October 2015

Founding Politics: Debating the Constitution in Philadelphia

Professor Jeremy Pope from the Political Science Department of BYU presented our Founders Day lecture. He started by discussing George Washington’s “first farewell” which was titled Circular to the States, the third sentence reads, “if their Citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be entirely their own.” In the end the loose federation of the states proved to be too little to guarantee the safety and prosperity of group so a Constitutional Convention was convened. This was not an easy thing to do, why did they establish the government that they did? On February 21, 1787, the Continental Congress resolved that “…it is expedient that on the second Monday in May next a Convention of delegates who shall have been appointed by the several States be held at Philadelphia for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.”

Some of the main players included William Paterson of New Jersey who was a successful advocate for the rights of the small states. James Wilson from Pennsylvania advocated a strong and independently elective executive. Roger Sherman from Connecticut who had helped with the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, proposed the Great Compromise. Gouverneur Morris from Pennsylvania did the actual drafting of the constitution. Alexander Hamilton was a powerful friend of stronger government. George Mason from Virginia, while a major player, did not sign the final document as it lacked a bill of rights. John Rutledge from South Carolina strongly defended slavery at the convention. Benjamin Franklin from Pennsylvania, while his age prevented as much participation as some, endorsed the constitution and backed it with his prestige. George Washington left retirement to risk his reputation on the enterprise. He only made two speeches, but he presided over the convention and consistently supported the document.

Socializing was an important aspect of getting the document completed. The delegates spent a lot of time at taverns and eating together. An actual surviving bill from City Tavern shows that they ordered about two and a quarter containers of alcohol per delegate for one evening; wines, claret, whiskey, porter, hard cider, beer, and alcoholic punch were all listed. These conversations were less formal than the ones in Constitution Hall but were the source of many significant compromises. Among the significant agreements were Proportional Representation, Federalism, and Executive Independence. There were roughly three groups of states: the (physically) Small States which wanted little if any reform but favored a stronger executive. The Deep South, who wanted to change federalism and representation to favor slave-holding states, but did not want to make a powerful executive. Finally the Core Reform States who wanted to change everything, but they didn’t all agree on exactly how and what.

They set an example that could help us today. Slavery was of paramount importance, much that is good in the Constitution came about because of the slave interest. The founders did NOT agree on everything but they were able to compromise and forge one of the greatest political documents in history. Two statements from participants illustrate this:

“On the whole sir, I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.”

—Benjamin Franklin

“It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country to decide, by their conduct and example, the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.”

—Alexander Hamilton

The most thought provoking and challenging concept of this lecture was that without slavery the Constitution likely would not have been written. It is ironic indeed that so much good could be spawned by something as heinous and revolting as slavery.

President’s Report

I’m still recuperating from attending the Third annual Comic Con at the convention center here in Salt Lake City. My sweetheart, Amy, surprised me a few weeks ago when she told me she had bought us three day golden passes to Comic Con. So I thought I would write about my experience. Like Amy said “we had a blast.” Indeed it was quite enjoyable in a number of ways.

But while I’m thinking about them, I have a few suggestions about attending Comic con. One obvious thing is to wear good shoes. You’re going to do a lot of walking. I think I must have walked at least 15 miles in three days going back and forth and around all the vendors on the main floor. Plus we walked an extra mile round trip to where we parked on the second day. Another suggestion is to go early the first day because that is when it is the least crowded and the vendors haven’t ran out of the popular items yet. Most of which are gone by the third day. And most important, if you can, take lots of money.

Don’t go if you hate crowds or if you’re not into Sci-Fi, Fantasy or Horror “stuff,” it’s what it’s all about. They had the entire convention center and it was full. It was full of vendors of all sorts of artists, authors and lots of crazy people, like me, there to buy all kinds of stuff. Plus there were photo ops with celebrities and of course lots of food. There were also dozens of workshops and presentations and retrospectives and tributes. And naturally, the big draw for many was having Chris Evans of Captain America addressing the audience in the grand ballroom on the third day.

But for me, the most fun of all was all the people watching you could do, without feeling guilty for staring. There were thousands of people dressed in all sorts of costumes. You name it, and someone was there in costume and they were all quite willing to pose for you or with you. Speaking of costumes, they had as many people in costume as they could get, to gather in one area so Guinness World Records could get a count. They did and it was announced they broke a record set in China in 2011 with a count of over 1700. But there were still hundreds and hundreds more in costume not being counted still wandering around with the rest of us.

I did say bring lots of money didn’t I, because there are a lot of things to buy when there are hundreds of booths to check out. Because it was a mini stay at home vacation for Amy and me, it was possible for us to spend a little more. And spend a little bit more we did. I for example I bought six shirts, (only two will be gifts) a couple of pictures, coasters, playing cards and other items of swag. Amy did the same plus she had originally bought us each photo ops. Mine was with Walter Koenig. Cool. Although they do run you through like cattle when there are a couple hundred waiting for their photo op.

There was one “touching” moment in a retrospective of Leonard Nimoy. After the presenters gave a nice pictorial of his life, they opened the mic to the audience. One young man talked emotionally about how as a youth the persona of Spock with his insistence on logic and reason helped him greatly to use reason and be skeptical. That was quite satisfying for this old humanist to hear. So I think I will leave this as is without bitching about any republicans or religious idiots this month and just say, as always, “Hope to see you Thursday at our general meeting. I’ll bring the goodies.

—Robert Lane
President, HoU

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
                                  ~Book Review~

This book by Steven Pinker is an amazing work. Consider the sub-title, “Why Violence Has Declined”—are you kidding me? Violence has declined? This week saw another campus shooting where multiple students were killed by a gunman, what is happening in the Middle East? However, after reading this book it is apparent that violence has declined, and indeed precipitously declined. “The past encompasses a vast diversity of cultures and customs. What they have in common is the shock of the old: a backdrop of violence that was endured and often embraced, in ways that startle the sensibilities of a 21st century Westerner.”

According to Pinker the decline in violence was precipitous: “The reason so many violent institutions succumbed within so short a span of time was that the arguments that slew them belong to a coherent philosophy that emerged during the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. The ideas of thinkers like Hobbes, Spinoza, Descartes, Locke, David Hume, Mary Astell, Kant, Beccaria, Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, and John Stuart Mill coalesced into a worldview that we can call Enlightenment humanism.”

This lead to the acceptance of governments as arbitrators; “A government is a good thing to have, because in a state of anarchy people’s self-interest, self-deception, and fear of these shortcomings in others would lead to constant strife. People are better off abjuring violence, if everyone else agrees to do so, and vesting authority in a disinterested third party. But since that third party will consist of human beings, not angels, their power must be checked by the power of other people, to force them to govern with the consent of the governed. They may not use violence against their citizens beyond the minimum necessary to prevent greater violence. And they should foster arrangements that allow people to flourish from cooperation and voluntary exchange. This line of reasoning may be called humanism because the value that it recognizes is the flourishing of humans, the only value that cannot be denied. I experience pleasures and pains, and pursue goals in service of them, so I cannot reasonably deny the right of other sentient agents to do the same.” … “In many parts of this book I have credited the Leviathan—a government with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force—as a major reducer of violence. Feuding and anarchy go together. We can now appreciate the psychology behind the effectiveness of a Leviathan. The law may be an ass, but it is a disinterested ass, and it can weigh harms without the self-serving distortions of the perpetrator or the victim. Though it is guaranteed that one side will disagree with every decision, the government’s monopoly on force prevents the loser from doing anything about it, and it gives him less reason to want to do something about it, because he is not conceding weakness to his adversary and has less incentive to carry on the fight to restore his honor.”

The book is detailed and complex. The above quotes barely scratch the surface of this fascinating subject. I’ll conclude this review with a couple of points that are further developed in the book. First, “giving women more control over their reproductive capacity (always the contested territory in the biological battle of the sexes) may be the single most effective way of reducing violence in the dangerous parts of the world today.” And, “Carefully reasoned briefs against slavery, despotism, torture, religious persecution, cruelty to animals, harshness to children, violence against women, frivolous wars, and the persecution of homosexuals were not just hot air but entered into the decisions of the people and institutions who attended to the arguments and implemented reforms.” And finally, “The forces of modernity—reason, science, humanism, individual rights—have not, of course, pushed steadily in one direction; nor will they ever bring about a utopia or end the frictions and hurts that come with being human. But on top of all the benefits that modernity has brought us in health, experience, and knowledge, we can add its role in the reduction of violence. The forces of modernity—reason, science, humanism, individual rights—have not, of course, pushed steadily in one direction; nor will they ever bring about a utopia or end the frictions and hurts that come with being human. But on top of all the benefits that modernity has brought us in health, experience, and knowledge, we can add its role in the reduction of violence.

—Wayne Wilson