October 30, 2009
The Rain Taxi Review of Books has just put up a fantastic interview with David Swanson, author of Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union. A highlight from the interview:
Bob Sommer: Your website, Let’s Talk about Democracy, mentions that you live in Charlottesville “and can see Thomas Jefferson’s house Monticello from [your] window.” You also mention James Madison, whose house is close enough for you “to feel it when he rolls in his grave.” Jefferson and Madison and James Monroe—presidents three, four, and five; and all Virginians—figure prominently in the political philosophy described in Daybreak. How have their writings and proximity influenced you?
David Swanson: You can look out my front window and see Monticello up on a hill, especially in the winter when the leaves are gone. Madison’s house is just down the road in Orange, Virginia, and James Monroe’s is a mile or two from Monticello, so everybody in that area talks about them and reads them and has wildly different interpretations of who they were and what they would have wanted. And you might include the fear they had of establishing a monarchy. I mean, these are people who had risked their lives to get rid of a monarchy, had fought a war, which was perhaps not necessary—I am someone who advocates against wars—but they had gone to great lengths to get rid of a monarchy and had set up a government in which the first branch, the primary seat of power, was to be a legislature, and a relatively impotent executive would execute the will of that legislature. Jefferson thought they were just going to have a House of Representatives. He didn’t know about the Senate. He went to Europe and came back and was told about the Senate, which would be this anti-democratic force to restrain majority will, because there was a lot of that in the thinking of these guys, even while they were thinking of moving democracy forward, at least for wealthy white male people who owned slaves. And they put into the House of Representatives, the body that would be closest to the people, the power of impeachment. They thought we would use it all the time, and that it would be frequently needed for presidents and judges. They also built into the Constitution ways to amend it, which they thought we would do constantly. They didn’t want it to become some sort of sacred book. Jefferson famously shredded our sacred Bible and picked out the parts that he thought were good and threw out the rest and made his own Bible. He didn’t want the Constitution treated any differently.
James Madison and George Mason and other Virginians put a lot of thought into how to avoid what Jefferson called “elected despots”—how to not have brief monarchies of four-year periods but to really maintain the power of the people through representatives in the legislature. And they clearly understood that the greatest danger would come from war, so we were not to have a standing army. If we were going to have an army for a war, it would be up to Congress to oversee and fund and get rid of it after the war. Congress was to decide whether we were to have a war or not because wars would allow presidents to seize power. All of this is largely undisputed, and yet you see people with exactly contrary points of view today.