Richard Samuelson

Richard A. Samuelson is Associate Professor of History at California State University, San Bernardino. He has held fellowships or teaching appointments at Princeton University, Claremont McKenna College, the University of Paris VIII, the National University of Ireland, Galway. Although he has published on a range of subjects, his principal works focus on the political and constitutional ideas of the American founding era. Dr. Samuelson is currently completing a book on John Adams’ political thought, "John Adams and the Republic of Laws". He received his Ph.D. in American history from the University of Virginia

Entropy in the Executive

The Massachusetts Constitution’s Declaration of Rights says, in its conclusion, that:

In the government of this commonwealth, the legislative department shall never exercise the executive and judicial powers, or either of them: the executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them: the judicial shall never exercise the legislative and executive powers, or either of them: to the end it may be a government of laws and not of men.

That constitution, providing for a lower house, a Senate, and a governor armed with a (qualified) veto was, in many ways, the model for the federal Constitution drafted a few years later.

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Peace, Peace, When there is no Peace

Adams 1Recent events have led me back to Henry Adams’ great work on U.S. history.  There is a side of the American mind that wishes the world could be different than it is:

Few men have dared to legislate as though eternal peace were at hand, in a world torn by wars and convulsions and drowned in blood; but this was what Jefferson aspired to do.

Even in such dangers, he believed that Americans might safely set an example which the Christian world should be led by interest to respect and at length to imitate.  As he conceived a true American policy, war was a blunder, an unnecessary risk; and even in case of robbery and aggression the United States, he believed, had only to stand on the defensive in order to obtain justice in the end.  He would not consent to build up a new nationality merely to create more navies and armies, to perpetuate the crimes and follies of Europe; the central government at Washington should not be permitted to indulge the miserable ambitions that had made the Old World a hell, and frustrated the hopes of humanity.

After delusion, comes the inevitable come down. But, Adams realized, that does not necessarily mean the critics get their way.

Time to Rethink the Chevron Doctrine

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These are interesting times, constitutionally speaking. In the past two weeks, federal courts have ruled both ways on Obamacare. In the D.C. Circuit, a panel ruled that the law allows for subsidized health insurance in exchanges created by state governments, but not in the “backstop” exchange created by the federal government. Meanwhile, the Fourth Circuit says that the statute allows subsidies in both.

Who is right?

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Fix Our Partisan Civil Service

irsAs most U.S. history textbooks teach, Congress passed the Pendleton Civil Service Act not long after a disgruntled office-seeker shot and killed President Garfield in 1881. The goal was to create a competent and politically neutral civil service. I wonder if, over a century and a quarter after America went down that road, the old problem is returning in a new guise, as we now have a highly partisan civil service, albeit one that has civil service protections.[1] 

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Celebrating Independence

On July 2, 1776, two hundred and thirty-eight years ago today, the Continental Congress voted that “These United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states.”

John Adams, who more than any other single individual, helped push the resolution through Congress, was elated. The next day he wrote home to Abigail twice.

“Yesterday the greatest Question was decided, which ever was debated in America, and a greater perhaps, never was or will be decided among Men. A Resolution was passed without one dissenting Colony “that these united Colonies, are, and of right ought to be free and independent States, and as such, they have, and of Right ought to have full Power to make War, conclude Peace, establish Commerce, and to do all the other Acts and Things, which other States may rightfully do.” You will see in a few days a Declaration setting forth the Causes, which have impell’d Us to this mighty Revolution, and the Reasons which will justify it, in the Sight of God and Man. A Plan of Confederation will be taken up in a few days.

When I look back to the Year 1761, and recollect the Argument concerning Writs of Assistance, in the Superiour Court, which I have hitherto considered as the Commencement of the Controversy, between Great Britain and America, and run through the whole Period from that Time to this, and recollect the series of political Events, the Chain of Causes and Effects, I am surprized at the Suddenness, as well as Greatness of this Revolution. Britain has been fill’d with Folly, and America with Wisdom, at least this is my judgment. — Time must determine. It is the Will of Heaven, that the two Countries should be sundered forever. It may be the Will of Heaven that America shall suffer Calamities still more wasting and Distresses yet more dreadfull. If this is to be the Case, it will have this good Effect, at least: it will inspire Us with many Virtues, which We have not, and correct many Errors, Follies, and Vices, which threaten to disturb, dishonour, and destroy Us.”

Liberty and independence were a challenge and an opportunity, Adams noted, “The People will have unbounded Power. And the People are extreamly addicted to Corruption and Venality, as well as the Great.”

In his second letter, Adams exhibited remarkable prescience, albeit he got one key detail wrong:

“The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.

I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. — I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. — Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.”

Here the People (are supposed to) Rule

ClintonAs she hawks her new book, Mrs. Clinton is saying provocative things. Her assertion that “American political system is probably the most difficult, even brutal, in the world” has raised eyebrows across the country.

In a world in which violent coup d-etat are still relatively common in many parts of the world, that’s a striking claim. American politicians are toppled by elections, not by violence. The parties hurl invective at each other, not ordinance. As John Adams reflected to Thomas Jefferson in 1823, “I should like to see an election for a President in the British empire or in France or in Spain or in Prussia or Russia by way of experiment. We go on pretty well—for we use no other artillery than goose quills: & our ink is not so deleterious as language & grape.”*

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The Age of Enlightenment?

A Captain in the LAPD has responded to critics of general surveillance by saying that Americans objected to street lights when they were first installed because they made it easier to see what people were up to at night. There is, of course, a rather large difference between allowing for people to see what goes on in public areas and recording everything that goes on there. The difference is, perhaps, akin to the difference between the Providential God who might be anywhere but is not necessarily in any given place at any given point in time and the Pantheist God who inheres everywhere in nature at all times.

Meanwhile, the only example of I know of street lamps being erected in American history is in Philadelphia in the 18th century. Benjamin Franklin says that some credit him with introducing lighting to the streets of Philadelphia. In fact:

“It was by a private person, the late Mr. John Clifton, his giving a sample of the utility of lamps, by placing one at his door, that the people were first impress’d with the idea of enlighting all the city. The honour of this public benefit has also been ascrib’d to me but it belongs truly to that gentleman. I did but follow his example, and have only some merit to claim respecting the form of our lamps, as differing from the globe lamps we were at first supply’d with from London.”

Nowadays, would the government let Mr. Clifton do that?

The Fog of Pragmatism

Jonah Goldberg, as is his wont, notes that the Lefties always seem to think that “ideology” is what other people have. People who agree with them are “reasonable” and “practical.” The latest example of this conceit is Ezra Klein’s new blog. As Goldberg notes, Lefties:

Cheat by denying their ideological motivations — even to themselves. Indeed, it is a constant trope of liberalism to believe — dogmatically, ideologically — that they are just empiricists and fact-finders doing what is right and good in a battle against dogmatic ideologues on the right. The more honest approach would be to simply admit your biases upfront and defend the principles that inform your biases. Instead they prefer to make arguments grounded in the assumption that the liberal “frame” is really a perfect window onto reality.

FranklinI often teach Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. And one passage always strikes me as particularly apt in describing this phenomenon. Discussing the Dunkers, Franklin has a nice metaphor for this phenomenon:

This modesty in a sect is perhaps a singular instance in the history of mankind, every other sect supposing itself in possession of all truth, and that those who differ are so far in the wrong; like a man traveling in foggy weather, those at some distance before him on the road he sees wrapped up in the fog, as well as those behind him, and also the people in the fields on each side, but near him all appears clear, tho’ in truth he is as much in the fog as any of them.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Road to Progressive Dhimmitude

Barack Obama Sworn In As U.S. President For A Second TermIn the recent Hobby Lobby Case, Justices Elana Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor said that corporations that don’t want to pay for abortions should simply not provide any health insurance: “But isn’t there another choice nobody talks about, which is paying the tax, which is a lot less than a penalty and a lot less than — than the cost of health insurance at all?” Dissenters from the official line must pay a tax. That sounds familiar.

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Harvard to Go Egalitarian

Cambridge, MA, April 1, 2014

 

Harvard_Veritas_The_Truth_Will_Set_U_FreeIn a move designed to foster diversity and to create a university that “thinks like America,” Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust, the President of Harvard University announced yesterday that the school will embrace egalitarian admissions. The school will no longer give priority to students with good grades, high SAT scores, and impressive extra-curricular activities. Such policies have, Dr. Faust acknowledged, created an “elitist” and “inegalitarian” atmosphere at the college. “It is unacceptable in 2014 to be favoring the intelligent over the unlearned, and the energetic over the slothful,” she proclaimed.

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