The speaker of the House of Representatives negotiates cordially with a Marxist dictator at the very time when the American government is sending aid to an armed resistance movement fighting to overthrow his regime; a political preacher flies to the Middle East and discusses the most sensitive foreign policy issues with unfriendly heads of state; the son of a Communist Party member becomes rich by negotiating with Lenin and turns into a one-man Soviet-American public relations team, boasting that “the Hot Line is no longer only in the basement of the White House”; American physicians link arms with their Soviet counterparts in the struggle for world peace; communities across the U.S. declare themselves “nuclear free zones” and attempt to interfere with the transport of weapons and materiel vital to the nation’s defense; churches claiming the privileges of a tax-exempt status interfere in the political process by lobbying and encouraging their members to violate the law for the sake of a higher law that is revealed only to them.

What is going on in a country that manages to tolerate the shenanigans of Jim Wright, Jesse Jackson, Armand Hammer, Dr. Bernard Lown, and “sanctuary” churches? The easy answer is that some of these people are conscious subversives who know how to manipulate public opinion (i.e., the press) and avert the lynch mob they deserve. Some, perhaps, but not all. There are sanctuary workers, for example, who think they are good Americans whose only “crime” is their commitment to scriptural commandments. They write touching accounts of their kindly ministrations to illegal immigrants; at least, they would be touching if they were not filled with an arrogant contempt for law and national interest. Still, they are mostly not conscious agents of a foreign power, not really guilty of anything that the law of the United States recognizes as treason.

The crime of treason has always presented a problem for Americans. The Constitution specifies only the levying of war and the giving of aid and comfort to enemies. This restraint is a marked departure from the British legal traditions in which the Framers were educated. The treason statutes of Britain included not only such obvious crimes as any intent to kill, wound, or imprison the king or his heirs, and any attempt to depose him or levy war against him, but also the use of force to overawe the king and/or his parliament in order to change policies. Those who planned and led riots, if (like Lord George Gordon’s) their demonstrations had a political objective, could find themselves condemned as traitors. The alternative was a death sentence under the Riot Act.

The most obvious motive for the Framers’ moderation is their own consciousness of having participated in a treasonable conspiracy against king and parliament. The weakness of our treason law is manifest in the failure to get a conviction in the case of Aaron Burr, who asked the British government for $500,000 and a squadron of ships to be used in the conquest of New Orleans. True, not all the evidence was available, and Chief Justice John Marshall did not help matters by openly siding with the defendant as a political move against Jefferson, but in any other country Aaron Burr and his confederates would have been speedily put to death. Burr was at least brought to trial, but nothing was done to the New England Federalists who not only conspired to secede during the War of 1812, but—worse—also entered into negotiations with the British during the most serious crisis our nation has ever faced. The delegates to the Hartford Convention had to suffer only the ridicule from their colleagues in the Congress, but no formal charges were made even against such ringleaders as Timothy Pickering, who had held regular meetings with a British agent and had gone so far as to arrange a letter drop in London to facilitate his treasonable correspondence.

Pickering is an interesting case, because there is no doubt about his knowledge of the law. As secretary of state under John Adams, he was largely responsible for the passage of the Logan Act (1799), which makes it a crime for citizens to enter into peace negotiations with foreign nations. Significantly, the act was titled “An Act to Prevent Usurpation of Executive Functions.” While the Logan Act has never been enforced—even against the man who demanded its passage—it has never been repealed either. It remains our only official proclamation on the subject of citizen diplomacy. When Henry Wallace used his position as former Vice President to stir up foreign opposition to the Truman Doctrine, the Act was remembered. The threat to invoke it may well have warned off imitators, that is, until recently. In his defense, we ought to concede that Jesse Jackson had probably never heard of either the Logan Act or Henry Wallace.

Supporters of private peace initiatives are impatient with the legal niceties. There is an ethical point at stake, they claim, and cite Dwight Eisenhower—that great cold warrior who gave peace to Korea and security to Hungary—who once declared that “People want peace so much that one of these days government had better get out of their way and give it to them.” Why didn’t he and John Foster Dulles just resign or turn over the State Department to the Junior Chamber of Commerce?

After a century’s worth of Presidents like Woodrow Wilson and Warren Harding, Franklin Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover, it is small wonder if many Americans are beginning to suspect that private citizens could do a better job in foreign affairs; but the democratic quality of our highest leadership—men of mediocre education, common vision, and average ethical standards—does not suggest that what we really need is more democracy in the conduct of foreign policy. The Athenians tried mob rule as a substitute for government and destroyed themselves.

If our governors have become impossibly corrupt and unbelievably stupid, then we may need to rethink the mechanisms by which they are selected. Too much democracy was the great fear of the Framers, and they designed a system that could resist some of the follies of popular government—the electoral college, the indirect election of senators, a national government limited in the scope of its mischief-making. We dismantled all those safeguards and are now faced with a choice between Gary Hart and George Bush, at best. It makes one long for the days of Millard Fillmore or that much-maligned gentleman, Franklin Pierce. The Democrats could not construct even half a man out of all their announced candidates, and three of the Republicans’ best men—Robertson, Dupont, Haig—do not stand the slightest chance.

There are deep and serious problems in a system that could propel a Jimmy Carter into any high office, and there are deep and serious flaws in the character of a nation that will tolerate such incompetents and impostors as fill the Senate and the governors’ mansions of the several states. We face an enormous crisis in our international position: deteriorating relations with our European allies, a wily Soviet adversary who knows how to manipulate the American press, and an impending economic recession; and we are forced—at this time of national emergency—to rely on the talents of men who might have staffed the administrations of Romulus Augustulus or the Byzantine Emperors who let their country fall into the hands of the Latins.

When any regime is falling apart—Rome in the 5th century, Byzantium in the 12th, France in the 18th, the Weimar Republic—there is a scramble for power in a game that is open to anyone willing to play. In Byzantium it was the feudal military leaders and the civil bureaucrats; in France it was the liberal nobility and the lawyers; in the U.S. it is anybody’s game. The executive, legislative, and judicial leaders are all so busy increasing their own power, they have little time—supposing they had the talent and inclination—for governing the nation.

Imagine Moe, Larry, and Curly presiding over the three branches of government. Dressed in the solemn regalia of their offices, they chase each other around the Capitol, poking each other in the eye as they slap wallpaper over all the doors and windows. While the boys are pulling noses and sticking heads in vices, any number of outsiders are learning how to set up their own versions of government: multinational corporations, lobbying groups, lunatic fringe political movements—racists and feminists, primarily—and the countless religious and secular organizations currently promoting citizen diplomat tours to the Soviet Union. The way things are going, we may as well vote for Jesse Jackson and get it over with.