Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Single Vote That Saved Our Constitution

There are many things not to like about the current political situation in America, there is one thing that is happening that could be a good thing. Americans are getting a civics lesson in how our system of government is supposed to work, things like cloture in the Senate. We are also seeing how an runaway government with no checks and balances can abuse the power that they have been given. We have not seen this much imbalance of power since the 1930s before most of us were born, or were too young to know what was going on at the time. We are just now starting to get history written on the time more objectively showing how damaging their programs were to America.

A lot of people are beginning to awaken to the power of a single vote, not only in the tight elections we have been seeing, but in the House and most especially the Senate. The Health Care Bill passed by only a handful of votes in the House, and one vote would change the outcome in the Senate. That one vote is running in a special election next Tuesday the 19th in Massachusetts. If Scott Brown wins his vote can kill the Health Care bill. Even if Harry Reid refuses to swear him in before the vote, his win would have to terrify many Senators who might decide it isn't in their best interest to continue to vote for it.

There were two cases where a single vote in the House and Senate changed history significantly. One happened on May 16th, 1868, the other happened in the election of 1800 between Jefferson and Adams.

The Senate vote in 1868 may have saved the presidency and the Constitutional separation of powers. It was the single vote by Senator Edmund Ross of Kansas, a member of the opposition party who crossed over to vote "Not Guilty" on the Andrew Johnson impeachment. The irony is that Ross was a Republican and Johnson was a Democrat, and beyond that Ross hated Johnson. However he believed the president deserved a fair trail, and shouldn't be removed for political reasons. What was at stake was the independence of the executive branch. If Congress could toss out any president it didn't like, the presidency might be weakened beyond repair.

What was the cause of Johnson's impeachment?

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln was tragic in ways beyond the obvious. Even more so for those Southern states who were just defeated in the war. Before his death, Lincoln has proposed a series of lenient postwar measures designed to restore peace and the status of the seceded states. His 10% plan allowed a state to be recognized if 10% of the voting population agreed to abide by federal regulations and support the Constitution. With Lincoln's death, a much weaker President Andrew Johnson was at the mercy of a Congress under the control of the Radical Republicans, led by Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner, who held out for a far more punitive Reconstruction plan. The Reconstruction Acts of 1876 were passed on March 7th over Johnson's veto. The congressional plan set an extremely harsh agenda for the return of the southern states to the Union.

Under the first of the Reconstruction Acts, the South was divided into five military districts with a U.S. Army general in charge of each. The South was essentially under Marshall law, where these five generals held nearly dictatorial powers over their military districts.

In 1866 the Radical Republicans (who were hard core abolitionists, and wanted to exact retribution for the evils of the South) swept the congressional elections and the balance of power shifted totally from the White House to Congress. In one blatant attempt to consolidate that power, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act in March 1867, which said a president could not remove any official, including his own Cabinet members, without Senate approval. To challenge this blatant assault on constitutional "checks and balances," Johnson asked for the resignation of Edwin Stanton, a Democrat but an ally of the Radicals. The president was promptly impeached, only to be saved by Ross's single vote who knew that he was committing political suicide to vote as he did. Yet as a true statesman who believed in the Constitution more than his party, more than his hate for Johnson, more than he wanted to keep his seat.

We will talk about the single vote in 1800 next time.

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