Boehner v. Barebone

No, John Boehner is NOT running The. Dumbest. Legislative. Body. Ever.

As the clown-show formerly known as the United States House of Representatives, having abdicated its Constitutional role of originating all revenue legislation, prepares to think about meeting to ratify or reject the deal reached between the President and the Senate, the question on everyone’s mind is: is John Boehner presiding over the most contemptible legislative body in the history of the English-speaking world?

I am pleased to report that the answer is “no.”

The long-awaited publication of Andy Sabl’s masterful book on Hume’s Politics, an interpretation of Hume’s History of England, has sent me back to Hume’s text: the best-selling book in England, save the Bible, for a century after its publication. It remains both readable and instructive.

Hume convicingly defends Boehner against the charge of running The. Dumbest. Legislative. Body. Ever. That distinction must surely belong to the assembly summoned by Oliver Cromwell in July of 1653 to provide a fig-leaf for his military dictatorship. Its members were personally summoned by Cromwell rather than elected; once assembled, they simply voted themselves the title of a Parliament. That made them the immediate successor to the Long Parliament, which had sat since 1640, killed a king in the name of liberty, and created first its own tyranny and then the worse tyranny of the major-generals. One of the members of the new assembly bore the extraordinary name of Praise-God Barebone, and the populace named the group Barebone’s Parliament.

Religious fanaticism ran deep in the group; “seeking the Lord in prayer” was, among the Independents, a recognized form of political action. After six months, Cromwell grew weary of them, and some of his friends who were members, meeting separately, voted the body out of existence. But a staunch few, led by General Harrison, remained in the Parliament chamber and started to draw up resolutions. Cromwell sent one Col. White to chase them away.

Entering the chamber with his troops, the Colonel asked the remaining members what they were doing. “Seeking the Lord,” they replied. “Then,” said White, “you may go elsewhere; for, to my certain knowledge, He has not been here these many years.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

4 thoughts on “Boehner v. Barebone”

  1. According to this parliamentary history website, Barebone’s Parliament was not a dead loss as a legislature.

    Among the areas on which they successfully legislated were on the laws of marriage and on the subject of debt. In August an act was passed removing marriage from the oversight of the clergy and requiring parishes to appoint civil registrars to record weddings. Parish registers surviving from this period cast light on the implementation of this act, and show how in many places the registrars were local justices of the peace. Another law set up special judges to adjudicate on cases of debt. The normal practice was for debtors to be imprisoned, the well-off among them comfortably, the poor in squalor, and the act attempted to introduce a measure of equity in the way these cases were treated.

    Debt and marriage? I look forward without optimism to Boehner’s Congress passing equivalent reforms on these still timely problems.

  2. I’d like to submit the tolerant-of-slavery US Congress pre-1860, and the South African parliament which did apartheid. I guess you could probably wriggle out of that one by noting that it was mostly Afrikaans, but there were a lot of English speakers elected to it, and who comfortably tolerated what was going on.

    1. Both of your examples were capable of legislating, albeit often to achieve deliberately terrible ends. I think the argument here might be more about lack of such capability, not the ends to which it is put.

Comments are closed.