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Notes On The Debates In The Federal Convention Concerning A Council Of Oracles

by Ron Fein

JULY 27, 1787, IN CONVENTION

The postponed question being taken up of whether the Legislature, Executive, and Judiciary should be joined by a Council of Oracles.

Mr. MADISON moved that such a council be constituted as a separate body within the Legislature, equal to the House and Senate, its consent needed for all legislation.

Col. MASON approved heartily of the motion. The oracles’ wisdom had proven critical during the late war. At the siege of Charleston, only their foresight averted a defeat and ignominious surrender. And General Washington has credited his victory at the battle of White Plains to their guidance. If New York had fallen to the British, the war may have lasted seven years rather than four.

Mr. GERRY. No one disputes that the wisdom of the oracles wd. guide the men of the representative assemblies in their judgment. But the Council of Oracles shd. form a fourth branch of the general Govt., not a body within the Legislature. The oracles shd. not be burdened to vote routinely on matters of roads and tariffs &c., but instead bestow their insights upon the other three branches as needed.

Mr. KING concurred with Mr. Gerry. If the oracles are constantly occupied with mundane questions, the spirit may depart from them. Let them advise the other branches of the Govt. when needed, and otherwise tend to their own inscrutable affairs.

Doctr. FRANKLIN did not see the necessity of a separate Council of Oracles. In Greece the Pythia at Delphi speaks to those who seek counsel, whether high or low, for one day per month, nine months per annum. But she forms no part of any Govt.

Mr. HAMILTON remarked that the case of the Pythia was not applicable. Greece is divided and the priestesses must be available to Sparta even when it marches agst. Athens. Our object is a Govt. that unites the States, not one that advises them in their wars agst. each other.

Col. MASON. Further support for this proposition derives from the varied locations of the temples. Without a separate body in the Govt. empowered to restrain the secular branches, will Massachusetts heed the words of a priestess in Virginia if her words differ from those of the one in Boston?

Mr. MADISON. The oracles are all infallible and their advice, if understood correctly, is identical. But they may phrase their words differently, or men may understand them differently, leading to misunderstanding. A council of them wd. speak with one voice.

Mr. SHERMAN agreed that oracular guidance is indispensable. Men are corrupt and shortsighted; the advice of the priestesses is always correct even if we fail to understand it. But fallible men must interpret their words and make their own decisions. The oracles shd. not be encumbered by formal positions in the Govt. given their sacred duties in their temples &c.

Mr. KING apprehended that if the oracles formed a part of the Govt., that unscrupulous men wd. attempt to bribe them to secure advantage.

Mr. WILSON. The priestesses must remain pure and holy. To further embroil their delicate and virtuous constitutions in daily affairs wd. strain their spirits overmuch. The Executive and perhaps the Judiciary are well advised to consult the Apollonian priestesses from time to time, but they shd. not be given a role in the general affairs of the Govt.

Col. MASON’s opinion had been changed by the arguments used in the discussion. He was now sensible of the necessity of protecting the oracular priestesses in their spiritual domains and not overly enmeshing them in the affairs of men.

Mr. MADISON was content to withdraw the original motion and propose another in its place. He moved that, from time to time, the Executive shall seek the advice and counsel of an oracular priestess when he shall think proper; and further, that he may require the opinion of the principal officers of the Govt. regarding the correct interpretation of her words. 

The motion passed unanimously.

~

Bio:

Ron Fein is a writer, lawyer, and activist based near Boston, Massachusetts (USA). Find him at ronfein.com and on Twitter @ronfein.

Philosophy Note:

The Framers of the U.S. Constitution sometimes showed great wisdom and foresight, but they were blinded in many ways by their own prejudices, divisions, and misconceptions about how the new United States of America would develop. What if something like the Oracle at Delphi, widely accepted as capable of accurately divining the future, had been available to them? Would they have been able to take proper advantage of this amazing resource? My guess is not.

History

by Stephen Sottong

The guard led me down a narrow path between a series of anonymous, razor-wire-topped chain-link cages until, somehow, he knew the one that was mine. The cage was a three-meter square with a concrete floor sloping to a hole in one corner large enough to function for sanitary needs — if one could function in the total lack of privacy. The hole stank of previous use. The guard pushed me inside — not roughly but decisively. I made no protest, too drained to care. My family and my life’s work were gone. The irony struck me — I was a historian and now my life was merely history.

I sat on the cold concrete, waiting, dozing only to be awakened randomly by screams, or a single gunshot, or guards taking prisoners away.

The sun was barely high enough to shine into my cage when the gate opened and a boy of about eight was thrust in. He stood there, small, thin, dressed in old but serviceable clothes, shivering, although this winter morning was not particularly cool courtesy of the warming that had caused this chaos. The boy and I stared at each other. He was about the same age my son would have been. Patting the concrete next to me, I made room for him. He sat, leaving a gap between us, and continued shivering. I lifted my arm, offering to put it around him. He hesitated and, when a gunshot rang out, finally leaned into me.

We sat, waiting, not speaking, perhaps afraid to interact in this perverse place.

Half an hour later, a guard came around, opened the gate and handed me a small loaf of bread. I took it. It was still warm. Its heady scent masked the stench of filth and decay around me. I wanted to tear into the bread, ravenous, but, instead, moved it to the hand still around the boy, broke the loaf in two and gave the larger piece to him. The guard watched this tableau and left.

We ate. I wished I had water.

The sun rose, baking the concrete expanse. By the time it was too warm for me to have an arm around him, two guards arrived. We got up, me stiffly after sitting on the still cold concrete. The boy offered me his hand and helped me up. A woman took the boy, and a man marched me down the long rows of cells with their seated occupants, some silent, some weeping. I trembled in spite of the heat contemplating what awaited me.

The guard escorted me to a building. At the entrance, he presented me with a bag. Inside were my notebooks. Here rested the sum total of my worthless, lifelong pursuit of the past, preserved on the one media that could survive the disruptions of these times – ink on paper. I held the bag closer than I had the boy, afraid that both I and my life’s work might be destroyed at any moment. The guard deposited me in a room with two chairs, one in front and one behind a desk.

I sat, waiting, clutching the bag.

Two guards entered through a side door and examined the room. A uniformed man followed. When I finally recognized the man was The Leader, I was too surprised to react. The guards on either side of him precluded an assassination attempt — not that I had the energy or will to try.

“Don’t get up,” The Leader said and took the seat behind the desk. He looked older than his years, military hat low over his eyes, uniform faded. The scar running the length of his right cheek appeared even redder and more ragged than in his pictures. “Feel free to take notes,” he continued.

In spite of my shock, I managed to pull out one of the notebooks and found a pen at the bottom of the bag.

He sat back in the chair, steel-gray eyes focused on me, “I read in your journals how you’ve documented the warming climate and loss of prime land with sea level rise. So you realize that means current population levels can’t be sustained. I feel I’ve been tasked to ensure that whatever part of humanity,” he stared directly at me, eyes stern but sad, “if any, that survives will be the best possible. Without intervention, the strongest and cruelest tend to survive. I’m trying to preclude that by testing for empathy and altruism. Congratulations. You passed the test. Had you not shared the bread with the boy, you would have been culled from the survivor stock.”

My hand trembled, but my fingers somehow transcribed his words.

“So, I have an offer for you. You’re a historian. I want an honest, factual account of events. I know I’ll come off as one of the monsters of history. I don’t want you to sugarcoat the facts, just be open-minded. If you accept, you’ll be assigned a place where you can observe and record these crucial times.” He leaned forward, arms on the desk. “Understand, you will likely be considered complicit and your observations suspect.” He paused, still staring at me. “Will you take the position?”

My life was history. How could I refuse such a vantage to record it? “Yes.”

He rose. “Good. You’ll be taken to a room where you can rest and clean up.” With that, he and the guards departed, leaving me, for brief seconds, alone, rooted to my chair in shock.

A guard eventually escorted me out of the building, past only empty cages — perhaps fearing I’d give away the secret to survival. He made no attempt to restrain me and seemed more guide than minder.

We had nearly reached the gate of the facility when we passed an enclosure where boys of perhaps six to thirteen were kept. The one who’d been my companion pushed his way through the milling group to the chain link. I stopped. He stared at me, wide-eyed, clutching the wires. We held each others gaze. The guard made no attempt to move me along.

I queried the matron, pointing to the boy. “Does he have family?”

She shook her head. “All dead.”

The longer I looked at the boy, the more he resembled my own — before the plague took him. “I’ll take him.”

She frowned and turned to my guard who pulled out his radio, spoke briefly into it and then shrugged at the matron. She beckoned the boy to the gate, releasing him to me.

Notebooks under one arm, boy under the other, we walked toward our escape, exchanging glances, evaluating each other. With all we’d both lost, we could do worse.

~

Bio:

Stephen Sottong lives in beautiful northern California behind the Redwood Curtain. He is a 2013 winner of Writers of the Future and has been published in several journals and websites. A full list is on his website: stephensottong.com.