Part Three: A Delicate Constitution
El Paso del Norte, Texas. March 23, 1907
Secretary of State William Howard Taft arrived in El Paso during the spring of 1907. He represented President McKinley in a series of bilateral discussions with Mexican President Diaz and northern Mexican state governors. The official purpose of the meeting was to foster friendly relations. The real reasons were to expand American investment in Mexico, and assess U.S. border security in the increasingly uncertainty political climate in Mexico. Through Taft's pre-arrangement, Colonel Edward Godfrey and the U.S. 12th Cavalry were part of the American security presence. Several days into the conference, Godfrey received a message inviting him to an afternoon meeting with the Secretary. Godfrey arrived at the Hotel Sheldon and found Taft relaxing in the penthouse suite on the fifth floor, being assisted by a short-statured young man with a receding hairline.
Taft looked noticeably heavier than Godfrey had remembered him only two years before back in Washington. The men exchanged pleasantries, and Taft led Godfrey onto a balcony overlooking the patio.
"Would you prefer something other than bourbon?" asked Taft.
"Bourbon is fine, Mr. Secretary, thank you."
"The best alternative I've found is something called a tequila sour," countered Taft.
"A popular choice in the officers' club at Fort Sam Houston."
"Two tequila sours, Mashburn, if you please," Taft told the aide.
"Of course, Mr. Secretary," answered the short man.
Turning back to Godfrey, Taft began, "Colonel, you would seem to be well positioned to become involved in what may become the biggest foreign policy and military issue of the day."
"And what is that, Mr. Secretary?"
Taft looked at Godfrey squarely in the eye. "It involves the political instability of our southern neighbor. As you know, the northern frontera is a traditional breeding ground for Mexican revolutionaries. If the Diaz regime is challenged by one or more factions, that will put us in a delicate diplomatic situation. Meanwhile, we would obviously need to secure the U.S. border from any spillovers of warfare or revolutionary activity. In short, Colonel, what I understand you have led your regiment to do in South Texas is something that may have to be expanded over the entire southern border."
Taft then asked Godfrey a series of questions soliciting his views on the size and location of sufficient U.S. military border strengths, in addition to weaknesses. Pouring over several maps, their conversation stretched into two hours and three rounds of tequila sours, with Mashburn fastidiously taking notes.
Taking a break, Taft settled into one of the patio chairs. "Yours is a tough business, Colonel. Planning for the worst, and hoping for the best."
"Perhaps not that much different from diplomacy, sir."
"Well," Taft mused, "we both have to concern ourselves with costs and benefits of uncertain outcomes. Being a longtime jurist and a recent diplomat, I have mixed views of the situation here. On the one hand, Mexico has had more than its share of despots and dictators. Not the kind of system I would want to live under," said Taft, glancing at Godfrey who slowly shook his head in concurrence.
"On the other hand, the possibility of a widespread revolution down here makes me shudder - the violence and blood and chaos. I wonder if anything is worth that!"
Godfrey responded, "I judge the American Revolution to have been a good thing."
"Yes, well . . . we write hymns about the blood of patriots, don't we? But I suspect recorded history has discounted the real chaos and civil strife between Patriots and Tories," answered Taft. "More clearly bad in the French outcome. Nothing to show for all that bloody chaos but imperial dictatorship and the Napoleonic Wars. So what will come from a revolution after thirty years of the Porfiriato? Or after three hundred years of the Romanov dynasty? Now there's blood and chaos for you," said Taft, rolling his eyes.
Godfrey nodded while he thought about the Napoleonic Wars.
"As a diplomat, I deplore violence, but even more as a jurist, I despise lawlessness," said Taft, slurring one of those s's. "But then you have a man like Diaz who offers relative stability for longer than anyone can remember, in return for centralization of power, concentrated in the executive, and loss of individual liberty."
"Didn't our country make that choice in 1776?" asked Godfrey.
"In 1793," corrected Taft. "But those choices are still being made today, to a lesser degree."
Taft looked intently at Godfrey.
"I don't know your politics, Colonel, and I don't care. I myself am a Republican. Within my own party there are strong competing factions representing the reformist, populist view, and the conservative view. Or I should say, the conservative reformist view. I am of the latter camp."
"But my point was, there are self-styled populist reformers in my own party who appear willing to offer the trade-off of solving the country's problems in return for an expansion of executive power. Do you know of the current Governor of New York?
"Governor Roosevelt?" asked Godfrey. "Yes, he strikes me as an energetic personality."
Taft nodded. "He was a progressive reformer in Congress, and he ran for state office on a platform of reform. Indeed, there are surely things in New York that need reforming. But his attitude is, as Governor he can do whatever it not expressly forbidden to him by statute or his state's constitution. No doubt he would take the same stance as President. My view of the U.S. Constitution, and I might add, James Madison's view, is the opposite: the executive can only take those actions that are expressly authorized by statute or constitutional framework. That's not to say we shouldn't do things that need doing. We should, but in a way that will preserve checks and balances, and let all the populist energies find a safe outlet."
"Roosevelt," Taft continued, "will tell you that he is fighting for the common man. As Governor of New York he has promoted reformist policy by way of executive orders and bureaucratic regulation. This exposes the common man to the risk of what I call bureaucratic despotism. Roosevelt can afford this approach because rich elitists like him can protect himself from the regulatory process better than the common man. He is part of the establishment that writes the rules. He goes to dinner parties and summers in the Hamptons with the power brokers."
"You seem particularly focused on Governor Roosevelt," Godfrey observed out loud. "Does he have some competing ideas in the foreign policy?"
Taft paused. "Not in foreign policy. Not that I'm aware of, anyway, other than flip flopping on Cuba . . . The truth is, Colonel Godfrey, I am considering . . . being considered for the Republican nomination, with the encouragement of many leaders of my party. I'm sharing this with you so that in the unlikely event that I am nominated and elected, you could expect continuity in the border policies that we were discussing earlier."
"Oh, well, Mr. Secretary, I am not certain how much time I have left for active duty."
"Of course, of course. The future is always uncertain, for us as men, and for our country as well." At that, Taft began to laugh.
"Mr. Secretary, I hope that the future unfolds as humorously as you apparently forecast it." Or maybe it is just the tequila, Godfrey wondered.
"No, it's just that I spent most of the train ride here developing the idea of future uncertainty into an essay contrasting constitutionally grounded reform with the so-called progressives within my own party. Would you critique a summary version?"
"I am your man," Godfrey answered, looking for any excuse to continue resting in his patio chair.
"It's probably not very interesting without the influence of tequila," smiled Taft. "But the general idea is to resist the temptation of empowering government institutions and politicians beyond their constitutional ordination. The country has had and will continue to experience difficult times - war, economic panic, plague, as well as technical inventions and new ideas that change the social order. Out of fear, the human tendency in such times is to seek out a savior figure. That is how the Roman Republic got Sulla, and he set the pattern for the Caesars."
"The challenges in our future will doubtless create populist clamor to do something. The temptation will be to empower politicians and pursue policies through executive fiat. But executive overreach, even to solve a serious problem, becomes a problem in and of itself. Not to the well-heeled tycoons and their Senators, but for the erosion of liberties of the populist masses themselves."
"How does it erode their liberties, Mr. Secretary?"
"In several ways," answered Taft, his face now rosey. "First, the implementation of policy via bureaucratic regulation is less transparent and less accountable to the people. It is also more possible to infringe on the rights of the minority. The common man's main recourse is his representatives in Congress, and the courts. Reform policies should originate as laws. LAWS! [Taft pounded the chair in emphasis.] Laws debated and voted on by Congress. Lastly, executive over-reach simply creates a precedent for more, as with the Romans."
"Can you give me an example from history?" asked Godfrey. "Not Rome . . . from our history."
Taft waved his cocktail glass in the air. "Oh, some say that Andrew Jackson used executive power to push the nation towards democracy. He definitely pushed the nation towards political factionalism, and maybe towards civil war. But the relevant example is the Bank of the United States. Jackson's populist demagoguery regarding the Bank, and his executive orders that destroyed it, clearly went against Congress' findings, contradicted Supreme Court rulings, and some say hurt to our currency and economy. So while Jackson claimed that the Bank was somehow bad for the common man, his actions eliminated the common benefits of the Bank's currency stabilization and economic growth that would have occurred, or so the finance people tell me."
"Then there is President Lincoln who claimed unprecedented war powers based on his constitutional role as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. In the process he defied the Supreme Court Chief Justice, suspended the writ of habeas corpus, declared martial law, allowed civilian trials in military courts, and proclaimed the emancipation of slaves. Perhaps this is necessary to win a civil war, but it set a dangerous precedent for the future. The next national emergency may not happen under a lawyerly Lincoln. What if it happens under a Jackson? Or a Johnson?"
Godfrey shrugged. "Jackson is your charismatic pied piper. President Johnson always struck me as a bit of a jackass."
"A stubborn bastard," agreed Taft. "Perhaps the Johnson Administration is an example of the proper functioning of the branches of government. The point is, we can't predict the next President, much less the next national emergency. But we can and should promote the ideal of an active legislature, a properly restrained executive, and an independent judiciary."
Taft set his empty glass down and let out a deep sigh. "Well, here endeth the lesson. Colonel, can I interest you in another . . . uh, cocktail?"
"No, sir, no thank you. I have enjoyed your hospitality and the conversation," said Godfrey.
"Hope I didn't bore you. I hate listening to a bore. Like that goddamned college precedent . . . uh, president. At Princeton. Met him on a lecture tour. A sanctimonious know-it-all, whom I hear may run for Philosopher-King of New Jersey," chortled Taft. "God help those poor bastards!"
Garryowen, Montana. June 25, 1926.
It had been a very long, hot day. Godfrey felt all of his 83 years. Ida had tried to talk him out of attending the reunion, but he had insisted. Now the reunion attendees were thankfully dispersing. Godfrey was grateful for the hospitality of one of the town's leaders who had offered a rocking chair under the porch. There he sat, sipping lemonade and enjoying the breeze.
It amazed him that that fifty years had come and gone. How could that be? So much of life and it had passed so quickly. This led to an oft rehearsed reflection: "Brief is man's life and small the nook of the Earth where he lives; brief, too, is the longest posthumous fame, buoyed only by a succession of poor human beings who will very soon die and who know little of themselves, much less of someone who died long ago." Godfrey sighed. Indeed, the instructor who had taught him Aurelius' Meditations was long gone. So were most of the troopers and fellow officers for whose benefit Godfrey had attempted his mastery of fears and passions. Had it all been worth it?
The man lingering across the picket fence caught Godfrey's notice again. He had seen the man earlier at the dedication of the historical marker. He was elderly, like Godfrey. He moved slowly, as if stiff with rheumatism, and now he approached.
"Good afternoon, General," said the man, with a faint accent that Godfrey couldn't immediately place.
Godfrey returned his greeting without rising.
"May I have a word, sir?" the man asked.
Godfrey smiled politely, and pointed to the other available rocker.
"Oh, thank you, sir. I'm afraid I've had a bit too much sun."
"As have I," answered Godfrey.
"As on that eventful Sunday," said the man with a smile.
Godfrey gazed more intently as the man settled into the rocker. Did he know him from before?
'Forgive me, sir, my memory is not what was. Have I made your prior acquaintance?"
The man's blue eyes blinked several times. "I'm Gibbs. William Gibbs. A private in your Cumpny Kaaaay."
Embarrassed, Godfrey pushed up from the chair and extended his hand.
"Gibbs! My apologies . . . Goodness, how are you, man? It's been . . . " Godfrey stopped because he had no clear recollection of how long it had been.
"No apologies necessary, General," said the man in a slightly shaking voice. He clasped Godfrey's hand with a slightly shaking grip. "I was discharged after the fight with the Nez Perce."
"Quite the ordeal," said Godfrey.
"Yes, as it was here."
"Yes." Both men retook their chairs.
There was an awkward silence. Godfrey couldn't think of anything else to say, so he asked, "And how was it that you were here, Gibbs?"
"I enlisted in New York City, and joined the troop in '75 in Louisiana."
"And before that?"
"Oh, I was a bit of everything, sir . . . farm laborer in England, immigrant, butcher . . . enlistee, a nurse at the post hospital and then a trooper. After my discharge, I went to California and clerked for several businesses. Not a career soldier like you, sir."
Taft's quintessential common man, thought Godfrey, or perhaps Roosevelt's. "Sounds familiar enough. I was raised as a laborer on my father's farm. Had a little schooling and then made a three month enlistment at the outbreak of the southern rebellion. I was under-age, so I applied for an appointment to West Point, but the Congressman already had somebody lined up. It was only when that fellow died at Second Bull Run that I got my opportunity. Otherwise I might have re-enlisted and probably stopped a bullet between Chickamauga and Kennesaw Mountain."
"I see," said Gibbs, who clearly had not heard of those places.
There was another lengthy pause. "Tell me, Gibbs. Was it all worth it?"
"The fight, sir?"
"The whole thing. Coming to America. Starting a new life."
"Well, as a practical matter, there was more opportunity here than in England. I saw and did things that I never would have in the old country. Otherwise, I just made a simple life for myself."
"Did you find more freedom here?"
"Oh, I don't know, sir. If I'd stayed in England . . . I don't know. I think the situation in England is better now for the commoners. Better representation in the government. That is the only benefit of the Great War that I can see."
Indeed, thought Godfrey, thinking of the European countries now suffering through post-war instability. What would Taft have said about that? At least Taft's neutrality stance had been mostly vindicated.
The conversation paused again as both men watched a passing party of Sioux. The tribal leader White Bull was among them, dressed in warrior regalia and an eagle feather bonnet.
"Do you think much about the Indians?" asked Godfrey.
"Them, sir? No, not really. I'm just glad we won our fight with them."
"You know, President Custer told me in the White House that he regretted the demise of the Plains Indians. He felt less free with the taming of the West."
"Well if you ask me, sir, General Custer had but one way about him, and that was soldiering. Not much use for a man like him today with nobody to fight."
Godfrey grunted. "Nor perhaps for me. I fought because it was both my duty and my job. Some said we were furthering civilization . . . Manifest Destiny. But I consider myself little different from White Bull there. His nation pushed the Crows off these plains to the fringes. And while the Sioux reigned, they lived the freedom and adventure of the open plains. My frontier experience gave me but a taste of that exaltation. But now the army and civilization have pushed White Bull's people to the fringes. And in the end both he and I are just two old men."
"Cadet Godfrey!" snapped the familiar inner voice. I know, I know, thought Godfrey. One must become an old man in good time if you wish to be an old man long.
"No, not that," said the inner voice. "You better leave now or you'll miss the train."