Awakened by my children I look at the news and reading about the national government in partial shutdown I shake my head with thoughts running back to the beginning of our republic. What has happened ?
Many of our Founders were deathly afraid of the federal government. Yet here we are on the cusp of implementing a massive federal program and this after decades of other large increases in the national governments power. The anti-federalists of the Constitutional era argued that the new Constitution would eventually lead to the absorption of the state governments, the combining of the Union into “one great republic” under an unchecked national government, and as a result tyranny. Madison countered that the multiple checks and balances would prevent this and would also greatly slow the processing of the federal government reducing its power. Madison won the day after concessions in the Bill of Rights but 222 years later were the anti-federalists right ? Sadly, I am believing so.
The seed planted at Appomattox has 150 years later grown to result in many ways in the absorption of the rights of states as predicted thus greatly reducing this check. The acquiescence of the Supreme Court to the power of the federal government through the changing not of the checks put into place in the Constitution but instead through the insidious changing of the meaning of its words. The commerce clause, the “necessary and proper” clause have been expanded far beyond their original meaning to now being jokingly called “elastic”. I am not laughing. The Bill of Rights starts by saying “Congress shall make no law…” but through the changing of the meaning of the words in the fifth and fourteenth Amendments have allowed the national government to do the exact opposite of those words.
All this however cannot completely undo the checks. The House of Representatives and Senate must still agree on a bill before presenting to the Executive for approval before law is formed. The House still has authority to originate and approve funding as is evidenced by the current impasse.
What is our future ?
I cannot help but think back to another republic—the Roman. Towards its end Cicero famously said
“though the republic, when it came to us, was like a beautiful painting, whose colors, however, were already fading with age, our own time not only has neglected to freshen it by renewing the original colors, but has not even taken the trouble to preserve its configuration and, so to speak, its general outlines. For what is now left of the "ancient customs" on which ... "the commonwealth of Rome" was "founded firm"? They have been, as we see, so completely buried in oblivion that they are not only no longer practiced, but are already unknown. For it is owing to our vices, rather than to any accident that we have retained the name of republic when we have long since lost the reality.”
As that republic weakened it fell when a strong man, faced with complicated circumstances, pushed the final protective walls of the republic down. He felt he had too of course. Julius Caesar. There was an old law that stated that only the elected magistrates (consuls and praetors) could hold imperium which was the right to command within Italy. To disobey was punishable by death. This was to protect the republic from overthrow.
Standing on the bank of the Rubicon River, about to enter Italy and break this law, Caesar knew the seriousness of his decision. He crossed the river. This would begin what would eventually be the death of the Roman Republic.
Are we just one serious calamity, one strong leader, one “Caesar” moment away from the final walls of our Republic being torn down ? Is the slowness of the operation of our republic, the “running in mud” designed to prevent tyranny the very thing that would compel someone to cross their Rubicon all out of real or perceived necessity ? Perhaps the current situation is that moment or perhaps it is just another in a line of degradations, the future holding still that fateful moment.