My Uncle John: “Do no harm”
| October 26, 2023 12:00 AM
When I was 45, I went to my family’s second reunion. The first reunion was for my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary and I was 5 years old for that one, so at an average of 40 years between reunions you might gather that we were not a particularly close-knit family, and you would be right.
But at the second reunion I realized that I was related to some people well worth knowing so I made an effort to keep in touch, particularly with my father’s younger brother, John, and I went to see him and his family once a year until he died.
Uncle John was rescued from life on a South Dakota farm in the Dust Bowl 1930s by my father who plucked his entire family from that misery and took care of his parents for the rest of their lives. Uncle John worked his way through Penn State by putting ice in refrigerator railroad cars at the Mrs. Smith Pie Company. He became a nuclear engineer and began his career with the DuPont Company where he worked at the Savannah River Nuclear Authority plant near Augusta, Ga.
“My life began when I retired from DuPont,” he told me. He became a “do-gooder,” planting flowers in the median strips of the streets in his hometown of Aiken, S.C. He founded homes for unwed mothers, pounded nails for Habitat for Humanity, and served on the South Carolina Board of Pardons and Parole.
“Everyone deserves a second chance,” he said, “and some people deserve a third and a fourth chance.”
He was a Republican, for what that matters (as was my father, whom he revered) and a gregarious, kind, and humble person. I thought the world of him.
He asked me once what were the important things I did while I was in the Montana Legislature and I told him that most of my effort was spent on trying to make good things happen for the people I represented, but most of my time was spent on trying to prevent bad things from happening, instead.
“Do no harm,” he said, quoting the Hippocratic oath that medical doctors take. “Exactly!” I thought.
Uncle John is dead now, but there remains plenty of work in the “do no harm” field, especially for politicians if they choose to do it. But currently what they seem to be the most interested in doing is exactly what the founders of our nation did their best to prevent, which is to consolidate power for themselves and their political parties.
The writers of the United States Constitution understood human nature, which is to be in control and use power toward our own benefit. The founders had the unique ability to understand the need to protect the governed by setting up barriers against the accumulation of power by the governing.
To create a system of government that made rapid change difficult they established rival institutions that would work to stymie the power grabs that the individual institutions would try to accomplish; the Congress would hold the President accountable, and the Courts would act as a check on the Congress and the Presidency. They were not supposed to work together in unison. As a balance, the President appoints the Supreme Court Justices, and the Senate must approve them.
However, because power is addictive (and blinding) we see political parties try to skirt the frictions set up by the Constitution by taking control of other branches of government. In Wisconsin when a liberal was elected to their Supreme Court the Republican Legislature moved to impeach her.
Because the Montana Courts have ruled several legislative acts as unconstitutional, they have been seen as political adversaries of the legislature and attempts have been made to give the legislature more control of the courts. Nothing could be more against the intent of the founders who feared the rule of the all-powerful as much as they feared the rule of the mob.
There is plenty of room for politicians to “do no harm” once they get tired of trying to accumulate power.
Montana Viewpoint has appeared in weekly and online newspapers across Montana for over 25 years. Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.