They say a prosecutor could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich, and this always seemed like hyperbole, until Friday night a Texas grand jury announced an indictment of governor Rick Perry. The “crime” for which Perry faces a sentence of 5 to 99 years in prison is vetoing funding for a state agency. The conventions of reporting — which treat the fact of an indictment as the primary news, and its merit as a secondary analytic question — make it difficult for people reading the news to grasp just how farfetched this indictment is.
Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg — a Democrat who oversees the state’s Public Corruption unit — was arrested for driving very, very drunk. What followed was a relatively ordinary political dispute. Perry, not unreasonably, urged Lehmberg to resign. Democrats, not unreasonably, resisted out of fear that Perry would replace her with a Republican. Perry, not unreasonably, announced and carried out a threat to veto funding for her agency until Lehmberg resigned.
The Wilderness was particularly awful in several ways; it covered some of the same ground of the battle of Chancellorsville, so often there was fighting among the bones of the dead from that battle. There were also wildfires in the forests which killed a number of men.
My great-great-great-grandfather Norman DeFord Corser fought with the Fighting Fifth New Hampshire. They weren’t in the first two major battles of the Overland Campaign, but they were moved up for Cold Harbor, where Norman Corser was wounded for the second time (a wound sustained at Seven Pines kept him out of the fighting at Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg, where so many of his fellow soldering in the Fighting Fifth were killed).
Anyway, this is a good account of that first battle in the Overland Campaign:
Gen. Robert E. Lee, who commanded the Southern forces, attacked Grant’s forces on May 5, setting off two days of bloody fighting that left some 26,000 total casualties, making the Battle of the Wilderness one of the costliest engagements of the war. Many of the wounded, especially on that first day, were stuck in the underbrush, too far from the front lines to rescue. And so they moaned through the night.
Suddenly the haunting voice of a man in prayer rose above the cries of the wounded. One Union soldier who had nodded off to sleep after that first day of hellish fighting awoke to the sound with a start.
“I never before nor since heard such a prayer,” he noted years later. “It seemed, lying there in the darkness of the night in the woods, that his deep, sympathetic voice, mingled with the voices and groans of the dying ones, sounded as from some other world.”
The soldier recognized the voice. It belonged to Dennis Barnes, his captain, a square-shouldered, six-foot lumberman from New York who was on a self-appointed mission to rescue the wounded from his company after the day’s desperate fighting. Barnes was picking his way across the densely wooded landscape, exhausted and pained from an injury he had suffered to his hand. It was near midnight when he found a corporal who had succumbed to the gaping wound in his belly.
The more I learn about Lincoln, the more I admire him. My libertarian friends may disagree, of course, but all evidence is that his humility, faith, and vision increased while he was in office. While he occasionally used questionable presidential powers, in general he did so for the right reasons. He was the right man at the right time.
There is no one whose statecraft more vividly illustrates the style of constitutional leadership better than Abraham Lincoln. He stated the problem of constitutional leadership with uncommon clarity in his Special Message to Congress of July 4, 1861. “Must a government, of necessity,” he asked, “be too strong for the liberties of its own people or too weak to maintain its own existence?”
As Lincoln understood, the most essential feature of constitutional leadership is self-restraint. Constitutional government is, by definition, limited government. Governments may be limited either with respect to their means or with respect to their ends. Constitutional government is both. It deliberately leaves some things outside the parameters of political control. Our government, for example, respects the individual’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These belong to the discretion of the individual, and it is the task of government to fulfill the function of protecting the exercise of each person’s right to use or misuse their freedom as he sees fit. A government that seeks to supervise every aspect of its citizens’ private lives is on the way to the destruction of constitutionalism.
The self-restraint imposed by the doctrine of consent was the opposite of the doctrine of “popular sovereignty” proclaimed by Lincoln’s great rival, Stephen A. Douglas. Douglas had argued that it was the right of every state or territory to decide for itself whether or not to permit slavery — a case of simple majority rule. What the majority of people wanted within a designated territory was sufficient to decide the problem. Thus Douglas could declare that it was a matter of “indifference” to him whether slavery was voted up or down.
For Lincoln, however, the doctrine of unlimited majority rule violated the principle of constitutional government. Constitutions are devices for restraining power, whether this be the power of a king or a popular majority. If slavery is a good, Lincoln enjoyed chiding his audiences, then it is a good that no man has ever chosen for himself. It is consent that forms the essence of constitutional government.
Let the Democrats sell the stale power of more federal programs, while we promote the rejuvenating power of new businesses.
We don’t believe old, top-down, industrial-age government becomes a good idea just because it agrees with us or because we are running it.
We must focus on the empowerment of citizens making relevant and different decisions in their communities while Democrats sell factory-style government that cranks out one dumbed-down answer for the whole country.
This means re-thinking nearly every social program in Washington. Very few of them work in my view, and frankly, the one-size fits all crowd has had its chance.
If any rational human being were to create our government anew, today, from a blank piece of paper – we would have about one fourth of the buildings we have in Washington and about half of the government workers.
We would replace most of its bureaucracy with a handful of good websites.
If we created American government today, we would not dream of taking money out of people’s pockets, sending it all the way to Washington, handing it over to politicians and bureaucrats to staple thousands of pages of artificial and political instructions to it, then wear that money out by grinding it through the engine of bureaucratic friction…and then sending what’s left of it back to the states, where it all started, in order to grow the American economy.
What we are doing now to govern ourselves is not just wrong. It is out of date and it is a failure.