AHEAD OF HER TIME: Dorothy Sterling

, who died December 1 at 95, never taught at a college or university. But she had a greater impact on how we think about the American past than most academic historians. Obituaries described Sterling as a writer of children’s literature, which is fair enough, since most of her thirty-odd books were historical works for young readers. Many were about then virtually unknown figures in the struggle for racial justice, including Underground Railroad heroine

Harriet Tubman

; Quaker abolitionist

Lucretia Mott

; and

Robert Smalls

, a black Congressman from South Carolina after the Civil War.

But this description fails to do justice to the scholarly contribution of this remarkable woman, especially her pioneering work in gathering and publishing documents about the black past. The Trouble They Seen: Black People Tell the Story of Reconstruction (1976) and We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century (1984) helped to transform our understanding of African-American and women’s history. Sterling’s biography of

Abby Kelley

, Ahead of Her Time (1991), rescued from obscurity a pivotal figure in the struggle against slavery and for women’s rights. The title is an apt description not only of the book’s subject but also its author.   ERIC FONER


Representative democracy was issued a “timeout” in Canada on December 4, when Governor General Michaëlle Jean agreed to suspend Parliament for eight weeks, rescuing Prime Minister

Stephen Harper

‘s minority government from imminent defeat.

The crisis began November 27, when in lieu of a stimulus package–Canada is the only OECD country not to offer a stimulus package in response to its deepening economic crisis–the Conservative government offered a hard-right attack on gender and labor rights and a brazen attempt to bankrupt its parliamentary opponents. Included in the government’s “fiscal update” was the suspension of federal public-sector workers’ right to strike, the cutting of pay equity, the selling of public assets and the slashing of public funding for political parties–sounding the death knell for opposition parties lacking hefty corporate sponsorship.

The opposition parties were duly enraged, not least by a government with the gall to deny the country’s slumping economy any public investment, despite carving a $100 million budget surplus out of its public assets and labor. Their response? Unprecedented cooperation and an attempt at representative democracy. On December 1, the leaders of two major opposition parties, the


and the left-leaning

New Democratic Party

, announced they had formed a coalition and planned, with the support of the

Bloc Québécois

, to bring down Prime Minister Harper and his Conservatives in a no-confidence vote–and then form a ruling coalition government.

So Harper went running to the governor general for two extra months to control the agenda and advance Conservative hegmony. It’s as if the prime minister forgot that being elected by only 38 percent of voters means that 62 percent–the majority–support his opposition. And when Parliament reconvenes on January 26, this opposition will get another chance to prove that the national interest can sometimes trump cutthroat politics.   BRETT STORY


It’s not just governors like Illinois’s scandal-plagued

Rod Blagojevich

who should be barred from making appointments to fill vacant Senate seats. No governor should be allowed to personally select a senator who will have one of 100 votes on every major domestic and foreign issue facing the Republic for at least two years–and, with the benefits of appointed incumbency, perhaps for decades to come.

To be sure, Blagojevich looks to be the worst of the lot. The Illinois governor has been charged by US Attorney

Patrick Fitzgerald

in a breathtaking seventy-six-page complaint that recounts what he described as a “political corruption crime spree” of pay-to-play schemes, including the allegation that “Blagojevich put a ‘for sale’ sign on the naming of a United States senator.”

The charges against Blagojevich recall the reason the US Constitution was changed, almost a century ago, to require the election of US senators. The Seventeenth Amendment established the direct election of senators, taking the power to populate the chamber away from corrupt governors and deal-making legislators. An unfortunate loophole, however, allows governors to appoint senators when vacancies occur–unlike the situation with vacancies in the House, which must be filled by special elections. Only a handful of states–Wisconsin, Oregon and Oklahoma among them–require that an election be held to replace a senator who dies or quits.

With Senate seats vacant or soon to be vacant in Illinois, Delaware and New York, governors have been preparing to make appointments.

Joe Biden

‘s Delaware slot will be filled for two years by a placeholder, veteran Biden aide

Ted Kaufman

, setting up one of many potentially competitive contests in 2010. And while New York Governor

David Paterson

has yet to make an appointment to replace Senator

Hillary Clinton

, the names in circulation include Representative

Carolyn Maloney


Caroline Kennedy

and State Attorney General

Andrew Cuomo

. But why should any of them get a seat solely at the whim of Paterson, or any other governor?

With Blagojevich’s arrest, a fundamental flaw in the appointment process is glaringly evident. Of course, Blagojevich should not be allowed to appoint President-elect

Barack Obama

‘s successor in the Senate unless and until he is cleared of the charges against him. As Illinois Senator

Dick Durbin

says, “No appointment by this governor, under these circumstances, could produce a credible replacement.”

But Illinoisans should have a junior senator. What to do? Durbin proposes that his home state hold a special election to fill Obama’s seat. Outgoing Illinois Senate president

Emil Jones

has responded with a plan to ask the State Senate and House to enact legislation that will clear the way for replacement of the junior senator by popular vote. Let’s hope they pull it off. A special election would clean up some of the mess in Illinois. It would, as well, provide an example to other states of a more honest and democratic way to fill Senate vacancies.   JOHN NICHOLS