With the gridlocked Congress’ approval rating consistently staying in the single digits more than the wind chill at Lambeau Field, it’s only natural for people to look back lovingly at years gone by when politicians supposedly knew how to get things done. Usually these screeds of nostalgia focus more on days when bipartisanship was popular. You know, the days when hard drinking men in smoky backrooms scratched each other’s backs and reached across the aisle and employed various other vaguely sexual metaphors to pass some legislation.
But there’s another way to view the bygone era of politicians doing more than looking to score the next sound byte on a 24 hour news program. Think of it as the darkest timeline. Depending on who you talk to, it’s either the pessimist’s or the pragmatist’s view of American history. It goes like this: politicians never figured out how to work together; some just figured out how to do whatever they wanted, consequences be damned.
Of course, the best politicians know how to glad-hand at the appropriate times and how to deal some blows with the iron fist when that’s called for, too. Some were especially adept at the iron fist. Here are two of them from American history.
Who better than old honest Abe to stand as a symbol of American unity and reconciliation? The guy who said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” has to be an enduring symbol of Americans knowing how to put their differences behind them, right?
Well, when it came to preserving the Union, the old railsplitter stopped at nothing to accomplish his goals. No, he didn’t just call in a few favors and lean on some old friends for some help: the man decided to pretend a part of the United States Constitution didn’t really count anymore.
This wasn’t like how everybody kind of just conveniently ignores those weird rules about shellfish in Leviticus, either. This was a core principle of American jurisprudence. Lincoln suspended the Writ of Habeas Corpus, meaning that people under arrest no longer had to be charged with a specific crime. This stunning disregard of Constitutional rights allowed the US Army to arrest anybody who so much as breathed the word, “secession.” Usually, when the Constitution is threatened, the Supreme Court rides to the rescue, but Lincoln treated Chief Justice Taney’s ruling like life advice from an eccentric aunt: he listened to it and then completely disregarded it.
It still isn’t clear if Lincoln really had to trample all over the Constitution to win the war, but he did win it. Yes, it’s more likely John Wilkes Booth was a crazy white supremacist in love with an idea of the south that never existed, rather than a constitutional law scholar, but maybe there’s a reason he shouted “Sic Semper Tyrannous” – “thus always to tyrants” – when he shot Lincoln.
Everybody who studied American history from Hollywood movies knows nothing of note happened in the United States after the Civil War until World War II. You know the story. One minute it’s all top hats and horses and the next it’s cars and planes and Pearl Harbor, with the war that launched a thousand first-person shooters somewhere in between.
But you might remember some stuff about a few dusty-looking, starving farmers in there, too. It’s the 1930’s, the Great Depression is in full force, and FDR thinks he has just the solution. No, it’s not converting every factory in the country into a war machine production center, kick-starting the economy with industrial jobs for everybody and crippling all foreign competition in the process. That comes later. Right now, he’s set on his host of social programs known as the New Deal.
Remember when Lincoln encountered some pretty beleaguered opposition when he applied whiteout to a few lines in the Constitution? Well, by the 1930’s, in a time when the country wasn’t threatening to break into two, people had a little more respect for the Supreme Court. Meaning: Presidents just didn’t say “Nah” when their actions were labeled unconstitutional. Unfortunately for FDR, they were striking down his New Deal programs left and right.
So what’s a guy to do? Adjust his social programs so they conform to the standards of the founding document of our nation? I mean, he could try… or he could try appointing an additional six justices to the court who saw things his way.
That’s exactly what he proposed to do. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it didn’t go over too well. Even John Garner, FDR’s own vice president, didn’t even bother to pretend he thought it was an okay plan: the guy acted like a four year old listening to a lecture on the virtues of vegetables and the importance of sitting still and held his nose and gave the thumbs down as the plan was read aloud to Congress.
So FDR didn’t go through with his plan, but it was perhaps even bolder than Lincoln’s. If it worked, he wouldn’t even have had to pretend to listen to the Supreme Court’s opinion on anything, because he knew what his watered down version would say. Plus, after he threatened his move, the Supreme Court suddenly started finding parts of the New Deal constitutional. FDR knew how to get things done.
It’s election day in America. Maybe you’re planning on swinging by your polling place after work. Maybe you’ve already been. Either way, I hope that you really know the people you’re voting for – at least, as well as you possibly can. If history has taught us one thing, it’s that ruthlessness frequently masquerades as good intentions. Other times, we find that the document we love to cling to so uncompromisingly – the Constitution – is more a guideline than a holy stone tablet. Compromise has always been incredibly important to this nation’s development: a lesson I hope we all heed when we head to the polls today.