Where there is government there is corruption. Corruption is a broad term. Perhaps in its simplest meaning it is just a departure from an original design. Various federal statutes set forth punishment for felony corruption in government, such as embezzlement or trading influence for money. Another category of corruption are high crimes. High crimes assault our governing form, our Constitution. While high crimes are not defined in the Constitution, we know the punishment for them is limited to removal from office.
In well-ordered government, institutions are strong enough to deter most, and punish nearly all who steal money, trade official action for money, or otherwise assault their nation’s governing form. In poorly operating government, scheming men and women openly enrich themselves at public expense or violate their Constitution of government without fear of removal from office. The former is associated with young republics, while the latter accompanies dying republics and absolute monarchies.
Monarchal society is vertical; at the top is a king, and at the bottom are bondsmen and slaves. Aside from the king, everyone looks upward to someone else. A King is expected to mirror the pomp of divine right and live in comfort unimaginable to his subjects. The king can do no wrong and is unimpeachable. Along the way of the king, wealth and power sticks to courtiers and ministers who look down upon the king’s subjects. This is the natural condition of monarchies.
Republican society is horizontal. No one takes off his cap to speak with a fellow citizen. Being equal before God and government, no one is above the law. The health of a republic is reflected in how it deals with public corruption.
As opposed to the purpose of our government as set forth in the Preamble to our Constitution, to “secure the blessings of liberty,” a neutral observer of America 2017 could rationally conclude that our government’s purpose is to feed the money and power desires of its members. This situation didn’t develop overnight. It took a hundred years or so of high crimes and corruption of free government principles to render our Constitution little more than a scrap of paper, under which elected and unelected men and women exercise near unlimited power.
Among early and strong republics, Rome keenly guarded against corruption. Their first fear was a high crime, the reestablishment of monarchy. Legend praised Marcus Manlius Capitolinus for his defensive exploits when Rome was under siege from the Gauls in 387 BC. In the aftermath of the war, and using his personal funds, he helped feed the poor of a devastated city. Suspecting that his charity was a cover for kingly ambitions, he was thrown from the Tarpeian Rock to his death in 384 BC. Niccolo’ Machiavelli wrote that while many came to regret his execution, it nonetheless served as a lesson for ambitious men, that Romans were covetous of their liberty. Regardless of past services and honors, those who sought power beyond right were punished as high criminals. As a mind experiment closer to home, imagine the response of the people if the savior of the American Revolution, George Washington, had assumed authoritarian power as many in the Continental Army urged.
Like early Rome, the young American republic kept a close eye on public corruption. For instance, the daunting task of the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, was to establish monetary stability and raise revenue to pay the enormous Revolutionary War debt. To avoid the appearance of impropriety, he closed his successful New York law firm and lived on his government salary. Most assumed that Hamilton would abuse his position to enrich himself and his friends. A congressional investigation in 1793 turned up nothing. As opposed to government service today, Hamilton went home poorer than when he entered. If only congress took its duties to carefully oversee the public purse today as it did then.
In a 1998 note to myself, I wrote, “The Clintons have gotten away with so much for so long, they believe they can get away with everything forever.” I thought their criminal run was over last summer, when, at a press conference, FBI director James Comey rattled off evidence of Hillary’s felonies and high crimes. Alas, it was not to be. The DOJ refused to indict or refer the matter to a grand jury. Not only will Hillary walk, her many underlings and hangers-on will most likely enjoy the profits of public corruption that endangers our national survival. Where is congress? On the other hand, and at about the same time last summer, I received a threatening letter from the IRS for a $35 delinquency.
Reflecting republican simplicity and equality upon leaving office, ex-president Harry Truman packed up his car and drove home to his struggling Missouri farm. In contrast, ex-President Obama retired to royal luxury and a shady sixty-plus million-dollar book deal. Society is no longer horizontal when public office is the sure path to riches.
As for high crimes, on March 15th, US district judge Derrick Watkins in Hawaii issued a restraining order against the President’s executive order to temporarily stop the entry of people from certain countries. Watkins usurped the Constitutional and statutory authority of the President to secure our borders. This is high crime corruption of the supreme earthly law, our Constitution. Few Americans understand the ramifications of Watkins’ judicial coup d’état.
In subsequent posts to this series I hope to examine high government crimes and corruption as viewed by Niccolo’ Machiavelli, John Locke, Algernon Sidney, and our Framers. From a cursory read to date, I’ve noticed that corrupt politicians in virtuous times get nowhere. A Hillary sort of character in the late 18th century would have been crushed long before she grew wealthy in the course of selling out her country. On the flip-side, as illustrated by the first efforts of President Trump, it is very difficult for a virtuous man to reverse widespread societal and government corruption.
While I fear we have not been covetous enough of liberty to restore free government, we must nonetheless press on with our efforts to gather in an Article V COS to reverse the corruption of the American republic. There is little time.
Machiavelli, N. (2008). Discourses on Livy, Translated by Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
McDonald, F. (1979). Alexander Hamilton – A Biography. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.