Dictators and Republics, Part II

      Comments Off on Dictators and Republics, Part II

George Washington’s army was normally careful to avoid violating local property. Yet, when finances went beyond miserable, and congress could not supply adequate food, shelter, clothing to his troops, General Washington was advised to plunder what he needed from the populace. Arbitrary power, yes? The yet to be ratified Articles of Confederation made no provision for dictators, but Congress and Washington resorted to such means when necessary. Reference to Washington as a modern Roman Cincinnatus, a dictator, was common. Like Cincinnatus, Washington did his duty, saved his country, and went home to his farm.

The subject of dictators came up at the Virginia Ratifying Convention of 1788. No less than the leading Anti-Federalist of the age,  Patrick Henry, defended the service of Thomas Nelson, appointed “governor” of VA. He served for less than six months, just long enough to defeat British general Cornwallis at Yorktown. Wiki him. The republican principles of the deposed Governor, Thomas Jefferson, prevented Jefferson from taking the essential, difficult measures to deal with Cornwallis’ rampage through VA. Thomas Nelson wasn’t so restrained. He confiscated all the arms, food, supplies, transportation from the populace he thought necessary to supply General Washington and militia troops at Yorktown. A republican “governor” was given authority to do what it took to save the state. A dictator in all but name, yes?

What long term effect did his wholesale violations of the VA constitution have on the laws of the state and the rights, freedoms of its citizens? None. After Nelson’s term, normal republican government in Yorktown and VA resumed.

Now, enter the American Republic.

In the US, the enabling resolution for national defense is the declaration of war. Coupled with legitimate, constitutional authority to suspend habeas corpus in time of rebellion, and duty as Commander in Chief,  the American President may constitutionally exercise arbitrary powers. While the US constitution doesn’t provide the appointment of a temporary dictator, service to the republic and laws which demand unnamed arbitrary executive actions go to a sitting chief executive. Absent sunset provisions, and unlike the orders of dictators, these laws last beyond the conclusion of hostilities.

I don’t claim extensive knowledge of the war between the states, but will simply observe that internet posts regarding the extraordinary muscle exercised by Abraham Lincoln are common. Right or wrong, he saved the republic, but at an enormous price.  He left behind a forever changed nation in which business and government began to thoroughly enjoy a cozy, symbiotic, mutually profitable relationship made possible by the war and its attendant laws.

FDR and WWII. Make no mistake, FDR exercised practical one-man rule. Congress established various war boards for production, banking, labor practices, wages, prices etc., and FDR wielded directive authority over the boards. In one memorable instance, he directed the Army to take over coal mine production when the United Mine Workers went on strike. Global conflict needed coal, lots of it, and no narrow labor dispute would disrupt the wider war effort. Considering that the statutory right to establish labor unions had only been in existence for a few years,  FDR boldly exercised arbitrary, non-statutory authority to deal with the crisis.

Part III tomorrow.