The rule of law
Call us obstreperous, call us nitpicker, but we are a little more than upset by Pres. Barack Obama’s presidential edict setting aside the name of Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America.
We understand that renaming it – or rather accepting the name that locals have always called it, Denali – is extremely popular with Alaska’s own half a million inhabitants. And we also appreciate that the renaming, or the adoption of the traditional name, has the support of Alaska’s elected officials including its Congressional delegation. We also appreciate that while McKinley was an honored and martyred chief executive, he never set foot in Alaska and to our knowledge, never had much to do with that then huge territory in his time.
But the fact is that the designation of the mountain’s name for our 25th president [January 29, 1843 – September 14, 1901] was an Act of Congress passed in 1917. An Act of Congress is a statute proclaimed by our national legislature and one of the most important acts of the federal government and all governing institutions. It can either be a Public Law, relating to the general public, or a Private Law, relating to specific institutions or individuals, as in the case of naming the mountain. But until rescinded or inactivated by their irrelevance or noncompliance they are a sacred trust.
Obama’s presidential set-aside is a much too common imperial action which has increasingly marked his presidency. In this instance as in a number in the recent past, it flaunts the legislative prerogative of the Congress and violates the sacred principle of separation of powers unique to the U.S. Constitution. That’s the principle involved here.
But there is more in a commonsense view of our history. Contrary to what probably would be the vague memory of most of us for earlier presidents, McKinley was not an insubstantial figure. After a Congressional career and a very successful governorship in Ohio, in 1896 he beat his Democratic rival, the flamboyant orator William Jennings Bryan, with a “front porch” campaign. Nor was he indecisive about his principles: contrary to Bryan’s famous speeches calling for a currency based on silver and dire warnings that the country was being “crucified on a cross of gold”, McKinley strongly advocated “sound money” [a gold standard unless altered by international agreement] and high tariffs. Those policies worked, or at least, McKinley’s administrations were marked by rapid growth of the economy and his policies were given credit for it.
Furthermore, his first and second abbreviated presidency were chocked full of important international events. He led the country in the short but decisive Spanish-American War of 1898 which brought the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam under American control, and he promised that Cuba where the war had begun, its eventual independence. The Kingdom of Hawaii came under America’s control under his aggressive foreign policy.
McKinley defeated Bryan again in the 1900 campaign focused on discussions of imperialism, protectionism, and free silver which were strongly debated. Our current anemic discussion of issues would do well to imitate those debates. But his life and his presidency were cut short on September 6, 1901, when Leon Czolgosz, a second-generation Polish-American and professed anarchist, shot and hilled him.
We are among what seems to be a dwindling minority who believe that history is history. That it must not be set aside, for all the reasons of academic scholarship, but even more so because we attempt – however haltingly – to learn from our past. [We rarely can learn from others’.] But history must be history, tragedies and successful outcomes, wounds and scars, unpleasantries and ecstasies.
The current movement to set bits and pieces of it aside, whether removing Confederate flags or now to destroy commemorative statues to the Confederate dead, is a travesty History must be studied, with all its ambiguities and transgressions, if it is to be appreciated and learned from.
We therefore urge the Congress to clean up this bit of minutiae, if nothing else by formally renaming the mountain, and perhaps designating a new monument to an honored president.