Friday, November 30

Churchill and Chartwell

Chartwell was a  refuge and a sanctuary for Winston Churchill.  The odd conglomeration of structures and additions on the Kentish weald, southeast of London was, for him, an earthly paradise.  In fact, he often asserted that “A day away from Chartwell is a day wasted.”  It was home.

And if ever a man needed a home, an earthly elysium to recharge, recoup, and reinvigorate, it was Churchill. He was born into privilege on this day in 1874—the son of the parliamentary master, Lord Randolph Churchill, and thus one of the heirs of the Marlborough legacy.  Educated at Harrow and Sandhurst, he entered the Imperial service as a hussars officer.  After notable tours of duty in India, Sudan, and South Africa, he entered parliament himself.

Having already made a name for himself, he rose quickly through the political ranks.  By 1908 he moved from the back benches to become President of the Board of Trade.  Two years later he became Home Secretary.  The next year he was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty presiding over the naval expansion that preceded the First World War.  He was evidently a man of extraordinary gifts and abilities.

A series of disastrous defeats—including the failure of the Dardanelles expedition, which he had championed—Churchill lost his Admiralty post and served out the remainder of the war on the front lines in France. He undertook a painstakingly slow and difficult political rehabilitation in the years that followed.  Most analysts believed his career was essentially over—he was now relegated to the outer fringe of political influence.  His dire warnings of the threat from Hitler’s Nazi regime in Germany went unheeded. During those difficult years, Churchill bought and renovated the old estate of Chartwell.  It was a place where he could rest and reflect, read and write, paint and build, garden and walk.  He once asserted that “We shape our dwellings and afterwards, our dwellings shape us.”  There can be little doubt that he shaped Chartwell to suit his peculiar interests and concerns.  There his soul was braced for the great trials ahead.

When the Second World War broke out, the hapless Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain was forced to bring Churchill into the government—even though he was now sixty-five years old.  He was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty.  The following May, when Chamberlain was forced to resign, Churchill was asked by the King to form a new government and accept the office of Prime Minister.

Over the next five years, he stood practically alone against the Nazi menace.  Almost single-handedly he saved Western Civilization, stirring the British people to unimaginable feats of valor with his bold oratory and even bolder leadership.  His unflagging energy and his stubborn refusal to make peace until Adolf Hitler was crushed were crucial in turning the tide of the war and ultimately leading the Western Allies to victory.  After the war, he returned to Chartwell.  Extraordinary vitality, imagination, and boldness characterized his whole career.  But, he was the first to admit, if he had not had Chartwell—its libraries and gardens, its hearthsides and hedgerows, its peace and quiet—he would never have been able to do what he was called to do.

Saturday, November 24

Over the Cliff

Thursday, November 22

Five Kernels of Corn

The first few winters in the New World were treacherous for the new colonists.  In the Plymouth colony, the settlers died in droves from both sickness and starvation.  In this bit of historic verse by Hezekiah Butterworth, the necessity of rationing the meager food resources is described alongside the abundant moral reserves of the people. Long a part of the traditional New England holiday tradition—before the turkey is carved, each member of the family is served a mere five kernels of corn after which this inspiring poem is recited—the remembrance of Plymouth has become a symbol of the incredible blessing of this land.

Twas the year of the famine in Plymouth of old,
            The ice and the snow from the thatched roofs had rolled;
Through the warm purple skies steered the geese o'er the seas,
            And the woodpeckers tapped in the clocks of the trees;
And the boughs on the slopes to the south winds lay bare,
            And dreaming of summer, the buds swelled in the air.
The pale Pilgrims welcomed each reddening morn;
            There were left but for rations Five Kernels of Corn.
            Five Kernels of Corn!
            Five Kernels of Corn!
But to Bradford a feast were Five Kernels of Corn!

"Five Kernels of Corn!  Five Kernels of Corn!
            Ye people, be glad for Five Kernels of Corn!"
So Bradford cried out on bleak Burial Hill, 
            And the thin women stood in their doors, white and still.
"Lo, the harbor of Plymouth rolls bright in the Spring,
            The maples grow red, and the wood robins sing,
The west wind is blowing, and fading the snow
            And the pleasant pines sing, and arbutuses blow.
            Five Kernels of Corn!
            Five Kernels of Corn!
To each one be given Five Kernels of Corn!"

O Bradford of Austerfield haste on thy way.
            The west winds are blowing o'er Provincetown Bay,
The white avens bloom, but the pine domes are chill,
            And new graves have furrowed Precisioners' Hill!
"Give thanks, all ye people, the warm skies have come,
            The hilltops are sunny, and green grows the holm,
And the trumpets of winds, and the white March is gone,
            And ye still have left you Five Kernels of Corn.
            Five Kernels of Corn!
            Five Kernels of Corn!
Ye have for Thanksgiving Five Kernels of Corn!

"The raven's gift eat and be humble and pray,
            A new light is breaking, and Truth leads your way;
One taper a thousand shall kindle:  rejoice
            That to you has been given the wilderness voice!"
O Bradford of Austerfield, daring the wave,
            And safe though the sounding blasts leading the brave,
Of deeds such as thine was the free nation born,
            And the festal world sings the "Five Kernels of Corn."
            Five Kernels of Corn!
            Five Kernels of Corn!
The nation gives thanks for Five Kernels of Corn!
To the Thanksgiving Feast bring Five Kernels of Corn!

Sunday, November 11


Martin of Tours was a pastor who was martyred for his faith on this day in 397.  Also on this day in 655, Martin of Umbria was martyred during the great Monothelite controversy.  Both men demonstrated perseverance in the face of political persecution, personal humiliation, torture, starvation, and eventually, death, made them models of faith during the early medieval period. 

According to legend, Martin of Tours once cut his own coat in half to share it with a beggar.  Part of the cloak was saved and considered a holy relic in France, with monarchs going so far as to carry it into battle.  The cloak was kept in a “chapelle,” from the French word “chape,” meaning “cape,” and its overseer was the "chapelain", from which, of course, we get our words "chapel" and "chaplain". 

During his final imprisonment, Martin of Umbria diligently kept the fasts of the Little Pascha, as Advent was then called, though he was already dying of hunger.  Traditionally, Christians have recalled the faithfulness of both of these heroes of the faith on November 11 by enjoying the last great feast of the season—in England a sumptuous dinner of beef is consumed while in Germany a grand banquet featuring roast goose is served.  The new wine is uncasked.  Good children receive gifts of fruit and nuts—while naughty children receive stones and ashes.

Veterans Day

“At the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month,” in Winston Churchill’s immortal declaration, “silence fell across the battlefields of Europe.”  Thus, the First World War came to an end.  Three years later, President Warren Harding dedicated the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery and declared that on this day “those who have offered their lives for the sake of freedom in this war to end all wars should ever more be remembered.”  

Still, it was not until 1938 that legislation was passed to “dedicate November 11 to the cause of world peace and to be hereafter celebrated and known as Armistice Day.”  Then in 1954, after having been through both World War II and the Korean War, Congress amended the Act of 1938 by striking out the word “Armistice” and inserting the word “Veterans.” With the approval of this legislation on June 1, 1954, November 11 became a day to honor American veterans of all wars.

Wednesday, November 7

Now that the Election Is Over

In the face of tyranny: do justice; in the midst of coercion: love mercy; in the day of hubris: walk humbly with our God:

Rescue the perishing, care for the dying,
Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave;
Weep o’er the erring one, lift up the fallen,
Tell them of Jesus, the mighty to save.

Rescue the perishing, care for the dying,
Jesus is merciful, Jesus will save.

Though they are slighting Him, still He is waiting,
Waiting the penitent child to receive;
Plead with them earnestly, plead with them gently;
He will forgive if they only believe.

Rescue the perishing, care for the dying,
Jesus is merciful, Jesus will save.

Down in the human heart, crushed by the tempter,
Feelings lie buried that grace can restore;
Touched by a loving heart, wakened by kindness,
Chords that were broken will vibrate once more.

Rescue the perishing, care for the dying,
Jesus is merciful, Jesus will save.

Rescue the perishing, duty demands it;
Strength for thy labor the Lord will provide;
Back to the narrow way patiently win them;
Tell the poor wand’rer a Savior has died.
    --Fanny Crosby

Tuesday, November 6

Missing Sleep Unnecessarily

Although the campaign for president in 1888 was quite heated, the Republican candidate remained remarkably calm throughout the long ordeal.  The grandson of a former president, Benjamin Harrison knew only too well the ebb and flow of politics and popular opinion, and simply refused to allow the process to disrupt his emotional equilibrium.

On election night his chief interest seemed to be in the polling results of his own state of Indiana.  When the numbers there were safely announced in the Republican column, just after ten, he went to bed.

The following morning a friend, having called to congratulate him late the night before, asked why he had retired so early.  The president-elect explained, "I knew that my staying up would not alter the result if I were defeated, while if I was elected I had a hard day in front of me.  So a good night's rest seemed the best course in either event."

Later he added, "A fellow who fails to take into account the divine is bound to miss a good deal of sleep unnecessarily--it can help but little.  Our charge is simply to render our services aright and leave the results to providence."

Monday, November 5

The Genius of the Electoral College

“Every word of the Constitution ultimately decides a question between power and liberty.”  James Madison

The Founding Fathers would more than likely be surprised by the current controversy over the Electoral College provisions of the Constitution.  Indeed, it was one of the least controversial provisions of the new compact during the divisive debate for ratification.  According to Alexander Hamilton writing in the Federalist Papers, “The mode of appointment of the Chief Magistrate of the United States is almost the only part of the system, of any consequence, which has escaped without severe censure, or which has received the slightest mark of approbation from its opponents. The most plausible of these, who has appeared in print, has even deigned to admit that the election of the President is pretty well guarded. I venture somewhat further, and hesitate not to affirm, that if the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent. It unites in an eminent degree all the advantages, the union of which was to be wished for.”

Although it was evident following the election of 1800 that the system needed to be fine-tuned, once the Twelfth Amendment was passed, the structure of the Electoral College was not a matter of serious debate for more than a century—during which the nation suffered through the traumas of the fiercely contested elections of 1824, 1876, 1888 to say nothing of the bitter strife of the War Between the States.

It was only the sudden explosive growth of urban America, the precipitous decline of rural populations, and the shifting political influence brought on by the opening of the West and the restoration of the South that the question was seriously raised—though the debate hardly raised a hue and cry.

But then the election contest of 2000 thrust the issue before the American people like never before.  Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic candidate, actually won a slim plurality of the popular vote.  Nevertheless, Governor George Bush, the Republican candidate, secured a slight advantage in the Electoral College—thus winning the presidency.  As a result, outraged calls for the abolition of the Constitutional system of election have become commonplace in both the corridors of power in Washington and in the national media outlets.  Concerned that “the will of the people” has somehow been “ignored by an archaic system” that “fails to weigh every vote fairly and equally,” these critics have demanded that the College be “scrapped for a more direct election process.”

According to one long-time critic of the system, Senator Birch Bayh, “the true sentiments of the voters are distorted by the winner-take-all system.”  In addition, he argues that “population and voter turnout are not accurately reflected.  A candidate receiving a plurality of the popular vote in a state whether the margin is one vote or one million carries all the electoral votes of that state, and thus, in effect the minority is disfranchised at an intermediate stage of the electoral process. The winner-take-all system is largely responsible for the possibility of a candidate's being elected president even though he or she polls fewer popular votes than the opponent. Should a candidate receive a minority of the popular vote nationally but carry a sufficient number of states to ensure a majority of the electoral votes, the candidate would be elected, and the will of the majority would be frustrated through the legal and normal operation of the electoral college.”

Rather than voting in a direct popular election, U.S. citizens in each state technically choose between slates of electors that represent each party. Taken together, the winning electors form the Electoral College. There are 538 electors, with each state getting one elector for each representative and senator it has (there are three more electors for the District of Columbia). The electors meet after the November popular election to cast their votes and officially elect the president.

The Framers of the Constitution preferred the electoral system to a direct popular election for several reasons.  First of all, Alexander Hamilton asserted, “It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided. This end will be answered by committing the right of making it, not to any pre-established body, but to men chosen by the people for the special purpose, and at the particular conjuncture.” Secondly, though, he argued, “It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.” In addition, requiring a candidate to win a majority in the Electoral College was a way of obtaining a national consensus—as Hamilton said, “It was also peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder. This evil was not least to be dreaded in the election of a magistrate, who was to have so important an agency in the administration of the government as the President of the United States. But the precautions which have been so happily concerted in the system under consideration, promise an effectual security against this mischief.”

But critics of the Electoral College system say its chief fault is that a president can be elected without winning a majority of the popular vote. In fact, a president with a minority of the popular vote has won the Electoral College vote 15 times in U.S. history, most recently in 1992 and 1996, when Clinton won only 43 percent and 49 percent of the popular vote respectively. The critics argue that the Electoral College also tends to over-represent voters in rural states. In 1988, the seven least populous jurisdictions (including the District of Columbia) had 21 electoral votes, the same as Florida. But Florida's population was three times the combined population of those seven jurisdictions.

Perhaps more ominously, critics also argue that because the Constitution allows electors to use their discretion, there is a possibility of a "faithless" elector not casting his vote for the people's choice but for his own preference. However, this has only happened seven times and never had a real effect on the outcome of an election. Electors now are usually pledged to support a party's candidate.

And worst of all, the critics say, each state's electoral votes are awarded on a winner-take-all basis in the Constitutional system. This makes it extremely difficult for third-party or independent candidates to win any votes in the Electoral College. In fact, by concentrating support in certain states, a candidate can take the presidency without winning more popular votes than his opponent. In 1876, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote by several percentage points but still won the Electoral College vote over Samuel Tilden of New York.  Indeed, as the state's representatives are apportioned according to the 1990 census, a candidate only needs to win 11 of the most heavily populated of the 50 states in order to take the presidency—California, Texas, Florida, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina and either Georgia or Virginia. If a candidate wins a slim majority in California and grabs its 54 electoral votes, he is fully one-fifth of the way to the 270 electoral votes needed to capture the presidency. Thus while California is the nation's most populous state, accounting for 11 percent of the U.S. population, its electoral votes are an even greater prize—20 percent of the necessary votes.

So what exactly is the value of the Electoral College?  How are the critics of the Constitutional provisions to be adequately answered?  Should the current movement for substantial electoral reform be countenanced at all?

The essential philosophical and structural framework within which the Founding Fathers constructed their innovative scheme of national checks and balances, separation of powers, and mixed government was state confederation—or federalism.  The principle of federalism allows distinctive and individual communities to join together for a greater good without losing their essential distinctiveness and individuality.  Instead of the states becoming a part of some larger amorphous union, under federalism they are able to unite in a symbiotic fashion so that the sum of their parts is greater than that of the whole.  A federal relationship is a kind of compact or covenant that allows states to bind themselves together substantially without entirely subsuming their sundry identities.  The federal nature of the American Constitutional covenant enables the nation to function as a republic—thus specifically avoiding the dangers of a pure democracy. Republics exercise governmental authority through mediating representatives under the rule of law. Pure democracies on the other hand exercise governmental authority through the imposition of the will of the majority without regard for the concerns of any minority—thus allowing law to be subject to the whims, fashions, and fancies of men. The Founders designed federal system of the United States so that the nation could be, as John Adams described it, a "government of law, not of men."

The Founders thus expressly and explicitly rejected the idea of a pure democracy, because as James Madison declared "democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives, as they have been violent in their deaths."  The rule of the majority does not always respect the rule of law, and is as turbulent as the caprices of political correctness.  Indeed, history has proven all too often that democracy is particularly susceptible to the urges and impulses of mobocracy.
Federalism balances the vertical and horizontal aspects of a covenant. Vertically, Americans are one people under the rule of common law. Horizontally though, Americans are differentiated into a number of distinctive communities--sovereign states--protected from the possible intrusions of the national government or from a majority of the other communities. As educator Paul Jehle has argued, “The nature of federalism is seen in the balanced structure of the states and the people throughout the Constitution. Both the national government and State governments are sovereign in their respective spheres. Our national identity as Americans, and our federal identity as state citizens, are both represented in Congress—in the Senate and House.”

The Electoral College was originally designed by the Founding Fathers as a federal hedge against the domination of the absolute national majority over the individual states—indeed, without the College, the delicate federal balance between national unity and regional distinctiveness would be lost and the various states would lose their much of their power over the executive branch.
The Electoral College was thus designed to be a method of indirect but popular election of the President of the United States. The Framers of the Constitution were careful to follow clear principle in this design—it was hardly a matter of haphazardness or convenience.  They wanted a federal means to elect the Chief Magistrate of the nation so that careful and calm deliberation would lead to the selection of the best-qualified candidate.

Thus, voters in each state actually cast a vote for a block of electors who are pledged to vote for a particular candidate. These electors, in turn, vote for the presidential candidate. The number of electors for each state equals its Congressional representation.  After Election Day, on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, these electors assemble in their state capitals, cast their ballots, and officially select the next President of the United States. The candidate who receives the most votes in a state at the general election will generally be the candidate for whom the electors later cast their votes--the candidate who wins in a state is awarded all of that state’s Electoral College votes with only Maine and Nebraska as exceptions to this winner-take-all rule.

The votes of the electors are then sent to Congress where the President of the Senate opens the certificates, and counts the votes. This takes place on January 6, unless that date falls on a Sunday. In that case, the votes are counted on the next day. An absolute majority is necessary to prevail in the presidential and the vice presidential elections, that is, half the total plus one electoral vote is required. Thus, with 538 Electors, a candidate must receive at least 270 votes to be elected to the office of President or Vice President.  Should no presidential candidate receive an absolute majority, the House of Representatives determines who the next president will be. Each state may cast one vote and an absolute majority is needed to win. Similarly, the Senate decides who the next Vice President will be if there is no absolute majority after the Electoral College vote.
This federal design ultimately means that the Electoral College is a hedge of protection against several deleterious aspects of pure numerical democracy:

Direct popular election of the President was rejected by the Framers because it failed to protect the states from the intrusion of massed centralized forces.  They reasoned that a pure democracy was more easily corrupted than a federal republic. It would essentially eliminate state borders and state prerogative, and whenever more centralized government directly governs the people, they thought that there was likely to be more opportunity for corruption. And electing the President by the Legislative or Judicial branches would violate the separation of powers. Thus, the federal solution was to elect the President by a balanced representation of the States and the people.  Electors, independent from either the states or the national government, were elected in accordance with standards established by the State legislatures, and the electors then elected the President.  This federal approach carefully avoided direct dependency upon either the states or the people, but kept both represented in the process. Giving each State the number of electors as they have representatives in Congress was also in harmony with this balance.

Direct popular election of the President was also rejected by the Framers because it would fail to prevent several prevent a candidate from pandering to one region, or running up their votes in certain states.  Political scientist James Whitson, using a sports analogy of, explains, “In a baseball season you don't play 100 odd games, add up your total runs from all those games, and the teams with the most play in the World Series. Teams would just run up the score on weaker teams to balance the closer games against tougher opponents. In a direct election, Democrats would run up the vote totals in safe states like Massachusetts and Republicans would run up their votes in states like Nebraska. The Electoral College forces candidates to concede states their opponents are winning handily and contest the tight races.” Direct popular election of the President was also rejected by the Framers because it would fail to protect minority interests from a tyrannical majority. For example in a direct election, since African-Americans account for about 13% of the population, they could only account for 13% of the vote. In the Electoral College, African-Americans account for 25% of Alabama's 9 votes, 27% of Georgia's 13 votes, 31% of Louisiana's 9 votes, etc. Farmers, once a very influential constituency, now make up less than 4% of the population. Why would a candidate worry about this small group in a direct election? In the Electoral College system, farmers do make up sizable parts of several states, and thus their combined strength in a smaller pool of voters gives them more power. Because minority groups are often concentrated in some states and not spread evenly throughout the country, their influence is protected to a greater degree in a federal system.

Finally, direct popular election of the President was also rejected by the Framers because it would fail to prevent candidates from ignoring smaller states in favor of big metropolitan areas. In a direct election, New York City would have about twice the electoral clout of the states of Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming combined. Why would a candidate even campaign in those six states when he can double his impact by spending more time and less money in a single city. The needs and issues of small rural communities would be outweighed in the candidates' mind by those of large urban areas.

The Electoral College system was thus the careful implementation of an essential Constitutional principle: federalism.  Without it, the genius of the whole Constitution would be jeopardized.