My Country, and I Do What I Wanna

The man on the $20 bill

The man on the $20 bill

One of the things I still love about my job is unexpectedly uncovering a historical tidbit with relevance outside of the book I’m currently writing. A person or quote pops up and inspires an idea for a play, or maybe an essay, or at least a connection to something in the news. That happened today as I read through that classic of presidential writing, Andrew Jackson’s veto of the Bank Renewal Bill.

A little context – the fight over whether or not to recharter the Second Bank of the United States was one of the hot-button issues of the Jackson years (since everybody pretty much thought it was dandy that he drove the Cherokee to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears). I suppose the gist of the debate was as relevant then as today’s bruising rhetoric over TARP and such, but whenever I come across “Bank War” or “Francis Biddle” (pres of the bank), my eyes glaze over. I only turned to Old Hickory’s message because my current bio focuses on that era.

So there it was, about three pages in (this guy would have been a bomb on Twitter), the phrase that grabbed me: “Each public officer who takes an oath to support the Constitution swears that he will support it as he understands and not as it is understood by others.”

Whoa. Does the gist of that sound familiar?

"A word means what I say it means, no more, no less."

"A word means what I say it means, no more, no less."

No, not the Red Queen, though she came to mind second.

No sarcastic caption necessary...

No sarcastic caption necessary...

Yes, of course, Dubya, and the team of legal eagles who brought us enemy combatants and extraordinary renditions and enhanced interrogations. There is no one sense of wrong and right, as defined by statute, the Constitution, and the Supreme Court; there is only what I, the president says there is.

Andy took some flack in his day for his testosterone-infused approach to executive power. After hearing a Supreme Court decision he didn’t like, he famously never said (but surely believed the sentiment), “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” (The case, by the way, rose out of the Cherokee effort to remain on their traditional lands in Georgia and not make the march west.) For a guy who supposedly favored states’ rights and opposed a strong federal government, he had no problem asserting the prerogative of the executive. And reading that quote from his memo in the context of the Bush years, you have to think someone on Dubya’s or Dick’s team turned to Jackson for inspiration.

Only problem is, now we pretty much except that Congress and the president have to deal with the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court. The pres is bound to honor international agreements. You don’t get to say, this amendment, this clause in that treaty,  means what I say it  means, no more, no less. I’ve written here before (and again here) about the need to get at the truth of the possible illegalities committed by the executive branch, 2001-2009. Something tells me Andy wouldn’t have approved. I guess these presidents have to stick together. And I wonder what that means for all the promised transparency of the Obama administration. Some folks say the record so far is not so good. But that’s a subject for another post.

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~ by mburgan on April 13, 2009.

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