Wisdom from the Gouv.

February 05, 2004

Gouverneur Morris, in 1800 following Jefferson's victory in an election even tighter than Bush-Gore, suggested to his fellow Federalists what role they should play now that a dangerous visionary had come into power:

Nil desperandum de Republica is a sound principle. Let the chair of office be filled by whomsoever it may, opposition will act as an outward conscience, and prevent the abuse of power.
It is a good line and, as Richard Brookhiser points out, it suggests that "parties will develop a morality of partisanship, keeping each other honest."(1)

Reading that, I paused to consider recent Congressional history. Between Clinton's impeachment, gerrymandering on both sides but more aggressively by Republicans, and the recent decision by the Congressional Republican leadership to exclude Democrats from conference committees between the House and Senate, I wonder to what extent the morality of partisanship is persisting and, more importantly, how it might be returned.

Michael Holt argues that 19th century politics were all about the next election - as long as everyone thought they had a reasonable chance next time, winners did not go overboard nor did losers despair, for they might well change places in two years. If once politics could be seen as a game of Irish stand-down - I hit you in the ear and knock you over, you hit me in the ear and knock me over, we both hit as hard as we could, and afterwards we go get drunk together - now it appears to be closer to a mugging, where the first blow is followed by a boot to the ribs or a boot to the head if you think you can get away with it.

I don't have a good remedy - I feel rather like Bill Bennet only with different vices when I decry the breakdown of morals this way. The answer may lie in districting and gerrymandering - current districting law suggests that it is more important to have exactly the same number of people in each district than it is to have districts that align with natural borders or subsidiary political borders. I wonder how the gerrymanders would change their shape if they were forced to be drawn along county and municipal boundaries, and if the increased competition in many districts would outweight the relative disfranchisement of people in the districts with 101 people as compared to those with 99?

But I do like that Gouverneur Morris quote, and I am enjoying Brookhiser's little biography.

(1)Richard Brookhiser, Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris -- the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution, (New York: Free Press, 2003) p 167. The Latin translates as "Do not despair of the Republic".

Posted by Red Ted at February 5, 2004 06:17 AM | TrackBack