Just in case you’ve been too busy to look at the 1790 US Census — signed by Thomas Jefferson! — here’s synopsis I’ll be using to make my point. (Citation: Haines, Michael. “Fertility and Mortality in the United States”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 19, 2008. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/fertility-and-mortality-in-the-united-states/)
One fact jumps out: Life expectancy as late as 1850 was less than forty years old, even for white Americans.
What does this mean? The Constitution’s minimum ages for office are shamefully out of keeping with today’s life expectancy. James Madison and his team feared hot-headed youth at the reins of power, just as they feared hot-headed mobs choosing the US Senate or a hot-headed President launching a war. Elevated minimum ages were also a subtle means of imposing a wealth requirement, because what killed a lot of young adult males was accidents involved in making a living. Hunting accidents that turned into gangrene. Blade-related accidents that turned into tetanus. Bad water and unpreserved food that took out the digestive tract. Folks with servants and slaves to run these risks didn’t just have the chance to get an education when young, they had a chance to eat, drink, and make merry during their young adult years without chopping off a foot the next day or succumbing to a buddy’s missed aim in the field.
What does this mean for our era? People are using Congress as a stepping stone to lucrative careers in lobbying, contracting, and at the upper reaches of financial and educational money mills. And the Presidency! Either we’re going to have to execute them on their last day in office, or plan to have nothing but dynasties from now on.
So here’s my simple plan. Never mind the US Senate, which has become such a millionaires’ club (not that being a millionaire is that big these days). Let’s take all branches of government and require everyone at the federal level to have reached 55 years of age before they can be considered for public service. US Supreme Court and the rest of the federal bench, everyone in the Congress, and above all else, the White House.
This doesn’t just mean the public officials will have had to have a long-term track record, but their children will have had to do something besides getting in line to continue the family industry. This might give what’s left of local media a way to re-energize themselves, because most of what a member of Congress will have done will now be researchable when they run. By definition, members of Congress will have several generations of work and personal record on which run, which will greatly temper their ability to proclaim strong ideals and party loyalty. But if we’ve learned anything from the Bush and other dynasties (Michael Powell comes to mind), employing the immediate family of office-holders and party-leaders constitutes a back-door form of bribery. Here is where local and national media need to develop thick skin and investigate not just the candidate’s money, but everyone on which their family has deep confidence.
Up here in Vermont, we have this situation more or less by accident, because our small population means we have few top-of-ballot offices and therefore, anyone who wants them has to have spent a long time earning them. The one person who tried to buy one of them — Richard Tarrant, who ran for the US Senate against Bernie Sanders when Jim Jeffords retired — has entered electoral lore as the candidate who spent money per vote in a losing effort.
And how did he lose against the fifteenth-poorest member of the Senate? He faced someone who had shaken every hand in the state, repeatedly for several decades. And before that, every hand in the state’s population center, again for most of a decade. Everyone knows him. We don’t like everything about him, but he has no secrets that deeply affect how we feel about him. Even now, when someone is running an ad pointing out that his wife got a golden parachute to leave her job at Burlington College, most of us know how much it was.