We honor men with Monuments not because of their greatness, or even simply because of their service, but because of their refusal – even in the face of danger or death – to ever compromise the principles they served. Washington’s obelisk still stands watch because democracy will always need a sentry! Jefferson’s words still ring because liberty will always need a voice! And Lincoln’s left still stays clenched because tyranny will always need an enemy!
I was somewhat sickened to learn that the perennially shameless DeLay believes his record of anti-democratic, power-grabbing, rule-breaking conduct in office merits comparison with three of our greatest statesmen. But at the same time, it’s quite intriguing (and disturbing) that DeLay takes inspiration from Thomas Jefferson’s defense of liberty, and somehow sees his record as following in the tradition of our Third President. As a history major, I wondered what he (or his speechwriter) was smoking, because DeLay’s principles of governance (as stated in his own words) suggests that Jefferson would have been utterly disgusted by this former pest exterminator. The blogging forum does not afford me the space to develop a comprehensive comparison between these two Toms on all the important and overlapping issues of concern, so I’m going to very narrowly limit my examination to the questions of how the Constitution should be interpreted, and the role of the judiciary in the process of governance. My rationale is that legal issues such as these define the terms upon which public servants are expected to conduct themselves; therefore, a given legislator’s approach to the law can help illuminate his or her broad strategy for governance and conduct in office.
Let’s start with the most basic charge given to a member of Congress: upholding the Constitution. To fulfill that duty, you first have to understand what the document says, which means interpreting its text. Both DeLay and Jefferson would probably agree that the Constitution should be read strictly. But the similarity ends there. Based on the Texas legislator’s comments about former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor earlier this year, it would probably be accurate to say that DeLay believes that the Constitution should be interpreted strictly according to what it said in 1789. In short, DeLay is an originalist, believing that it is inappropriate for contemporaries to depart from the Framers’ “intentions” (though it is hardly clear whether these intentions were coherent to begin with, or even what they were). However, while Jefferson was certainly a strict constructionist, the Virginian was in no way an ‘originalist’ like DeLay; in fact, as the political scientist Richard K. Matthews has demonstrated in his seminal work on the subject, The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson was really a radical democrat who believed that each generation had the right to begin American political life from infancy every nineteen years, and discard the laws and constitutions of previous generations — original intent be darned. DeLay should shutter at such an extremist view of how democracy should operate.
Interestingly, both also had their very big problems with judges. Jefferson’s frustrations during his two presidencies with the federal bench and the Supreme Court are well known: they began immediately after his drawn-out electoral victory in 1801 over John Adams with the lame duck President Adams’ “midnight appointments” of Federalist judges to the bench, and reached a sort of second climax with the Supreme Court’s 1803 decision in Marbury v. Madison, spearheaded by Jefferson’s fellow Virginian and arch-nemesis John Marshall, which rebuked Jefferson’s attempt to deny one of Adams’ last minute appointments (the lawyer William Marbury) his seat on the bench (though contra popular belief, it isn’t clear that the Court intended to establish itself as having the final word on the constitutionality of federal legislation through its decision in Marbury). DeLay, of course, appeared to have had problems with the entire federal judiciary. So you’d think that there might be some overlap between them in this area (N.B.: for the full story, see Sean Wilentz’s absolutely extraordinary The Rise of American Democracy: From Jefferson to Lincoln. Full disclosure: I have had the privilege of being a student of Professor Wilentz in classes on American history at Princeton University).
Au contraire. While Jefferson disagreed with Marshall and feared a Federalist-dominated judiciary, he was never so crass as to imply that judges should be violently attacked if they rendered decisions he disagreed with. In contrast, Tom DeLay endorsed such behavior back in 1997. There were times when Jefferson certainly played dirty in his politics (the most famous example being his propagandistic smears against the Federalists during the election of 1800; lesser known, but arguably more disturbing, was his extended campaign to censor David Hume’s History of England because he disagreed with the work’s pro-monarchical politics). In contrast to many of his fawning biographers, I have no desire to portray Jefferson as a flawless deity- because he was not one. But for DeLay to compare himself to Jefferson is absurd- the third President did the most to lay the groundwork for republican government in the service of the American people, while the former House leader has spent his career trying to exterminate our democracy.
Asheesh Kapur Siddique, a member of Princeton University’s Class of 2007, writes a featured blog for CampusProgress.org.