Thank you

By Peter O’Brien

Senior Fellow, London Center for Policy Research

Thanksgiving is upon us and most of us are taking some time to think about things we have for which we are grateful. The list is long. I start by thanking God for his mercy, thanking my parents (and three brothers) for bringing me up properly, and thanking my friends for keeping me out of trouble – repeatedly. I suspect most of you would come up with a similar list.

I also want to thank God for plunking me down in the middle of the United States.

But what about the United States? Who do we thank for this amazing place?

It’s fashionable these days to point out the myriad things the Founding fathers got wrong. I’m sure the critics, if they’d been dropped into Philadelphia in July of 1776 (or again in 1787 when they replaced the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution) would have done a far better job. I mean, how hard can it be to create a country out of whole cloth, with 13 separate states, each led by brilliant, opinionated and obstreperous men who each had their own ideas of what a nation would look like. And do this while fighting off the great super-power of the day?

It’s amusing to hear folks talk about how this or that figure should never have compromised on this or that point – and that would have made “all the difference,” slavery being the favorite arguing point, I suppose. They’re right in one regard, it would have made all the difference. If just one or two folks hadn’t compromised there probably wouldn’t have been a Declaration of Independence, or a united 13 Colonies, and the uprising would have been put down (with a fair amount of blood), many of the folks who are now in the lexicon of American heroes would have been hung, drawn and quartered, and North America – and the rest of the world – would look a lot different today. And would most assuredly be a great deal less free.

And if they hadn’t compromised on the Constitution what would we have ended with? Would we have produced something of note or would we have defaulted back to the Articles of Confederation, only to have our lunches handed to us in the second war with England?

But alas, we’ll never know just how brilliant our university professors, writers, and politicians might have been, how well they’d have filled in for Washington, Jefferson, Adams, et al, what their Declaration would’ve looked like, what Constitution they would have produced…

Consider the ongoing impeachment. You might say, in light of the activity going on inside the Beltway, and how little of the real business of government has actually been carried out by this Congress in the last 12 months, that this impeachment represents a sort of backhanded compliment to the Founding Fathers. They produced a system stable enough, and capable enough, that even when manned by a fairly robust selection of boobs and incompetents, the system still functions. Even when some 300+ Congressmen decide they’ll impeach the president (and throw out the results of the election) without first having found a crime for which to impeach him, yet the system keeps functioning. Even when in many years Congress fails in its most basic of functions – passing a budget – the system still functions. And not just functions, our rights are more or less protected, our nation is defended, and the courts produce a fairly high measure of justice.

We’ve had two other impeachments, though the first two took place after the President had clearly violated a law. But it’s telling that in neither case was the President actually removed. Again, the Founding Fathers arranged things so that removal required 2/3rds of the Senate to vote for that removal. Newt Gingrich commented on that very thing, noting that throughout our history no substantive actions have been successfully taken, or change implemented, unless there has been roughly 2/3rds support among the citizenry. In short, things that are split up the middle end up requiring compromise and we muddle forward. Only in cases where an issue is glaring – where support for change is clear and overwhelming – 2 to 1 – can we move into new territory.

Thus, Andrew Johnson was impeached in the House, but not removed by the Senate; Bill Clinton was impeached in the House, but not removed by the Senate. Donald Trump will probably be impeached in the House, but he won’t be removed by the Senate.

And the case of Richard Nixon is also instructive: he was never impeached. But he did resign, forced out of office after it became clear that the overwhelming majority of Americans no longer supported his remaining in office. Senator Goldwater – the head of the conservatives in Congress – told Nixon that his support was gone; Nixon resigned.

The Founders were right: great change require great levels of support.

Similarly, a Constitutional Amendment requires 3/4ths of the States to agree to the change – no mean feat. And it must be the several states, not simply a majority of the population. This structure wonderfully protects minorities from the tyranny of the simple majority – a point seemingly lost on many in the press, and some in Congress.

To be sure, there are a host of problems facing us, and some of them are quite grim and likely to get far worse over the next several decades. But what we have working for us is this: we have a system that works,  if we choose to make it work. Or as Ben Franklin noted: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

Thank God for the Founders. And Thank God for the United States.