Essay Read by Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner
In The Federalist No. 6, Alexander Hamilton sought to refute the claim that commercial republics, such as the thirteen original united states, do not go to war with each other, and that, therefore, there was no threat of eventual disunion to be feared from the looser structure of the Articles of Confederation. He cited numerous historical examples, from ancient Greece to more modern times, to challenge that comforting assertion. Hamilton urged, “Let experience, the least fallible guide of human opinions, be appealed to for an answer to these inquiries.” His approach was characteristic of many discourses and arguments in The Federalist. James Madison frequently referred to the history of ancient Greece, while Hamilton repeatedly looked to the fate of the Roman Republic and to the history of English constitutional practice. Other antagonists engaged in similar mode of argumentation in the debate over the fate of the proposed Constitution of 1787.
Indeed, that tactic was not limited to the debates over the Constitution. For example, John Adams extensively discussed the history of Italian republics in his multi-volume work on contemporary state constitutions, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, written from 1786 to 1788. After all, history is recorded human experience. The lessons that history might teach are drawn from the often-painful experiences and frequently tragic responses of those who went before us. The need to examine those experiences and debate their lessons was particularly acute when the undertaking was a new political order, Novus ordo seclorum, as the new motto placed on the Great Seal of the United States by the Confederation Congress promised. As Adams wrote to an acquaintance in connection with the publication of Defences, “They [the Italian republics] are the best Models for Americans to Study, in order to show them the horrid precipice that lies before them in order to enable and Stimulate them to avoid it.”
While history is the record of experience which subsequent generations can use as a primer in guiding their affairs, tradition (or custom) is the collective manifestation of that experience. It is “how things are done here.” Tradition sometimes is rejected because it is outdated for modern conditions, or at least appears to be so. But before rejecting tradition, it is wise to remember the precautionary principle captured in G. K. Chesterton’s Fence, an admonition best summarized as, “Do not remove a fence until you know why it was put up in the first place.” Tradition allows us to live in a social community without the chaos and inefficiency of having to learn anew each day how to organize complex human relationships.
The use of tradition to guard against rash, irrational, or oppressive political action has a long heritage. Reliance in ancient Roman republican constitutional practice on the mos maiorum, the tradition of the forefathers, sought to restrain arbitrary actions by ambitious politicians who might threaten the stability of the republic and the well-being of its citizens. Violations of tradition might have disastrous consequences. In Sophocles’s Oedipus Cycle, the Theban princess Antigone attempted to bury her dead traitorous brother in accordance with the ancient tradition rooted in divine commands. In doing so, she defied King Kreon’s decree to let the body be torn apart by animals. The deadly consequences of that decree for Antigone and for Kreon and his family is the stern lesson taught by the dramatist.
Another literary example is in Homer’s Iliad. The downfall of Troy results from the violation of the ancient Greek tradition of hospitality (xenia) by the Trojan prince Paris in running off with Helen, the wife of his host, the Spartan king Menelaus.
A more recent case in point is the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution instigated in the 1960s in Red China by Chairman Mao. He urged radical Red Guards to destroy the “Four Olds,” old ideas, culture, customs, and habits. The disastrous result for the Chinese people was an exemplification of the chaos, misery, and suffering when the bonds of tradition are sundered, and societal fences are torn down irrationally.
American writers of the Founding appealed relentlessly to tradition to justify their actions. Their claims that the British government was violating their ancient rights as Englishmen by enacting statutes, such as the Stamp Act, might have been dubious politically and self-interested economically. Their references to Magna Charta might have been strained as a matter of history. Still, those arguments reflected an attitude Americans maintained throughout the period that theirs was a “conservative” reaction against dangerous constitutional usurpations that went against the very reason for government, namely, to protect human flourishing.
In the same manner, during the debates on the Constitution of 1787, the new charter’s supporters repeatedly rejected the argument that it was a radical anti-republican proposal. Instead, the writers of The Federalist Papers, particularly James Madison, claimed that the new document was built on the Articles of Confederation, with some modifications needed to correct the earlier charter’s most glaring deficiencies. Madison’s claim might have been in tension with the approach adopted early by the Philadelphia Convention of writing a new document rather than proposing amendments to the Articles. It might contradict some of his own positions in that collection of essays. But it was an argument frequently repeated in the state conventions. Indeed, the preamble to the Constitution itself declares that the object was to form a “more perfect Union,” not to create one.
The accumulated wisdom of those who have gone before us, which is reflected in living traditions, plays a particularly prominent role in law. “Law” is associated with constancy, predictability, and knowability. We speak of “laws” of physics, which means that the associated phenomena manifest themselves universally and regularly, that we can predict specific results from their applications, and that we can understand them through observation and reason, often expressed through the language of mathematics. Universal “law” in the context of human action is more speculative, but not entirely so. Discovering such law is predicated on observation and reasoned interpretation primarily of the experiences of people within one’s own culture at different times, but also of those of people in other cultures. Such universal prescriptions of “right” conduct, whether called natural justice, natural law, divine law, or something else, animate not just particular political decrees and legislation but also customs which direct how one should comport oneself more generally.
“Natural law” in that sense is a construct primarily of metaphysics, but also has clear connections to religion. It is an application of tradition to matters of government and politics, but it also has an inherent moral content, rooted in an external source. Consider, for example, the words of Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans that the Gentiles, who do not have the Mosaic law, nevertheless can in their nature act in accordance with the law because it has been placed on each person’s heart by God and is exercised through conscience.
Although natural law has an inherent moral content that exists independently of human practice, that content is best gleaned through investigation of how “things are done” over time and consistently, in other words, experience reflected in tradition. As Aristotle declared in Politics, “observation tells us that every state is an association, and that every association is formed with a view to some good purpose.” The manner in which something operates successfully over time is evidence that it acts in accordance with its true nature or essence.
In jurisprudence and juristic practice, the force of tradition is expressed in one form through the doctrine of stare decisis (“to stand by things decided”), the presumptive adherence to precedent in judicial decisions that promotes the stability and predictability which are the attributes of law. For example, a determination by the Supreme Court of what a provision of the Constitution means is binding on the lower courts. But even in matters heard by subsequent panels of the Supreme Court, the earlier Court’s holding is unlikely to be disturbed. Although this is not an invariable rule, the longer and more frequently that earlier precedent has been followed, the less likely the Court is to disregard it in a similar subsequent case. Many are the paeans that various justices have penned to the doctrine of stare decisis, although the cynic might say that the doctrine lasts only as long as it fits the author’s conception of the “right” result in a particular case. Adherence to precedent allows the courts to guard against the “dangerous innovations in the government,” the function to which Alexander Hamilton pointed in The Federalist No. 78 as the core purpose of judicial review of the constitutionality of legislation.
Because the object of the ethical state is to provide the conditions for human flourishing, those political arrangements which are most successful at that endeavor are the best. Human law is useful to provide the order needed for individual flourishing within a community. But not just any law, only law directed towards that end. The philosophic speculations of Aristotle about the limits imposed by natural justice on the human lawgiver, and the intellectually rich and politically significant investigations of “natural law” by philosophers from the classical Cicero to the medieval scholastic Thomas Aquinas, to the more modern Francisco Suarez and Hugo Grotius address ways to establish an ethical basis for ordinary human law and a proper balance between liberty and order, individual and community.
“Order” can mean many things. Fundamentally, the word conveys stability, rules, and limits. Tradition, law, and order are essentially bound. The concept of natural law is founded on the idea of an orderly universe governed by stable laws of physics and, regarding human action, universal rules of morality. The preeminent expositors of natural moral law, the European scholastics of the Middle Age, lived and wrote in a highly ordered society, where everyone had a designated place in that feudal order. Moreover, it was understood that human society itself existed in a universal order governed by God.
The advent of modernity rejected the strict structural approach of a universal order of which each person was a part. Instead, the focus became on voluntary association and consent as the basis of society, and on individual natural rights, rather than duties and rights derived from one’s place in the “natural” order of things and persons. The problem with a focus on individual will and consent as the basis for individual action is that it invites atomization, subjectivism, moral relativism, and nihilism, concerns vividly raised many centuries ago by Plato in his discussion of the “democratic man” in The Republic. Unbridled liberty is chaotic and threatens to veer into license, as there exist no external standards that can claim inherent legitimacy based on higher moral authority or the moral force conveyed by tradition. Each person becomes a moral standard only onto himself or herself.
Yet the need remains for structure and stability in an orderly society, lest the relations among people devolve into a competition defined solely by power, resembling a Hobbesian state of nature of a war of all against all. The solution proposed by various “left” writers, from Rousseau to Marxist-Leninists of various stripes, of a government where the rulers embody a stylized “general will” of the collective in place of the expression of individual wills inevitably has led to dictatorship and oppression. To have that necessary stability, yet foster individual flourishing, there must be, as various Supreme Court opinions have pronounced, “ordered liberty” whose fundamental principles are protected under the Constitution. The difficulty, of course, lies in striking that balance, of achieving practically what otherwise is only an aspirational slogan.
The Framers of the Constitution and other Americans of that era understood all of this quite well. John Adams and the New Englanders came to this knowledge and conviction easily, based on their Puritan culture. Hard-headed and practical statesmen, such as Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, understood this from life experience in political and military conflict. Even those drawn to more utopian ideas and more naive idealism, such as Thomas Jefferson, were brought down to earth by revulsion at the excesses of the French Revolution set in motion by radical ideologies. Liberty and order, change guarded by tradition, were the guiding principles of the Founders, informed by the lessons of history and by their own experiences.
Joerg W. Knipprath is an expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty. Professor Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow.