Call to Return to Principles; Thorough History of Politics and Money

By Hoffmann, Michael | The Florida Times Union, January 25, 2015 | Go to article overview

Call to Return to Principles; Thorough History of Politics and Money


Hoffmann, Michael, The Florida Times Union


Byline: Michael Hoffmann

CORRUPTION IN AMERICA

From Benjamin Franklin's Snuff Box to Citizens United

Author: Zephyr Teachout

Data: Harvard University Press, 305 pages, $29.95

Zephyr Teachout, author of "Corruption in America," is a Fordham Law School professor who was a candidate in the recent New York state Democratic primary for governor. She received 30 percent of the vote. It was won by incumbent Andrew Cuomo, who went on to be re-elected.

Teachout's goal: Bring back "corruption." That is, to restore the traditional understanding of political corruption, inherited from the Founding Fathers, to combat the effects of massive amounts of money that threaten contemporary representative government.

The snuff box of Benjamin Franklin, a part of the subtitle of Teachout's book, refers to a bejeweled snuff box given to Franklin by the king of France when Franklin left for the United States after being the American ambassador. Any gift or "emolument," especially from outside the country, was considered a threat to republican government by the Founders' generation (Article I, Sec. 9). "A man cannot serve two masters without betraying one of them" was how they put it.

Minimizing political corruption was one of the major concerns of the Founding Fathers. Separation of powers, checks and balances and federalism were structural inhibitions to political corruption as was the prohibition against serving concurrently as a government officer and an elected official. Or, as we would say today, these were "bright-line" rules that pre-empt any discussion of intent: No means no.

Nevertheless, the 19th century was rife with political corruption, especially in connection with the expansion of the continental boundaries and the construction of railroads. Before the ink was dry on the Constitution, one of the most egregious episodes occurred in Georgia. In the Yazoo land scandal, speculators bribed state Assembly members to sell them vast swaths of territory, some occupied by Native Americans who had signed treaties with the federal government. To their credit, Georgia voters ousted all but three members of the Assembly in the next election, but the speculators carried the issue all the way to the Marshall Supreme Court where, in 1810, the land sales were determined to be legal - based on the sanctity of contracts.

The Gilded Age, a period in which monopolies and trusts in banking, railroads, and industry dominated the political landscape, ushered in the 20th century. …

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