This week in history: the Articles of Confederation

This week in 1781, the Articles of Confederation went into effect in the United States, following ratification by the 13 colonies – a.k.a. states. Work on the Articles had begun in 1776, around the time of the Declaration of Independence. Completion took a year and a half, until November 5 of 1777 – for two reasons: uncertainty about what to include, as well as several moves from city to city, to avoid advancing British troops. In the end, the final draft included state sovereignty, en bloc voting by state in a unicameral Congress, and terms that left western land claims unresolved – up to individual states. Continue reading “This week in history: the Articles of Confederation”

This week in history: William Henry Harrison

William Henry Harrison, America’s 9th President, was born this week in 1773. Harrison probably would not be pleased to learn his greatest legacy: establishing the system for presidential succession, by dying in office. The Constitution has surprisingly unclear terms about succession, so when Harrison died in 1841, no one knew if the Vice President would become President or just exercise some or all of the President’s powers. Harrison’s Vice President, John Tyler, brought order to confusion by claiming a constitutional mandate and taking the oath of office as President. Vice Presidents have seamlessly succeeded to the presidency ever since, whenever the chief dies in office. Continue reading “This week in history: William Henry Harrison”

This week in history: Groundhog Day

This past Sunday, the U.S. and Canada celebrated Groundhog Day (along with the Super Bowl). According to legend, if a groundhog sees its shadow on February 2nd, after emerging from its burrow, winter will continue for six more weeks. If the groundhog sees no shadow, spring will arrive early. So Groundhog Day involves a reversal of assumptions: clear weather on 2/ 2 means more winter, since clear skies lead to shadows, while cloudy weather means an early spring. Continue reading “This week in history: Groundhog Day”

The Chief Justice Can Call Witnesses

Marshall would never stand for impeachment without witnesses
Would John Marshall, our most influential Chief Justice (1755-1835), have stood for a trial without witnesses?

Under the Constitution, the Vice President presides over the Senate — except during presidential impeachment trials. The Vice President would inherit the President’s position if the trial led to conviction, so the Founders feared the VP’s bias. Who then? An obvious choice would be the President pro tempore of the Senate: the Senator who presides in the Vice President’s absence. Or the Senate could elect another Senator. But instead of those natural choices, the Founding Fathers reached out of Congress and chose the Chief Justice of the United States. Why? Continue reading “The Chief Justice Can Call Witnesses”

This week in history: Louis Braille

Bronze bust of Louis Braille, created by Frédéric-Étienne Leroux (1887)

This week in 1809, Louis Braille was born in a small French town called Coupvray. He’s known for creating the braille reading and writing system for the visually impaired. Louis lost his eyesight at age 5. At age 10, he enrolled in one of the first schools for blind children. The school used the “Haüy system” for reading, named after its inventor, the school’s founder. Books were simply printed with raised letters the reader could feel. But the Haüy books were very heavy, and the students had a hard time reading them. Braille wanted something better. In 1821 he stumbled across a military communication system designed for silent night reading. It used raised dots and dashes on thick paper. This “night writing” was too complex, but it inspired Braille. By 1824, at just 15 years old, he had created his own, far better system. Continue reading “This week in history: Louis Braille”

This week in history: Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia

This week in 537, eastern Roman emperor Justinian I finished construction of the Hagia Sophia: the great cathedral of his capital, Constantinople. Upon completion and for centuries thereafter, it was the largest building in the world. Justinian’s realm was the remainder of the Roman Empire: the original mega-state’s eastern half, which survived the fall of the West and which we call the Byzantine Empire. And the Hagia Sophia became the central cathedral of the eastern region of the Roman Christian Church, not to mention the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Eventually, the two great sections of the church broke into the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church — the latter led by the Patriarch of Rome, a.k.a the Pope. The Hagia Sophia remained the central cathedral of the Eastern church and the Byzantine Empire until 1453, when Constantinople fell to Muslim invaders and became the capital of the Turks’ new Ottoman Empire. The conquerors turned the cathedral into a mosque and added its now-iconic minarets: the slender towers you see on many mosques, used for the call to prayer. In the 1930s, however, the new, secular state of Turkey closed the mosque and transformed it into the Ayasofya Muzesi, or the Museum of the Hagia Sophia. You can visit the museum to this day, in Istanbul: the Turkish name for Constantinople. Continue reading “This week in history: Hagia Sophia”

Vichy and American Collaborators

In 1940, cooperation with the Germans looked like good sense to many French leaders. Germany had conquered most of their country, and by working with the invaders, these politicians and generals could maintain power. Even better, much of the populace favored cooperation. So while some French leaders kept fighting a seemingly hopeless war, others set up the “Vichy government,” which administered much of the country and assisted the Germans during World War II. Aiding the foes of French liberty, however, did these men no good in the long run. After the war, the French jailed or executed much of the Vichy leadership. And the nation came to view them with contempt and loathing. Some Vichy leaders had done great things before 1940, but that does not matter. History has given them an ugly name: collaborators.

Marshal Pétain, first of the Vichy collaborators -- a lesson for impeachment
Marshal Philippe Pétain, once an immensely popular WWI hero — jailed for leading the Vichy government and remembered today as a traitor and collaborator

Continue reading “Vichy and American Collaborators”

Time for an Independent Attorney General

Almost every U.S. state has an independent attorney general. Forty-eight of our state governors cannot fire their AG at will, so they can’t avoid justice through control of state prosecutors. American Presidents, however, however, can fire the U.S. Attorney General, for essentially any reason. Yet the White House generates far more potential corruption than any governor’s mansion, due to its greater power. In fact, thanks to the modern imperial presidency, the U.S. executive now overshadows the other two branches, disrupting the Founding Fathers’ plan for a balance of power. And the extreme partisanship of 21st Century politics boosts Presidents’ might even further. It renders them almost immune to impeachment and even to justice from the ballot box. That leaves law enforcement as a crucial check on executive corruption. But the federal prosecutors’ hands are tied by the Presidents’ power to fire them. So the U.S. must learn from the wisdom of its own states.

This article proposes a constitutional amendment creating an independent Attorney General — and it offers the amendment’s text, ready for adoption. It takes no position on the conduct of Presidents Trump or Obama or any of their predecessors. Rather, it offers a non-partisan, traditional American solution. Continue reading “Time for an Independent Attorney General”

This week in history: Sputnik I

Photo by Gregory R Todd, provided under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license.

On this day in 1957, Sputnik I became the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth. The beachball-sized Soviet machine circled the planet in a low elliptical orbit for three weeks before its batteries finally died. Then it continued for two more months before finally falling back into the atmosphere. The unexpected success of Sputnik I triggered the great 20th Century space race between the Soviet Union and the United States. Sputnik gave the Soviets a tremendous head start, but arguably the U.S. won the race when it put the first human beings on another astronomical body—on July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon.