Benjamin Franklin

Political Commentary – March 21: Unhappy Anniversary

This March 21st marks the saddest anniversary in the history of the American experience. On this date in 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that the protections guaranteed all Americans in the Constitution don’t apply to us. The Court handed down its infamous opinion in the National Treasury Employees Union v. Von Raab case. This ruling served as the catalyst for mandatory drug testing.

I’ve always been intrigued by this decision. We Americans pride ourselves on our “exceptionalism.” As President Ronald Reagan, the pioneer of governmental work place drug testing, once opined: America stood as a “shining city on a hill.” When I hear stories about people being forced to urinate on demand in front of others, doctors and HR professionals serving as unlicensed agents of law enforcement, and Americans being forced to prove their innocence without the aid of an attorney I have my doubts. In the latter case, it’s especially egregious that people are threatened with loss of their livelihoods if they attempt to assert their Fourth Amendment right against “unreasonable searches and seizures” WITHOUT EVEN BEING ACCUSED OF A CRIME.

The fact the Supreme Court expressed this sudden abnegation of the concept of privacy befuddles me. In 1973 it ruled that a woman had a solemn right to privacy if she desired an abortion. Sixteen years later it issued another decision stating people lack a right to privacy if they would like a job. I don’t understand the reasoning here, but, then again, I’m not an attorney.

This decision allowed for a new series of disturbing tactics America’s so-called “war on drugs”. I recall reading Primo Levy’s account how guards would force concentration camp inmates to urinate in front of them. In German society at the time, doctors worked as agents of the State to eliminate undesirables. While Americans love our “Happy Hours” we hold a special distain for drug addicts; at least the ones not working in the entertainment industry or playing professional sports. I’m not placing drug testing on par with the Holocaust, but the eerie parallels are difficult to discount.

It’s even harder to ignore Americans’ cavalier attitude towards this erosion of Constitutional protection. Many people argue that drug testing makes society “safer.” I reply that the two most horrible expressions in the English language are “consumer protection” and “public safety”. They can be used to justify anything. Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “He who would sacrifice liberty for security deserves neither.”

I always cite Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissenting opinion as one of the best commentaries on civil rights. It belongs in the same category of great American orations such as “The Gettysburg Address”.

There is irony in the Government’s citation, in support of its position, of Justice Brandeis’ statement in Olmstead v. United States,277 U. S. 438, 277 U. S. 485 (1928) that “[f]or good or for ill, [our Government] teaches the whole people by its example.” Brief for Respondent 36. Brandeis was there dissenting from the Court’s admission of evidence obtained through an unlawful Government wiretap. He was not praising the Government’s example of vigor and enthusiasm in combatting crime, but condemning its example that “the end justifies the means,” 277 U.S. at 277 U. S. 485. An even more apt quotation from that famous Brandeis dissent would have been the following:

“[I]t is . . . immaterial that the intrusion was in aid of law enforcement. Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning, but without understanding.”

Id. at 277 U. S. 479. Those who lose because of the lack of understanding that begot the present exercise in symbolism are not just the Customs Service employees, whose dignity is thus offended, but all of us — who suffer a coarsening of our national manners that ultimately give the Fourth Amendment its content, and who become subject to the administration of federal officials whose respect for our privacy can hardly be greater than the small respect they have been taught to have for their own.

(Retrieved from 3/21/15.)

In his “Farewell Address” George Washington warned that America “should not go abroad in search of monsters to fight.” Recently we engaged in an effort at nation building for a society that hadn’t had “freedom”, “liberty” or “democracy” in over 6,000 years. Instead of trying to turn the Middle East into the paragon of Jeffersonian Democracy, we should focus on assuring our own liberty here at home.

Famous Historical Figure Visits Moorestown

The wife of one of the Founding Fathers visited the Historical Society of Moorestown on October 19, 2006. Deborah Read Franklin shared with the group stories about her life in pre-Revolutionary American society. Of course, her lecture would not have been complete without some remarks about her famous husband, the beloved Founding Father, Benjamin. Mrs. Franklin illuminated a side of Philadelphia’s most famous citizen that the history books have kept in the dark all these years.

With a pining look in her eyes, Mrs. Franklin described her first encounter with the man who would become her husband. She first met Benjamin on the very day of his arrival in the City of Brotherly Love. He was a young man of just 17 at the time. He looked rather disheveled as he made his way down High Street (now Market Street). He had just completed a long, arduous journey from Boston by way of New York and looking worst for wear. “It was love at first sight,” she said smiling.

“Young Ben was carrying three large loaves of bread under his arms,” Deborah said. When she asked why young Benjamin explained that he offered a baker a few coins for “biscuits”, as his often did in Boston. The proud baker became indignant. “We only sell fine bread here!”

“Well then give me this much worth of bread!” Benjamin retorted as he thrust the coins in the man’s direction. Young Ben didn’t know that the Philadelphia economy differed from that of Boston. He didn’t want to come across as provincial so when the baker handed him the three large loaves so he gladly accepted them.

The next time that Deborah saw Ben, she asked him what he did with all the bread. It certainly would have gone bad before he had time to eat it. (Mr. Franklin didn’t add his legendary girth until he was much older.) “I saw a woman and her young child who had been ship mates of mine. They were hungry so I gave the bread to them.”

Deborah also solemnly related the story of how devastated Benjamin felt when his mother-in-law passed away. She tragically fell into an open fire pit during a fit of apoplexy. This loss affected Ben greatly. It consumed him. He couldn’t accept that he had founded the city’s first fire company, but was powerless to save someone so close to him from its dangers. But the horrible tragedy inspired Ben to “make things better.” He invented the Franklin Stove which no doubt saved countless lives from the ravages of fire. Although Ben couldn’t save his mother-in-law, his invention no-doubt saved an incalculable number of other lives. Mrs. Franklin said that prior to the invention of Mr. Franklin’s stove, the second leading cause of death among women in Colonial America was infection caused by burns.

Deborah concluded her narrative by saying that Ben was such a successful businessman that he retired at the age of 42. At the time he happily told his wife: “Now, Debbie we can do all those things we never had time for.” Very shortly afterwards, the American Revolution entered into its incipient stages. Ben heeded the call of the new nation and travelled to England to fight against “taxation without representation.” Mrs. Franklin didn’t see her husband for the final ten years of her life. Sadly, she didn’t survive long enough to witness the independence of the United States that her husband worked to hard to achieve. She passed away in 1774.

Historian and actress JoAnn Tufo brought the character of Deborah Read Franklin to life. During the question period, an audience member asked Ms. Tufo if she believed Ben Franklin truly loved his wife. After all, his legendary reputation among the ladies of France persists to this day. Ms. Tufo replied that Benjamin was a widower long before he went to Paris. In keeping with the theme of revealing elements of Franklin’s character not captured by the history books, she said that Ben also happened to be a songwriter. One of his works still extant is a tune he penned about Debbie. “What greater sign of love is there than when a man writes a drinking song about his wife?” She asked.