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.


The Constitution: Pocket and Otherwise

May 28, 2010

Last week a Capitol Hill paper did a piece on the popularity of the United States Constitution as a publication and one of the news services picked it up. Although those of us who work at the Government Printing Office think of the “Pocket Constitution” authorized by Congress as the classic printed version, many other organizations also print and distribute copies, as the article points out. At least one other Federal Government agency does its own edition of the Pocket Constitution: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), as part of its effort to encourage immigrants to become citizens. Like the congressional edition, this little booklet throws in the Declaration of Independence as well.

All of this made me curious about how many editions of the Constitution currently appear in Federal documents of various sorts. It turns out there are quite a few.

Note: This is a totally unscientific and partial survey based on what I found in our online bookstore.

For those who can’t get enough of the Constitution and its interpretation, there’s the Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation, published every 10 years or so and weighing in at an imposing 9 pounds, six ounces, not counting the supplements issued to keep it up to date.  If you can’t wait to start reading, you can find it here.

For those of us who like to contemplate history’s “might have beens,” you can’t do better than The Constitution of the United States of America as Amended; Unratified Amendments; Analytical Index, which, in addition to the text of the Constitution, details about the ratification of each amendment to the Constitution, and an exhaustive index, discusses six other amendments that were submitted to the states for ratification but not adopted. You can read them here and find out which unratified amendment was the only one actually signed by the President.

Naturally, the Constitution is also included in the procedural manuals of the Senate and the House of Representatives. And don’t forget Interpreting Old Ironsides: An Illustrated Guide to the USS Constitution – oh, wait, that’s a different kind of vessel of democracy.

I think I’ve made my point, and I haven’t even touched on everything in our online bookstore, let alone what you could find through the vast resources of the Federal Depository Library Program. Maybe someone can put a list together before the Fourth of July…


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