Saturday, April 26, 2014

Richmond Public Schools: The Law is Clear

Sometimes, it is very frustrating to be a maven. You write and you write but nobody seems to listen. I can’t count the number of times I have explained the laws controlling the operation of the public schools in Richmond, VA, USA. And just when I think everybody understands, I see a turf war breaking out in our lovely city on the James between City Council and the School Board. City Council wants to form a committee composed of representatives of the mayor, council and school board to formulate a three-year plan for the operation of Richmond Public Schools. The School Board strongly objects to what it sees as an invasion of its jurisdiction. I don’t have time to go into more detail, so if you want to know more read these two articles. 1 2  

Now, pay attention. I will explain this once more. 

Article VIII, Section 1 of the Virginia Constitution provides:

“The General Assembly shall provide for a system of free public elementary and secondary schools for all children of school age throughout the Commonwealth, and shall seek to ensure that an educational program of high quality is established and continually maintained.”

Article VIII, Section 7 of the constitution says:

“The supervision of schools in each school division shall be vested in a school board, to be composed of members selected in the manner, for the term, possessing the qualifications, and to the number provided by law.”

In implementing these constitutional mandates, the General Assembly enacted VA Code section 22.1-28 which provides:

“The supervision of schools in each school division shall be vested in a school board selected as provided in this chapter or as otherwise provided by law.” 

The drafters of the constitution could have chosen to place school divisions under the control of local governing bodies like city councils or boards of supervisors. That would have been logical. But they did not. They put supervision of local school divisions in school boards that are independent of local governing bodies. I assume they did so to insulate school operation from local politics.

The citizens of Richmond maintained the independence of their local school board in the City’s charter. Section 20.01 of the charter reads, in part:

“Except as provided in this Charter the School Board shall have all the powers and duties relating to the management and control of the public schools of the City provided by the general laws of the Commonwealth. None of the provisions of this Charter shall be interpreted to refer to or include the School Board unless the intention so to do is expressly stated or is clearly apparent from the context.”

So, what about the City Council? As the City’s governing body, does it have no role to play in Richmond Public Schools? Yes, it has a role. That role has to do with providing funding for the operation of the schools. Section 22.1-93 of the Virginia Code states:

“Notwithstanding any other provision of law . . . the governing body of a municipality shall prepare and approve an annual budget for educational purposes by May fifteen or within thirty days of the receipt by the municipality of the estimates of state funds, whichever shall later occur.”
The state law also mandates that the local governing body provide a minimum amount of local funding to supplement state funding for public schools. Section 22.1-94 says:

“A governing body may make appropriations to a school board from the funds derived from local levies and from any other funds available, for operation, capital outlay and debt service in the public schools. Such appropriations shall be not less than the cost apportioned to the governing body for maintaining an educational program meeting the standards of quality for the several school divisions prescribed as provided by law.” 

This requirement was incorporated in Section 6.14 of the City Charter that provides:

“It shall be the duty of the school board to submit its budget estimates to the mayor at the same time as other departments and in the form prescribed by the mayor. The mayor and council may take any action on the school budget permitted by § 22.1-94 of the Code of Virginia or any other provision of general law not in conflict with this charter.” 

But maven, surely the City Council has the statutory authority to create a committee to formulate a three-year plan for Richmond Public Schools.

Trusted reader, you have not been listening carefully. I have found no statute authorizing City Council to take such action. This is no different than two years ago, when Mayor Jones created a school accountability and efficiency task force. As I said then,

“Certainly, the mayor has appointed it. However, he can only assign to the task force authority which he has as mayor. He cannot create a committee or task force that has more authority than he has.”

Likewise with the Council’s committee. Council can create it, but it cannot assign to it authority that it does not have. 

Maven, are you really saying that City Council has no authority to make sure Richmond Public Schools is operating properly? 

Now, dear reader, you are putting words in my mouth. Of course the City Council has authority. As the appropriating body it has the implicit authority to oversee Richmond Public School’s use of the money it gives it. As part of the yearly budget process, the School Board submits its annual budget, which should explain how RPS used past appropriations and how it intends to spend the money School Board is asking for. If the Council is not satisfied with the explanations in the School Board’s budget, it has the right to ask the Chair of the Board or the Superintendent of Schools to explain in more detail.

Let me plagiarize some words I wrote two years ago:

“Despite the separation in rolls specified in state law, this maven is not advocating that the mayor and city council have no responsibility for the operation of Richmond Public Schools. On the contrary. I think that in the past some members of the city council have sidestepped issues relating to RPS by saying it is the responsibility of the school board not of the council. The condition of RPS is far too important to the city for any elected official to ever say, ‘It’s not my responsibility.’ I’m sure I have said it before, but if I haven’t I will say it loudly and clearly now: The City of Richmond will never be a great city until it has great public schools. It really doesn’t matter what else the city government does. So long as our schools are not world-class, Richmond will only be a C+ or B- city.”

So, Maven, what should we do?

Patient reader; you know that before I enrolled in the Maven Academy I was an attorney. So I know how to operate within the bounds of the law. I have two suggestions that can be implemented immediately.

1- Let the city councilmember and the school board representative in each of the city’s nine electoral districts get together to discuss how the council and board can work together to improve Richmond’s public schools. This will provide an opportunity to defuse the current dispute and to build trust between them. This trust can be brought by each back to the fully body. 

2- At least twice each year, the City Council should invite the Superintendent of Schools to meet with them to share his plans for the public schools. This meeting will also give each councilmember the opportunity to make suggestions to the Superintendent on how things may be improved. 

The city councilmember and school board representative in each district were elected by the same voters. The voters expected both people to do their statutory jobs and to work together to make Richmond become the best city it can become. It is time for these 18 people to forget blame and personalities and get on with the business of the City of Richmond.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Richmond School Funding: Déjà Vous, Again and Again and Again

My one fan out there knows that almost as long as I have been a maven I have been complaining that the City of Richmond doesn’t provide enough money for Richmond Public Schools. Rather than listing all the posts in which I have made that argument I will just refer you to the last one. 1  Guess what? It is budget season again in River City and our Mayor has cut the school board’s proposed budget by about $3.8 million. So here we are in 2014 and AGAIN the maven has to argue for more money for our children.

I have pointed out before that as a percentage of its general fund expenditures Richmond spends less on its public schools than almost any other jurisdiction in Virginia. So, to save time, I won’t say that now. I have also talked about the fact that the percentage of general fund expenditures going to Richmond Public Schools is constantly going down. This I need to talk about again. But first a little disclaimer. I find Richmond’s budget documents available on line to be confusing. In the past, when I reported to you the percentages, I relied on the pie charts contained in annual budgets. But the on-line collection is not complete so there are some years for which I don’t have pie charts. In addition, the pie charts don’t always agree with the tables contained in the budgets. Finally, because of the bi-annual nature of Richmond budgeting, there are different amounts in the documents designated as “proposed”, “amended”, “adopted” and “actual.”

Let me give you a few key numbers. For fiscal year 2009, the Mayor proposed and the City Council approved a budget that provided $161 million in general fund payments to Richmond Public Schools (RPS) out of a total general fund budget of $658.1 million. Under this budget the schools were receiving 24.47% of the total. For fiscal year 2014, the most recent year for which the council enacted a budget, the Mayor proposed and the City Council approved a budget that provided only $154.4 million to RPS out of a total general fund budget of $760.5 million. The schools’ share of total general fund expenditures has dropped to 20.2%. So how, dear reader, has this happened?

In March 2009 Mayor Jones informed City Council that, because of the economic recession, city revenues would be down considerably and that therefore the city’s payment to RPS for fiscal year 2010 would have to be reduced by 4%. The dollar reduction to RPS was about $8 million. The recession ended and city revenue increased considerably. However, neither the Mayor nor the City Council ever restored the $8 million that had been cut from RPS. As you can see from just the two years indicated in the preceding paragraph, total city general fund spending has increased by more than $100 million since fiscal year 2009 while the amount the city contributes to RPS is still more than $6 million less than it was then. 

The mayor and the chair of the council’s budget committee have argued that the percentages don’t matter; that the city is committed to its public schools; that the Mayor’s proposed increase ($1 million of the $4.8 million requested by the school board) from last year is adequate. But nobody talks about the lost $8 million. If the city is really committed to public schools the annual percentage of general fund expenditures for RPS should stay pretty constant. Yet, if the Mayor’s proposed budget is adopted by City Council, the RPS slice of the pie will be down to 20.1%. Any members of City Council who votes to approve the Mayor’s budget will be hard-pressed in the future to claim they really care about the children of Richmond.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Our Tax System is Broke

Well fellow citizens, it is April 15, affectionately known as “tax day.” This is the day when most of us end our annual battle with the Infernal, er. . . I mean Internal Revenue Service. I assume most of you are like me—you don’t mind paying taxes, you just hate this annual battle. I think each of us are torn between two fears; 1- that we’re paying more taxes than our neighbors, and 2- that if we claim a questionable deduction IRS agents will be knocking down our doors to drag us off to federal prison. I also think that a lot of us feel kind of resentful on tax day because we keep hearing that rich individuals and corporations never pay their fair share of the costs of government.  

A few years back, this maven wrote a piece on the Fair Tax proposal, which was sort of popular for a while. I think the Fair Fax proposal has moved to the back burner. But some of the stuff I said then still applies and I will quote it here. Don’t worry; I gave myself permission to plagiarize so there are no copyright problems. 

“A tax system should have only one purpose—raising revenue for the government to carry out the functions that the representatives of the citizens have assigned to it. In addition, under the theory that those who accumulate the most wealth derive the most benefit from the country or state, the tax system should be progressive. Those who earn the most should pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than do those who earn the least. Finally, a tax system must not only be fair, it must also be perceived as fair by the citizens.

“Under these standards, our current tax system ranks low. First, rather than being only a mechanism for raising revenue, our current system is used continuously by the government as a mechanism for controlling the behavior of individuals and corporations in our society. When the government wishes to encourage certain activities it offers tax incentives to those who abide by those wishes. Likewise, when the government wishes to discourage certain behaviors it places tax costs on those behaviors. This management of our society by use of the tax code is probably as old as the code itself and has been used by both Republican and Democratic governments. It explains why the Internal Revenue Code is thousands of pages rather than only a few pages long.

“Second, our tax system is unfair and is perceived by most citizens as unfair. It is set up as a yearly game between the citizens and the IRS. The objective of the IRS in this game is to maximize the amount of taxes each citizen pays. The objective of each citizen is to minimize the amount of taxes he, she or it pays. The rules of the game are tens of thousands of pages long, and those who can afford expensive CPAs or tax lawyers who have mastered those rules are going to play the game much better than those who can’t. A tax system in which the amount you pay depends on how clever you and your tax preparer are is not a fair system. And it cannot be perceived as fair. Many taxpayers get the feeling that somehow they are paying more than their fair share of taxes. They fear that their neighbor has discovered a hidden deduction that they don’t know about. Or they fear the dreaded audit in which the IRS will discover that they have claimed more in deductions than the law allows.

“The unfairness of the system extends into its progressiveness. Although our tax system is, on its face, progressive, the presence of so many loopholes and deductions and credits and shelters reduces the tax burden on those with higher incomes. The result is that in many cases individuals with high incomes may be paying a lesser percentage of that income in taxes than do individuals with lower incomes.”

I would love to see our present system replaced with a tax system that is fair. I would love to see the IRS disappear. I would love to eliminate the anxiety I suffer every year in playing the 1040 game. 

We’ve been using the income tax as our primary source of government revenue for just over a hundred years. It’s about time we think this through again.


Friday, April 04, 2014

What’s With the Petitions in River City?

While we’re talking about Mayor Jones’s proposal to develop Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom, have you noticed there are two petitions floating around the city that stadium opponents think will put an end to the mayor’s madness. As you know the drafters of the Bill of Rights guaranteed the right of the people to petition the Government for redress of their grievances. So I guess that petitions are good. On the other hand there are so many people with grievances, and in this age of instant mass communications, I am asked to sign at least a dozen petitions a day. The Federal Government itself has a website encouraging citizens to submit petitions for the president to address. But, I am sort of wondering why the need for these two new petitions. 

I haven’t seen the petitions physically yet, but I understand that they are submitted under the authority of section 3.06.1 of the Richmond City Charter. That section provides that if a petition is filed containing the signatures of 10% of the highest number of voters who have voted in the city in the past five elections (a number that is estimated to be 9,800) requesting an amendment to the city charter, then the amendment shall be put on the ballot as a referendum question for all city voters. If the voters approve the referendum, the amendment is to be submitted to Virginia’s General Assembly for its approval. The two petitions circulating today request the following amendments to the City Charter: 

1- Proposition A proposes an amendment to the Charter creating a new section 2.04.02, providing that under the City Council’s powers contained in section 4.02 of the Charter, “there shall be created and funding provided for” the Historic East End Shockoe Bottom Commission. The Commission shall prepare (within nine months of its creation) a report to the Mayor and City Council on “how best to achieve economic growth while at the same [time] preserving the vital history of [the] area including the historic record regarding those uniquely significant events having taken place in the Shockoe Bottom area of the Historic East End.” Proposition A also provides that the City Council shall take no further action concerning the mayor’s Shockoe development plan until the Commission submits its report.  

2- Proposition B proposes an amendment to section 3.06.1 of the Charter broadening the authority of a minority of members of the City Council to call for an advisory referendum on issues relating to Mayor Jones’s Shockoe development proposal. With regard to ordinances relating directly to the baseball stadium proposed by the mayor the amendment would allow 3 of the 9 council members to call for an advisory referendum. With regard to ordinances dealing with various funding options for the Shockoe development the amendment would allow 4 of the 9 council members to call for an advisory referendum. Under existing language in section 3.06.1 a Council resolution calling for an advisory referendum requires that the issue be submitted to the voters and that the results of the referendum be reported to City Council for “such further action as it may deem advisable and in the best interests of the City.” 

Reader, to fully understand the significance of these two petitions you should understand the governing philosophy of Richmond’s City Charter, our local constitution. Chapter 4.02 of the Charter provides “All powers vested in the City shall be exercised by the Council except as otherwise provided in this Charter.” This means that the City Council is the governing body of the city. Unless the Charter assigns them elsewhere, all decisions regarding the governance of the city are to be made by City Council. The Charter does create the offices of mayor and chief administrative office of the city and assigns certain functions to the persons holding those offices. It also authorizes the City Council to create departments and other subdivisions of the city and to delegate governing powers to those subdivisions. In short, the City of Richmond is not a democracy. It operates under a republican form of government. We elect our nine members of the City Council. They in turn make the decisions that govern the city. 

The Charter as presently worded provides for three instances in which specific issues may be voted on by the citizens of Richmond. Two of these are in section 3.06.1. The first paragraph of that section authorizes the City Council, presumably by a majority vote, to request an advisory referendum on any proposed ordinance or proposed amendment to the Charter, the results of which are not binding on the Council. The second paragraph permits a referendum, under the procedures I described above, on an amendment to the City Charter itself. The third referendum provision is in section 7B.05. It provides for a referendum on an ordinance authorizing the city to issue bonds if within 30 days after the City Council passes the ordinance a petition with signatures of 10% of voters is submitted to the Richmond Circuit Court. 

I firmly believe that if something ain't broken, it don’t need to be fixed. So what exactly is wrong with the Richmond City Charter that it needs to be amended now? Is the structure of the city government unsound? Is there some inherent inefficiency that can only be solved by what are essentially constitutional amendments? Is the City Council as formulated and empowered under the current Charter incapable of governing? Trusted reader, let us skip through all the arguments and get to the actual reason that opponents of the Shockoe development plan are circulating these petitions. They have been convinced, by people who speak loudly and type in capital letters, that under the current political circumstances they cannot win. They have been told that if the process is allowed to work out as envisioned by our Charter as currently worded, the mayor’s proposal will be approved by City Council. Since they think they cannot win under the current rules, they seek to change the rules. 

But, forgetting motivation, and forgetting that it is generally bad policy to amend a constitution to achieve a single issue (remember prohibition?), what will these petitions accomplish? The first thing you need to understand reader, especially if you are a citizen of River City, is that these petitions will not permit the voters of Richmond to decide whether or not they want a baseball stadium to be built in Shockoe Bottom as part of the mayor’s development plan. If someone asks you to sign either or both of these petitions and tells you it is all about letting the citizens decide whether to build the stadium, they are, to put it politely, deceiving you. There is nothing in either petition that allows that. Both petitions only change the procedures or delay actions by City Council. Nothing more. They will not allow you to decide the stadium question. Do we really want to amend the City Charter just to delay the project? 

And what of the specifics? What exactly will this Historic East End Shockoe Bottom Commission be? The petition says nothing. It says “there shall be created and funding provided for” this commission. It says it is to be created under the City Council’s general powers so I assume that the Council is being mandated to create and fund the Commission. But the petition is silent on how many members shall be on the Commission. More important it does not say who shall appoint them—the Council itself, the mayor, the chief administrative officer. And how much money is contained in “funding provide for”? How much does it need to do this job--$50,000; $250,000; $5,000,000? The proposed amendment is silent. And what will be the effect of the Commission’s report? Are we trading government by an elected City Council to government by an appointed commission? I suspect that the drafters of Proposition A gave this little thought because the really important part of the amendment is not the Commission but subsection (d), which prohibits the City Council from acting until the Commission submits its report. 

With respect to Proposition B, is it really good government to allow a minority of the members of City Council to force the court and the board of elections to put a proposition on the ballot which will only be advisory? Special elections are costly. If it is good government, why not do it for all issues; why limit it to the mayor’s Shockoe development project? Personally, I think it is not good government to allow a minority of Council to have so much power. With respect to the stadium itself, the proposed amendment would allow only three of the Council’s nine members to force a referendum. The proponents argue that the amendment is designed to effect democratic decisions. Dear reader, is it democratic to allow 1/3 of a legislative body to control its actions? 

I could go on, but by now I am probably losing your attention. If you are a citizen of Richmond you will have to decide whether to sign these petitions. In making that decision consider that these petitions will not give you a vote on whether you favor or oppose the Shockoe stadium. Then consider whether you really think that our City Charter needs to be amended so as to delay the City Council from carrying out its assigned functions. As for me, I will not sign them. They are bad government.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

“Voting Rights” Attack: Has Paul Goldman Gone Too Far?


I met Paul Goldman in June of 2008 at the office of the City Registrar here in RVA. I was submitting my petitions to be on the ballot as a candidate for the School Board. Mr. Goldman was submitting petitions to be on the ballot as a candidate for mayor of our fair city. Neither of us was elected: I lost on Election Day; Mr. Goldman dropped out of the race and endorsed Dwight Jones for mayor. After that we were sort of Facebook friends for a while but via email rather than FB. Our contacts faded to virtually none over the years. 

Recently, CBS Channel 6 here in Richmond has engaged Mr. Goldman as sort of a political guru, in which roll he gives his comments on happenings both in the General Assembly and Richmond’s City Hall. Lately, Mr. Goldman has commented a great deal on the proposal by Mayor Dwight Jones to develop the Shockoe Bottom area of Richmond, including a new stadium for Richmond’s beloved Flying Squirrels. Mr. Goldman’s comments have been particularly aggressive toward what he refers to as the Jones-Marsh Democratic machine. (Jones is Mayor Dwight Jones; Marsh is state Senator Henry Marsh). Mr. Goldman has also gone beyond merely commenting by providing legal services to a group of Richmond citizens who oppose the Shockoe development plan; including helping them launch a petition campaign to force a referendum on the plan. 

I ought to add a few other facts about Mr. Goldman. In the past he has managed the campaigns of several candidates for high office in Virginia. He has also served as chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia. He also participated in drafting the current Charter of the City of Richmond. 

Although I have been critical on Facebook with regard to several of Mr. Goldman’s attacks on Mayor Jones and the Shockoe development plan, it was not until I read his current comment on the Channel 6 website that I decided I had to update this blog. 1 In this piece, Mr. Goldman accuses Mayor Jones, Senator Marsh and Democrats on Richmond’s City Council of deliberately depriving Richmond citizens of the right to vote on the Shockoe development plan. (With respect to Senator Marsh, this is a particularly nasty attack because Henry Marsh has devoted most of his life working to assure that all people regardless of ethnicity or economic status can exercise their right to vote.)  

In his latest piece, after pointing out the efforts of Virginia Democrats to block Republican efforts to disenfranchise voters, Mr. Goldman goes on the attack: 

This time, it is Mayor Jones and his Democratic allies denying VOTING RIGHTS to these very same WHITE residents and RACIAL MINORITIES in Richmond. 

The Richmond City Charter—supposedly guaranteed by Section 7B.05—intends to give Richmonders an absolute Voting Ability to tell the Mayor and City Council “NO WAY ARE YOU GOING TO WASTE HUNDREDS OF MILLION OF PUBLIC DOLLARS on a Shockoe Stadium” when we need this money for more pressing needs. 

The first part of Section 3.06.1 is intended to give citizens another Voting Rights option in such matters, but Richmond Democrats on City Council are ALSO DENYING THIS RIGHT TO THE PEOPLE OF RICHMOND.


(All of the capitalization is in Mr. Goldman’s original). 

Since Mr. Goldman is an attorney and because he is one of the principal drafters of the city charter that he refers to in the above language, I almost feel that I should simply assume that his interpretation is correct. However, because his charge that city Democrats are deliberately depriving citizens of the right to vote is so severe, I really need to give it a fact check. 

One section of the city charter that Mr. Goldman does not mention in his attack on Richmond Democrats is section 4.02. This section provides “All powers vested in the City shall be exercised by the Council except as otherwise provided in this Charter.” This section grants to City Council all governing powers in the City of Richmond, unless there is some other provision in the charter that moves that power elsewhere.  

So what about the people’s right to vote that Mr. Goldman claims is being denied? Well, first of all, the charter clearly states that it is the people of Richmond who elect both the mayor and the members of the City Council. Section 3.01, section 3.01.1. I know of no attempt by any Democrats in the city to deprive citizens of Richmond of this right to vote for mayor and members of the City Council. In fact I know that before the most recent municipal election Richmond Democrats worked hard to register as many voters as possible. 

Well Mr. Goldman says that the city charter “intends” to grant to Richmonders an “absolute Voting Ability” to tell the mayor and city council that they cannot spend taxpayers’ dollars on a Shockhoe stadium. He says that this intent is “supposedly guaranteed by section 7B.05.” What is this absolute Voting Ability that Mr. Goldman talks about?  

Chapter 7B of the charter describes the city’s ability to borrow funds by issuing bonds, notes or other obligations. Section 7B.04 sets forth the procedure to be followed by City Council in passing ordinances authorizing the issuance of bonds. This procedure is the same as in passing other ordinances except that it requires six votes to pass such an ordinance. Subsection 7B.04(a) provides further that no ordinance authorizing bonds “shall take effect until the thirty-first day after publication of notice of its adoption…” 

Section 7B.05 of the charter provides that if, within thirty days after City Council has adopted an ordinance authorizing bonds, a petition containing the signatures of 10% of the city’s voters (Mr. Goldman has calculated the number as being 9800 voters) requesting that the ordinance be submitted to the voters of the city is filed with the clerk of the Richmond Circuit Court, then the ordinance shall be put on the ballot at an election called for such purpose. I assume that this must be the “absolute Voting Ability” that Mr. Goldman is referring to. 

But, section 7B.05 does not create a right in the people to decide whether city funds should be spent on a stadium or on other needs. Section 7B.05 is limited in its scope. It applies only after the City Council has adopted an ordinance authorizing the issuance of bonds. And it grants to the citizens the right to vote on the limited question of whether those bonds should be issued only if a petition with approximately 9800 signatures is filed within 30 days.  

So, how does Paul Goldman support his accusation that Mayor Jones and his Democratic allies are “denying VOTING RIGHTS to these very same WHITE residents and RACIAL MINORITIES in Richmond”? He points out that Mayor Jones has amended his development proposal so that not all of the city payments will be financed by bonds issued by the City. Instead, some of the costs will be financed through the city’s Economic Development Authority. Mr. Goldman insists that the mayor made this change only to deny citizens the right to vote on an ordinance authorizing the issuance of bonds. In Mr. Goldman’s own words: 

“Because doing it this way ELIMINATES THE PUBLIC’S RIGHT TO VOTE DOWN WASTEFUL STADIUM BONDS, since the right to vote doesn’t apply to EDA bonds since it is not covered by the Richmond City Charter.”

I am not sure how Mr. Goldman knows that Mayor Jones and his Democratic allies changed the financing for the proposed Shockoe development for the sole reason of avoiding a possible referendum. Perhaps Mr. Goldman understands Machiavellian thinking better than I do. There may be many reasons why EDA financing or funding from other sources make more sense than issuing bonds for the Shockoe project.  

Mr. Goldman also makes the accusation that Democratic members of the City Council are denying Richmonders “voting rights” under section 3.06.1 of the city charter. This accusation is even more unfounded than the accusation I just discussed. This section provides:
The Council shall have authority to order, by resolution directed to the Circuit Court of the City of Richmond, the submission to the qualified voters of the City for an advisory referendum thereon, any proposed ordinance or amendment to the City Charter.”
If City Council did decide to ask for an “advisory referendum”, the results of the referendum would be reported back to it for “such further action as it may deem advisable and in the best interests of the City.”  

What exactly is Mr. Goldman thinking? There are no “voting rights” here. This section merely provides City Council with the authority to ask the people what they think. The fact that the City Council has not chosen to exercise that authority does not deprive the citizens of Richmond of anything.  

I do not know why Mr. Goldman made these baseless charges against Mayor Jones, his Democratic allies (including Senator Marsh) and the Democratic members of the City Council (whom we can’t even identify because in Richmond Council members are elected in a non-partisan election). He chose to attack on the issue of voting rights (a particularly sensitive issue for Democrats) and he chose to use lots of capital letters. I assume he is very angry about something. Whatever the reason for his attack, Mr. Goldman owes apologies to Mayor Jones, Senator Marsh, members of the City Council, Richmond Democrats and all other citizens of the city.


Monday, February 03, 2014

The Surrealism of Growing Older

Okay, here it is. Today this maven is 70 years old. That means I have completed seven decades of living. That means I have lived longer than my father and my two grandfathers. (My gratitude to the scientists who developed statin drugs). That means I can no longer deny that I have become an elder. That also means that I am a lot closer to death than to birth. And yet, has anything changed?

Well, for one thing, I don’t seem to have as much energy as I used to. And, for another, things seem to slip from my mind more frequently. Let us also not forget that most mornings I wake up with pain somewhere in my body. But somehow those things seem not to change the basic “me.” I think of myself the same as I thought of myself 40, 50 or 60 years ago. It is the same me.
And then I look in the mirror. Who is that person with the thinning, gray hair looking back at me? Who is that person with wrinkles staring back from within the glass? That can’t be me. That person looks old. I don’t feel old! I am the same me that I always was.

So, how can I explain it? Am I another Dorian Gray? Is it only the image in the mirror that is aging?

Paul Simon was right: “How terribly strange to be seventy.”

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Four Most Powerful Men in Virginia You Never Heard of

These bills were introduced in the Virginia House of Delegates in the current session:

HB 61: would prohibit the sale of rifles, shotguns or assault weapons to out-of-state residents.

HB 535: would require background checks for firearms transfers at gun shows.

HB 809: would prohibit the sale of large capacity magazines (with stated exceptions).

HB 812: would require background checks for all firearms transfers.

HB 823: would permit background checks for firearms transfers at gun shows if one of the parties to the transfer requested one.

None of these bills will become law this session. In fact, none of these bills will ever be voted on by the House of Delegates. Why?

Have you ever gone to the General Assembly website and looked at that tutorial that tells “How a bill becomes a law?” There is a step in there entitled “Committee studies bill.” It says “The committee studies the bill to see if it would make a good law.” The next step is entitled “Bill is reported.” It reads “If the committee agrees the bill would make good law, the committee reports the results to the House or the Senate.”

Well, trusted reader, I need to inform you that the General Assembly has not been entirely truthful in educating the public on how a bill becomes a law, or more to the point, how a bill does NOT become a law. It’s not that the tutorial doesn’t tell the truth. It’s that it doesn’t tell the whole truth. It doesn’t mention that under House rules the majority party in the House of Delegates decides the makeup of the various House standing committees. It doesn’t mention that the standing committees may set up subcommittees to more efficiently deal with their load of bills. It doesn’t mention that one of the House committees—the Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety (MPPS)—contains fifteen Republican members and seven Democratic members. It doesn’t mention that the MPPS is divided into three subcommittees. It also doesn’t mention that Subcommittee #1 contains four Republicans and only one Democrat. And it also doesn’t mention that all firearms bills are routinely referred to Subcommittee #1. And finally, it doesn’t mention that under House and parliamentary rules, the 4 Republican members of MPPS Subcommittee #1 can prevent any legislation from ever reaching the floor of the House of Delegates, and they can do so without ever having a recorded vote. And that, dear reader, is what happened to all of the bills I described above.

But, Maven, what do you mean by without a vote. Surely, the subcommittee must vote. 

Subcommittee #1 took action by voice vote. How does that work? Motion to table, seconded, all in favor say “aye”, all opposed say “nay,” the ayes have it. And what is reported in the official record? “Subcommittee recommends laying on the table by voice vote.” It is not reported how individual members of the subcommittee voted. So, in theory, we can never hold any of those delegates accountable for their vote. Or can we?

We do know who the members of the subcommittee are. And we can infer how they voted (assuming of course that the chair actually counted the ayes and nays). So let me introduce you to the members of MPPS Subcommittee #1. First the Democrat—Del. Roslyn C. Taylor of the 75th District. And the Republicans—Del. Thomas C. Wright, Jr., of the 61st District (chair of the subcommittee); Del. C. Matthew Fariss of the 59th District; Del. C. Todd Gilbert of the 15th District; Del. Michael J. Webert of the 18th District. Although I certainly cannot prove it, I am quite certain that Del. Taylor voted “nay” on the voice votes to put these bills to sleep. Likewise, I am quite certain that Del. Wright, Fariss, Gilbert and Webert all voted to kill these bills.

In the state-wide election this past November the three candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general who favored reasonable gun control legislation were elected. Those who opposed such legislation were defeated. However, that is irrelevant because Wright, Fariss, Gilbert and Webert said NO. Polls show that most Virginians favor reasonable firearms control legislation (like the bills described above). Too bad! Wright, Fariss, Gilbert and Webert said NO. Hundreds of Virginians, including family members of people who were murdered by firearm at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, demonstrate at the Virginia Capitol in favor of responsible gun legislation (like the bills above). Pity! Wright, Fariss, Gilbert and Webert said NO. The Virginia Senate may pass legislation similar to the bills above. But, when they come to the House on crossover day, Wright, Fariss, Gilbert and Webert will again say NO.

But, Maven, isn’t it unfair that four men on one subcommittee can block the will of a majority of the people in Virginia? 

Yes, reader, it is unfair. It is also undemocratic (not to be confused with unDemocratic). And it is “unrepublican.” In a republican form of government, which the Commonwealth is supposed to be, I would expect that more times than not the majority would decide what is the proper policy to be followed. Yet, because of the actions of Wright, Farris, Gilbert and Webert, we will never even know what the majority is because those four gentlemen will not allow a vote in the House on any restrictive firearms legislation. 

So, what can we do? We need to put the spotlight and the heat on Wright, Farris, Gilbert and Webert. We need to publicize their actions every time they effectively kill reasonable firearms bills. We need to lobby them heavily. We need to make sure that everybody in the Commonwealth knows how these four men continuously block the will of the people. We need to work against the political gerrymandering that allowed three of these “no” men to run unopposed in the last election. Let us not forget the names of these four unknowns: Thomas Wright of Victoria; Matt Fariss of Rustburg; Todd Gilbert of Woodstock; and Michael Webert of Marshall



Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Battle of Shockoe

This maven has said nothing about the ongoing dispute here in Richmond over Mayor Dwight Jones’ plan for the redevelopment of the Shockoe Bottom area of the city, which centers on a new minor league baseball stadium. I have been silent mainly because I am split on this issue, sort of like the population of Richmond. I think the vicinity of the existing stadium (the Diamond) would be a better place for a new stadium, but my preference is not that strong. I also have serious questions whether the taxpayers of Richmond should pay for a stadium for a privately-owned entity. But, we subsidize other businesses to keep them in Richmond so why is a new stadium that different? I am also strongly swayed by those of my African American friends who argue that placing a stadium so close to where so many thousands of African slaves were imprisoned and sold as property (and where many of them died and were buried) is a disgrace to their memory. However, although I know what these friends don’t want, I have not been able to figure out what they do want other than a slogan that calls for an “historic district”. I think that we in Richmond should be forever mindful of the outrageous activities that went on in Shockoe Bottom for so many decades. But I am not sure this necessarily means that the area must remain forever as it is. And, on my third “other hand,” I am aware that the City of Richmond badly needs to expand its tax base. So, with this internal ambiguity, what was a maven to say? 

For the world outside of Richmond (and for you Richmonders who have been hibernating for the last few months)—some time past (I am too lazy to do the research to give you exact dates but exact dates are not important) the mayor of our beloved city, Dwight Jones, revealed to all of us a plan for the total revitalization of Shockoe Bottom. His plan included a new baseball stadium, a hotel, a supermarket, apartment buildings and a structure memorializing the slave trade that went on in the area in the 18th and 19th centuries. The plan was complete with artist renderings and financial statements. The mayor described his plan as essential to the revitalization of the Shockoe area, as well as vital to the economic expansion of the city. The mayor’s Shockoe plan was strongly connected to a more vaguely described plan to develop the area along the Boulevard where the Diamond now stands into a major commercial and residential neighborhood. A close examination of the Shockoe plan showed that its financial success counted on revenue from the Boulevard development. The mayor’s plan met both with very strong support and very strong opposition.  

The mayor’s plan cannot be implemented without the approval of the Richmond City Council. In fact, because it requires the sale of city owned property, the plan needs a super-majority to pass. Like the residents of the city, members of the council are divided on the plan. The eventual outcome will depend on those council members who have not yet decided. Although the mayor and his supporters have called the Shockoe plan an all or nothing proposition and have called for quick approval by the council, the council has been very deliberate, asking questions and holding neighborhood meetings for public input. 

This week, probably out of frustration that his proposal has not gained quick approval by the City Council, Mayor Jones raised the stakes. As reported in the Richmond Free Press 1 and repeated in the Richmond Times Dispatch 2 at a prayer meeting commemorating the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, the mayor said that the City of Richmond is “still 50% African-American” but there is now a majority on the City Council “that doesn’t look like us.” The mayor implied that those white members of the council who don’t back his plan do not care about creating jobs for African-Americans. The mayor’s attempt to turn this dispute into a racial issue is particularly strange because the most vocal opponents of his development plan come from the African-American community. If it turns out that the City Council does not approve Mayor Jones’ plan, he may regret that he suggested that some of them may be racists. 

The mayor may also regret the way that he has tried to implement this project. As I understand it, the mayor did not involve the City Council, as a body, in the formation of the plan. After being mayor for nearly five years, and having been reelected to a second term by a substantial majority, Mr. Jones seems to have forgotten that under the City’s charter it is the City Council, not the mayor, that is the governing body of the City of Richmond. Under the charter, the mayor is responsible “for the proper administration of city government.” He is also has several other specified responsibilities including preparing a proposed city budget for the council’s consideration. But, he is not the government. If I were a member of the City Council I would be jealous of the council’s governing authority and I just might be resentful when the mayor tells me that his plan is an all or nothing proposition and that my only options are to vote “yes” or “no.” Further, it would have made political sense to get council members involved in the planning for the Shockoe development. People who feel they have contributed to the formulation of a plan are not likely to oppose it when it comes up for a vote.

The Shockoe Bottom development plan will probably come onto the City Council’s agenda later this month. If the plan passes, the mayor needs to reach out to those who oppose a stadium in the former slave trading area by making sure that the structure commemorating this dark period in our history is one of the first to be built. He should also take the initiative in making sure that the entire area of the city from the old Manchester Docks along the slave trail up to Broad Street be designated a National Historic District. If the plan is defeated, the mayor and City Council need to get together quickly and create a new plan to redevelop the Shockoe Bottom area.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Lee and Davis and Other Confederate Superheroes

First a disclaimer—I don’t want to write this. As I said earlier this week, I do not like to write anything that is related to the Civil War. Anything I write will necessarily be divisive and this country is divided enough. And as someone who will always be a guest here in Richmond because I was born somewhere else, I know it’s not polite to say things that may upset your hosts. But, I didn’t start this. This was started by the editorial writers in the Richmond Times-Dispatch when they printed “What’s in a name?” in Thursday’s paper. The TD Opinion is in response to an attempt by citizens in Arlington County to remove the name of Jefferson Davis from the roads and streets of their county. I assume they are trying to change the name of Jefferson Davis Highway. 

After setting forth these facts and pointing out how contentious such attempt will be, the TD editors say,

Advocates of stripping Davis’ name can make a good case that, whatever his merits, he represented a cause tainted with the stain of slavery — and, so far as the United States is concerned, with treason — that has no business receiving honor today.

Excuse me: “so far as the United States is concerned?!” TD editors, do you live in a different country than the rest of us? Last time I checked, this is the United States. And yes, Virginia, Mr. Davis represented a cause more than “tainted” with treason. By stating this issue as primarily related to slavery--which even we in Richmond, after 150 years, can now acknowledge as being not particularly brotherly—and putting the treason issue as a parenthetical that only concerns “the United States” the TD editors are trying to hide the real heart of this issue.

 In the next paragraph the TD editors roll out the nuclear option. Through the use of a clever segue they turn this into a threat to our precious Monument Avenue. In their words, “To say Davis does not merit honoring is to imply that those statues [on Monument Avenue] should all be torn down.” Hey editors, relax. Those trying to change the name of Jeff Davis highway in Arlington are not going to come marching down I-95 to wreak havoc on our most famous thoroughfare.*

Now that they created the issue, the TD editors go on to defend our monuments:

Unlike certain later developments, those monuments were not erected in defiance of the civil-rights struggle for black equality in the 1960s. Their raising was meant to honor that which was honorable about the South, and to tear them down would be to repudiate not only everything bad about the Confederacy but also everything good as well.

So, erecting Richmond’s statutes of J.E.B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson on what became Monument Avenue was meant to honor “that which was honorable about the South.” And, so that we can get back to the beginning point of the Opinion, I must assume that the action of our General Assembly in 1922 specifying that the Jefferson Davis Highway in Virginia ran from the Fourteenth Street Bridge in Arlington to the North Carolina border near Clarksville, Virginia, was also meant to honor that which was honorable about the South.** 

Well pardon me if I disagree that Stuart, Lee, Davis and Jackson (as well as AP Hill whose monument didn’t make it to the Avenue) were that which was “honorable” about the South. I realize that all of these men faced difficult decisions when their states purported to secede from the United States. I know that General Lee was heartbroken. I just read that he initially promised to never take up arms either against the Federal Government or Virginia. I have also read that Jefferson Davis cried when he made his farewell speech in the United States Senate. Yet all but one of these men did decide to take up arms against the United States. And, Davis would have taken up arms if he were not elected President of the Confederacy. He would have much preferred to lead troops against his country.

With the exception of Jackson, who was a teacher at the Virginia Military Academy, these men were all officers of the United States at the beginning of 1861—Lee, Stuart and Hill were in the United States Army, Davis served in the United States Senate. All of them had taken an oath to support and protect the Constitution of the United States. Within months, all of them had violated their oaths by abandoning their allegiance to the United States and joining an insurrection against it. If what these men did was honorable, we need to start changing our thinking about Benedict Arnold.

Moreover, the conduct of all of our honorable Confederates amounted to treason under the United States Constitution. The Constitution defines treason quite clearly: 

 Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”

Lee, Jackson, Stuart and Hill all participated directly in levying war against the United States. They led military groups that killed thousands of United States soldiers. Davis, although he may not have participated directly in military actions, was the Chief Executive Officer of the insurrection that called itself the Confederate States of America. Although they were never convicted of treason, this fact does not change the nature of their conduct.

After rejecting the removal of the monuments, the TD comes up with their solution:

A wiser way to affirm contemporary values, perhaps, is to continue striving to ensure that statutes, roadway names, and other landmarks and insignia embrace the full panoply of the state’s diversity. The monument to women of Virginia history that will soon rise in Richmond’s Capitol Square – perhaps the first such monument of its type in the country – points the proper way.

I certainly support this statement, especially because nobody (except the TD) seems to be considering destroying Monument Avenue. It’s not just a matter of affirming “contemporary values.” It would be a great idea for the City of Richmond to recognize the entirety of its long history, not just the years 1861 through 1865.

This brings me back to Jefferson Davis Highway. I support the citizens of Arlington. It is time for the General Assembly to reverse its action of 1922 and allow local jurisdictions to decide whether they want to continue to honor Jefferson Davis. In Richmond, I think the wonderful monument honoring Davis on the Avenue as well as the equally moving statute at his grave in Hollywood Cemetery are sufficient honors for a man like Davis. It’s time to change the name of those sections of U.S. Route 1 in Richmond that still bear his name to something that is more consistent with “contemporary values.” And, while we’re at it, do we really need a Robert E. Lee Bridge?

*The TD alarmism is like that of the National Rifle Association, which insists that even though the government claims it only wants to require background checks on those purchasing guns its true intent is to confiscate every gun in the country. It also resembles the statement in South Carolina’s secession document in 1860 that one of its reasons for attempting to leave the Union was that the Republican government in Washington intended to launch a war to free all the slaves.

**For a fascinating history of the Jefferson Davis Highway see


Thursday, January 09, 2014

They Shoot Horses

It is Sunday afternoon. I am pulling out of the Saint James-Beth Ahabah parking lot onto an alley between Franklin and Grace Streets. At the intersection with Ryland Street, I look left to check for traffic and I see what appears to be a police car coming down the street. I am wondering whether it is one of the old white Richmond police cars or the new black ones. I soon discover that it is a Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) police car. I wait for it to pass and then turn right on Ryland. I find myself wondering about the jurisdiction of the VCU police. The police car turns left on Franklin Street and I do the same, making sure that I don’t do anything that resembles a traffic violation. Just before Harrison Street, the police car pulls over and seems to park. I pass him and make a picture-perfect right onto Harrison.

As I drive south on Harrison I sense that the police car is again behind me. And, its lights are flashing. Since I have been driving perfectly, I know it is not me it is after; so I slow down to let it pass. It slows down too, and it is getting clear that it is me it is flashing. I pull over and park. It parks about two car lengths behind me. Then, nothing. About two minutes pass and I am thinking maybe I am wrong. It’s not me it is after. I get out of my car and walk toward the police car to find out what is going on. And then I hear what I have heard hundreds of times before on TV and in the movies—“Sir, get back in your car.”

Soon, a young police officer appears at my window (at my age, almost everybody looks young). I roll down my window. “Do you know why I pulled you over?” This is getting to be more and more a police melodrama. He tells me—“Your registration is expired and you are overdue on your inspection.” He’s gotta be kidding. Nobody is stupid enough to let both those things happen. He asks for my driver’s license and goes back to his car.

I start searching my glove box. I find many pink inspection receipts. 2005, 2008, 2010, several with dates I cannot read. I look up at the inspection sticker on the windshield. It reads 10/2013. And it dawns on me that this 2014. The registration I find ends June 30, 2013. Guess what? It is me that is stupid enough to let both these things happen. But, I don’t remember getting a renewal notice from the DMV. If I had I would have renewed on line. The officer is back.

He asks me to sign two (2) citations. He explains to me that my signature is not an admission of guilt. He explains that if I want to pay these without challenge there is a phone number to call. He also explains that I can go to court to challenge the tickets. He speculates that the registration is six months late so a judge probably won’t let me off. But, he says, the inspection is only two months late and maybe a judge will be lenient. He is talking a lot. Maybe he wants to be my friend. When he finally leaves the side of my car, I am feeling guilty for having ruined his Sunday afternoon by forcing him to write me two tickets.

On Monday I go to the DMV. Seventy something bucks for a two year registration. (Maybe this will encourage my 2004 Camry to last that long). Then off to Allen Tire for the inspection. They call me back. “Your battery is marginal. You also need your cooling system flushed. It is going to be sub-freezing tomorrow so you better get these done.” I reluctantly agree. Later I pick up my car--$336.65. As I am driving home, I notice that my check-engine light has gone on. I am seeing more and more money flowing out of the bank. Don’t they know that me and the maveness are on fixed incomes?

And, I am daydreaming. I bet my great grandfather never had these problems. Of course, I never knew my great grandfather. All I know about him is that he died in the Russian Empire before 1912 (That’s when my grandfather came to this country). I don’t know what he did for a living. I don’t know if he ever saw a car. So, as happens in reverie, I invent an imaginary great grandfather who just happened to live in Richmond, Virginia. He happened to own a horse, which he used to get him around town. He never had to register his horse every year to keep it on the roads. He never had to get it inspected for safety. He had to feed it and take care of it. And when it got old and its arthritic knees kept it from even walking, he could take it out to Henrico and shoot it in the head to put it out of its misery. As for me, I have no horse. I have that 2004 Camry that is eating away at my limited resources. But I have some Facebook friends, probably living in Henrico, who are gun toters. Just one bullet in the head and 2004 Camry would be out of its misery. And me? I would have new-car payments.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The Confederacy: Again

It has been years since I have commented on a letter to the editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Generally, I am in total disagreement with the conservative views expressed (I would never suggest that the TD is biased in choosing which letters to publish) and I see no purpose in spending time in an argument that neither side will win. There have been only a few instances in which I felt it was necessary to say something. And with the advent of Facebook and Twitter, it’s a lot easier to comment in those media. In addition, I hate to write again about the Confederate States of America. I am certainly not a Civil War historian and it would be hard to continue serving as a maven if people thought I had become an expert only on the unpleasantness of the early 1860s. Two consecutive articles on the same subject area raise that risk. But the letter that the TD editors entitled “South was fighting for self-determination” in yesterday’s paper sparked my interest.

This all grows out of a dispute that has been going on since the 150 year anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech delivered at the Gettysburg National Cemetery in 1863. It seems that some people want to challenge the generally accepted view that Lincoln’s remarks constituted a great speech and an essential United States historical document. Specifically, the letter yesterday asserted that previous letter writers defending Lincoln’s speech had not rebutted the accusation by H. L. Mencken that 1. The Gettysburg speech was “oratory, not logic; beauty not sense” and that 2. Lincoln falsely indicated that Union soldiers were fighting for self-determination, when actually Confederate soldiers were.

Mencken, who was popular about a century ago, was a pretty good writer and a critic of other’s use of the English language. He was also curmudgeonlier than even this maven.*

Although at one time I had memorized it, yesterday I looked back at the text of the Gettysburg Address to make sure I knew of what I speak. And I must wonder what this dispute is all about. Nowhere in his remarks did Lincoln talk of any soldier fighting for “self-determination”. In the second paragraph (I am looking at the so-called “Bliss Copy”—one of five existing versions of the speech) Lincoln said, “We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.” Lincoln refers to Union soldiers as having died to preserve the United States; he doesn’t mention self-determination. In the last paragraph, Lincoln refers to the Union dead buried at Gettysburg as having fought and died to assure that the United States “shall not perish from the earth.” Again he does not mention self-determination.

So where does “self-determination” come from? It was Mencken who equated Lincoln’s statement that Union soldiers fought and died at Gettysburg to preserve the “government of the people, by the people, for the people” as being equivalent to saying they were fighting for “self-determination.” After that, Mencken went on the attack:

“The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves. What was the practical effect of the battle of Gettysburg? What else than the destruction of the old sovereignty of the States, i.e., of the people of the States? The Confederates went into battle free; they came out with their freedom subject to the supervision and veto of the rest of the country—and for nearly twenty years that veto was so effective that they enjoyed scarcely more liberty, in the political sense, than so many convicts in the penitentiary.”

Aside from his lapses in logic (1- fighting to preserve the Union is equivalent to fighting for self-determination; 2- sovereignty of the states is the same as sovereignty of the people living in them), Mencken is espousing an argument that the states had total sovereignty before it was taken away by the Union in the Civil War. He is also railing against Reconstruction.

I have mixed emotions about Reconstruction. But I can’t agree with Mencken that from 1865 to 1876 (not quite Mencken’s 20 years) all the people in the states that had attempted to secede from the nation had as little liberty as “so many convicts in the penitentiary.”

As to his state sovereignty argument:

1- The states in the United States have never had total sovereignty. They were always subject to a constitution that said:
This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.”

2- Mencken forgets that the major attribute of supposed state sovereignty that caused the southern states to secede from the United States and to precipitate the Civil War revolved around the practice of owning other human beings (a practice I suggest has little to do with “self-determination”). In justifying their secessions, the southern states basically asserted three things that were causing them to separate from the United States: a- the inability of their citizens who were slave-owners to emigrate to western territories and take their slaves with them; b- the failure of some northern states to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law; and c- their belief that a Republican federal government would inevitably launch a war to deprive them of their human chattel.

Neither you nor I will ever know the motivation of individual soldiers fighting at Gettysburg. But, it is clear that the only self-determination that Confederate soldiers were fighting for was that of the southern landed aristocracy to keep other human beings enslaved. In fighting to preserve the United States, Union soldiers were not fighting against any other “self-determination.” Mencken was entitled to his opinion, but he was wrong.

Yesterday’s letter also relies on a statement from British Foreign Minister (I believe he was actually Foreign “Secretary”), Lord John Russell, who served during the American Civil War. As our letter writer quotes him, Lord Russell did not use the term self-determination. Rather he said that thousands of soldiers were dying to prevent the southern states from acting on the “principles of independence” that were asserted by the United States against Great Britain in 1776.

I do not know for sure the context of Lord Russell’s statement quoted in yesterday’s letter. But, I do know we are engaging in something that I did not learn as a student in New York City’s public schools during the 1950s. I vaguely remember learning that the United States government was concerned in 1861 and 1862 that the Brits might formally recognize the Confederate government and that these fears were mostly put to rest by the twin military victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863. But I knew nothing more specific than this. It was not until recently, when I read “The Education of Henry Adams”—a memoir written in the third person by the great grandson of John Adams—that I learned “the rest of the story.”

Henry Adams served as private secretary to his father, Charles Francis Adams, who was United States Ambassador to England during the 1860s. Before he left the United States, the younger Adams assumed that because of their opposition to slavery the British would support the Federal Government in the Civil War. When he arrived in London, he was shocked to find strong pro-Confederate sentiment, especially in government circles. Part of this sentiment grew out of the rather Machiavellian beliefs of Prime Minister Henry John Temple, the Third Viscount Palmerston, that British interests in North America would be better served by splitting the United States in two. (The United States as a single strong nation on the southern border of Canada was more dangerous to British imperial goals in the northwest than would be two weaker nations, possibly involved in perpetual war over control of what later became our western states.)** When the Adams, father and son, arrived in London they were greeted by the news that the British Government had met with emissaries from the Confederate States and had recognized the “belligerency” of the Confederacy. It was in this context that Lord Russell probably made the statement quoted above. By comparing the Confederacy with the United States in 1776, he was attempting to justify Lord Palmerston’s government supporting what was a slavery-based nation. Because of his obvious bias, we can’t rely on his statement as establishing anything.

Further, the “principals of independence” that Lord Russell claimed the Confederacy was fighting for were totally different than those asserted by the United States in the Declaration of Independence. In 1776, we were asserting a right to participate in making the decisions that governed us. We refused to continue in a nation in which we had no representation in the governing body. In 1865, the seceding states were not asserting that they had no representation in the Congress. Rather, they were complaining that they no longer had the votes to control the Congress. They tried to leave the United States because they were no longer getting their way.

*However, Mencken was also the author of the following statement, which raises questions about whether our letter writer should be relying on him:

“The Jews could be put down very plausibly as the most unpleasant race ever heard of. As commonly encountered, they lack many of the qualities that mark the civilized man: courage, dignity, incorruptibility, ease, confidence. They have vanity without pride, voluptuousness without taste, and learning without wisdom. Their fortitude, such as it is, is wasted upon puerile objects, and their charity is mainly a form of display.”

**Prime Minister Palmerston’s policies almost led to disaster. The United States discovered that the British were about to provide secret military assistance to the Confederacy. President Lincoln warned the British that if they did not stop meddling in the internal affairs of the United States he would be forced to seek a declaration of war against England.