Convention Probes Uses of History

By Achorn, Edward | The Masthead, Autumn 2003 | Go to article overview

Convention Probes Uses of History


Achorn, Edward, The Masthead


"Think of your ancestors and your descendants."

--Tacitus

It may seem odd, but in writing editorials and columns about Rhode Island's grubby 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, 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 II--one that politicians have exploited ever since to wield power corruptly with a minimum of accountability. The state's residents, if they pondered politics at all, had long accepted that that was just the way it had to be--as much an unchangeable reality as foggy 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 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. 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. …

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