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Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin's Snuff Box to Citizens United

Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin's Snuff Box to Citizens United

by Zephyr Teachout


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When Louis XVI presented Benjamin Franklin with a snuff box encrusted with diamonds and inset with the King’s portrait, the gift troubled Americans: it threatened to “corrupt” Franklin by clouding his judgment or altering his attitude toward the French in subtle psychological ways. This broad understanding of political corruption—rooted in ideals of civic virtue—was a driving force at the Constitutional Convention.

For two centuries the framers’ ideas about corruption flourished in the courts, even in the absence of clear rules governing voters, civil officers, and elected officials. Should a law that was passed by a state legislature be overturned because half of its members were bribed? What kinds of lobbying activity were corrupt, and what kinds were legal? When does an implicit promise count as bribery? In the 1970s the U.S. Supreme Court began to narrow the definition of corruption, and the meaning has since changed dramatically. No case makes that clearer than Citizens United.

In 2010, one of the most consequential Court decisions in American political history gave wealthy corporations the right to spend unlimited money to influence elections. Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion treated corruption as nothing more than explicit bribery, a narrow conception later echoed by Chief Justice Roberts in deciding McCutcheon v. FEC in 2014. With unlimited spending transforming American politics for the worse, warns Zephyr Teachout, Citizens United and McCutcheon were not just bad law but bad history. If the American experiment in self-government is to have a future, then we must revive the traditional meaning of corruption and embrace an old ideal.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780674659988
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Publication date: 05/09/2016
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 584,382
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Zephyr Teachout is Associate Professor of Law at Fordham University.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 Four Snuff Boxes and a Horse 17

2 Changing the Frame 32

3 Removing Temptations 56

4 Yazoo 81

5 Is Bribery without a Remedy? 102

6 Railroad Ties 125

7 The Forgotten Law of Lobbying 144

8 The Gilded Age 174

9 Two Kinds of Sticks 183

10 The Jury Decides 195

11 Operation Gemstone 205

12 A West Virginia State of Mind 215

13 Citizens United 227

14 The New Snuff Boxes 246

15 Facts in Exile, Complacency, and Disdain 258

16 The Anticorruption Principle 276

Conclusion 291

Appendix 1 Anticorruption Constitutional Provisions 307

Appendix 2 Major Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Anticorruption Laws 311

Notes 313

Cases Cited 351

Further Reading 357

Acknowledgments 359

Index 361

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