Letters - Summer 2019

Responses to Our Spring 2019 Issue

By Our readers | June 3, 2019

The First Impeachment

The Scholar is to be commended for calling timely attention to the first use of presidential impeachment. But Brenda Wineapple’s article (“The First President to Be Impeached,” Spring 2019) could have been improved by closer constitutional analysis. Central to the impeachment of Andrew Johnson was the charge that he had violated the Tenure of Office Act, whose origins lay in a typical but unusually exacerbated power struggle between the president and Congress—a congressional attempt to reduce the appointive power to a near nullity. The act provided that any executive official whose appointment required Senate confirmation could be removed only with Senate consent. Had the act altered the balance of executive and legislative powers, it may be imagined what would have become of the presidential duty to “see that the laws be faithfully executed.”

Johnson’s alleged violation of the act (in his effort to remove the disloyal Edwin Stanton from his cabinet) was the only impeachment charge that the Senate took seriously, as measured by a close vote. Had the novel act been vindicated by Johnson’s ouster, a president’s power to fire as well as hire could well have vanished. Stripped of their sanctimonious rhetoric, Thaddeus Stevens and his allies were warriors for an ultra-Whiggish turn in American constitutional law. Who knows whether so sharp a turn toward parliamentary procedure and legislative supremacy would have been good or bad; but assuredly, American history and constitutionalism would have today a radically different bent.

Johnson was as poorly equipped for the presidency as any incumbent before January 2017. Not the least of his disservices to a war-weary nation was a temporary endorsement of the rumor that high Confederate officials were implicated in the Lincoln assassination—a false and inflammatory charge that could have renewed the fighting but that Jefferson Davis bluntly and plausibly dismissed: “We are,” he said, “gentlemen, not assassins.” Fortunately, the impeachment case, hence our ensuing constitutional practice, turned on an issue of law, not manners.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Brenda Wineapple responds:

I thank Mr. Yoder for his attention to the dubious Tenure of Office Act and the constitutional issues raised by Andrew Johnson’s impeachment and direct him to my completed book, The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation, for a full discussion of the nature of the act, the reasons Congress took the unusual step of passing it, and the complex arguments for and against Johnson’s impeachment—raised by members of Congress since 1867 and debated during the trial when the concern was not a matter of manners but the direction of a postwar, post-slave democracy.


Jura Days

I loved the article by David Brown on George Orwell at Jura (“Orwell’s Last Neighborhood”). The Orwell grave site at Sutton Courtenay in Oxfordshire reads simply that Eric Arthur Blair is buried there, with no mention of the name Orwell or his oeuvre. Brown told this Jura story in a superb bit of writing, and reading it was pure delight. More like it, please.

Fay Vincent Jr.
Vero Beach, Florida


Barzun and the Humanities

My interest in Jacques Barzun goes back to 1946–47, when I spent a year at Columbia earning a master’s degree in English literature. My principal courses were with Lionel Trilling and Joseph Wood Krutch, but the Barzun intellect and personality were powerful forces in that fabulous educational kingdom, and I managed to attend the professor’s lectures, which were part of the freshman Contemporary Civilization course. I was—and am—an engineer (now some years retired), and I had originally attended a five-year program at Dartmouth that stressed the importance of the liberal arts. But during the war, the Navy program at Dartmouth eliminated much of the liberal arts portion and limited me to the equivalent of four academic years, followed by a degree and commissioning in the Navy Civil Engineer Corps. After a year in the Pacific, just as the war was ending—no heroics—I opted for the master’s degree in my hometown, New York.

A commitment to the liberal arts stayed with me, and in addition to my career as a civil engineer, I dabbled with a second career as a writer, producing some seven books and 300 articles. Always with me have been the civilizing forces of Morningside Heights. The Barzun speech now brought to light (“Present-Day Thoughts on the Quality of Life [1969]”) reminds me of a passage of Barzun’s that I quoted in my keystone work, The Existential Pleasures of Engineering. I argue in favor of the humanities but not at all on behalf of the idea that they are anything like a Sunday-school text. Let us hear Barzun, one of our leading defenders of the humanities, on this point:

The humanities will not rout the world’s evils and were never meant to cure individual troubles: they are entirely compatible with those evils and troubles. Nor are the humanities a substitute for medicine or psychiatry; they will not heal diseased minds or broken hearts, any more than they will foster political democracy or settle international disputes. All the evidence goes the other way. The so-called humanities have meaning chiefly because of the inhumanity of life; what they depict and discuss is strife and disaster. The Iliad is not about world peace; King Lear is not about a well-rounded man; Madame Bovary is not about the judicious employment of leisure time.

Sam Florman
New York City


Puccini Villainy

I really enjoyed Theodore Gioia’s article (“The Sound of Evil,” Arts) and learned a lot. I would like to point out the role lyrics and musical character play in the possible disconnect of classical music from popular culture. Movies draw upon instrumental music because it tends to distract less from the dialogue and action of the film, while enhancing particularly violent events such as murder. (Remember The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, which used Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1? “It’s always the quiet ones.”)

Now, speaking quite generally, young people today are more fascinated by lyrics, rhymes, words, and the cult of personality. Classical music, largely wordless and incorporating foreign lyrics when it’s not, presents barriers to many young people. With popular songs (the dominant form of music in America), the character is embedded in the singer, who often resorts to exaggerated emotions, gestures, dance movements, and shock to add value. In art music, the character is embedded in the art, and musicians—especially orchestral musicians—are taught not to let their own personalities come before the integrity of a score. Small ensembles offer a chance to work beyond this while providing youth with entry points into classical music, something my company, CutTime Productions, does in its programming.

Rick Robinson
from our website

Theodore Gioia’s fascinating essay has ample examples to support its thesis. But Anthony Burgess, the author of the novel A Clockwork Orange, is overlooked in the discussion of the classical music Kubrick used for the film. Burgess, both a novelist and a classical composer, intertwined Alex’s passion for violence and classical music as the theme of A Clockwork Orange. The death of one meant the death of the other, and the work of Beethoven is explicit in the novel. But why? The philosopher Schopenhauer thought the real world, which he called the noumenon or will, was unknowable to us, but the one way the real world seeped through was in music. But Schopenhauer saw clearly the violence of the phenomenal world we inhabit. His answer was that the will, which is everything, had nothing to feed on but itself. The source of this world’s music and violence was the dumb will constantly devouring itself.

“zanmacarthur”
from our website

Some of the pieces of music Gioia cites have thematic connections to the films—thus their use. In M, the trolls depicted in Grieg’s music are the child snatchers of Norwegian folklore. The original ending of Fatal Attraction, in which Glenn Close’s character commits suicide using a knife with Michael Douglas’s fingerprints on it, alludes to the plot of Madama Butterfly. There are also economic considerations. “Why do our films depict sociopaths murdering to Mozart and not Metallica?” Gioia asks. Using Mozart doesn’t require licensing fees.

“Bill from PA”
from our website

Classical music is an eminently suitable background for murders because murder itself is both substantive and significant. Classical music connotes a grown-up world of stability and responsibility in which actions count and events have meaningful consequences. It also connotes authority—of parents, teachers, governments, and the law, of tradition and harsh economic realities. It’s not so much that villains are sinister as that their actions matter. They certainly matter to the plot, since what villains disrupt is an order we aren’t inclined to think about a lot but that reveals itself in moments of crisis. What better musical themes to punctuate these crises, or accompany plans to challenge order, than the most orderly ones we have? They remind us not only that something is at stake, but also that there remains something that qualifies as being at stake.

“mattmark”
from our website


CORRECTION:

A quote from a Thomas Jefferson letter to George Hay (Commonplace Book, Autumn 2018) was inaccurate. The line should have read: “I have no hesitation in saying that I have ever considered the constitutional mode of election ultimately by the legislature voting by States as the most dangerous blot in our Constitution, and one which some unlucky chance will some day hit.”

 

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