Corruption In America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box, To Citizens United
Few Americans today remember that during a period from the late 1890’s to the 1920’s a Progressive Era of social activism and political reform flourished in the United States. “One main goal of the Progressive movement was eliminating corruption in government by exposing and undercutting political machines and their bosses and establishing further means of direct democracy.” –– [Wikipedia]
A leading Progressive adherent throughout that era and into the 1930’s, one somewhat unremembered if not unknown to today’s younger generation, is Will Rogers. He was not only the top-paid Hollywood movie star, appearing in some 72 movies, he is considered the leading political wit of the Progressive Era. He was the Jon Stewart of his time, celebrated and admired. You could hear Jon Stewart say, as did Rogers, “I am not a member of an organized political party. I am a Democrat.” Another widely quoted Will Rogers/Jon Stewart type comment was “I don't make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.” He also said quite presciently, “People are taking their comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke.”
As a further indication of the universality and pervasiveness of many of his observations, think of how applicable these following comments are to our current political arena, especially since they date from almost exactly 100 years ago to when he died at age 53 in a tragic plane crash in 1935.
“Congress is so strange; a man gets up to speak and says nothing, nobody listens, and then everybody disagrees.”If Will Rogers were alive, he would probably be in frenzy in an attempt to keep up with the profusion of scandalous material that so many of our less than illustrious politicians are providing. However one of his adages of the past that has specific relevance today states, “Politics has got so expensive that it takes lots of money to even get beat with.” That would have provided him with the opportunity to add the Supreme Court Justices to his list of those parodied and satirized. (He did mention them only once when the Supreme Court struck down New Deal legislation; Rogers criticized the justices as “the nine old gentlemen in the kimonos.”)
“Congress meets tomorrow morning. Let us all pray: Oh Lord, give us strength to bear that which is about to be inflicted upon us. Be merciful with them, oh Lord, for they know not what they're doing. Amen.”
“Now these fellows in Washington wouldn't be so serious and particular if they only had to vote on what they thought was good for the majority of the people in the U.S. That would be a cinch. But what makes it hard for them is every time a bill comes up they have things to decide that have nothing to do with the merit of the bill. The principal thing is of course: What will this do for me personally back home?”
“Never blame a legislative body for not doing something. When they do nothing, they don't hurt anybody. When they do something is when they become dangerous.”
“The Senate just sits and waits till they find out what the president wants, so they know how to vote against him.”
“The Democrats and the Republicans are equally corrupt where money is concerned. It's only in the amount where the Republicans excel.”
“Many a politician wishes there was a law to burn old records.”
“A Republican moves slowly. They are what we call conservatives. A conservative is a man who has plenty of money and doesn't see any reason why he shouldn't always have plenty of money. A Democrat is a fellow who never had any, but doesn't see any reason why he shouldn't have some.”
“America has the best politicians money can buy.”
Based on contemporary Supreme Court decisions, imagine the present-day picnic Rogers (as a dedicated Progressive) would be having lampooning the Court. That the public would respond favorably is indicated by the latest Gallup polls that for the first time in almost ten years disclose a public dissatisfaction rating of 48% to 44% favorable, presumably resulting from recent Court actions. However, as humorous Rogers was in portraying the foibles and shortcomings that seem to define our political system in general, how did we get from the altruistic visions and sensibilities of our founding fathers to what many consider the cantankerous and yes, corrupt politics of today?
That has been answered brilliantly in a simply and accurately titled book “Corruption In America: From Benjamin Franklin's Snuff Box to Citizens United,” authored by a Fordham University law professor, Zephyr Teachout, who in 2014 gained fame when she ran for the Democratic Party nomination for Governor of New York, ultimately losing to incumbent Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Her loss to Cuomo has not interfered with the unanimous praise and respect she has received for this uniquely interesting and masterly piece of writing. The book provides surprising revelations, focusing a new historical light on a subject now misunderstood, misinterpreted and totally distorted by our judicial branch of government––a subject that has enormous implications for today’s democratic process.
True to her name, Teachout takes us back to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 when the founders of the country debated the underlying philosophy of our Constitution even before the Constitution was ratified. She provides case-by-case examples, more or less in a chronological order, that compellingly illustrate the perversion of the founders’ original interpretation of the term “corruption,” and the accompanying word “bribery.” Reading this book may seem to be a boring and tedious endeavor, however the tales told are surprisingly fascinating, and the book almost reads like a novel.
The basic plot of the book describes how American jurisprudence regressed from the point when Benjamin Franklin accepted a gift (a diamond studded snuff box) from the King of France, to the Supreme Court’s totally misguided (according to Teachout) decision in the case of Citizens United.
Teachout writes, “Corruption in America is my effort to fill in the history that Citizens United ignored. It provides a previously neglected story of the use of the concept in American law and a much-needed account of the different kinds of meanings attached to it throughout the political life of the country. I show that for most of American history, courts remained committed to a broad view of corruption. The book draws primarily upon the texts used by lawyers: the Constitutional Convention, cases and statutes. It shows how, starting in the late 1970s, everything began to change around this issue.”
She continues, “The Supreme Court, along with a growing subset of scholars, began to confuse the concept of corruption and throw out many of the prophylactic rules that were used to protect against it. This rejection has led to an overflow of private industry involvement in political elections and a rapid decline in the civic ethic in Congress and the state houses. The old ideas about virtue were tossed out as sentimental, but the old problems of corruption and government have persisted. Interest-group pluralists who reject these ideas do not, I believe, have an answer to the problem of corruption and in fact have been part of the problem.”
As indicated above, probably the most tumultuous and outrageous period of rampant and unstrained corruption described in the book occurred from the start of Ulysses Grant’s election in 1868 to the election of Theodore Roosevelt and beyond. The former period was known as “The Gilded Age,” and the latter as “The Progressive Age,” (assumedly to the great consternation of ultra-conservatives).
You may not be aware (I wasn’t) that the term Gilded Age was taken from the title of a book co-authored by Mark Twain, ironically, describing the life of a once simple woman who becomes a lobbyist at which time she adopted all of the appropriate despicable characteristics associated with the profession. That possibly led Mark Twain to comment, “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.”
Next month, more details on how the principles and strong beliefs related to corruption as enunciated and affirmed by the Founding Fathers have themselves been slowly, over the decades, been dismantled––some say revolutionized. So much so, that one of the great mysteries is how “originalist constitutionalists,” especially those on the Supreme Court, can reconcile those beliefs with their judicial renderings.