Politicians, on the whole, sadly lack a sense of history. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York is a rare exception: he not only has made history, he has written it, and in his sprightly newsletter he often draws important lessons from the past. In a recent issue he warned of the perils we face when we seek to tamper too quickly with the laws under which we govern ourselves.
“Those of retentive memory,” he writes, ”… will recall that on March 3, 1858, The New York Times reported from Albany that eighty-six state senators presented a petition: ‘The undersigned, citizens of the State, would respectfully represent: That owing to the great falling off of the Canal revenue, as well as the increasing drafts upon the State Treasury, and the large expenses of carrying on the several departments of the State Government, thereby swelling up the taxes … your petitioners respectfully ask that your Honorable body pass an act for calling a Convention to so alter the Constitution as to abolish both the Executive and Legislative Departments … and to vest the powers and duties thereof on the President, Vice President, and Directors of the New York Central Railroad. …’
“The Times correspondent went on to explain that the proposal was ‘intended as a joke’ but ‘conveys a bitter satire, a satire which is deserved and just.’ There followed a discourse on the villainy of the railroads … and a prediction that a time would come when ‘after long suffering’ the people would rise and ‘retaliate.’
“They almost did. The state legislature passed the proposition, and it went on the ballot that fall. It failed by only 6,360 votes.”