In Conversation with Senator Robert C. Byrd

Raymond W. Smock, January 2004

Editor's Note: At a special opening session of the AHA's 118th annual meeting to be held in the Marriott Wardman Park's Marriott Ballroom Salon II on January 8, 2004, AHA President James McPherson presented to the Honorable Robert C. Byrd, senator from West Virginia, the inaugural Theodore Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson Award for Civil Service in recognition of the senator's lifelong and passionate commitment to the discipline of history. To mark the event, and to provide readers with a few glimpses into the senator's thoughts on history and contemporary life, we are printing this transcript of a conversation—conducted specially for Perspectives—between Senator Byrd and Raymond Smock, director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies. Read the brief biographical note on Senator Byrd.

Sen. ByrdSmock: Senator Byrd, you have given more floor speeches on the history of the Senate than any senator in American history. What motivated you to delve so deeply into the history of the Senate?

Byrd: Like many of my colleagues, I came to the Senate from the House of Representatives. I was not certain what to expect when I walked through the doors of the Senate chamber. I learned from the examples of those great senators of the day. These were men who were senators first, and politicians second. These were senators who loved the institution, who ran for the Senate because they wanted to be senators. They viewed the Senate as the mainstay of the Republic. It was the crucible in which the great issues and problems facing the nation would be addressed. That reverence for the institution, its history, its culture, its demands, inspired me. As part of that inspiration, I worked to create the speeches and the volumes on the history of the Senate.

While many books had been written about individual senators or individual periods, there was not one single comprehensive work about the Senate. The purpose of my speeches and the subsequent volumes was to combine the best possible scholarship on the Senate with my experiences and insights as senator into one source.

When it comes to the Senate today, too many senators do not take the time to understand the history of this institution. Senators today are very intelligent, highly educated, and excellent on their feet. They can say in 10 seconds what takes me 10 minutes. That's all right, but the country needs people in the Senate who will think first of patriotism and second of politics. The needs of the Republic and the institution too often are left to the side.

That is why I take the time to talk with new senators, to share with them the insights of my service and my many years in this body. I tell them of the history of this institution, its traditions and culture. Each senator inherits a role bequeathed by some of the most brilliant women and men of their age or of any age before or since. But the Senate is only as good as the individuals who serve here. If there is one lesson that the history of the Senate teaches, it is that the duty beyond our official duties may be the hardest duty of all. It is to lead by example, to endeavor to inspire others, and to demonstrate through action, speech, and personal example that our country and its people always come first, and that those things matter more than personal popularity or acclaim. In the real world, exemplary personal courage and conduct can achieve more than any political agenda. Those are the qualities that can inspire and motivate others. Those are the qualities that will endure. Those are the qualities that will shape events for future historians to examine.

Smock: Could you reflect on the importance of history in your work as a senator? Your speeches on the Roman Senate linked the perils that befell the Roman Senate to contemporary efforts to weaken the powers of the U.S. Congress. I am thinking of several of your speeches against the line-item veto.

Byrd: The Senate of the Roman Republic is a collection of speeches that I delivered, without notes, on the floor of the U.S. Senate. It provides the reader with insight into historical events in ancient Rome that have parallels in the events of modern-day America. It has been my hope that this book, by shedding light on the ancient past, might help our nation to be better prepared to handle the challenges of tomorrow.

The line item veto case is one example of an instance where history gave perspective to what seemed to be a contemporary issue. The absolute bedrock of the people's continued freedom from tyranny and excesses of all types of authority is, again, anchored in the pages of history. It is the power of the purse.

It was my study of Roman and British history, of the roots of the American Constitution, and of the arguments at the constitutional ratifying conventions that have made me so adamant in my challenge of the line item veto.

In a too-clever attempt to end-run the Presentment Clause of the Constitution, the Line Item Veto Act allowed the president to sign an appropriations bill into law and then, within five days, strike out parts of that same law which he does not like. It, in effect, gave the president power to unilaterally amend legislation after it became law. Congress's only recourse to the violence the executive could do to its careful deliberations was a disapproval resolution, which also the president could veto.

So much for hundreds of years of history, experience, and human bloodshed. So much for the long centuries of British experience in controlling a tyrannical monarch. We in the legislative branch handed the executive branch a power that presidents had been salivating after for years.

But, fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court saved us by striking down this ill-conceived line item veto law.

Slowly, gradually, over the course of hundreds of years, the power of the purse in Britain was honed, sharpened, refined, and utilized as an effective tool, not only for resisting unreasonable demands of the King, but also for effectively promoting specific policy objectives which were important to Parliament.

The right of Parliament to check or audit accounts followed, as a natural consequence, the practice of making annual appropriations for specified objectives. These two principles—that of Parliament's appropriating monies, and that of auditing or oversight—were combined by the framers in a single paragraph of our Constitution. Article I, Section 9, says "No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law; and a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time."

This essential tool—control of the purse by the people's representatives in Congress—lies at the very foundation of our freedoms. I believe that it is the fulcrum of the people's leverage. This control of the purse is one of the most effective bulwarks ever constructed to repel a despot, control a tyrant, or shackle the hands of an overreaching executive. Chip away at this fundamental barrier and one chips away at the very cornerstone of the people's liberties.

Smock: What role do you think knowledge of American history, or world history, for that matter, plays in the lives of the citizens of this country?

Byrd: In my five decades in Congress, I have come to better appreciate just how much the past teaches one to appreciate and understand the present. This is a point overlooked by many people, who think of history as a respectable but dry and irrelevant pastime, devoid of practical application; a little like capturing butterflies, perhaps, or collecting stamps.

The truth is that trying to know the present without knowing the past is like trying to navigate through unfamiliar terrain without map or compass. Knowledge of past achievements and failures gives important insight into how we, as a Congress and as a country, can emulate one and avoid the other. Such understanding gives insight into human nature, which has remained virtually unchanged since the birth of mankind. History helps me to refine my thinking and shape my approaches to issues.

G.K. Chesterton put it for more eloquently and succinctly than I when he wrote: The disadvantage of men not knowing the past is that they do not know the present. History is a hill or high point of vantage, from which alone men see the town in which they live or the age in which they are living.

It is easy for us to become caught up in the hustle and bustle of our age, with its promises of fast times and instant gratification. But we would be wise to remove ourselves from time to time to that hill about which Chesterton spoke, so that we may see the plains and valleys surrounding us with the clarity and objectivity that only a high vantage point provides. Then we can return to the regions below refreshed and confident of our direction.

Smock: Your leadership in the Teaching American History grants program has generated great interest among history teachers. What led you to create such a program and what do you hope to see it achieve?

Byrd: When I was a schoolboy, toiling under the roof of a two-room schoolhouse in West Virginia, history, especially American history, was considered an integral part of a classic education. In fact, my teacher, unfettered by today's lump-sum approach to American history, required that my class focus on every aspect of our nation's past. He taught my class about the American Revolution and the Civil War, and he inspired me with stories of great American heroes. Most importantly, he made my class read documents such as the Declaration of Independence, and explained to us the treasured principles of liberty. Simply put, my teacher taught American history, not "Civics" or "Social Studies," and I feel that I received a better education as a result.

Even though this subject is so important and is such a rich treasure of information, I regret that today's young people do not have a stronger grasp of it. If they are to have any hope of being prepared to lead in the future, I am convinced that America's students need a deeper understanding of this nation's past.

That's why, three years ago, I created the Teaching American History Grants Program. This program has infused $250 million—$50 million in fiscal year 2001, $100 million in fiscal year 2002, and $100 million again in fiscal year 2003—into the nation's classrooms so as to encourage more schools to develop, implement, and strengthen classes in American history. By helping teachers to develop a better understanding and appreciation of American history as a separate subject matter within the core curriculum, this program seeks to improve instruction and raise student achievement.

This program is designed to share with students the rich heritage that belongs to all Americans. Through this program, local education agencies, in cooperation with institutions such as colleges, universities, libraries, museums, or nonprofit history organizations, will be given the resources necessary to empower teachers to develop a greater understanding of American history, as well as the teaching strategies and educational technologies that can make history education more exciting, engaging, and enjoyable. It is my hope that students who know and appreciate traditional American history are more likely to understand and exercise their civic rights and responsibilities.

Smock: The war on terrorism presents new challenges to our system of constitutional government. Are we in uncharted waters, or do you see historical parallels that can provide some perspective on the current state of affairs?

Byrd: Clearly in the area of foreign policy, we see that only the purse strings can act as a brake on unwise or poorly conceived administration adventures, when members of Congress have the courage to apply the pressure. But, in foreign affairs, increasingly, Congress seems to want to shrink from its constitutional role, and follow the lead of the executive.

We may be seeing a modern perversion of what the framers thought of as "ambition." The framers probably conceived of ambition more in terms of improving oneself or of enhancing one's reputation for courage, intellect, and statesmanship. Ambition in politics today, I fear, has become simply the more mundane "ambition" to be reelected. And with such a limited horizon—reelection as the sine qua non of public life—an instinct for ducking and dodging tends to prevail. Why take on the hard questions when there is an attractive option like the massive delegation of powers to other authorities? Such an easy, painless option allows one to avoid the burden of having to take responsibility for tough decisions.

I suspect that the winds of expediency, of demagoguery, of apathy, and, yes, of ignorance may be blowing us quite far from our carefully charted constitutional course. In a world fascinated by speed, mesmerized by television pap, consumed by the exigencies of coping with the race and pace of events, it is all too easy to become uninterested in, and impatient with, the often cumbersome and arcane workings of our constitutional system. But a way must be found to restore general knowledge among the American people about the actual content of the Constitution and about the reasons for its complexity. It is easy to take our freedoms for granted. It is easy to forget, indeed, especially if one never even knew, about the hundreds of years of human history and experience, the bloodshed, the sacrifice, the study and sweat that went into the final production of the Constitution that we regard so highly.

As a nation, we are all guilty of abominably lax vigilance over our responsibilities: members of Congress who cower at the slightest criticism, and who apparently do not even bother to study and understand the document they take a solemn oath to support and defend; presidents eager to grab power so to make their mark on history larger; representatives of the media, who report significant events without really understanding them because they don't understand history; talk show demagogues who rail over the airways, while they line their pockets with money made from the misinformed and destructive anger they generate; and ordinary citizens, who do not even bother to vote, much less try to understand basic civics.

Those who teach and those of us who purport to serve the public in some capacity have a special responsibility to make others sensitive to the importance of every citizen's role in preserving our freedoms. We can all do more, and we must.

—Raymond W. Smock is director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies on the campus of Shepherd College, Shepherdstown, West Virginia. He was historian of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1983 to 1995.