Changes in the Land

One of the early messages I wanted to convey to the students in my Honors Seminar last fall was how much influence humans have and have had on our environment.  The assigned reading for this class was from Changes in the Land by environmental historian William Cronon.  This book was one of the first I read as I started becoming interested in the environment, so it is an old friend.

As Cronan explains, when the European colonists arrived in New England, they described the land as being like a park, and they assumed that they were observing a baseline of the natural world.  What they didn’t consider was that the Native Americans were already shaping the environment to their advantage.  For example, the colonists were impressed that there was little undergrowth in the forests, which contributed to the park-like perspective.  The Native Americans found that hunting was much easier without a jumble of undergrowth, so they regularly set small fires to remove the entangling brush without damaging the older and more established trees.

The Native Americans also moved around several times a year spending time with a few families farming in one area, hunting in another, and then gathering in larger groups to shelter over the winter.  When growing crops, they planted several different species intermixed in a single field.  They would begin by making mounds of earth, and in each mound, they would plant two beans and two kernels of corn so that the corn stalks provided the vertical support for the beans.  Between the hills, squash was planted to hold down both the soil and the weeds. Because the beans had the ability to nitrogen to the soil, and because of the mixture of plants, a single field could produce well for eight to ten years before the fertility was depleted and the families would move to a different field, allowing the original area to lie fallow and recover.

All of those habits stand in stark contrast to the European tradition of owning land and staying in a fixed location, which meant that a single field would be used for decades.  Usually farms are also planted as monocultures; a single plant occupying a given area, rather than the polyculture mixtures of the natives.  Thus soil fertility was much more of an issue for a farm.  These practices continue today and are why fertilizer and pesticides are such a large part of farming.

Reports from the colonies tended to focus on abundance, particularly of commodities that were rare in Europe.  Whether fish or animals, berries or trees, the colonists painted a rosy picture of the resources available in the New World, and the assumption was that these resources were present in endless amounts.  That abundance had actually been nurtured by the Native Americans who never used all of a given resource, and who used what they needed locally.  When the colonists not only feasted on the abundance but also harvested the entirety of the resource for export, the illusion of plenty dissipated rapidly.

Just one example of this illusion of abundance was trees.  In Europe, trees were a finite commodity, and people made do with modestly-sized fireplaces and small fires to cook and heat.  With an apparently endless supply of lumber, the new settlers indulged in large fireplaces to keep their houses toasty warm.  Even by the late 1600’s this practice took its toll as the area around Boston, including all of the harbor islands, had been completely logged of trees.  Eventually in the entire distance between Boston and New York City, there were fewer than 12 miles of trees.

On a pretty fall day, I like to take my students on a walk around campus to observe how their immediate environment has been influenced by human activity.  The University of Hartford was built on a farm, and it used to be that the lines of tress used to separate the fields could still be observed.  On the perimeter of the land, we can see the trees that grew up from the farm after it was no longer worked along with the undergrowth that developed rapidly in the absence of fire or clearing.  Most of New England has been logged or farmed so completely that the only small areas of old growth forest are sequestered in the most remote parts of Maine.  The lack of old trees on our campus is entirely due to centuries of human interaction with the environment.

As part of our walk, I also like to identify some of the non-native trees that have been planted on campus as ornamental species.  It’s really a question of whether or not I can name the tree and do I have a good story to tell about it.  For example, there is a sweetgum tree by the door to my building that drops “gumballs” as seedpods each year.  I remember ornaments on my mother’s Christmas tree made from gumballs glued together and spray painted, so the annual arrival of the gumballs on the ground always makes me smile.  Sycamore trees are one of the few species that I can identify by the bark as well as by the huge leaves.  Unlike the bark of most trees, which is elastic and stretchy, sycamore bark does not expand as the tree grows, so the result is a mottled appearance, which looks a bit like tree eczema.  Sycamore trees are excellent at filtering out air pollution, so they are a favorite of urban city planners.

Image of sweet gum tree with cute fruit sycamore bark

I also point out the line of six oak trees lining one of the sidewalks of campus.  They were planted in honor of the six graduates of the University of Hartford who died in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.  Oaks symbolize strength and long life, so these trees were well-chosen to remember our alumni for the long term.

The central idea of this honors seminar was the interaction between natural resources and public policy.  By starting with a familiar environment, my students now get a daily reminder of just how the behaviors and habits of people influence the shape of the world around them.

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Mapping the Federal Government

As I was designing my honors seminar for this past fall, I had to keep in mind that information that I now take for granted is not all that common outside of Washington DC, especially for undergraduates who may or may not keep up with the national news.  My class was divided into about half science majors and the other half a mixture of history, politics, and psychology, so I decided that a good starting place would be to map out the government to provide a common foundation of information.

My props for this unstructured exercise were a large blank whiteboard and several markers.  The rules of the game were that I would go around the table, and each student needed to add something to the map.  I think I prompted that perhaps we should start with the names of the three branches of government:

                       mapping the government 1

The President, Vice President, Congress, Senate, House of Representatives, and Supreme Court were filled in reasonably easily next.

mapping the government 2

Somehow the Secretary of State crops up early in the game, so that led us to the Cabinet and trying to name all of the Cabinet-level agencies who are headed by Secretaries.  Trivia:  Can you identify the agency whose leader is not “Secretary of X?”

Mapping the Government 3

(Answer:  The Department of Justice is led by the Attorney General)

Tackling Congress is a bit more of a challenge, but this component was one of the most important to me since we would be referring to the leadership structure throughout the course.  Starting with the Senate, I asked who is the leader of the Senate?  “The Vice President!” was the response.  OK, good.  Now the Vice President generally has better things to do with his time, so who leads when he’s not around?  I explained that the President Pro Tempore , who is the longest serving member of the majority party, has the authority in the Vice President’s absence.  (OK, so I don’t think I knew that before my year in Washington.)

We then discussed that the President Pro Tempore does not set policy.  Instead that is the Senate Majority Leader, whose counterpart is the Senate Minority Leader, who were Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell respectively when we started, although they have now reversed roles.  Second in command to the leaders are the Whips.  We had a lively discussion about what Whips do.  I explained that they counted votes on various issues so that the party leaders would have an idea of whether or not a vote would be successful before it was brought to the floor.  “And if people are going to vote the wrong way, then the Whips whip them into shape?”  Well, pretty much, yes.  It actually comes from the “whippers-in” in hunting, but it amounts to the same thing.

mapping the government 4

note the party colors reflect the 113th Congress from September 2014. The Senate has since “flipped” and the Republicans are in the majority

My favorite trivia question involves the Presidential succession.

Me:  So, if the President dies, who takes over?

Students: The Vice President

Me: Good!  What if the Vice President then dies?

Students: The Secretary of State?

Me: Nope

Students: That President Pro Something guy?

Me: Not quite

Students: Senate Majority Leader?

Me: Nope, getting colder.

One brave soul:  Speaker of the House?

Me:  Yes!  Who’s the Speaker of the House these days?

Students:  Nancy Pelosi?

Me:  Nice try.  She was speaker until the Republicans gained the majority.  She’s now the Majority Leader.  The current speaker is actually John Boehner.  So who is after Boehner?

Students:  Now the President Pro Tempore?

Me:  Yes!  Then the Cabinet secretaries in order of the creation of their departments.  So if we got all the way down to Energy, we could have a physicist as President!

Students, mumbling:  She’s such a nerd.

I went on to explain that this succession is the reason that for any major events which assemble all three branches of the government, there’s always one Cabinet secretary who stays away.  That way if some catastrophe happens and the rest of the government is destroyed, there’s still someone who Constitutionally has the authority to pick up the pieces.

Although I’m presenting the game to you in a linear fashion, the students jumped around quite a bit in adding to the map.  I was quite impressed when someone offered that John Roberts is currently the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  With help from various classmates, they did manage to assemble a complete list of all nine justices.  It’s one of my own personal trivia tests, but I usually get shaky around seven or eight.

mapping the government 5

We also mentioned Circuit Courts, Appeals Courts, etc. but I’m definitely weakest on the Judicial branch.

We followed with a brief discussion that the state and local governments have similar structures, which allows for the dispersion of power and helps with the checks and balances we learned about in eighth grade.

The final map here looks very straightforward, but our map on the board showed all the signs of being generated more spontaneously and randomly.  Still, it was a good review of how all the pieces fit together, and I’ve always loved trivia, so it was fun for me as well.

One of the science majors was privately a bit dismayed by the exercise and said that the amount of politics was unexpected.  Well, yes, that’s the “Public Policy” part of the title.

mapping the government 6

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The One Page Briefing Memo

As part of my Honors Seminar on natural resources and public policy, I decided that the students would write nothing but the types of documents a Senate staffer would write.  When I mentioned to a colleague who teaches writing that these assignments would generally be restricted to a single page, he announced that I was diabolical.  We both agreed that although writing a single page appears to be an easy task, it is actually a significant challenge.

One of the joys of grading a single page of writing is that I can take 10-15 minutes on just that page and provide extremely detailed feedback on style, grammar, spelling, proof-reading, and content.  On longer documents, I still provide extensive feedback, but it is distributed throughout the document, and I do not necessarily pick up every detail worthy of comment.  The one page briefing memos allowed me to focus on many different aspects of writing all in a single document.  I also hoped that the length would encourage the students to do multiple drafts, but I wasn’t so idealistic that I assumed it would happen.  I did have a number of meetings with students to discuss their first drafts, which were then revised in time for class, so I did meet with some success on getting the students to submit edited documents rather than first drafts.

It took just one assignment for the students to learn that writing a single page is not as easy as it seems.  In contrast with their normal assignments of 5-10 pages, in which the students pontificate and wax poetic, a single page summary requires that only the most essential information be included.  The skills required to filter and prioritize information are not usually the focus of college classes, so the students struggled a little before they acquired the knack.

I’ve found that in the process of teaching writing, I also learn a great deal about what characterizes good writing.  My first discovery was that the prevalence of PowerPoint has rewarded students for presenting a list of bullet points without any surrounding text to provide context.  That was the first habit that had to go, since a one page summary needs to be easily digestible and should lead the reader smoothly through a topic.  A smooth flow requires complete sentences.  Following swiftly on the heels of banning the bullet point format, I also found it necessary to restrict lists.  Oh did the students love to make lists!  “My Senator is interested in the environment, education, technology, armed forces, children, little green apples, and stuffed animals.”  I always lost focus long before I reached the little green apples, so I restricted the lists or series to a maximum of three items.  I was impressed at how readable the resulting documents became.

Once the lists and bullets had been abolished, I found that I developed other pet peeves, which became the focus of periodic grammar mini-lectures of 5-10 minutes at the start of class.  We discussed parallel structure in series in which all the starting words are in the same form, such as, “I enjoy running in the rain, swimming in the ocean, and sleeping in the grass.”  I also enforced that cause and effect links must indeed be cause and effect, rather than what I refer to as “reasoning by proximity,” in which two facts are placed adjacent to each other, implying a connection that is not correct.  For example, “Many women get breast cancer.  All of these women wear deodorant.”  Both facts may be true, but one does not necessarily cause the other.

I was pleased that the students reported that they enjoyed the short grammar lessons, and certainly the quality of their writing improved dramatically over the semester.  My goal for teaching writing is to take each student at his or her current writing level and raise the level up a notch or two.  It was a pleasure to watch the students rise to each new challenge; that is one of my favorite parts of teaching.

After I left the Senate, I expected that my biggest challenge of returning to reading student papers was going to be that I couldn’t tolerate people who could not make deadlines.  I was wrong.  It turned out that I had difficulty reading responses that were not concise.  Thus it was much to my amusement that my Honors students rapidly developed the same bias.  By partway through the semester, they were complaining about readings in our class or others that took far too many words to get the point across.  I always smiled benignly upon their complaints, agreed with their annoyance, and knew that I was teaching a valuable lesson.


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There and Back Again

Back in August, I was privileged to be part of a symposium celebrating 40 years of the American Chemical Society Science Policy Fellows program.  The speakers represented each of the decades of the program, and each of us shared our fellowship experiences as well as what came afterwards.  One of the organizers identified me as, “You’re the one who went back.”  Indeed all of the other fellows had gone on to other positions in policy, a phenomenon known as “Potomac Fever,” and I was the only one who took a break from a job, spent a year in Washington, and then returned to the same job.  As time is available this spring, I plan to share how I have used my year on The Hill now that I am back in Connecticut.

In my original fellowship application, I stated that upon my return to my academic position, I planned to create a course for undergraduate students that would blend content issues with the politics I learned in Washington.  Thus this past fall, I taught an Honors seminar entitled, “Natural Resources, Science, and Public Policy.”  Mentally I subtitled the course, “What I did on my sabbatical.”  It has been the largest of the projects I’ve undertaken so far, and I’ve found it to be extremely rewarding.

The greatest challenge of the course for me was that I have little experience teaching seminar-style courses.  My reflex is always to lecture.  When I mentioned my concerns to a wise mentor, he suggested, “Well of course!  In science you actually have facts to convey.  In English, we tend to discuss opinions much more.”  His comment at least validated my discomfort.  I’m always afraid that the students won’t talk, although that was certainly not a problem by the end of the semester.

One of the ideas I implemented early on was that each student should choose a senator and state to represent.  I had been concerned that the students would each select their home states and we would have find students all talking about the same state, but that turned out not to be the case.  Indeed, although a large number of students grew up in Connecticut, neither of the Connecticut senators was selected by a student.  To start the selection process, I passed out a map of the United States, described some of the environmental and energy issues by region, and the students proceeded to select a reasonably representative group of Senators, including members of both political parties.

I personally enjoyed the challenge of a student asking me to describe the senior and junior senators of a state, and I was generally able to provide a few pertinent details about each senator’s interests, committees, and personalities entirely off the top of my head.  I got my first inkling of how little the students were aware of politics when I was describing the two senators from Nevada.  I said, “Oh, well the senior senator is Harry Reid.”  The student looked blankly at me and asked, “Who is that?”  Yes, we had some work to do.  (At the time, he was the Senate Majority Leader if you need the hint.)

At the end of the semester, the students specifically commented on how much they liked that they were each representing a specific senator.  One student announced, “I liked learning about a state outside of New England.”  In contrast, another student who was a native of Massachusetts and selected one of her home state senators commented, “I learned that I knew nothing at all about my home state.”

Stay tuned, and I’ll share more of my adventures with my honors students this past semester.


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Water Based Hazards

I recently had the experience of moderating a Congressional briefing panel discussing water-based hazards.  Since my role was to create a big picture framework for the presentations (as well as keep speakers to their allotted time and control the flow of the question and answer period), I took the opportunity to think about all of the challenges we encounter related to water.

Some of the biggest water stories lately involve too little water.  I find checking the U.S. Drought Monitor to be a heartbreaking exercise since it shows the extent of California’s crippling drought that has emptied reservoirs and made water rationing a reality and a necessity.  During the year when my heart belonged to Colorado, my adopted state was in a similar world of hurts, and pictures from the southeastern part of the state were reminiscent of the dustbowl with blowing dirt and sand that was no longer anchored by the dead and dying plants.  Even when the rains come, they first must saturate the parched ground before there is excess to raise the water level in the lakes and reservoirs.

20140909 us drought monitor

Then there are the problems with an overabundance of water.  After all, storms such as Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy are a combination of wind and far too much water for the ground to absorb.  Images of submerged rail lines and coastal communities washed away after Sandy demonstrate that big storms are not exclusive to the South.

Flooding is also not exclusive to the coasts.  In September 2013, a huge rainstorm that settled in over the Rockies demonstrated how fragile our infrastructure can be.  Some communities were temporarily isolated by the floodwaters, whereas others were cut off from the rest of the world when roads built along the Big Thompson riverbed were washed out.  As people brought in groceries on horseback, I was reminded of my year of transporting groceries in DC without a car. At that point, it all comes down to weight and bulk of what you select and carry.

We in the United States, often take our water supply and our water quality for granted.  That illusion of an infallible water supply has run up against reality several times in the past year or so.  Over 300,000 residents of West Virginia learned the weakness of the system when a storage tank leaked out a substance used in the processing of coal.  The contaminated water was undrinkable for days.  People had to cope with either the limited bottled water that was distributed, or they drove for hours to get to clean water.  Toledo learned a similar lesson this past summer when an algae bloom of cyanobacteria dumped toxins into Lake Erie right at the water intake pipe for the city.  With waste water treatment plants equipped only to remove usual toxins rather than exotic toxins, there was more distribution of bottled water and yet more driving to find clean water.

Even disasters that on the surface seem to be unrelated turn out to affect water.  For example, forest fires in Colorado are commonly understood to be double disasters.  The first disaster is the loss of homes and properties in the fire.  The second is the effect on the water system.  In the summer of 2012, the ash from the High Park fire near Fort Collins washed down the steep slopes until the Poudre River ran black.  Does a farmer irrigate with the black water or not irrigate at all?  For the Waldo Canyon fire near Colorado Springs in the same year, the challenge was infrastructure.  The runoff of water down the steep slopes is enhanced anywhere between two and ten-fold after an intensely burning forest fire.  A few months after the fire destroyed 350 homes, a relatively routine rainstorm shed so much water off the slopes that the force of the water stacked up concrete culverts like straws at the bottom of the drainage.

Against this backdrop of water-based hazards, it was fascinating to listen to the speakers who focused on ways in which science can be a resource for creating resilient communities where the impacts of such events are prevented or reduced.  NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is working with the local and regional resources around New York City to make future zoning plans that not only consider the current flood zone maps, but also use maps that project the new flood zones taking into account future sea level rise.  In Vermont, geologists are creating landslide susceptibility maps with the goal of identifying undesirable places to build and potentially buy out owners of existing structures.  Toxicologists are searching for new faster ways of measuring health risks of chemicals without using animal testing, so safe levels in water can be established rapidly.  Construction companies are working with FEMA to create programs that will pay not just to replace a damaged concrete bridge with an identical copy, but to pay the extra money required to build the new bridge higher and out of steel so that the new bridge will be less prone to damage, last longer, and be more easily repaired.

I fielded one question that intended to hold the speakers accountable for creating a grand consolidated plan for addressing all of the challenges of water-based hazards.  I pointed out that the panel had highlighted several good starts and that as scientists and engineers, we stand ready to help.  We have to leave the grand plan to the policymakers.


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The Senate and the President

American Presidents To Present

My Beloved Husband and I have a penchant for contests in which we quiz each other on trivia.  We have exhausted the state capitals, made moderate headway on the country capitals, and I got my butt kicked by my BH on the international radio code (alpha, bravo, Charlie, etc.).  We also enjoy space esoterica such as naming the lunar landing sites of the Apollo missions or the naming the wives of the “New Nine” astronauts.  A few months ago, we ate at a diner where the placemats featured pictures of all of the American Presidents, and we immediately seized on a new contest.

My history and political reading of the past year and a half gave me a distinct advantage, but both of us floundered between Andrew Jackson, whose winning slogan was, “John Quincy Adams can write, but I can fight!” and approximately Woodrow Wilson.  It’s a vast wasteland in the middle with only Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt as familiar faces.  Even trying to regroup the Presidents by other characteristics such as the “cartoon” presidents: Millard (Mallard) Fillmore, (James) Garfield, and Grover (Cleveland) didn’t help much in reproducing the sequence.  (As I was writing that passage, I called in my BH to consult, and when he tried for “President Deputy Dog,” I knew that he was not going to be a big help.)  So why is this string of Presidents so unmemorable?  The answer is found in the balance of power between the President and the Senate

When our modern government was formed and George Washington was unanimously named as the first President, the players all rather gingerly explored their roles.  Laws originated largely from Congress, and predominantly from the House.  The first six Presidents used their veto power sparingly and then only in cases in which they felt that the new law violated the young Constitution.  George Washington however, submitting a slate of candidates for approval by the Senate for a variety of government positions, learned the hard way that the Senate did not see their role of “advise and consent” to mean automatic acceptance of Washington’s recommendations. One nomination was blocked by a senator who had a personal quarrel with the nominee, prompting Washington to appear before the Senate to question what the problem was.  Much as they respected this man who had been elected unanimously, the Senate felt no obligation to explain their actions.  Thus Washington learned to consult with the Senate before he submitted nominations, and he proceeded to conduct all of his subsequent business with Congress through written correspondence rather than by addressing the group on their own turf.  Both practices remain in place today.

The 1820’s began what came to be known as the Golden Age of the Senate.  It began following the term of Andrew Jackson, (President #7), who forcefully imposed his strong views about the primacy of the President upon Congress.  Thus after his term Congress pushed back hard to re-establish their own power.  The Senate in particular, flexed its authority by no longer deferring to the House to introduce legislation and began to originate its own bills.

As Alexis de Tocqueville described the Senate in 1835, “Scarcely an individual is to be seen in it who has not had an active and illustrious career: the Senate is composed of eloquent advocates, distinguished generals, wise magistrates, and statesmen of note, whose arguments would do honor to the most remarkable parliamentary debates of Europe.” The great triumvirate of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun were but three of the senators whose fiery and passionate debates hammered out acts such as the Missouri Compromise of 1850, which for a time preserved the Union and delayed the Civil War for decades.

Because the Senate contained a considerable portion of the best political talent, and because of the tensions between North and South making it impossible for the best known candidates to be nominated, the Golden Age of the Senate from the 1820’s through the 1850’s accompanied great weakness in the Presidency.  Men like Zachary Taylor or James Polk were political compromises who did their best to stay out of the legislature’s way and did not make a significant impression upon history.  At least ten of the 62 senators who served in the 1849-1850 Congress had greater impact upon the country than did the Presidents of that era. They included Clay, Webster, and Calhoun, but also William Seward of New York, Salmon Chase of Ohio, and Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, who later became part of President Lincoln’s team of rivals cabinet as Secretaries of state, treasury, and war respectively.

It was Abraham Lincoln who temporarily shifted more power to the Presidency and away from the Senate.  For example, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued entirely without consulting Congress, who were less than pleased at being left out of the loop.  This power shift was transitory since Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln after his assassination, holds the dubious honor of the first President to be impeached by the House.  On my visit to the National Archives last year, I saw the piece of paper with the hand-written resolution for impeachment; it was carried around for days by a representative who was looking for an opportunity to use it.  Although Johnson narrowly avoided conviction by the Senate, he left the Presidency again greatly weakened.

Thus began a second sequence of Presidents whose names are barely memorable.  Following Ulysses Grant, who was adept at winning a war, but had no idea how to run a country, were men such as Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, and Chester Arthur.  It was not until Vice President Teddy Roosevelt became President upon the assassination of William McKinley that Congress acquired another worthy opponent in the White House and the inexorable progression toward a strong President would begin.

Having learned this bit of history, I felt that my lack of knowledge of these Presidents was perfectly justified.  Besides, although my English BH knows a greater than average amount about American Presidents, I still knew enough to beat him at the game.

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The Senate and Elections

In Miss Gonser’s eighth grade social studies class, we had to learn the purpose of each amendment to the Constitution.  The 17th amendment provides for the direct election of senators, and I remember at the time thinking that this was a pretty trivial and uninteresting amendment.  I have lately learned more about the history of this amendment, which turns out to be far more interesting than I had thought.

Our founders spent quite a bit of time contemplating the Senate and how it should work.  The story is told that Thomas Jefferson was Ambassador to France at the time and thus was absent for most of the negotiations.  When he returned, he talked to George Washington and asked why on earth the Senate had been created.  In reply, Washington pointed out that Jefferson had just poured some of his tea out of his cup and into the saucer.  Washington asked why, and Jefferson replied, “To cool it off.”  Washington said, “That’s why we created the Senate.”  The upper chamber was designed to cool the fiery passions expected in the House of Representatives.

We are all familiar with the decision that senators would be elected for six year terms, and that one third of the senators would be up for election every two years to prevent rapid swings in the composition of the body, but I hadn’t realized that originally, senators were elected by the state legislatures rather than by popular vote.  Although the intent was that the senators would stay above the political fray, the country rapidly fell into the partisan politics that has so often characterized the government.  For example, in Virginia, Patrick Henry who controlled the state legislature, not only blocked the election of James Madison to the Senate, and instead substituted his own political allies for the spots, but he also attempted to interfere with Madison’s election to the House.  Since Madison helped to shape the Constitution, he was arguably actually the most qualified man in Virginia to serve in the new federal government.

A senator had considerable political influence in his home state because of the Senate’s role in approving nominations to federal appointments.  Through the spoils system, named for “to the victor go the spoils,” a successful candidate rewarded his supporters with federal posts and the accompanying salaries, thus buying votes in the state legislatures.  The political parties reinforced this system as party bosses arranged for themselves or their designated candidates to be elected to the Senate. In the 1880’s, a British historian commented on the number of very rich men in the U.S. Senate, saying, “Some are senators because they are rich; a few are rich because they are senators.”

As early as 1826, a bill was introduced in the House to allow for “direct” election of senators, meaning that the population of a state would get to vote for their senators, just as they voted for their representatives.  Needless to say, that bill went nowhere in the Senate.  It took another 88 years before a Constitutional amendment was ratified by the required three-quarters of the states and in 1913 became the 17th amendment.   No longer would deadlocked legislatures result in long term vacancies in the Senate, and the influence of the party bosses began to wane

The change in election format was accompanied by complaints from political analysts that the Senate had become much more like the House- swayed by popular opinion and populated by a less exalted character of man, both in stark contrast to the intent of the framers of the Constitution.  Certainly there were a considerable number of retirements resulting from the change, since seats that had formerly been secured by influencing a few score state representatives became far less reliable in general elections.

As I was learning about this history, I was particularly struck by the role of money in the process.  The framers of the Constitution had considered and rejected the idea that senators should own a certain amount of land or have a certain amount of wealth, but the influence of money in the election of senators from the state legislatures still became significant.  Although we have been electing senators by popular vote for the past century, personal wealth still plays a significant role since changes in campaign finance rules make it easier for a wealthy individual to finance his or her own election run.  Thus wealth often trumps individuals with a genuine skill or passion for government.  Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose.  (The more things change, the more they stay the same.)


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