Ben Franklin on Justifiable Assassination - WhoWhatWhy

Ben Franklin on Justifiable Assassination

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We’re just one year off from the half-century anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death. So this is as good a time as any to start considering the kinds of issues we won’t see raised in the media at large.

One is the gap between the official history, in which all assassins and would-be assassins of American presidents have been crazed or unbalanced loners—never working for, controlled by, or framed by powerful interests, despite exactly the opposite being true virtually everywhere else in the world.

Recently, I reviewed a paper from Cornell Law Professor Josh Chafetz, introducing us to the fact that assassination has long been considered a legitimate recourse for removing problematical leaders. Brought to my attention from a tweet by @parapolitical, it is summarized here.

Just a few key points, and you can read the lengthy essay yourself for more….

-Benjamin Franklin felt that political assassination was justified in some cases.

Franklin had the assassination of Julius Caesar and the trial and execution of Charles I centrally in mind when discussing the removal of obnoxious chief magistrates. Both Caesar and Charles were tyrants who had subverted their countries’ constitutions in ways that undermined republican liberty, and both had prosecuted bloody civil wars in the process. Franklin and his compatriots therefore believed that Brutus and his coconspirators were justified in killing Caesar and that the English regicides were justified in killing Charles.

-Political assassination and impeachment have long been closely tied, as both involve removal of a leader outside of elections. Conservative firebrand Ann Coulter may not have realized this when, in 1998, she wrote (and was roundly condemned for) saying that President Clinton should be either impeached or assassinated. (To be fair, I recall hearing people routinely say that, perhaps facetiously, about George W. Bush.)

Chafetz makes the very interesting argument that, aside from the obvious recklessness and outrageousness of such advocacy, Coulter and company were not even applying the right rationale:

[Regarding the] impeachment and acquittal of President Clinton in 1998–1999….This Article argues that those favoring impeachment and conviction in this case applied the wrong substantive standard. They criticized Clinton for “debas[ing]” or “defil[ing]” the office of the presidency—in effect, for making it too small. But, the focus on assassinability as the substantive standard for impeachability allows us to see that impeachment is meant to combat precisely the opposite problem. The paradigmatically assassinable—and therefore impeachable—chief magistrate is one who, like Caesar or Charles, seeks to make the office too big, one who seeks to aggrandize his own power. The Senate was therefore right to acquit Clinton, and once again, the procedural mechanisms of impeachment worked to produce the correct result.

That same logic seems to apply with regard to the symbolic assassinations of John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Gary Hart, Anthony Weiner, et al. Read our WhoWhatWhy take on that here.  One could say the same thing about many of the complaints directed at President Obama (or perhaps Romney and his mistreatment of his dog.) We love to whack politicians for small, generally titillating, things they do, but rarely give them trouble over huge problems they create for the country and its population, or inflict on people elsewhere.

-Chafetz has a fascinating ability to get beyond our normal inclination to dismiss assassination as barbaric, and note, dispassionately, that those who commit it do so based on some values or rationale. (We would do well to remember this in light of the United States’ increased use of drones for assassination, and Obama’s secret “kill list.”)

[Consider] the assassination of President Lincoln in 1865 and the impeachment and acquittal of President Johnson a mere three years later. This Part argues that both John Wilkes Booth and Johnson’s Radical Republican opponents in Congress were using the correct substantive standard for removal, but both made mistaken judgments on the merits: neither Lincoln nor Johnson was, in fact, behaving tyrannically. But while Booth’s unilateral action led to tragic results, the Radical Republicans’ compliance with the proper constitutional procedures led to the correct outcome.

Chafetz says that assassination itself is usually intended to right a perceived wrong…but is actually not so great in practice:

As we have seen, it is this conception of tyranny, arising out of the subversion of the constitution and the accompanying destruction of republican liberty, that the Founding generation regarded as substantively justifying assassination. But assassination was disruptive at best and counterproductive at worst.

Moreover, the Founders were deeply aware of individuals’ cognitive limitations. They sought a less disruptive, more epistemically humble means of removing obnoxious chief executives than assassination, and they created one in the constitutional process of impeachment.

And here’s why I find academics useful for helping start a conversation, but not always for guiding it: Chafetz declares the impeachment of Richard Nixon justifiable. But that’s because he apparently has not read new investigative work on what Watergate was really about, and how it was perpetrated not by Nixon, but by those seeking to damage Nixon. And therein lies a profound danger: often, the only reason we think someone is doing something bad is because someone else with an agenda has managed to persuade us.

And, like most professors, Chafetz is more comfortable with the distant and the abstract than with the unresolved controversies of recent decades. He makes no mention of the deaths of John F. Kennedy,  Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, whose behavior was repeatedly adjudged a kind of “tyranny” by individuals and groups who felt threatened by the beliefs and actions of King and the Kennedys. Bottom line: one person’s “Barack Obama, Wall Street lackey” is another person’s ““socialist and reckless Barry O,” who must urgently be removed.

We could all stand to do less finger (and dagger) pointing, and make more of an effort to get a cool reading on just who is doing what—and why.

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15 responses to “Ben Franklin on Justifiable Assassination”

  1. Avatar MrTelco1948 says:

    The State of Virginia’s official State Motto endorses assassination of tyrants. The words “sic semper tyrannus”, which means “thus always to tyrants” is loosely translated as “death to tyrants”. This motto is accompanied on the State’s seal by a depiction of a tyrant being slain with a sword. Anne Coulter was factually correct concerning the only 2 ways of getting rid of a President who has violated their oath of office.

  2. Avatar Tymothy says:

    Lincoln wasn’t behaving as a tyrant? he got rid of habeas corpus and invaded the south for the state’s exercising their rights. I think you may want to re-evaluate that statement.

  3. Avatar Dave Fryett says:

    @Russ:disqus , Love you brother but I hope we don’t get too many more pieces in which the rantings of America’s celebrity anorexic, Stretch Coulter, are taken seriously.
    @a3f7636927f1206bb5ae4466e50f2c2a:disqus ,  enjoyed yr post but a couple of bones to pick:

    I agree that Sylla was a tyrant, but that’s just our opinion. I don’t think that the average Ronald Reagan fan would characterize Sylla thus.

    And mad?

    Did Caesar represent true reform? Or was he just another populist demagog who had to pander to Plebians to get what he wanted? According to even his supporters he was ambitious, and he did bring 500 years of Roman republic to an end. It may be true that he needed dictatorial power to fight the oligarchs who were so deeply entrenched in the republic’s institutions of power, but it sure worked to his advantage.

    This is not to say that his assassins were nobly motivated–they were swine–but this can be read as two elite factions vying for control.

    And let’s not forget the alliance with Pompey and Crassus. The first was an imperialist intriguer and the latter was aptly named indeed. Crassus was a mafioso. Did Caesar enter into this triumvirate out of necessity holding his nose all the while? Or was this self interest?

    Again, not disagreeing with yr interpretation, but i think it is still open to discussion.

  4. Avatar Johnny2Doggs says:

    Comparing J. Caesar and Charles – 1,700 years apart and even further on the capacity index.
    Rome had endured 2 civil wars and the ravages of
    the mad tyrant Sulla.  30 elite families had a stranglehold on the economy, everyone else was broke.  Caesar represented true reform – land for the troops, accurate coinage for the realm.  Brutus represented the elite interests.  Which were one and the same as the great families of Babylon, who first created the system.

    “The Orontes has long been discharging itself 
    into the Tiber.” Juvenal, Roman satirist

    Charles, acting as an autocrat, was brought down by the Venetian bankers, who had funded Cromwell and the Puritans who were consumed with the theology of John Calvin (Cohen), an agent of the financial oligarchs of old….. who then turned on Ireland, slaughtering millions at their behest….need I go on?

    ?Is it not the same corrupt practices that got
    us into this mess?


  5. Avatar sfulmer says:

    I assume your description of Chafetz’ ability to “get beyond our normal inclinations” is a little tongue-in-cheek.  Murder and political violence are more than “barbaric”, they create significant barriers to any other kind of conflict resolution, even the identification of precisely the whole truth of the conflict, as such identification is all that is necessary to end it.  Therein lies the failure of leadership.  That is what I keep in mind when getting news of Obama’s kill list.   

  6. Avatar Dan Garden says:

    Let’s examine the idea that removing an individual from “office” changes history, makes a difference.  Does it? Does it always? Under what circumstances and with what effect? It’s obvious that removing some people from office sometimes changes things, but not, not arguably, always.  How so? What does the conclusion imply? QED…

    (hint – consider the possibility that some  “leaders” have masters who we may not see)

  7. Avatar Carineclary says:

    @ Richard Aberdeen@f8632d252bcf02eefd9d9e514a3cd061:disqus 

    Reagan’s attack on Kadaffi came after the Berlin disco bombing of 1986 was attributed to Libya.  However, various sources, including a former Mossad agent, claim that it was a US/Israeli action, and German television produced a documentary claiming that as well.  In the end, I suppose that bombing Kadaffi’s house and killing his child for something he may not have done would be even more effective as a behavior modification tool, than as punishment for something he did do.  And you’re right.  He kept his nose clean after that…..for all the good it did him, which was none.  Lots of searcheable info on the web about that event.  See below.

    A documentary broadcast August 25 by German public television presents compelling evidence that some of the main suspects in the 1986 Berlin disco bombing, the event that provided the pretext for a US air assault on Libya, worked for American and Israeli intelligence.

    • Avatar Moray1 says:

      Any assumptions about Poppy Bush’s— err, Reagan’s actions (false flag attack as precursor to the bombing of Tripoli, and the lingering questions surrounding the events of Lockerbie) must include what Libya represented to the oil companies in the form of Armand Hammer’s Occidental Petroleum breaking the back of the Seven Sisters’ oil cartel, which set the stage for OPEC’s eventual 55% minimum. Hammer’s negotiations with Qaddafi’s regime (and King Idris before him) decisively changed the balance of power between the governments of producing countries and the oil companies.

      Don’t think for a moment the oil cartels forgot this. Despite Qaddaffi’s “cooperation” with Western governments after the invasion of Iraq, Qaddaffi was a marked man. We all know the results of the “humanitarian intervention” a few years ago. It was a perfect opportunity for BP and Shell, among others, to make an example of him to other would-be, independent-minded dictators.

  8. I’m a pacifist and pacifists don’t believe in assassination, but of all the violent actions done by all of our presidents from Truman forward, the one that got the best results and created the least amount of bloodshed was when Reagan went directly after Kadaffi’s household.  Apparently it scared the shit out of Kadaffi, because he didn’t bother us for over two decades after that.  What Reagan did sure made a lot more sense than Junior’s invasion of an entire nation, while strictly obeying international law not to just take out Saddam and his household  instead.  War has never “secured the peace”, which is why I am a pacifist, but to me it is far more rational to go after a violent leader and his immediate household, than to slaughter millions of civilizans in the name of “peace and democracy”, as our presidents unfortunately, have an ongoing bad habit of doing. 

    • Avatar Dan Garden says:

       The avuncular Ray where the waters run deeper than some might imagine – ah! In actual fact a stooge, in his youth, an informer-spy for the FBI, later a senile cut-out for an occult chamber, as Bismarck would have put it. (as Nancy put it: “Some very powerful men…”) Yet the myth defines his obedient murder and attempted murder of Kadaffi’s family and retainers  (I approved it myself!) as a vast and great good. Such is the power of myth… See, no evidence for character making the slightest difference in the course of history, is there?  Deep water? Oh, well, who did our dear old fella obey?

    • Avatar joe schmoestein says:

      you fool.  you have just agreed with your enemies that should any hostilities between you and them commence, members of your family  are legitimate targets. 
      i suggest you observe the american mafia code:   this is between you me and our made men.  members of our families are to be considered non-combatants.  they are not involved.  cross that line and everyone allies against you.  capisce?

  9. Avatar Carineclary says:

    “the Founders were deeply aware of individuals’ cognitive limitations. They sought a more humble means of removing chief executives than assassination, and they created one in the constitutional process of impeachment.”
    Actually, the Founders were only recreating a remedy (impeachment) that had existed in English Common law since the 14th century.  Francis Bacon was impeached & resigned, and the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings, the Governor General of India was going on during the time our Constitution was being drafted. 

  10. Avatar Dan Garden says:

    Parenti holds that Caesar was a populist murdered by a reactionary proto-fascist   elite whose personal fortunes he threatened. He makes a plausible case.

    One does doubt, though, the implied assumption in the above article that individual character matters in history – where’s the evidence for that? The Caesar Affair seems to imply just the opposite, if one accepts Parenti’s thesis.

    I might wish it were so, that character matters, But I do not see any solid proof of this wishful condition.


  11. Avatar Kusokurae says:

    Sure, Lincoln wasn’t behaving tyrannically . . . except when he waged war against the united States, committing the very constitutional definition of treason according to Article III Section 3.  Here too, he’s not looking deep enough to guide the conversation properly.

    • Avatar Dan Garden says:

       President Truman, speaking of Lincoln, said that his mother had considered Lincoln a tyrant, as did many people, and that she approved of the assassination. He said that in a lengthy series of interviews made for TV, but never broadcast. Later the condensed interviews were published in book form.