Guest Essayist: Chris Burkett


History furnishes plenty of examples, especially in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, of revolutions that attempted to create Utopian societies. From the French Revolution, which attempted to completely recreate society in every way in the name of equality, to the Russian Revolution, which attempted to recreate the human mind by erasing all concepts of the “private” and the “individual,” these Utopian experiments all have one thing in common: they either ignore or reject the idea of unchanging human nature, or claim that human nature is malleable or perfectible and can be reinvented. The American Founders would argue that this is why they have all failed, or will fail, in the end.

To be sure, the Founders understood from their own experiences and actions that change – and sometimes revolution – is necessary to bring about political, social, moral, and economic progress to make life better and more just for human beings. But the Founders had the prescience to see the danger of being too radical and abandoning all tradition and experience for the sake of some untested visionary idea of a perfect society. James Madison, in The Federalist No. 14, urged his fellow Americans to be open to the new – one might say “experimental” – aspects of the proposed United States Constitution. “Hearken not to the voice,” Madison wrote, “which petulantly tells you that the form of government recommended for your adoption is a novelty in the political world; that it has never yet had a place in the theories of the wildest projectors; that it rashly attempts what it is impossible to accomplish.” On the other hand, Madison acknowledged that there are some wholly new aspects of the proposed form of government. “But why,” he continued, “is the experiment of an extended republic to be rejected, merely because it may comprise what is new? Is it not the glory of the people of America, that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?” To embolden his fellow citizens to attempt this experiment, Madison appealed to the example of the American Revolution itself:

Had no important step been taken by the leaders of the Revolution for which a precedent could not be discovered, no government established of which an exact model did not present itself, the people of the United States might, at this moment have been numbered among the melancholy victims of misguided councils, must at best have been laboring under the weight of some of those forms which have crushed the liberties of the rest of mankind. Happily for America, happily, we trust, for the whole human race, they pursued a new and more noble course.

Alexander Hamilton, in The Federalist No 31, also wrote on the need to combine a degree of boldness with prudence in revolutions. “Caution and investigation are a necessary armor against error and imposition,” Hamilton wrote.

But this untractableness may be carried too far, and may degenerate into obstinacy, perverseness, or disingenuity. … The moment we launch into conjectures about the usurpations of the federal government, we get into an unfathomable abyss, and fairly put ourselves out of the reach of all reasoning. Imagination may range at pleasure till it gets bewildered amidst the labyrinths of an enchanted castle, and knows not on which side to turn to extricate itself from the perplexities into which it has so rashly adventured.

Though the Founders understood the need for “experimentation” in order to make society better, they also understood that such experiments must be undertaken with a kind of prudence and judicious awareness of the realities and limitations imposed by human nature. In The Federalist No. 10, James Madison addressed those who believe that faction can be eliminated entirely from society, and reminds them that the causes of faction are rooted in human nature. To achieve a truly faction-free society, one must either eliminate or change human nature, which, in either case, would require a tyrannical government to accomplish. Madison reminded us again in The Federalist No. 51 that human nature should temper our expectations for establishing successful Utopian regimes. “But what is government itself,” Madison asked,” but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

In The Federalist No. 37, Madison reflected on how the Constitutional Convention in 1787 combined political innovation tempered with prudence and a due regard for experience to create the proposed Constitution. The mode in which the Constitution was written – by a body of 55 delegates from twelve states over the course of three and a half months – was itself an experiment in constitution making. Madison observed, “The novelty of the undertaking immediately strikes us. … The most that the convention could do in such a situation, was to avoid the errors suggested by the past experience of other countries, as well as of our own; and to provide a convenient mode of rectifying their own errors, as future experiences may unfold them.” Madison conceded that the proposed Constitution was not perfect; nor would it establish a perfect form of government. But Madison argued against letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, and acknowledged that the imperfections arose, in part, from the realities of human nature and of imperfect human beings. As Madison wrote:

Would it be wonderful if, under the pressure of all these difficulties, the convention should have been forced into some deviations from that artificial structure and regular symmetry which an abstract view of the subject might lead an ingenious theorist to bestow on a Constitution planned in his closet or in his imagination? The real wonder is that so many difficulties should have been surmounted, and surmounted with a unanimity almost as unprecedented as it must have been unexpected. It is impossible for any man of candor to reflect on this circumstance without partaking of the astonishment. It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution.

Hamilton echoed this sentiment as well in The Federalist No 85. Hamilton addressed those who would reject the proposed Constitution because it was imperfect. “‘Why,’ say they, ‘should we adopt an imperfect thing? Why not amend it and make it perfect before it is irrevocably established?’” Hamilton’s response invoked, again, the realities of human nature:

I never expect to see a perfect work from imperfect man. The result of the deliberations of all collective bodies must necessarily be a compound, as well of the errors and prejudices, as of the good sense and wisdom, of the individuals of whom they are composed. The compacts which are to embrace thirteen distinct States in a common bond of amity and union, must as necessarily be a compromise of as many dissimilar interests and inclinations. How can perfection spring from such materials?

In summary, to paraphrase Hamilton from The Federalist No. 6, though it is reasonable for us to aim at progress through prudent change and experimentation, one must be far gone in Utopian speculations to believe that human beings can ever achieve a completely perfect society. History has vindicated the Founders’ advice on this through many examples of Utopian experiments that have resulted in tyranny, oppression, and death for many people.

Christopher C. Burkett is Associate Professor of History and Political Science, and Director of the Ashbrook Scholar Program at Ashland University.

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