The Mother of all Shutdowns

Romulus leads Rome to victory

So we endure another governmental calamity: the federal government shutting down. With our love for drama nothing sells better than doomsday stories.

Shutting the government down is nothing new. At the beginning of the 5th Century BC Rome’s under class, the plebeians,  decided they had enough of upper class, patrician rule. They simply stomped out of Rome setting up a possible doomsday scenario.

The plebeians pitched camp on the Sacred Mount demanding that their rights and interests be addressed.  Since plebeians made up most of the soldiers in the Roman Army at the time, and since the expanding Roman city-state was constantly at war with one of its neighbors, the plebeians figured it was a good time to initiate negotiations in what could easily be called the first pre-union, sit-down strike in history. Oh, and it left Rome some-what defenseless.  Always a good bargaining chip to play in the art of the deal.

It would be a far stretch to call this the first socialist demonstration but the march out of Rome started a 200 year Struggle of Orders or the Conflict of Orders.  It  was the classic rich, noble, land-holding aristocrats versus the poor workers and farmers that also included a few non-noble well off citizens in the plebeian fold. Like most privileged-ruling elites throughout history, Roman patricians controlled most of the wealth and simply closed governmental doors behind them once they overthrew and consolidated power from the Etruscan kings who once ruled over them.

We have no Etruscan kings to overthrow.  In fact, historians are not sure what really happened to the Etruscans after the Romans wrestled control from them.  Just like the past, though, we do  have a burgeoning group of (patrician) billionaires with “charitable” trust funds that have put a firm down payment on our republic. And, although they may not shut the government down per say, their sponsored-elected elites have no problem pulling the power plug for them. This allows them to avoid the embarrassment of stomping across the Potomac like a bunch of demonic minions cast out the promised land.

Government shut downs are not new. They do seem to happen more often.  Shut downs occurred in Gerald Ford’s and Jimmy Carter’s administrations in the 1970’s and again in the ’80s  during Ronald Reagan’s administration; and twice under Clinton and once under Obama.

This does not include the numerous primate-like chest thumping rituals  the two parties  demonstrate across the aisle at one an other. Each side threatening to let the banana bunch in the middle rot so nobody gets any bananas. This lopsided-logic that a bunch of rotten bananas is worth more than one good banana is baboon backwards. And then when the media gets into the swing of things the treetop chatter soon becomes a blame game of he-said, she-said, “what about…”  and “I know you are but what am I…” in an ever spiraling drama filled-debate to sell a story and keep everybody agitated.

Caesar crossing the Rubicon The beginning of the end to the Republic?

Now most of us have heard about the fall of the Roman Empire but not so much about the fall of the Roman Republic.  The Roman Empire got started during the 1st Century BCE. It was teetering when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River after being in Gaul. His return to Rome created a free for all civil war on who would control Rome.  Shortly there after, and for all practical purposes, Rome’s government shut down as various factions fought it out not with ballots but armies.

We are all familiar with Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE.  Two of Caesar’s stanch allies, Mark Antony and Octavian, vindicated his death and defeated Caesar’s assassins:  Brutus  and associates. Mark Antony and Octavian then divided the former Republic between them.  But two men with  grand imperial plans soon proved that greed gets the better of any governmental agreements.  It was to be a short-lived arrangement and could be argued a pre-imperial shut down. Octavian later defeated Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BCE to become sole ruler of the newly-founded empire.  The Roman Senate then made him princeps or “first citizen” and gave him the name Augustus. After nearly a century of civil wars the Republic was dead.

The Age of Augustus and the Birth of Christ And the death of the Repbulic

The Republic, however, began in 509 BCE when the Romans over threw of the Etruscan kings who had ruled over them for hundreds of years. Once free of the Etruscans, the Romans established a republic. One institution that carried over from the overthrow was the Senate.  This appointed body of 100 well-heeled advisers to the king was soon to be expanded to 300 of Rome’s noblest and wealthiest men.

One thing that did not carry over was a codified system of written law.  This is not to say that these patricians of the Republic were not civic or legally minded; it was more about their interest in maintaining their social position, wealth and prestige in the new republic the than putting  something legal in writing.

As Rome expanded and defeated other near-by enemies, it began creating new cities and a complex society.  Rome’s influence was growing beyond the Tiber River. Security was a prime concern as Rome had to continually defend itself against the various tribes and Gauls that would attack and plunder Rome. The security of the Republic fell on the shoulders of the farmer/soldier — the plebeian.

One vexing problem to the citizen soldier was debts.  It was not uncommon for plebeians to lose everything, including their freedom, from debt accrued while serving in the army defending the Republic. Since the Roman army at this time was made up of mostly farmers, and since Rome was at war most of this time, soldiers were not around to bring in a crop.  Also, Rome’s  invading  and marauding enemies could lay waste to soldiers’ farms putting them further in debt.

These continued wars meant that a farmer could be called into service at any time. Not only was this farmer still responsible for paying his taxes, he was also responsible for his military kit: weapons, armors etc.  Eventually these citizen-farmer/soldiers fell further into debt.  The debt left him with only one asset: his person as collateral for his debt.

There were several options open to the creditor.  However, there was very little wiggle room for the defender of Rome who now found himself in debt to his patrician overlord. The insolvent soldier could find himself without his farm, in prison, flogged or as a patrician’s indentured servant working off his debt.

Rome’s military success also brought in more public land for the growing Republic.  The problem was that these newly acquired large tracts of lands were often rented out to the wealthy patricians and not to the debt-ridden farmer/soldier. The classic scenario of the rich get richer simply because they can.

Another consequence of  Republic’s military success  was immigration. With less land available more people began to crowd into Rome increasing the urban populations. Despite the increase in the plebeian population, they were still under represented in government. The were also out voted at the polls. Roman voting was broken down in an electoral-like tiered-class structure that was heavily skewed in favor of the patrician classes with the plebeians voting last.  With majority rule it was not uncommon for the election to be decided well before the plebeians even had a chance to vote.

Laws posted on the Twelve Tables in Rome.

Eventually the plebeians were able to convince the patricians to give them government representation in the newly created office of tribune.  Tribunes had had veto power over laws. Rome also established the Twelve Tables in 450 BCE. On these tables laws and procedures were written down for all to read creating a “rule of law.”  It was the beginning of codifying Roman laws much like Hammurabi’s codes.

Unlike the plebeians march out of Rome 2,500 years ago, our governmental shut downs   are political grand stand events. It is the play of recalcitrant politicians fighting to get 15 minutes of stage time. The shut down quickly ends out of fear that maybe the plebes will realize  that we  do not need a group of spoiled patricians prancing around trying to fix some self-created government crisis.



Citizenship, Voting, and Corporations



On March 6, 1857 the Supreme Court made what is undoubtedly the worst decision in the history of the court.

In a 7-2  decision, the court, with four slave-holding judges, ruled that a slave taken from a slave state into a free state does not make that slave free.  The Court’s ruling also undid all of the previous Congressional compromises that attempted to control the spread of slavery saying those compromises were unconstitutional.

In America we can equate freedom with liberty, and rights with citizenship, and the right to vote as the holy sacrament of citizenship. A quick review of American history will show that America has been dealing with some aspect of citizenship (and voting) from the time a group of erudite revolutionaries  sat down in Philadelphia to scrap the short-lived and inefficient Articles of Confederation to our very present time of illegal residents, refugees at the gates and radicalism within our borders.

Prior to devising a new government the Framers dealt with overthrowing the most powerful potentate of the time, so when it came to crafting a new constitution it was all about keeping monarchical tyranny at bay. They were more concerned with Spaniards radicalizing slaves  to run off to Spanish Florida than thinking about who would be crossing the Mississippi River border or who would become a subversive citizen.

At first there was no real debate about citizenry: white property-owning males were full-blown citizens with voting rights. Everybody else was subject to some sort of restrictions.  For instance, Blacks were on one end spectrum as slaves without rights; women were somewhere in the middle as non-voting citizens with possible property rights; Native Americans were treated as hostile land owners without property rights.

It took the Framers of the Constitution only four paragraphs into the Constitution to create a controversy that would last decades and would take a Civil War to settle. In Article I, Section 2 the Framers started to hammer out a a taxation and representation compromise.  A revolution was fought over those fighting words.

Enlightenment thinker John Locke Wikimedia Commons

Right off the bat  we are hit with the whopper of all compromises — our original sin as a country. In the Declaration of Independence we blamed slavery on the king of England. But in the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia there was no king to blame. The sin was so flagrantly against our founding “Lockeian” principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of property and so defining, that the Framers would not call it what it was: Slavery.

This compromise is interesting because it is based on regional differences that divided the country as well as economic profits from the slave trade and exports of slave-labor-produced goods that united the country. There was no way to get around it. They were hoisted up on their own Revolutionary rhetoric. Now they had to figure out how a country dealing with progressive ideas on representation and taxation could get a government to politically work in a nation with  half of the country using a business plan based on economics from the times of the Pharaohs.

Slavery: getting the job done for 5,000 years. Wikimedia Commons


Not having a crystal ball and dealing with their own prejudices at the time the Framers settled the matter by basing representation and taxation with a fractional counting compromise. The Framers started with a whole, then subtracted, and then reduced it.
Taxation with representation would sum up on “the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years,  excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other Persons. The “Indians not taxed” must be parenthetical that was thrown in at the last moment when somebody asked, “What about the last of the  Mohicans?”  Indians not being property and hence not taxed-taxed would be excluded.

Dred Scott Decision was without a doubt one of the worst the Supreme Court has ever made. Wikipedia

So basically at the start of the new government there were five types of native-born Americans:  Free Persons; those bound to Service for a Term of Years, usually life; non-taxed Indians; women and free Blacks. This leads to the question what is a taxable Indian.

As far as voting was concerned that was left up to the individual state to determine who could and could not vote.

Well-intentioned people with a plan using twisted logic can be just as dangerous as somebody with no plan.  The plan may seem sound at the time but ends up creating a timed-coil spring ready to fly out of its box like bees in a kicked-over hive.

All three branches of our government have dealt with who is a citizen from time-to-time. The Constitution gives Congress the power “To establish uniform Rule(s) of Naturalization.” Congress first exercised this power during the French Reign of Terror with the Alien and Sedition Act that extended the number of years a person had to be a resident before becoming a citizen. But when there is a void in one branch of government (unless one branch happens to be Congress) another branch of government will be glad to step in and kick the hive over.

By the mid 1850s Kansas was bleeding in a precursor to the Civil War and the Supreme Court took its turn to kick the hive in Dred Scott v Sandford decision. After numerous Congressional compromises starting with the Missouri Compromise on how to keep the Three-Fifths Compromise intact and in control of the ever expanding country and slavery, the Supreme Court said the Constitution gives slaves absolutely no rights and hence Congress has no authority to control slavery.

Chief Justice Roger B. Taney Wikimedia Commons

In fact Chief Justice Roger B Taney went so far as to say that if anything, the 5th Amendment protects those that own slaves by saying, “no person … (shall) be deprived of life liberty, or property without due process of the law…” Not the slaves’ life, liberty or property but the owners. Slaves were bought and sold and as far as Taney was concerned “they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

It took a Civil War to free slaves and the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868 to make them citizens. The “right to vote” would come in 1870.


Suffragists parade down Fifth Avenue, 1917. Advocates march in October 1917, displaying placards containing the signatures of more than one million New York women demanding the vote. The New York Times Photo Archives
Suffragists parade down Fifth Avenue, 1917.
The New York Times Photo Archives

Through the years the Federal government has expanded citizens’ rights.  African Americans still needed the Civil Rights Movement to see that their natural born rights of life,liberty and the pursuit of happiness were enforced. Women have always struggled as second class citizens. Congress passed the 19th Amendment and on August 18, 1920 women were given the right to vote along with their citizenship.  After nearly a decade of fighting in Vietnam, 18 year-old draftees secured the right to vote for all 18 year olds when Congress passed the 26th Amendment in 1971.

Vietnam 1966 Wikipedia

And what about the non-taxed Indians? Finally, after being chased clear across the continent, Native Americans finally received due process.  It would take the Indian Citizen Act passed on June 2, 1924 to make them citizens and “subject to the jurisdiction” of the United States.  Native Americans might argue, with some success, that they were always subjected to the jurisdiction of the United States (particularly the Army) and usually at the end of gun barrel.  Native Americans might be citizens but some states up until 1957  refused them the right to vote.  I am sure this was just a mere technicality, a parenthetical, that was somehow over looked.

After beating the Rebels, Gen. Sherman pow-wows with Native American Chiefs. It is safe to say voting rights were not discussed. — Wikimedia

So who is next up for expanded citizenship?  How about corporations. In the “Bizarro World” of jurisprudence and so-called activist judges,  corporations have been getting more and more individual rights, despite not being mentioned in the Constitution.  It seems a non-human corporation would fall more under John Locke’s definition as “property.”

When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Citizens United vs The FEC, corporations got a whopper of a deal. Although they were not given the right to vote they got something more valuable:  the unlimited First Amendment right to buy speech to influence the vote.

Money for nothing and speech for free. Flicker

Corporations have always had certain legal rights to guide their boards and investors.  But this ruling gives the non-human corporations the personal right of free speech. The court once again used twisted logic saying that money is free speech.  Money by its very nature, is never free.

The court ruled that not only is speech protected but so is the speaker even if that speaker is not human. So what about the penniless barking dog next door?

Like Taney’s ruling dismissing Congressional compromises, The Citizens United ruling did away with all campaign reforms dating back to 1907.  This allows corporations and unions to contribute (buy) as much (free speech) as they want and spend it on political campaigns. The logic says the more money available to the speaker the more free speech that speaker has, which does not make sense politically or economically. If speech is free why does a corporation need unlimited amount of money to buy more speech? Money is the kissing cousin to just about everything good or bad.  It’s the coiled spring in the box.

With this ruling corporations will never need the right to vote so long as money equals free speech.

Some web sites to visit…/the-best-and-worst-supreme-court-decisions/