Thursday, June 19, 2008

More Quincy

If I could bottle any figure from America's past and slip a few drops in the drinks of our current crop of leaders, I'd pick John Quincy Adams.

Adams took his seat in the U.S. Senate on Oct. 21, 1805. Within 10 days he had made a nuisance of himself. He probably would have accomplished it sooner, but not much business was being done in the Capitol that month, it being horse racing season in Washington.

Sen. John Breckenridge had introduced a simple resolution to wear black for a month to mourn the recent deaths of three patriots. Probably everyone expected it to breeze through as a pro forma, but the new guy from Massachusetts rose and objected to it; "I asked for the constitutional authority of the Senate to enjoin upon its members this act."

Whether it was the polite thing to do was less important than whether it was within the limits of the powers and duties defined for the various branches of the government by the Constitution. Whether Adams approved it or not -- one of the patriots to be so honored was his father's cousin Samuel Adams -- mattered less than whether it would deform in the slightest degree the structure of the government.

Breckenridge replied that the motion was "merely conventional" and "not binding."

"I then objected against it as improper in itself, tending to unsuitable discussions of character, and to employment of the Senate's time in debates altogether foreign to the subjects which properly belong to them," Adams wrote in his diary. Those who don't consider JQA among our most humorous presidents will perhaps miss the drollery of the next line in the entry. "This led to a debate of three hours ...."

Adams did not succeed in stopping the resolution, only in having it re-structured. As the resistance indicates, the tendency in the federal government to decide what the politicians want to do, then figure out a way to do it that is not terribly unconstitutional, was thriving as early as 1805. It is now so dominant that the narrow constitutional objection is too rarely heard even from people who might invoke it in their own interest.

Adams was in and out of Congress till his death in 1848, and literally till the end he was on his feet objecting to some activity underway for which he found no authority in the Constitution. Like Jackson and Polk and others among his peers he used this objection against schemes he disapproved. But he also was alert to it in the case of projects he supported, and in such cases urged that the Constitution be changed, rather than ignored.

Above: Adams by Sully