“Out of Many, One”: Citizenship and the Constitution

September 16, 2011

September 17 is Constitution Day, thanks to the efforts of the late Senator Robert C. Byrd, who always carried a copy with him on and off the floor of the Senate. Last year, I blogged about the various editions of the Constitution available as Government publications. This time around, I’ve been thumbing through another publication that helps to put the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and a variety of other documents, speeches, and even songs and poetry, into the bigger picture of what it means to be – or become – an American citizen.

The Citizen’s Almanac: Fundamental Documents, Symbols, and Anthems of the United States, a handsome and very useful little book from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services correctly states that “both native-born and naturalized citizens will find important information on the rights and responsibilities associated withUnited States citizenship.” It’s an extremely useful collection of songs (The Star Spangled Banner, America the Beautiful, God Bless America), poems (The Concord Hymn, I Hear America Singing, The New Colossus), symbols (the Great Seal of the United States, including an explanation of that impressive but somewhat mystifying “pyramid with an eye in it” device), complete texts or extracts from notable American speeches (the Gettysburg Address, John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream, Ronald Reagan’s Remarks at the Brandenburg Gate), notable Supreme Court decisions (Marbury v Madison, Brown v Board of Education) and much more.

Although the complete text of the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and other documents are not included, the brief sections on each put them into context so readers can perceive the continuum of American democracy through time. For new and aspiring citizens, a series of brief biographies of famous Americans who were not born in the U.S. makes for interesting reading. In the entertainment world alone, how many of us think of Marlene Dietrich, Bob Hope, and Celia Cruz in their roles as citizens of the Republic?

The Citizen’s Almanac is a terrific, well-illustrated source for all kinds of information about American history and citizenship. It’s also an interesting read and a book that’s perfect for Constitution Day or any other day when you need information about this country of ours. You can browse through The Citizen’s Almanac here, buy a single copy or a package of 25 for schools and civic organizations, or locate it at a library.

 


Looking at the Filibuster

December 23, 2010

In some ways, Congressional hearings are like Jack Horner’s pie – you never know what kind of plums you’ll pull out of them. Take Examining the Filibuster: Hearings before the Committee on Rules and Administration, United States Senate, for example. As in most congressional hearings, you’ll find lots of polite and sometimes humorous byplay by various Senators, a certain amount of disagreement about the nature and value of the subject at hand, a raft of expert testimony by academics and technical experts, and additional statements by interested parties. That’s what makes it so interesting to flip through one, and why I decided to see what goodies I could extract for the delectation of Government Book Talk readers.

A plum: Apparently the filibuster was not erected by the founding fathers as a way to safeguard the rights of the minority and guarantee careful deliberation of legislation. Originally, both Houses of Congress included a “previous question motion” in their rule books, which still allows a House majority to cut off debate. In 1805, however, neither body used the motion in this way and, at the urging of Vice President Aaron Burr in his capacity as President of the Senate, the Senate eliminated the previous question motion from its rule book – apparently without any real discussion. Even so, it was not until 1837 that the first real filibuster occurred. Another plum: the late Senator Robert C. Byrd, even though he represented the majority in the Senate for much of his career, was a passionate defender of the filibuster, proving that such issues are not decided simply on the basis of party, or majority versus minority.

You’ll find many such gems in the 656 pages of Examining the Filibuster. In addition to a great deal of information on the filibuster, cloture votes, and other such congressional arcana, it’s heartening to note that a fair number of Senators actually participated in these hearings, taking the time to mull over and address whether the filibuster still serves a need in the Senate and engaging in a reasoned dialogue about it.

You can read Examining the Filibuster here, get your own copy here, or find it in a library – and enjoy your pie, plum pudding, or fruitcake and have a great holiday!


Senator Byrd and the Roman Republic

June 30, 2010

The passing of Senator Robert C. Byrd from the American political scene also marks the departure of a great American character. This fiddle-playing high school graduate who earned a law degree at night (in 1963) and a college degree via correspondence courses (in 1994) regularly quoted the Bible, the classics, and large swaths of memorized poetry on the floor of the Senate was also a historian of the institution he loved most: The United States Senate.

Curiously, his reverence for the Senate and fierce defense of its constitutional role resulted in a most remarkable Government book on ancient Rome: The Senate of the Roman Republic: Addresses on the History of Roman Constitutionalism. The roots of this book lay in Senator Byrd’s determined opposition to the idea of the line-item veto, which would grant the President the power to veto particular items in appropriations bills. Byrd viewed this proposal as usurping the Senate’s role and a threat to constitutional checks and balances. As a result, to quote Senate Historian Richard C. Baker’s Foreword, the Senator “initiated a series of fourteen addresses in opposition to the proposed line-item veto concept. During the following five and a-half months, he delivered each of the speeches – packed with names, dates, and complex narratives – entirely from memory and without recourse even to notes on consultation with staff aides.” (Italics in the original).

(Note: I knew Dick Baker when he was Senate Historian and asked him about the Senator’s role in writing both this book and his 4-volume The Senate: 1789-1989. He assured me that the Senator was indeed the author of these books, not just a speech reader.)

The Senate of the Roman Republic is replete with scholarly references to Polybius, Tacitus, and Montesquieu, as well as impassioned arguments against the line-item veto – surely a unique method of resisting encroachment on the rights of the Senate, and one we’ll not likely see again. Likewise, the departure of Robert Byrd, a man of the 20th century whose personality retained a bit of the flavor of the 19th, will leave Congress with a bit less color and zest.

You can browse in The Senate of the Roman Republic here, get a copy here, or find it in a library here.

To view a page listing all of Senator Byrd’s historical works, go here.


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