read into it the wildest possible paranoid outcome.
            “I met by accident with a pamphlet this morning in which the author states as a very serious danger that the Pope of Rome might be elected president,” he said. “I confess this never struck me before, and if the author had read all the qualifications of a President, perhaps his fears might have been quieted.”
            In order for that to happen, Iredell pointed out, a native-born American who had lived in this country for 14 years would have to go abroad, work his way up through the college of Cardinals, become pope, and be willing to give up that position when his American countrymen, still holding him in high esteem after a long absence, chose him as their president.
            “Sir,“ he said at the convention, still addressing Abbot, “it is impossible to treat such idle fears with any degree of gravity.  Why is it not objected that there is no provision in the Constitution against electing one of the Kings of Europe president? It would be a clause equally rational and judicious.”
            Nasty rhetoric and suspicion of lawmakers have always been with us. The glory of America, so far anyway, has been that we have been able to let the obsessives, paranoids and conspiracy-theorists have their say and still move forward to accomplish reasonable things. Is this a great country, or what?