Friday, April 27, 2007

Constitutional conflict, mano a mano

The US House of Representatives wants Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to testify about fraudulent claims that Saddam Hussein was buying uranium from Niger, which claims were featured in the justifications for invading Iraq. Rice, who was National Security Advisor back then, seems inclined to refuse on the grounds of "executive privilege," i.e., that the President needs candid advice and certain discussions should remain confidential. The House has thus issued a subpoena, which requires Rice to appear or face arrest or other legal sanctions.

The only problem for the House is that the normal way to enforce such sanctions is through the office of the US Attorney for the District of Columbia, who works for and was appointed by the President, and might not be terribly motivated to expedite the House's will.

Stalemate? Well, have a look at this article in Slate which points out that the House has an officer of its own, the House Sergeant of Arms (one Wilson Livingood) who has both the legal authority and a weapon to enforce the House's will: the weapon being the Mace of the House.

The Slate article gives enough detail about both the British and American history of legislative bodies directly exerting jurisdiction to get you started on this fascinating topic (though if you go further don't ignore the history of the Roman Republic). I'd just like to say something about the symbol (?) of authority, the mace.

The mace is really no different from the scepter, and both are clubs. Have a look at this ancient Egyptian portrait of "Narmer" who may be the first king of the first dynasty, and note how he is using a scepter/mace to beat down his enemies. Do a Google Images search for "scepter" and one for "sceptre" and look at the images from older art. A scepter/mace is a symbol of power, and the jurisdiction -- ability to command and punish -- which is the essence of power.

For long periods of history, those who claimed jurisdiction held a scepter or mace to make their claim visible. In the Middle Ages, that included more than individual lords. A collective body with a significant degree of self-government and authority could have a mace, too. Like a university, which still has the power to grant legal rank (bachelor, master, and doctor) recognized by other authorities, and has its own rules of internal governance.

Does your university have a mace? Mine does, see the image above, in which Dr. Ted Chase is carrying it to a Nipissing University convocation.

I said the mace was a "symbol (?)" because battles over jurisdiction in the old days were often real battles. Slate cites a couple of examples in the article cited above. I don't know about the British/English Commons history of fisticuffs, but in the pre-Civil War days in the USA, it was not so unusual for members of Congress to beat each other up. One famous incident, the beating of Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks, helped bring on the war and shape the Reconstruction.

Has anyone written a social and pugilistic history of the pre-Civil War American Congress? Please tell me if you know of one.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Steve Muhlberger said...

Sophia at MEDIEV-L said:

Well, the Mace of the British House of Commons has actually been used
for its original purpose fairly recently: in 1976 during an angry debate
Michael Heseltine MP (as he then was) tried to club some members on the
other side of the House with it before colleagues grabbed him. The Mace
in question is a 300 year old, 5' long bit of silver-gilt and is
presumably very heavy (this incident is one of the reasons why he got
his nickname Tarzan). It's actually a serious offence for MPs to touch
the mace, only a special officer may. The House may only do business
when the Mace is present.

The House of Lords has two Maces, one is placed on the Woolsack when the
house is sitting, the other is carried in front of the Lord Chancellor
when he is on ceremonial business. **I believe there are also maces and
staves of office for some of the other Great Officers of State (and odd
people like the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster). **British local
government bodies have maces too and some mayors - for instance the Lord
Mayor of London - have the right to have a mace carried in front of them
like the **Lord Chancellor.

British Universities have maces as well, they tend to come out for
degree giving and other big ceremonies.

1:37 PM  
Blogger Steve Muhlberger said...

I asked Sophia:

Steve Muhlberger wrote:

> Did anything happen to Heseltine because of his offense?

And she replied;

No, he grovelled sufficiently abjectly to the Speaker the next day and was let off. He ended up as Secretary of Defence in the 1980s, helped engineer the downfall of Maggie Thatcher and eventually went to the Lords.

Anyway, some might think that he was upholding Parliamentary traditionsby trying to club the opposition, as demonstrated by the two red lines in the carpet of the floor of the House which MPs must not cross. They are set two rapier lengths apart to prevent the Honourable Members from
sword fighting with each other during debates.

It's interesting to think that the arrangement of the UK's main
legislative chamber is still dictated by what was thought the proper way to set out the choir stalls and liturgical space of a collegiate church in the later middle ages.

7:33 PM  

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