Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath
John Adams, author of “A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America.”


“Virtue” and “republic” have long been connected to each other among philosophers of politics. The connection was frequently asserted in the rhetoric of Americans during the founding. Indeed, it was while states were writing constitutions that these ideas were more rigorously investigated and an increasingly sophisticated understanding emerged. The most widely read source on the experiences of republics and the importance of virtue was Plutarch’s Lives, which contained the biographies of Greek and Roman statesmen. Many intellectuals also read primary sources, such as Aristotle, Cicero, and Polybius, and interpreters of those sources, such as Machiavelli, Montesquieu, and various 18th century English political essayists. These investigations led to a political conundrum. Most Americans believed that mankind’s actions were driven by base desires, such as avarice, gluttony, and lust. Yet the success of republics had always been said to rest on public virtue, the requirement that the rulers and the people overcome their passion for personal gratification and act for the benefit of the community, “res publica.” Moreover, the wisdom received from ancient writers postulated that public virtue was derived from private virtue. The task became to reconcile this tension between private passions and republican virtue.

Three ideological theories of republicanism emerged, with attendant differences in their conceptions of private and public virtue and the connection between them. These three conceptualizations had significant geographic roots. One was an American version of classic republicanism, which might be called puritan republicanism. It is “positive” republicanism. The proponents looked to the firm hand of government to promote both aspects of virtue, private and public, and to insure their continued interrelation. It was founded in the religious tradition and political experience of New England communities, although its influence was not confined there. One of the best exponents of that tradition and its republican significance was John Adams.

Another was agrarian republicanism, which coalesced somewhat later, and was rooted in the experience of the South, especially its largest and wealthiest state, Virginia. Agrarian republicans also accepted the need rigorously to inculcate private virtue, but they were less optimistic about the conviction that private virtue assured public virtue. At the very least, they were skeptical that sufficient public virtue might be realized among those who would gain political influence. That skepticism was particularly acute when the matter became who would control the distant general government and thus be most removed from effective supervision by the people.

Best, then, not to rely on virtue among the rulers, but to look for other means to limit their ability to cause harm to the republic. If private virtue of the ruler or the people was inadequate to assure public virtue, the rulers’ self-interest must be channeled to serve the public good. James Madison worked out these ideas in his constitutional ideology, which found its way into basic structures in the United States Constitution. Madison was not alone, and he was not the most rigorous expositor of agrarian republicanism. That title goes to John Taylor of Caroline.

A third approach was national republicanism, represented by Alexander Hamilton as its most prominent ideological proponent and George Washington as its leading public figure. In many ways their views complemented those of the agrarians that private virtue was a necessary but also a regrettably flawed guardian of the success of republics. However, there was a crucial difference. Government would have a much more active role in using incentives to create conditions through which republican virtue of the public sort might be fostered. Moreover, republican virtue was not limited to those connected to the land, but extended to those engaged in commercial and even manufacturing enterprises. Hamilton, after all, was not part of the landed gentry, like Adams, or the Southern planter class, like Taylor. National republicanism was based in the emerging commercial centers, especially those of the mid-Atlantic states.

John Adams’s major work on constitutional government and republicanism was A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, a treatise on the emerging American constitutionalism with its emphasis on checks and balances of governmental powers. But Adams was also a prolific writer of letters to numerous correspondents. Many years before he wrote in his 1798 response to the Massachusetts militia, “Our government was made only for a moral and religious people,” he wrote to the chronicler of the period Mercy Otis Warren that republican government could survive only if the people were conditioned “by pure Religion or Austere Morals. Public Virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private, and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics.” Sounding the theme of positive classic republicanism, he continued, “There must be a positive Passion for the public good, the public Interest, Honor, Power, and Glory, established in the Minds of the People, or there can be no Republican Government, nor any real liberty.” [Emphasis in the original.]

In light of man’s fallen nature and his helpless soul’s inclination to sin, a firm hand was needed. Hence, three New England states had an official church, the Congregational Church, heir to the Puritans. Moreover, a Stoic virtue of private simplicity and public duty was cultivated, not the least by intrusive sumptuary laws. Such laws, passed in the name of protecting the people’s morals and sometimes dressed up in broader cloaks of liberty and equality, restricted various luxuries and excessive expenditures on jewelry, clothing, victuals, and entertainment. Adams, in his 1776 book Thoughts on Government, touted the benefits of such laws, “[The] happiness of the people might be greatly promoted by them….Frugality is a great revenue, besides curing us of vanities, levities, and fopperies, which are real antidotes to all great, manly, and warlike virtues.”

The historian Forrest McDonald, in his invaluable book Novus Ordo Seclorum, provides details about the constitutional and statutory sources of such laws. For example, Article XVIII of the Massachusetts Bill of Rights urged a “constant adherence” to “piety, justice, moderation, temperance, industry and frugality [which] are absolutely necessary to preserve the advantages of liberty.” Legislators and magistrates must exercise “an exact and constant observance” of those principles “in the formation and execution of the laws.” None other than John Adams had drafted that document in the Massachusetts convention. Other states had similar provisions. At the Philadelphia Convention, George Mason of Virginia sought to grant Congress the power to enact sumptuary laws, but his proposal was defeated.

Adams also lauded laws that resulted in the division of landed estates, because he perceived such laws as promoting relative equality of property ownership. Adams termed it the “mediocrity of property” on which liberty depended. This sentiment, drawn from an ancient republican pedigree, put him in good company with American republicans of other stripes. Indeed, “agrarian republicans” were, if anything, even more militant than Adams in their adoration of land ownership as the bulwark of republican virtue and personal liberty. Thomas Jefferson spoke for most Americans in his 1785 book Notes on the State of Virginia, when he declared that “those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God if ever He had a chosen people, in whose breasts He has made His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.” He expressed similar views in other writings. During the debate over the subsequent Louisiana Purchase during his administration, Jefferson was able to overcome his constitutional qualms with the satisfaction that the United States had acquired sufficient land to guarantee its existence as a republic of yeoman farmers and artisans for many generations hence.

As a theorist of agrarian republicanism, Jefferson was thin gruel compared to John Taylor, a Virginian planter, lawyer, and politician, who served off-and-on as Senator. To distinguish his branch of the family, Taylor is usually referred to by his birthplace, Caroline County. The aphorism “That government is best which governs least,” has often been attributed to Jefferson, although it appears first in Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau in 1849. If, however, one might at least grant Jefferson the same sentiment, this aphorism even better describes Taylor’s philosophy. In particular, his 1814 book An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States sets out a systematic philosophy for land as the basis for personal happiness and republican vitality. Land gives its owners sustenance and trains them to self-reliance, which produces independence, which, in turn, is the source of liberty. A key to maintaining that independence is the right to keep arms.

The (mostly) Southern agrarian republicans shared with their (mostly) New England classic republican compatriots a belief that widely-shared land ownership is most conducive to private virtue. However, they parted ways on the connection between private and public virtue as crucial to the survival of republican government. Taylor wrote, “The more a nation depends for its liberty on the qualities of individuals, the less likely it is to retain it. By expecting publick good from private virtue, we expose ourselves to publick evils from private vices.” While a republican system, as a whole, is strongest when it rests on a broad base of a virtuous and civically militant citizenry, it is risky to rely only on that condition to produce virtuous politicians. Homo politicus is better known for seeking power for personal gain and influence over others than for personal sacrifice and care for the general welfare. As described by the modern school of “public choice” theory, politicians are self-interested actors, whose actions are best explained by their number one goal, to get re-elected. In addition, the puritan approach of an intrusive government which would police private behaviors raised red flags for the agrarians.

Taylor and other agrarians distrusted government generally, but the more removed from direct and frequent popular control officials were, the greater the danger to the republican form. The good news was that sufficient public virtue could be produced even if, for whatever reason, private virtue was lacking in those who would govern. To that end, it became incumbent on those who framed constitutions to recognize the inherently self-interested nature of politicians and to harness that self-interest through constitutional structures which would simultaneously authorize and limit the power of government officials of all types. Politicians would “do the right thing” not because they were sufficiently trained to private virtue, but because it would serve their own self-interest in preserving their positions.

Taylor’s prescription was not novel. The Scottish philosopher David Hume began his 1742 essay, “Of the Independency of Parliament,” by declaring, “Political writers have established it as a maxim that, in contriving any system of government and fixing the several checks and controls of the constitution, every man ought to be supposed a knave and to have no other end, in all his actions, than private interest. By this interest we must govern him and, by means of it, make him, notwithstanding his insatiable avarice and ambition, cooperate to public good.” The works of the charismatic and often controversial Hume were well known to educated Americans.

James Madison expressed these sentiments in a famous passage in Number 51 of The Federalist:

Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be

connected to the constitutional rights of the place…. In framing a government

which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this:

you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next

place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the

primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the

necessity of auxiliary precautions.

Those “auxiliary precautions” were the structural checks and balances in the Constitution.

Various historians have noted the importance of Taylor’s contributions to American political theory, even lauding him as in some ways the best which America has produced. Although his vision was republican, it may better be characterized as a branch of classical liberalism or liberal republicanism. Note that the term “liberal” does not have the current political connotation. Unlike today’s version, the classic liberalism emerging during that period was directly tied to the individual’s liberty to live free from state-enforced mandates beyond the minimum needed for social stability.

Taylor was not the first skeptic about the classic Aristotelian and Ciceronian connection between private and public virtue reborn in the puritan republicanism of John Adams. The history of 18th-century Anglo-American ideas reveals influential predecessors, such as Bernard de Mandeville and, as mentioned earlier, David Hume. Mandeville wrote his satirical Fable of the Bees in 1705, a famous parody of English politics of the time. In the poem, he describes a thriving colony of bees, where each individual bee seeks to live a life of luxury and ease, a sentiment not disagreeable to Taylor’s Southern planter class. But this prosperous existence comes to an end when some of the bees begin to denounce the personal corruption caused by luxury and to call for a life of simplicity and virtue to be imposed. Many bees die, their hive becomes impoverished, and they live in a hollow tree, “blest with Content and Honesty.” He concludes,

Bare Virtue can’t make Nations live,

In Splendor; they, that would revive

A Golden Age, must be as free,

For Acorns, as for Honesty.

In short, personal vices, such as greed and ambition, generate public virtue of industriousness and prosperity. Similar ideas also infused the writings of an important contemporary of the American founders, the political economist Adam Smith.

Even more than Taylor, it was the adherents of an emerging “national republicanism” who agreed with Mandeville, Hume, and Smith. Although all persons are driven by their passions, not all passions are the same. Some, especially those who already have material riches, might be gripped by a simple desire for fame or honor, or by love of country. Moreover, a properly constructed constitution, produced by those few motivated by such nobler passions, might harness the baser passions of lesser politicians towards the public good. The men who met in Philadelphia for the specific purpose of drafting the Constitution might qualify as men whose primary, if not sole, passions were fame and love of country. For most, no immediate financial gain or personal political success was to be gained. Indeed, contrary to the progressive theory advanced in the early 20th century by the historian Charles Beard that economic self-interest was the driving force behind the Constitution’s adoption, it is well-established that delegates voted in favor of proposals which would, if anything, hurt their financial interests.

Such “good” passions, although they manifested a self-interest, also produced the public virtue necessary for republican government. It produced policies for the general welfare and in the interest of the public. The problem, of course, is that all politicians—and, indeed, bureaucrats of all kinds—routinely claim to be driven by a passion for public service, and that their policy proposals are in the public interest. A multitude of unelected non-governmental organizations and litigious law firms also claim the title “public interest.” Alas, to consider, for instance, who benefits from pay-outs in the typical class-action lawsuit, the reality rarely matches the professed public virtue. One never hears a politician say that a policy, no matter how nefarious and self-rewarding, is done for anything other than the noblest public purpose. Rare even is a politician as honest as the 19th-century New York Tammany Hall leader George Washington Plunkitt. He famously distinguished between “dishonest” and “honest” graft and was frank about his practice of the latter. Dishonest graft meant working solely for one’s own interests. Honest graft was to work for one’s own wealth, while simultaneously furthering the interests of one’s party and state.

The big problem, then, for the national republicans was to constrain those politicians who would in fact hold political offices for a longer time and with less-defined objectives than those who drafted the Constitution. George Washington had long and carefully cultivated the public image of the man driven solely by a passion for honor. Whatever his motives in his private actions, such as, for example, acquiring huge tracts of land, Washington in his public life appears to have been driven by his concern about the public’s perception of him as a man of honor. Forrest McDonald and numerous other historians have painted the picture of a man who might be said to have “staged” his public life. Washington was deeply affected throughout his life by Joseph Addison’s play Cato about the Roman republican statesman Marcus Porcius Cato (“the Younger”). Cato, a committed Stoic, was famous for his unrelenting honesty.

But Washington was a rare specimen of homo politicus. The national republicans’ plan for more run-of-the-mill politicians was similar to that of the agrarians, to rely on one measure of citizen virtue and another measure of constitutional structure to produce public virtue from politicians driven by private passions. Unlike the agrarians, they were convinced that a strong national government must be a part of that structure. On that point Hamilton and at least the 1787 version of Madison could agree. Hamilton and the national republicans parted ways with Madison, and with Jefferson and the more resolute agrarian republicans such as Taylor, by enthusiastically embracing the role of manufacturing and banking in promoting public virtue.

Jefferson’s ideal republic of yeoman farmers and artisans, comprising a large middle class possessed of a rough equality of means, had little room for manufacturers, and none for bankers and other jobbers dealing in phantom “wealth.” Manufacturing, when combined with commerce, the fear went, would necessarily soon lead to two anti-republican results. One was a love for material luxury; the other was a life of drudgery for the impoverished masses. The history of the ancient Roman Republic was a vivid cautionary tale. Taylor and the agrarians accepted the benefit of commerce within their preferred system of political economy, because it facilitated the export of products from the agricultural South and the importation of manufactured goods from abroad. But, in a preview of the South Carolina Nullification Crisis of the 1820s and ‘30s, this required free trade. Like most Southerners, Taylor was a committed free trader and suspicious of any national government regulation of economic matters, especially tariffs.

The agrarians’ fear of manufacturing tied into a general belief among political writers going back to antiquity that political systems evolve and, ultimately, decay. Entropy is inevitable in politics as much as physics. Agriculture may be the most desirable occupation, but, sooner or later, the limited productive land area is fully occupied, as New England was discovering. People would flock to cities where manufacturing would become their occupation. As Adam Smith described the effect on people, “the man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are, perhaps, always the same … generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become ….” This fate stood in sharp contrast to that of the farmer, artisan, and merchant, who must possess broad knowledge and understanding of many activities. If this process was inexorable and made those human brutes unfit to practice private virtues, it also made the demise of the republic inevitable. Even Benjamin Franklin believed in the dangers from this progression, which puts his remark to his interlocutor, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it,” in yet another light. It also explains the urgency which Jefferson and other agrarian republicans felt about the westward expansion of territory and the opening of western land to agricultural settlement needed to forestall this threat to republican governance.

At the conclusion of the passage quoted above, Adam Smith extended a saving hand. After all, he was not opposed to either manufacturing or banking as sources of wealth. The evils of a poor and brutish urban working class would happen, “unless the government takes some pains to prevent it.” Smith had his views of what that might be. In any event, Hamilton, as an enthusiastic believer in Smith’s ideas, agreed that wealth was not fixed, and that even a personal profit motive can contribute to the public welfare. Investing in new processes and useful products and services is a public benefit. Thus, actions of the manufacturer and even the banker exemplify public virtue, whether or not they are driven by self-interest. He, like Adam Smith, believed that private wealth-producing activities qualified as private virtue. While others might not go that far, Hamilton successfully advocated the connection between such activity and the public virtue needed to maintain republican government.

Having established that manufacturing and banking could be “virtuous” in the public sense, there remained the need to foster them in order to ameliorate the conditions of poverty which would threaten republican government. After all, if enough wealth is created for all, “poverty” ceases to be objective and becomes relative. A rising tide floats all ships. At least from a material standpoint, owning a car and various electric and electronic devices today, living in an abode with air conditioning, and having clean water, basic sustenance and medical care, are vastly better than the experiences of past generations.

Hamilton and his supporters believed that their strong national government was the best mechanism to adopt policies which would foster the growth of wealth. Hamilton’s later program in his four reports to Congress between 1790 and 1795 on the public debt, a national bank, and manufactures, laid out in considerable detail his plans to that end. These sophisticated reports were a monument to Hamilton’s intellect and experience applied to the economic problems of the early United States.  They had such potency, and were so hotly contested, that they precipitated the First American Party System of Federalists and Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans and made Hamilton in effect the dominant figure of American politics in the 1790s.

It should be noted in conclusion that all republicans—classic puritan, agrarian, and national—opposed democracy. Even those delegates and political leaders who at one point had been most favorable towards broad public participation and involvement in politics, were shaken by Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts. That event in 1786 had created much tumult and political chaos and was put down by an army raised by the state. It was very much on the minds of the attendees at the Philadelphia convention. Some of the most vociferous detractors of the Constitution as insufficiently “republican” were also the harshest critics of democracy. For them, Shays’ Rebellion exposed the danger of relying on private virtue to provide the public virtue necessary for republican self-government. James Madison spoke for them all when he opined in Number 10 of The Federalist about the inadequacy of democracies to promote public virtue:

[Such] democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have

ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property;

and have, in general, been as short in their lives, as they have been violent in their

deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronised this species of government,

have erroneously supposed, that, by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in

their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and

assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.

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.

 

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Guest Essayist: Gary Porter


“For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do?” writes Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 84. “[B]ills of rights, in the sense and to the extent in which they are contended for, are not only unnecessary in the proposed Constitution, but would even be dangerous. They would contain various exceptions to powers not granted; and, on this very account, would afford a colorable pretext to claim more than were granted.”

“The Constitution can stand alone as a ‘Bill of Rights’” was Hamilton’s clear message here. Many of America’s Founders held to that view and the Founders were no slouches, so we would expect to find some substance to the claim. If the Framers indeed designed a United States Constitution of “limited and enumerated” powers, as Madison claimed in remarks during the Virginia Ratifying Convention, where was the fear of government infringement on individual freedoms to be found?

Indeed, in several places in the Constitution we find particular individual rights given explicit protection. For instance, in Article 1, Section 9 we find Congress specifically denied power to create bills of attainder, ex post facto laws and suspend the “Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus.” Similar restrictions against the states are found in the next section of Article 1. The states are further required to protect your right of contract in the same section. In Article 3, we find the fundamental right of trial by jury preserved for “all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment.” “All Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States” are guaranteed/protected in Article IV. But what do these consist of? The Constitution gives us no clue and, while the Supreme Court had an opportunity to provide an answer in the past[i] they demurred, so we are left to ponder the extent of this protection. As regards congressmen and congresswomen, a limited form of freedom of speech, at least while engaged on the floor of Congress, is found in Article 1, Section 6, where a companion protection from arrest is also located.

But that is about it as far as specific individual rights protections are concerned in the seven articles which make up the original Constitution. Where is the explicit protection of speech, or religion, of conscience, of the right to keep and bear arms, etc.? Hamilton’s answer of course would be: “where is the government given power in the Constitution to intrude upon any of those rights? The weight of Hamilton’s and Madison’s argument must rest then on the Constitution actually being, and, more importantly, remaining, a limited powers document. It is quite clear from the journals of early Congresses that congressmen routinely considered the Constitution to limit the powers of government.

The 1st Congress refused to approve a loan to a glass manufacturer in Georgetown after some members charged it was unconstitutional. A member in the 3rd Congress (1794) proposed $15,000 for relief of French refugees who fled from insurrection in San Domingo to Baltimore and Philadelphia. Third-term Congressman James Madison rose to object, saying, “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.” The 4th Congress (1796) turned down a request for relief to the citizens of Savannah, GA, after a fire burned down nearly a third of the city. On his last day as President in 1817, James Madison famously vetoed what today we would call an Infrastructure Bill,[ii] stating: “it does not appear that the power proposed to be exercised by the bill is among the enumerated powers [of the Constitution].

Has Madison’s view persisted? The following should be shielded from sensitive eyes.

Beginning principally in the Progressive Era and accelerating in the New Deal Era, the effort to expand the powers of the federal government has enjoyed great success. In 2010, then Congressman Peter Stark of California famously declared that “Yes, the federal government can do most anything in this country.” The picture has not improved much in the last twelve years.

Thanks to decisions in 1936[iii] and 1937,[iv] the Supreme Court gave Congress the power to spend money on anything it could justify in its own “mind” as supporting the general welfare of the United States.  Madison warned in 1792 that this sort of interpretation of the General Welfare Clause would turn the “limited powers” Constitution into an indefinite one subject [only] to particular exceptions.”[v] The 1937 Supreme Court had a different idea and today, Madison’s observation that “Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the government[vi] is considered a quaint relic of a bygone era.

In 1942,[vii] the federal government was given the power to regulate nearly all aspects of business in the U.S. since only a miniscule connection to “interstate commerce” was necessary. In 1968,[viii] the Court cleared the way for Congress to delegate its exclusive law-making power[ix] to executive branch agencies. This has resulted in a veritable flood of “regulations with the force of law” which impact our individual lives in myriad ways and the compliance of which are estimated to add $2 Trillion dollars to the cost of doing business in this country, a cost passed on to you and me in the form of increased prices for goods and services.

The Anti-federalists warned of the immense power being given this new central government,[x] yet I doubt they foresaw the magnitude of the federal power-grab we continue to experience today. Even the addition of a discrete Bill of Rights in 1791, while affording important individual rights protections, has not been enough (what does “shall not be infringed” mean?) Hamilton’s hope that the Constitution could stand alone as a Bill of Rights was hopelessly utopic. A Bill of Rights has proved absolutely necessary, but not alone sufficient to curtail the continuing federal power grab.

In conclusion, for the U.S. Constitution to have stood alone as a protector of individual, God-given, unalienable rights, as Hamilton wished, was in hindsight incredibly naive. One important feature of the original document needed to survive: limited powers, and it didn’t. Various groups with a decidedly different view of the purpose of government, assisted by a Supreme Court which from time to time shared their view, have successfully changed the fundamental nature of our wonderful Constitution from one of limited and enumerated powers to one of near plenary power. Taking advantage of the ambiguity of words and the concept of a “Living Constitution,” these forces have succeeded in creating a government which today intrudes into nearly every aspect of our private and corporate lives. The “demise” of the Tenth Amendment has been widely recognized by both Left and Right.[xi]

What is to be done? Must we simply acknowledge this sea change in the Founders intent to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” and learn to live with Leviathan? That is certainly one option – one allowing us to live relatively peaceful if increasingly controlled lives. The other response requires action, commitment and purpose. We must rouse ourselves and our neighbors, educate society to the problem we face and the inevitable endstate should we remain on this path, and proceed methodically to repair the damage to this inspired document. The Supreme Court can be an ally in this project, if an originalist majority can be kept in place long enough to reverse key decisions. But that could take decades, perhaps scores of years. The more logical approach is one the document itself gives us: amendment.

Congress will never take action to reduce the immense power they have been given by the aforementioned SCOTUS decisions; that much, I hope, we can agree upon. But a carefully worded amendment defining “commerce” and placing limits on the interpretation of the Interstate Commerce Clause could. No power-reducing amendments will ever emanate from the Congress and be sent to the states for ratification. So, we face precisely the situation Colonel George Mason of Virginia warned of on September 15, 1787, as the delegates considered the, at that time, single method of amending the Constitution. “No amendments of the proper kind would ever be obtained by the people, if the Government should become oppressive (Madison writes in his Notes), as he (Colonel Mason) verily believed would be the case.” Adopted “nem con” (i.e., unanimously) was a second method of proposing amendments: the states could meet in convention to consider and propose amendments.

It seems to this writer that the solution to the problem of Leviathan is at hand, given us expressly for the situation we now face: congressional intransigence. Will we grasp it or allow individual freedoms to inexorably slip away?

Gary Porter is Executive Director of the Constitution Leadership Initiative (CLI), a project to promote a better understanding of the U.S. Constitution by the American people. CLI provides seminars on the Constitution, including one for young people utilizing “Our Constitution Rocks” as the text. Gary presents talks on various Constitutional topics, writes periodic essays published on several different websites, and appears in period costume as James Madison, explaining to public and private school students “his” (i.e., Madison’s) role in the creation of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Gary can be reached at gary@constitutionleadership.org, on Facebook or Twitter (@constitutionled).

[i] Notably in what became known as the Slaughterhouse Cases.

[ii] https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-speeches/march-3-1817-veto-message-internal-improvements-bill.

[iii] United States v. Butler, 297 U.S. 1 (1936).

[iv] Helvering v. Davis, 301 U.S. 619 (1937).

[v] “If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the general welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one subject to particular exceptions. It is to be remarked that the phrase out of which this doctrine is elaborated, is copied from the old articles of Confederation, where it was always understood as nothing more than a general caption to the specified powers, and it is a fact that it was preferred in the new instrument for that very reason as less liable than any other to misconstruction.”

[vi] James Madison, Speech in the House of Representatives, January 10, 1794.

[vii] Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U.S. 111 (1942).

[viii] Mistretta v. United States, 488 U.S. 361 (1989.

[ix] “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.”

[x] https://mises.org/library/antifederalists-were-right

[xi] https://mises.org/power-market/who-killed-10th-amendment.

 

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Guest Essayist: Eric Sands


The Constitutional Convention has been referred to as the “Miracle in Philadelphia” and there is a great deal of justice to that label. The delegates to the convention faced long odds in reaching compromise on a new form of government. But in many respects, writing the United States Constitution was only half the battle; the delegates then had to get it ratified. This proved to be a difficult task and required the assistance of some of the leading minds in the country to convince the American people to accept the new document.

These proponents of ratification were known as Federalists and included men such as Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay (collectively known as “Publius”), James Wilson, George Washington, Gouverneur Morris, John Marshall, and Benjamin Franklin. These men were nationalist in their orientation and believed that a stronger national government was a necessary corrective for the defects in the Articles of Confederation. Opposing these Federalists were the Anti-federalists who argued against ratification, or at least counseled serious modifications to the Constitution’s design. Among the most prominent Anti-federalist writers were Patrick Henry, Melancton Smith, and authors writing under pseudonyms such as Cato, Brutus, Centinel, and Federal Farmer. These men advocated for a confederal form of government where most of the power would be held in the hands of the states.

The Anti-federalist arguments generally fell into two categories. The first was pursuing structural changes in the Constitution itself to limit the power of the national government. During the public debates, Anti-federalists raised numerous objections to the Constitution and pointed out that the power being ceded to the national government was a danger, not just to the states, but to the people. The Anti-federalists, for example, argued that too much power was being given to the president and that he could become a monarch. This was especially true given his infinite re-eligibility. The Anti-federalists complained that the Constitution blended powers too much and needed to adhere to a much stricter principle of separation of powers. They feared that the Supreme Court would become an all-power government tribunal and proposed presidential commissions that could overturn bad judicial decisions. Congress’ power was seen as too extensive and needed to be scaled back. Limits needed to be put in place governing Congress’ control over the state militias and federal elections, and there was an overarching fear about how much power Congress might subsume under the necessary and proper clause. Finally, the Anti-federalists harbored deep suspicions that a republican form of government could work over a territory and with a population as large as the United States. Conventional wisdom of the day held that republics could only be successful in a small territory with a small and relatively homogenous population. A republic on the scale of the United States had no historical precedent and the Anti-federalists believed it could not work.

As enlightened as some of the Anti-federalist objections to the Constitution were, structural changes were not in the cards. All the Anti-federalist amendments introduced at the ratifying conventions were defeated. A large part of this defeat was owing to the efforts of the Federalists to get their defenses of the Constitution into print and the larger number of newspapers that supported ratification. However, the Anti-federalists had a second category of arguments that proved far more successful. These arguments revolved around the lack of a bill of rights in the Constitution. The lack of a bill of rights seemed to them to be particularly egregious given how much power was being given to the national government. Thus, in numerous essays, the Anti-federalists complained about a need for specific protections like freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly, petition, and possession of arms. Most of these rights were guaranteed to the people at the state level, so it made little sense that the people’s rights should be less secure at the national level.

Federalists initially countered these arguments in a couple of ways. In Federalist 84, for example, Hamilton argued that the Constitution should be allowed a trial period before alterations were made. There may be several things the American people want to change five or ten years down the road, so make the changes then when a judgment can be made about whether they are necessary. Second, the structure and design of the Constitution already protected rights through separation of powers, checks and balances, enumerated powers, and republicanism. Any attempt to infringe on personal rights would never be able to survive this gauntlet of obstructions. Finally, a bill of rights could endanger rights because it would only include certain specified rights, leaving others unprotected. It would also imply that rights come from government and that it alone chooses which rights to recognize.

Despite this defense of not including a bill of rights in the Constitution, the American people remained unpersuaded, and the Constitution stood a real chance of not being ratified because of this defect. Eventually, however, the Federalists gave in, and several of their most prominent members made promises that a bill of rights would be on the agenda of the First Congress. With this promise in place, ratification moved forward, and eleven states initially joined the Union (Rhode Island and North Carolina did not ratify until later).

The first national elections were a disaster for the Anti-federalists with them winning only a few seats in the House and the Senate. The landslide victory for the Federalists had cooled Federalist opinion about the need for amendments. Some speculated that the promise made to the people could be safely ignored, while others argued that some vague, superficial amendments would likely suffice. James Madison, however, stood up for a bill of rights. Having made a personal campaign pledge to produce a bill of rights to his constituents, Madison made repeated efforts to get the bill on the legislative agenda. When that did not work, he presented a formal proposal of amendments he thought should be introduced into the Constitution. Still, Federalists were not enthusiastic about his proposal and likely would have never allowed the bill to move forward had Madison’s not received Washington’s endorsement, which Washington articulated in his inaugural address. Once the federal revenue system was completed, the Federalists finally got around to Madison’s amendments.

Anti-federalists, though few and far between, used the opportunity to start making their own proposed amendments to change the structure of the Constitution. But they were voted down every time, with antagonism between the two sides becoming so heated that congressmen challenged each other to duels. In the end, Madison’s patience and his willingness to compromise helped move the amendments along. Congress did not adopt all the amendments, and the language of others was altered, but that was the price Madison had to pay to see the amendments submitted to the states. On December 15, 1791, enough states ratified the Bill of Rights to formally make the ten amendments part of the Constitution.

Eric C. Sands is Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at Berry College. He has written a book on Abraham Lincoln and edited a second volume on political parties. His teaching and research interests focus on constitutional law, American political thought, the founding, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and political parties. 

 

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Guest Essayist: Tom Hand
Fifth, Second and First Constitutional Amendments with gavel


The first ten amendments to the United States Constitution, better known as the Bill of Rights, are what allow us to enjoy many of the day-to-day blessings of our great country. Freedoms easily taken for granted are enshrined in these revisions to the original document. While the Constitution shaped our government, the Bill of Rights shaped our lives.

These amendments include both individual freedoms such as the right to keep and bear arms, free speech, freedom of the press, and freedom to worship as we please, as well as restrictions on the power of the federal government.

You might wonder why these basic freedoms had to be added to the Constitution after it was created rather than being front and center in the debates at the Constitutional Convention. The reason can be found in considering the mission of the convention.

Specifically, when the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, the delegates’ primary goal was to fix the weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation and, thereby, form a system of government that would allow the country to flourish.

Consequently, most of the discussion at the convention focused on the form of government and how it would operate, not on the individual rights of the people. Although the representatives met from May 14 to September 17, no motion to adopt a Bill of Rights for the citizens of the country was introduced until September 12 when George Mason of Virginia did so.

Mason’s suggestion was quickly dismissed and, looking back, it seems surprising that something as crucial as a bill of rights was not subject to lengthy debate. However, we must keep in mind each state already had their own constitution, many of which contained a bill of rights.

As James Madison noted in his essay Federalist 46, the new federal constitution did not eliminate those rights granted by the states. Since personal rights already existed at the state level, Madison argued there was no need for the federal government to guarantee them as well.

From a more practical standpoint, the delegates needed to get home. They were not full-time politicians who made their living on the government payroll. They were mostly doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and farmers. Time away from home cost them money and, quite naturally, after being in hot, steamy Philadelphia for four months, they did not want to extend the convention for several more weeks to discuss such a contentious topic.

Soon after the proposed Constitution was circulated to the state legislatures for approval in late 1787, it came under criticism for several perceived faults, but primarily for its lack of a bill of rights. The group opposing the new Constitution became known as “Anti-federalists” and were led by Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts and George Mason.

Gerry published a widely circulated letter, dubbed “Hon. Mr. Gerry’s Objections,” in which he stated his reasons for not supporting the new Constitution. As he saw it, “the liberties of America were not secured by the system” and it was flawed “without a bill of rights.”

Alexander Hamilton responded in Federalist 84 that “the constitution is itself in every rationale sense, and to every useful purpose, a bill of rights.” He added that by ratifying the Constitution “the people surrender nothing, and as they retain everything, they have no need of particular reservations.”

There was also concern that, by listing only certain rights, it could be implied that those were the only ones guaranteed by the new Constitution and any others not mentioned were not. In other words, explicitly stating any rights might actually reduce our freedom.

Although the proposed document was quickly ratified by five states (Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut), it bogged down in other state legislatures primarily due to the absence of a bill of rights. In Massachusetts, the impasse was broken when Anti-federalists, led by John Hancock and Samuel Adams, agreed to ratify the proposed Constitution on the condition that a bill of rights would soon follow.

The Federalist minorities in the Maryland and Virginia assemblies facing similar opposition, also agreed to establish a bill of rights rather than risk delaying the ratification of the Constitution. This spirit of compromise kept the process moving.

On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to approve the proposed Constitution. As a result, Congress formally ratified it on September 13, 1788, with an enactment date of March 4, 1789. One hurdle had been cleared.

The challenge now was to craft a bill of rights that would be acceptable to the thirteen states. James Madison of Virginia, an early opponent of a bill of rights and a member of the House of Representatives, eventually changed his position on the matter and led the effort to develop one that would satisfy the Anti-federalists.

Madison’s initial effort recommended nine changes to the body of the new Constitution rather than additional articles. However, the Federalists saw this attempt to modify the original text they had so recently ratified as a mistake. They argued these changes might undermine the credibility of the new document.

Instead, the House of Representatives, swayed by the arguments of Roger Sherman, agreed to place all amendments at the end of the Constitution. On September 25, 1788, after much debate, the House and Senate jointly agreed to twelve proposed Articles as additions to the document and forwarded them to the states for their approval.

On December 15, 1791, Articles Three through Twelve were ratified by Congress and became the first ten Amendments to the Constitution, our Bill of Rights. Interestingly, Article Two dealing with Congressional pay raises was not approved until 1992 as the 27th Amendment and Article One dealing with the number of seats in the House has never been approved.

So why should the Bill of Rights matter to us today?

Quite simply, life as we know it in the United States of America would not be the same without the rights stated in our first ten amendments. Try to imagine a country without religious freedom or the right to say what we want. Or a place where the government could search your home without cause or deny you due process of law.

The Bill of Rights matter to all of us every day we live in this great country of ours. We must know and understand our rights as Americans, or we can never hope to preserve them. It is truly our shared responsibility.

If you want to learn more about your Bill of Rights, I suggest reading Akhil Reed Amar’s book The Bill of Rights. Published in 1998, this book is an excellent account of our Bill of Rights, including the history behind their creation, how the interpretation of them has evolved, and how they are linked to one another.

Tom Hand is creator and publisher of Americana Corner. Tom is a West Point graduate, and serves on the board of trustees for the American Battlefield Trust as well as the National Council for the National Park Foundation. Click Here to Like Tom’s Facebook Page, Americana Corner. Click Here to follow Tom’s Instagram Account.

 

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Guest Essayist: Gary Porter


Shay’s Rebellion was a “wake-up” call for all Americans. The armed closure of a duly constituted court was a drastic step. But these were drastic times. The war with Britain, though favorably concluded for the Americans, had left the economies of the states in shambles. The Confederation Congress found itself powerless to intervene. By the summer of 1786, farmers were unable to find a market for their crops or meet their tax obligations; without hard cash they were unable to make their mortgages or loan payments. The courts, with little recourse but to uphold the law, were foreclosing on farmers who only a few short years before had been fighting for their country’s independence. On August 31, 1786, ex-Revolutionary War Captain Daniel Shays, now himself a bankrupt farmer, lead an armed mob to the Northampton, Massachusetts court and forced it to close. But Massachusetts was not alone: Pennsylvania’s James Wilson observed that “The flames of internal insurrection were ready to burst out in every quarter.”  Mutinies of soldiers in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania fed the anxiety. Political cartoons began to appear in American newspapers mocking Congress. Leading men began calling for amendments to, or even replacement of, the Articles of Confederation.

In April 1786, Rufus King wrote to Elbridge Gerry: “We are without money or the prospect of it in the Federal Treasury; and the States, many of them, care so little about the Union, that they take no measures to keep a representation in Congress.”[i]

Three years before, Henry Knox had complained to Gouverneur Morris: “As the present Constitution is so defective, why do not you great men call the people together and tell them so; that is, to have a convention of the States to form a better Constitution.”[ii]

Finally, the pleas for change were heard, there would be a “Grand Convention” to “fix things” once and for all. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison were elated. Their quiet work behind the scenes had paid off.

In Hamilton’s view “The fundamental defect is a want [lack] of power in Congress.”[iii] He had tried numerous times to have the Articles amended, to no avail. George Washington complained of “a half-starv’d, limping Government.”[iv]

Madison was determined not to waste the opportunity the convention afforded. First, he would place the Articles under his scholar’s microscope and identify each of its defects. Madison was in a unique position to undertake this analysis: he had represented Virginia from 1780-1783 in the Confederation Congress and had seen from that vantage its inherent weakness. Following this, he had served the next three years in the Virginia Assembly, seeing the problems caused by the Articles from that perspective. Returning once again to a seat in the Confederation Congress in the Spring of 1787, Madison sat down at his desk before setting out for Philadelphia and wrote “Vices of the Political System of the United States.” These would become the “cautions” that a new government must avoid. Hopefully it would become a government actually empowered to govern.

All but the last of the twelve “bullet points” Madison set down in “Vices” were accompanied by elaborating commentary. For instance: “Failure of the States to comply with the Constitutional requisitions,” the first complaint, was explained as an “evil” which “has been so fully experienced both during the war and since the peace, [which] results so naturally from the number and independent authority of the States and has been so uniformly exemplified in every similar Confederacy, that it may be considered as not less radically and permanently inherent in, than it is fatal to the object of, the present System.”

While Madison was careful to identify the “effects” of the deficiencies of the Articles, he did not focus on its numerous structural defects:

  • The Articles created only a unicameral Congress. In 1774, the Continental Congress had simply “come together” without much thought of being a permanent fixture. Governments of history had often included a Senate, but where would the authority to add a Senate to the Congress come from, even if the advantage was obvious? By 1787, however, all of the states had adopted bi-cameral legislatures in their state constitutions. While this example was adopted by the convention, it is generally regarded as one of many compromises. (See Article 1)
  • There was no Supreme Court. With Congress lacking the authority to create a supreme legal body, conflicts between states were assigned to ad hoc committees to resolve. Without an enforcement arm, committees were limited to recommending solutions, relying on the good will of the states to carry out their recommendations. (See Article 3)
  • There was no true chief executive function. Beyond keeping order in the Congress, the President had little power to do much else. Enforcing the laws passed by Congress? Not in the President’s obligations. (See Article 2)
  • The amendment process effectively guaranteed no amendments. The Articles required state unanimity before an amendment was adopted. In practice, this proved self-defeating since in every case a single state could (and did) object and thus the suggested amendment came to a grinding halt. (See Article 5)

All of these defects were corrected in the new Constitution.

The standard meme today is that the Articles were discarded in their entirety and a “brand-new” document substituted. But while the structure of government adopted at the Grand Convention was indeed new, not every feature of the Articles was abandoned; the following clauses and provisions were retained, some nearly verbatim:

  • The “privileges of trade and commerce” enjoyed by the citizens of each state were preserved, reworded as the privileges and immunities clause of the Constitution. (See Article IV, Section 2)
  • The power to extradite fugitives. (See Article IV, Section 2)
  • The “Full faith and credit clause.” (See Article IV, Section 1)
  • “Freedom of speech and debate in Congress” was retained as was immunity from arrest. (See Article I, Section 6)
  • The prohibition against treaties, confederations, or alliances between the states without the consent of the Congress. (See Article I, Section 10)
  • Congress’ exclusive war-declaring power. (See Article I, Section 8)
  • Congress’ exclusive authority to issue letters of marque and reprisal and punish “piracies and felonies commited (sic) on the high seas.” (See Article I, Section 8)

At the Virginia Ratification Convention on June 5, 1788, Edmund Pendleton would sum up the Articles thusly: “Our general government was totally inadequate to the purpose of its institution; our commerce decayed; our finances deranged; public and private credit destroyed: these and many other national evils rendered necessary the meeting of that Convention.”

The genius of fifty-five “demigods” would find solutions to the various defects of the Articles of Confederation, would create the “more perfect union” the men sought and that America deserved, yet all this genius depended on one final institution: a virtuous people. As John Adams reminds us: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”[v] If this constitutional republic is to survive, if the republic is to be “kept,” the result is in the hands of “We the People.”

Gary Porter is Executive Director of the Constitution Leadership Initiative (CLI), a project to promote a better understanding of the U.S. Constitution by the American people. CLI provides seminars on the Constitution, including one for young people utilizing “Our Constitution Rocks” as the text. Gary presents talks on various Constitutional topics, writes periodic essays published on several different websites, and appears in period costume as James Madison, explaining to public and private school students “his” (i.e., Madison’s) role in the creation of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Gary can be reached at gary@constitutionleadership.org, on Facebook or Twitter (@constitutionled).

[i] Rufus King to Elbridge Gerry, April 30, 1786

[ii] Henry Knox to Gouverneur Morris, Feb 21, 1783.

[iii]  Alexander Hamilton to James Duane, 3 Sept. 1780.

[iv] George Washington to Benjamin Harrison, 18 Jan. 1784.

[v] To the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts, October 11, 1798.

 

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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams
Articles of Confederation, George Washington, 1787


At the end of the Revolutionary War, many Americans had great hopes for a politically and economically prosperous future for their independent nation. In June 1783, General George Washington took a moment to reflect on the state of America and offer some advice to his fellow citizens to preserve its future.

In his Circular Letter to the States, Washington wrote that the “lot which Providence has assigned us” was blessed with “the Establishment of our forms of Government; the free cultivation of Letters, the unbounded extension of Commerce, the progressive refinement of Manners, the growing liberality of sentiment, and above all, the purse and benign light of Revelation.” For Washington and others, the American founding occurred during an “auspicious period.”

The reality of the 1780s, however, rarely matched such optimism. The economy suffered a recession at a time of heavy public and private debt. The states passed tariffs on each other’s trade and nearly went to war over these trade disputes. Several states violated the 1783 peace treaty. They violated the property rights of Tories and the rights of conscience of religious dissenters with unjust laws.

The Articles of Confederation offered few solutions to the problems that plagued the new nation. The national government lacked the power to tax or regulate interstate trade. The principle of separation of powers was largely absent as the government did not have an independent executive or judiciary nor a bicameral legislature. The national government failed to respond militarily to crises such as Shays’ Rebellion.

While most acknowledged that the new republic suffered problems of governance, they differed as to the proper remedies to those difficulties and the exact character of the national Union. These contrasting views were seen in the Confederation period, at the Constitutional Convention, and during the ratification debates between Federalists and Anti-federalists.

The Anti-federalists, admitted throughout the period, the Confederation government had a few problems. Nevertheless, they thought that a few reforms were sufficient to solve the problems. The proposed New Jersey Plan at the Constitutional Convention added greater powers of taxation and trade regulation to national powers but did little to alter the basic framework of government.

The Anti-federalists defended this basic line of thinking and opposed the significant increase of powers in the national government in the new Constitution. For example, the first letter of Brutus warned that the proposed government was dangerously consolidated and threatened the liberties of the people. They believed that they were the real “federalists” because they supported the principle of federalism with a better balance between state governments and the national government.

Brutus was concerned that the Constitution would destroy the Confederation and thereby change the very nature of the Union. The Necessary and Proper Clause and the National Supremacy Clause, Brutus explained, granted virtually unlimited powers to the national government and effectively annihilated the state governments as they were “barely necessary to the organization of the general government.” Brutus also appealed to Montesquieu’s view in Spirit of the Laws that republican governments can only survive in small territories.

The Federalists, on the other hand, sought to expand the powers of the central government and argued that a stronger government would actually do a better job than the Confederation government at protecting liberty. They defended the new government and believed that the powers of government had to be redistributed in favor of the national government.

James Madison was one of the leading voices of the Federalists who propagated this new view. Before the Convention, Madison penned the Vices of the Political System, which detailed the evils that beset the Confederation. He thought, “The great desideratum in Government is such a modification of the sovereignty as will render it sufficiently neutral between the different interests and factions to control one part of the Society from invading the rights of another, and, at the same time, sufficiently controlled itself from setting up an interest adverse to that of the whole society.” In other words, the main goal was to empower the national government without creating a tyranny.

With this in mind, Madison developed the Virginia Plan that laid the basis for debates early in the Convention. While he did not get everything he had wanted in the Constitution, Madison was one of the main proponents of the Constitution as one of the three authors of the Federalist essays under the pseudonym Publius and at the Virginia ratifying convention.

In Federalist #39, Madison explained, “The proposed Constitution, therefore, even when tested by the rules laid down by its antagonists, is, in strictness, neither a national nor a federal Constitution, but a composition of both.” He thought this delicate balance would help make possible a government in a large republic. In his innovate political science in Federalist #10 and Federalist #51, Madison argued that liberty would be better protected in a large republic because contending interests would prevent unjust factions from introducing majority tyranny.

The vigorous deliberation during the American founding demonstrated that while the founders on both sides of the argument concurred on the ends of government, they differed on the best framework of government to achieve those ends. Americans have continued to debate the relationship of the national government and the states according to the federal principle throughout the history of the country to the present day.

Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America, with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.

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Guest Essayist: Tom Hand


The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union was our nation’s first constitution and essentially served as the basis for our government from 1777 to 1789. It was created by the thirteen original states to help them unify their war efforts against England and was the precursor to our present Constitution.

In June 1776, soon after the Second Continental Congress appointed the Committee of Five to draft the Declaration of Independence, Congress also established a committee to craft a document by which this new country would be governed. Comprised of one delegate from each colony and chaired by John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, these thirteen men presented their initial draft to Congress on July 12, 1776.

They named it the Articles of Confederation, suggesting a fairly loose coalition rather than one united entity. Although the states agreed to form a national government, they were not willing to cede any of their individual rights or powers to it.

After much debate and five different versions, the Articles were finally approved by Congress on November 15, 1777, and immediately sent to the various states for their ratification. Although official approval of the document required all thirteen states to ratify it and the thirteenth state (Maryland) did not do so until February 2, 1781, the Articles effectively guided Congress’ action from 1777 onward.

The Articles stressed the rights of the individual states more than the power of the central government. As Article II states, “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated.”

Additionally, the states viewed this association as a group of co-equals and there was no consideration given for the size, wealth, or population of the various colonies. As articulated in Article V, “In determining questions in the United States in Congress Assembled, each state shall have one vote.”

Article IX entrusted several responsibilities to the Confederation Congress such as dealing with Indian nations and foreign affairs to include making treaties, declaring war, and making peace. However, the Article also required “nine states assent” to virtually anything Congress wanted to do. Given the sessions were lightly attended by the delegates, quorums were often difficult to attain which made passing any new legislation even more challenging.

Interestingly, Article XI expressly allowed for the addition of Canada to our confederation if that colony so chose. That fact indicates how precarious was England’s hold on our northern neighbor in the minds of Americans in the 1770s. Finally, as Article XIII states “the Union shall be perpetual” which meant that joining the compact was permanent and there was no recourse for leaving the Union.

The Articles of Confederation as approved created an amazingly weak central government. One might ask why the states would take the time to form a national government at all if the one they designed was powerless and ineffective. It is important to remember state sovereignty was paramount to virtually all political leaders in early America.

As the move towards independence gained traction in 1776, states codified freedoms in their own state constitutions that had been denied to them under King George and Parliament. With each state already guaranteeing liberties to all citizens, there was no need or desire to create a powerful entity at the federal level to ensure them.

This extreme focus on state’s rights is understandable when one considers how the original colonies had been established. Rather than the eastern seaboard being populated by the English all at once, the various colonies had been settled separately and independent of the others. Naturally, each colony jealously guarded its autonomy.

The inherent weakness of the federal government, and the danger that posed, became clear as the American Revolution got underway. Although its provisions authorized the central government to regulate and establish an Army, it lacked the power to enforce its decrees. While Congress could request funding and troops from the states, all money and men would only be forthcoming if the states agreed to the requests. Not surprisingly, most requests were ignored.

This lack of funding and men almost proved the undoing of the Continental Army which, of course, would have meant the end of our effort to win independence. As General George Washington wrote to George Clinton from Valley Forge in February 1778, “For some days past, there has been little less than a famine in camp.” He went on to write, “When the fore mentioned supplies are exhausted, what a terrible crisis must ensue.”

Unfortunately, funding for the army only got worse after we secured our independence. With the threat from England largely ended, the national army shrank to a skeletal force that attempted without much success to protect the western borders from Indian attack. Additionally, because of this military impotence, the United States could not compel England to abandon its forts in the Northwest Territory as called for in the Treaty of Paris.

The Articles also expressly denied Congress taxation authority. Consequently, the central government was constantly short of cash and unable to pay its bills. Congress printed more money, but this only served to devalue the currency. To make matters worse and national finances more confusing, the individual states had the right to print their own currency as well.

Another flaw was the lack of an executive branch. Although the men who presided over the Continental Congress were called “President,” they had no power, and many served in that position for less than a year. Most delegates had seen too much of King George and monarchy to be willing to entrust significant authority in one central figure.

These issues aside, the Articles of Confederation deserves some credit. For one thing, it was our first constitution, and with it we survived the American Revolution and six years beyond.

The Articles also granted the Confederation Congress the authority to establish an efficient system for expanding the new nation. Its provisions for new territories and how to settle them as seen with the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 proved to be a boon in the decades that followed.

So why should the Articles of Confederation matter to us today? Perhaps the greatest blessing of the Articles was its flaws. Our nation’s leaders were able to see and learn early on what we needed in a central government for our country to succeed.

While we feared a powerful Federal government, we realized one that was powerless would ensure our demise. The recognition that we needed to balance these two concerns led to the changes our Founding Fathers incorporated into our Constitution.

If you want to learn more about the Articles of Confederation, I suggest reading “We Have Not a Government: The Articles of Confederation and the Road to the Constitution” written by George Van Cleve. Published in 2017, it is an excellent account of the troubles resulting from the weakness of the Articles and how those troubles led to the creation of our Constitution.

Until next time, may your motto be “Ducit Amor Patriae,” Love of country leads me.

Tom Hand is creator and publisher of Americana Corner. Tom is a West Point graduate, and serves on the board of trustees for the American Battlefield Trust as well as the National Council for the National Park Foundation. Click Here to Like Tom’s Facebook Page, Americana Corner. Click Here to follow Tom’s Instagram Account.

 

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Guest Essayist: Gary Porter
U.S. Bill of Rights


Before I begin this discussion, I should like to highlight two books which cover this topic quite well, in far more detail than I can include here: The First American Constitutions, by Willi Paul Adams, first published in 1973 in Germany, later, in 2001 in the U.S., and The Origins of American Constitutionalism, published in 1988 by Donald S. Lutz. Both are well-written, well-documented and well-worth your time.

We tend to view the American War for Independence in simplistic terms: parliament overreached; the colonies balked, declared their independence, fought a war to secure that independence, and went on to establish a unique written Constitution “of the people, by the people and for the people.” But as any historian knows, the story is more complicated. While the later part of the 1700s, at least in America, was indeed dominated by the War for Independence, “[t]he last three decades of the eighteenth century were a time of extraordinary political experimentation and innovation,” [i] writes Donald Lutz, and the American Revolutionary War “just happened” to occur during that extraordinary time.

The U.S. Constitution has at various times and by various writers been called the product of the Enlightenment, Classical Greek philosophy, Protest theology, the Hebrew Republic, English common law and English Whig political theory, and some of its roots can easily be traced to these predecessors; but many overlook its connections to the first state constitutions. “The early state constitutions contributed significantly to the development of [the] constitutional principles [found in the U.S. Constitution].”[ii]Anyone who will lay the Federal Constitution side by side with the State Constitution of Massachusetts (adopted in 1780) and with the State Constitution of New York (adopted in 1777) will be startled by the extent to which the members of the Federal Convention not only followed the principles, but used the exact phraseology of those State documents.”[iii]

By 1787, when fifty-five men met in Philadelphia to “render the federal Constitution adequate to the exigencies of the Government and the preservation of the Union,”[iv] all but two of the thirteen states had already set in place a new state constitution.[v] Of those fifty-five men, almost half (26) had served in their state legislatures, including participating in the drafting of their state’s new plan of government.

References to numerous state constitutional provisions were made during the “Grand Convention.” One of the last being on September 12th, just five days before the Constitution was completed and signed.  Virginia delegate, George Mason, rose to point out that the absence of a Bill of Rights in the draft they were then considering was a matter of great concern. “It would give great quiet to the people (to have a Bill of Rights); and with the aid of the State declarations, a bill might be prepared in a few hours.” Colonel Mason, you may recall, had been the chief architect of the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776; thus, he was eminently qualified and experienced to draft yet another declaration.  But Mr. Roger Sherman of Connecticut then rose to point out that “The State Declarations of Rights are not repealed by this Constitution; and being in force are sufficient.” A motion was made to establish a committee to draft a bill of rights, but the motion failed 0-9, and the delegates went on to put the final touches on the document they had labored over for four long months.

But let’s step back a bit in time and review what prompted this “extraordinary political experimentation and innovation.”

Rising tensions between Great Britain and the American colonies had led to the suspension of state assemblies in Massachusetts, New York, Virginia. Other Royal Governors simply fled their posts. Leaving a society without government and/or leadership invites anarchy. Thomas Jefferson complained of this in the Declaration of Independence:

He (i.e., the King) has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

Without their state assemblies in operation and to mitigate “the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within,” Committees of Correspondence, Committees of Inspection and Committees of Safety became shadow state governments. Eventually, provisional assemblies were formed and these sought advice from the Continental Congress, which began meeting in September 1774.

The State of New Hampshire figures prominently in America’s constitutional history: their ratification of our U.S. Constitution on June 21, 1788, was the ninth and final ratification necessary to put the document into effect. The subsequent ratifications, by Virginia, New York, North Carolina and Rhode Island, only ensured those states would be participants in the new union rather than bystanders. But few Americans today know that New Hampshire was also the very first colony to enact a new constitution, on January 5th, 1776, a full seven months before the united colonies declared their independence in Philadelphia. New Hampshire had asked the Congress for permission to do so in the Fall of 1775, even suggesting that Congress draft a standard state constitution that each state would then adopt. Congress debated this but decided that there were so many differences in the state governments that had evolved over a hundred or more years that a “one size fits all” approach would simply not work. Congress finally gave New Hampshire and South Carolina the “go-ahead” on November 3rd, 1775.

South Carolina followed New Hampshire’s lead with a new provisional constitution of their own on March 26, 1776. On May 4th., Rhode Island unilaterally declared its independence from Great Britain without finding it necessary to establish a new plan of government; their original charter, stripped of its monarchical references, would serve adequately.

Two days later, Virginia began the fifth in a series of conventions.  Meeting in Williamsburg, the delegates approved a Declaration of Rights on June 12th and their new constitution on June 29th.

Noting the actions of New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Rhode Island, and perhaps trying to “get ahead of the curve,” the Continental Congress on May 10th approved a circular to the thirteen colonies encouraging any of the colonies who had not yet done so to form new provisional governments. After adding a preamble on 15 May, the circular was sent. [vi] On July 2, 1776, the same day Richard Henry Lee’s resolution for independence was approved in the Congress, New Jersey ratified its new constitution.

All but one of the remaining states approved new constitutions within a year: Delaware (September 11, 1776), Pennsylvania (September 28, 1776), Maryland (November 8, 1776), North Carolina (December 14, 1776), Georgia (February 4, 1777), and New York (April 20, 1777). Connecticut, like Rhode Island, decided its existing charter provided an adequate government. Other than Rhode Island and Connecticut, Massachusetts became the last state to adopt a new constitution, in 1780.[vii]  In the years that followed, several states updated or replaced their provisional constitutions.

As each colony-turned-state began drafting their new constitution they drew upon, in Virginia’s case for instance, the experience of more than 100 years of self-governance. Each colony had an elected assembly, either unicameral or bicameral, a court system, and a Royal Governor appointed by the King but usually also advised by a Governor’s Council. By 1773, however, the aforementioned committees were governing towns and counties, and soon nearly all the colonies had established provincial congresses acting outside royal authority.[viii]

Despite their practical experience in governing, the states found constitution-making from scratch a relatively new, untested process. What features of their colonial government should they retain, which should be modified or abandoned altogether? Hanging over all this constitution-making were the Articles of Confederation. For nearly four years (November 1777 – March 1791) the Articles lacked the unanimous consent they needed to be in official operation, yet there was a war afoot; no time to wait for Maryland to come on board; Congress had no choice but to act as though the Articles were ratified. How well would these new state governments work with the Confederation Congress?  Not well at all as it turned out. But the blame should be placed on the Articles, not the states.

The Continental Congress continued to function as a rudimentary, unicameral central government under the Articles of Confederation, yet in 1776-77, as the states drafted their new plans of government, the confederation’s more glaring deficiencies were yet to be revealed. What did the states come up with?

  • First, what should we call this thing? Although the nomenclature shift from “charter” to “constitution” was slow and inconsistent, eventually all states settled on some variation of that term; Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina termed their initial document “The Constitution or Form of Government”; Pennsylvania: a “Plan or Frame of Government”; Delaware: “The Constitution or System of Government”; Georgia: “Rules and Regulations for the Future Government of the State.”
  • Division of the government into three distinct branches (most of the thirteen State constitutions had this feature). Virginia’s constitution reads: “That the legislative and executive powers of the State should be separate and distinct from the judiciary.”[ix]
  • Checks and balances. “They had encountered evil or unfortunate conditions in the past, in their royal and State governments; and they planned now to avoid a renewal of those conditions by adopting theories to fit the circumstances. So far from intending each of the three branches to be wholly coordinate, they decided to curb any excess of power in any one branch by balancing it with an effective power in another. Where they had experienced an evil in an omnipotent Legislature, they checked it; where they had actually felt the oppression of a too strong Executive, they checked him; where they believed a Court had been too independent, they checked it.”[x]
  • The Franchise. Generally, men (and in some states, women) who owned a certain minimum amount of property could vote. Pennsylvania enfranchised any male who paid taxes.
  • Elective Government. All states established direct popular elections for at least the Lower House of the legislature, with annual elections being the rule. Ten states also chose annual elections for the Senate, whether by the people or the lower house. Eleven states instituted annual elections of the governor, in three states directly or indirectly by the people, in the others by the legislature. Interestingly, South Carolina set a net worth requirement for their governor, the only state to do so.
  • The Legislature. While most colonies had operated with a unicameral legislature up until independence, often augmented by a Governor’s council, all but one state chose a bicameral legislature for their new constitutions, with Pennsylvania being the lone exception (Pennsylvania joined the bicameral states fifteen years later).
  • The Executive. In a rejection of powerful royal governors appointed by the King, the states, at least Initially, made their governors almost powerless. Although problems created by a weak executive soon became apparent and were slowly corrected, “[b]y 1787, only four states had executives worthy of the name.[xi]
  • The Judiciary. Most states instituted an appointed judiciary, often appointed by the Governor (four states) or the Legislature (seven states).
  • Consent of the governed. In all but one state, the new constitution was simply put in effect as though it were a simple law. There were some murmurings, but the citizens generally accepted this “constitution by fiat.” But to be fair to the legislatures involved, they felt themselves to be representatives of the people.

Many states kept the other major features of the governmental structure that served them for so many years. One example from Delaware: “The sheriffs and coroners of the respective counties shall be chosen annually, as heretofore.”

So, what can rightfully be called innovations in the state constitutions? I’ve encountered few that could be called truly radical, but Delaware’s Constitution provides some examples:

  • A Declaration of Rights preceded the Constitution (Virginia led the way in this).
  • In Delaware alone were elected officials impeachable up to 18 months after leaving office.
  • Delaware’s Article 26 prohibited slavery, one of the first states to do so constitutionally.
  • No firearms were allowed to be carried at any election.
  • There was to be no establishment of any one religious sect in preference to another.
  • “No clergyman or preacher of the gospel…shall be capable of holding any civil office in this State.” (other states incorporated this feature as well).
  • The oath before assuming office in Delaware read: “I, ___, do profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ His only Son, and in the Holy Ghost, one God, blessed for evermore; and I do acknowledge the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration.”

What of the various state bills or declarations of rights?  How did they compare with what eventually became the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights?

Beginning with Massachusetts, the Anti-federalists began insisting that their vote for ratification would only materialize if there were a “gentleman’s agreement” that both amendments and articles for a future bill of rights would be accepted and submitted with the ratification instrument. When he arrived at the first Congress under the new U.S. Constitution, James Madison set to work reviewing these submissions from the states and incorporating those with the greatest appeal. It should come as no surprise to find parallels between the state Declarations and what became the U.S. Bill of Rights. But there were exceptions – suggestions that were either rejected by Madison or rejected by the Congress after Madison included them in his draft to the Congress. Notably, several verbatim quotes from Virginia’s Declaration of Rights were rejected by the Congress after appearing in the draft.

In summary, as Willi Paul Adams concludes: “The most significant accomplishment of the American Revolution, apart from the military achievement of independence, was the successful establishment of republican, federal, and constitutional government in a territory so extensive by European standards that conventional wisdom considered only monarchical government suitable for such an empire.”[xii]

Donald Lutz takes a different view: “[t]he (U.S.) Constitution … successfully created a new constitutional system appropriate to new political circumstances, it conserved what was best and central in the earlier American constitutional tradition, and it bult upon and in many important respects derived from state constitutions.”[xiii](emphasis added)

While the American states were intended to be experiments in government, and they have in many respects played that role over our 230+ years, there was still remarkable similarity in the thinking of the drafters of the early state constitutions as they considered what were the ingredients to “good government.” The fact that Massachusetts operates today from their 1780 Constitution, albeit with 120 amendments, remains a testament to the wisdom of America’s founding generation.

Gary Porter is Executive Director of the Constitution Leadership Initiative (CLI), a project to promote a better understanding of the U.S. Constitution by the American people. CLI provides seminars on the Constitution, including one for young people utilizing “Our Constitution Rocks” as the text. Gary presents talks on various Constitutional topics, writes periodic essays published on several different websites, and appears in period costume as James Madison, explaining to public and private school students “his” (i.e., Madison’s) role in the creation of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Gary can be reached at gary@constitutionleadership.org, on Facebook or Twitter (@constitutionled).

[i] Donald S. Lutz, The Origins of American Constitutionalism, Louisiana State University Press, 1988. p. 97.

[ii] Donald S. Lutz, Ibid. p`. 99.

[iii] Charles Warren, Congress, the Constitution, and the Supreme Court. 1925

[iv] Resolution of the Confederation Congress, February 21, 1787.

[v] Rhode Island decided to retain the structure of government described in their Royal Charter although the linkage to the British government had of course been severed. Rhode Island operated from this modified charter until 1842.

[vi]Resolved, That it be recommended to the respective assemblies and conventions of the United Colonies, where no government sufficient to the exigencies of their affairs have been hitherto established, to adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular, and America in general.”

[vii] Giving Massachusetts the distinction of having the longest continuously-operating constitution in the world today.

[viii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colonial_government_in_the_Thirteen_Colonies

[ix] Virginia Constitution, 1776, Article 1, Declaration of Rights, Sec. 5.

[x] Charles Warren, Congress, the Constitution, and the Supreme Court. 1925, p. 24

[xi] Donald S. Lutz, Ibid. p. 106

[xii] Willi Paul Adams, The first American Constitutions, 2001, p. 5-6.

[xiii] Donald S. Lutz, Ibid. p. 109

 

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Guest Essayist: Adam Carrington
Independence Hall, Philadelphia


We don’t always get it right the first time. Sometimes, experimentation then leads to true success. Those statements prove true for many situations, professional and private. The Founders experienced both with their first forays into constitution-making in the 1770s and the 1780s. Those efforts included the Articles of Confederation, our first national constitution. Our current Constitution replaced it after a short, tumultuous time.

Here, though, we will focus on the efforts made at the state level. The former colonies needed their own governing documents to set the conditions for rule. These first efforts saw some success and some need for serious improvement.

First, these constitutions got the source of rule correct. The constitution for North Carolina (1776), opened by declaring, “That all political power is vested in and derived from the people only.” New Hampshire (1776) based its constitution’s power on the “free suffrages of the people of said colony.” This reasoning aligned with another document from 1776, the Declaration of Independence. That work of the Second Continental Congress declared that governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” This point itself derived from the Founders’ commitment to human equality, expressed by the fact that no person should rule another without pre-conditioned agreement.

Second, these constitutions in general got the purpose of government right. Massachusetts’ constitution (1780), penned by John Adams, said the purpose of government resided in the power “to furnish the individuals who compose it with the power of enjoying, in safety and tranquillity, their natural rights and the blessings of life.” This reasoning, too, aligned with the Declaration of Independence. It declared that all human beings possessed “unalienable rights,” meaning claims on others that no one else could infringe. It then said that “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” Government exists because we have these rights but cannot adequately enjoy them due to threats from others. Political society forms to offer protection of these rights for their better use by each person.

Third, however, these state constitutions tended to struggle to rightly structure their institutions. In particular, they correctly sought a government organized around the concept of separation of powers. WE must understand this point before saying how they struggled with it. This theory said that government power is based on the rule of laws. However, law requires three functions to rule properly.

First, one must make law—the legislative power. Some may say we could stop there. However, that would leave government inadequate to its task. We know that merely saying what someone should do does not always get obedience. Sometimes people will disobey the law even when they know it. Think of many of us on highways with speed limits. That brings in the second task of government under the rule of law. A government must enforce those made laws—the executive power. Executive power brings coercive force to bear in service of the laws, to make sure people obey them and thus do not infringe on rights. Third and finally, a tribunal must exist to interpret and apply the law when disputes arise regarding it—the judicial power. People may know the law but not agree on whether someone broke or followed it. That factual question is what juries often decide in trials. People may agree on what happened but disagree about the wording of the law in relation to what happened. Judges make these calls, trying to apply the law’s words faithfully to the actions in a case before him or her. Together, these three powers ensure the law rules, both our constitutions and the statutes made under them.

Most state constitutions affirmed separation of powers. Article VI of the Maryland constitution’s declaration of rights (1776) said, “That the legislative, executive and judicial powers of government, ought to be forever separate and distinct from each other.” However, many states structured their separation of powers to make the legislative power too strong and the other branches too weak. Doing so did not deny separation of powers on paper. But it did so in practice.

States such as Pennsylvania and Virginia in particular created very weak executives. They quickly came under the control of the state legislatures. James Madison saw this problem in the 1780s. Having seen what happened with state constitutions, Madison wrote in Federalist 48 that, “The legislative department is everywhere extending the sphere of its activity, and drawing all power into its impetuous vortex.” In some sense, legislative dominance was natural. Legislative power made the laws that other branches must then carry out. That gave it an advantage. Also, in a popular government, people would see themselves more in the numerous, lawmaking legislature than the much different executive or judicial branches.

We must not underestimate the problem with separation of powers failing in practice in these states. The Founders knew and said that any combination of legislative, executive, and judicial power together led to tyranny. It did so because it allowed one entity to take over the laws and start using them as it wished. The law then became a tool for human beings to oppress one another, not a guide and restraint to rule over them.

Thankfully, not all constitutions fell prey to this problem. New York’s 1778 constitution, for example, gave a strong executive that maintained independence from that state’s legislature. It became an example members of the Constitutional Convention looked to for constructing our American President. In other ways, our Founders learned from the other states’ mistakes in how they constructed the national Constitution. They put in a system of checks and balances to work alongside separation of powers. These checks gave each branch ways to limit the power of the other branch. Ambition would check ambition, as Madison would write in Federalist 51. Sometimes, these checks even meant giving a little of one branch’s power to another. Thus, the president’s veto power is a legislative power to make laws. But it helps protect that office against legislative encroachments. Even the powerful Congress possesses the impeachment power, lest a president or judges usurp their power or the Constitution’s.

Thus, we can be thankful we no longer have the state constitutions of the 1770s and 1780s. They needed improved upon. But we also should thank them for the good they did. They set out the proper origin and purpose of government, a commitment we only reinforced through our subsequent history. And they taught us how to structure our government better. They gave us the experience that showed how to separate governmental powers to support the rule of law and by it human equality and liberty.

Adam M. Carrington is an Associate Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College. There, he teaches on matters of Constitutional law, American political institutions, and separation of powers. His writing has appeared in such popular forums as The Wall Street Journal, The Hill, National Review, and Washington Examiner. His book on the jurisprudence of Justice Stephen Field was published in 2017 by Lexington. Carrington received his B.A. from Ashland University and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Baylor University. He lives in Hillsdale with his wife and their two daughters.

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Guest Essayist: James C. Clinger


The federal, or United States Constitution, drafted during a hot summer in Philadelphia in 1787 was not the only constitution written in that time period, nor was it the first. Earlier, as the former American colonies became newly formed states, they adopted new constitutions that would later influence other states and even the form of the federal Constitution. These documents became the first statements of how republican government would be framed and put into practice.[1] According to Akhil Reed Amar, within these constitutions were “certain overarching elements that are now so commonplace that we forget how truly revolutionary they were in 1776: writtenness, concision, replicability, rights declaration, democratic pedigree, republican structure, and amendability.”[2]

Most of the new constitutions roughly resembled the colonial charters that they replaced. Connecticut and Rhode Island even retained their colonial charters with only minor modification. But some states began a serious effort to craft their own, unique constitutions which would both empower and constrain state government as well as protect the rights and liberties of their people. New Hampshire drafted its constitution even before independence was declared, and several others followed suit while the revolution was being fought.[3]

Many of those early state constitutions were hastily drafted under adverse conditions. The threat of approaching British troops forced some constitutional conventions to adjourn and reconvene multiple times.   Some states’ constitutional framers were not completely convinced that the revolution would be successful.[4] According to Article 26 of New Jersey’s constitution of 1776, “if Reconciliation between Great Britain and these Colonies should take place, and the latter be again taken under the Protection and Government of the Crown of Great Britain, this Charter shall be null and void, otherwise to remain firm and inviolable.”

There were certain commonalities in the various constitutions, but a number of unique features in particular states. All states provided for some separation of powers which would become a distinctive feature of both state and federal governments. Most states provided for a fairly weak executive, although in many respects the chief executive, almost always referred to as a governor, was more powerful than any executive in the national government under the Articles of Confederation. Many states did not provide for a veto for their governor, and some gave veto authority to a plural body, sometimes called a council of censors.[5]

Most state legislatures were bicameral, although both Pennsylvania and Georgia established a single chamber in their initial constitutions.   There were usually property requirements to hold office in the legislature, with stricter requirements for members of the upper chamber. The lower chambers’ members were directly elected by the voters. This was usually the case for the members of the upper chamber, which today in every state is called a senate, but in Maryland the senators were chosen indirectly with voters selecting electors who would then select the members of the senate. A few states later adopted this method, and a few for a short time used electors to select their governor.   Direct election of the governor was established in only five of the original thirteen states’ initial constitutions. In the remaining states, the legislature would select the chief executive.[6] Under the initial state constitutions, judges were either appointed by the legislatures or by the governor with approval of the legislature or at least the senate. The legislature was generally permitted to change the compensation of judges at will, thus diminishing the courts’ reputations for independence.[7]

The terms for almost all offices in the early constitutions were very short. With one exception, all states limited the length of lower legislative house members’ terms to one year. South Carolina had two-year terms. Most states’ senators served terms of one or two years, as did most governors and many judges. These brief terms were a primary check on the behavior of public officials.[8]

The early state constitutions established suffrage requirements for state voters. Most states required property holding requirements, but those varied dramatically from state to state. Property requirements might also vary for the electors of different offices. To vote in elections for the lower legislative chamber, Pennsylvania and North Carolina offered the franchise to all freemen who paid taxes. To vote for members of the state senate, North Carolina required ownership of fifty acres of land. New Hampshire imposed a poll tax. New Jersey had a minimum property requirement of fifty pounds value that applied to suffrage for all state office.[9] These voter qualification requirements had implications for voting in elections for the federal House of Representatives, once the U.S. Constitution took effect, since Article I, Section 2 stipulates that the voters for the U.S. House of Representatives “shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.”

Some, but not all, of the new constitutions included a bill of rights or a declaration of rights. Some of the language in these declarations was largely precatory, with admonitions that state government “ought” not to do certain things, such as impose excessive bail. Other language seems to impose more of a binding commitment on the government. Some of the rhetoric is fairly sweeping, such as the declaration in the Virginia Declaration of Rights that all men are “born free.” The absence of a bill of rights in the federal Constitution was a contentious issue during its ratification. But that issue was resolved with the passage of the first ten amendments. These state declarations became a model for the Bill of Rights, although there were notable differences between the first state declarations and the federal Bill of Rights. The state declarations usually referred to rights to jury trials, the free exercise of religion, and the right to bear arms. The very first state constitutions did not refer to a general freedom of speech, although later constitutions did. Notably, most state constitutions did not include a state equivalent of the federal Establishment Clause.[10] Some constitutions, in fact, authorized state government to support religious institutions[11] and several authorized religious tests for holding certain public offices.[12] The initial constitutions of the original thirteen states did not mention slavery as an institution, although a few rhetorically declared that the British monarch had enslaved the American colonies. Provisions defending, limiting, and abolishing slavery within different states would appear in subsequent constitutional revisions in the coming years.[13]

Some of the early state constitutions were hastily written and did not even provide a provision for amendment. Thus, constitutional changes took place through wholesale re-writes of the documents. Many states drafted entirely new constitutions in the first few years of the republic, and more constitutions were written and ratified as new states were added to the union. Many of those constitutions borrowed from the existing constitutions of other states. For example, about 70% of the 1792 constitution of the new state of Kentucky was taken almost word for word from the Pennsylvania constitution of 1790.[14] Of course, many features of the federal Constitution borrowed somewhat from the state constitutions. Most early state constitutions or amendments were adopted through a legislative process. The constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was one of the first to require approval by voters. In that instance, the document was voted upon by local towns and townships. Today, most states require a public referendum to approve new constitutions or constitutional amendments.[15]

Acknowledgements: The author would like to thank Dr. James Humphreys for his comments on an earlier draft of this essay. Any errors are the responsibility of the author.

James C. Clinger is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at Murray State University. Dr. Clinger teaches courses in state and local government, Kentucky politics, intergovernmental relations, regulatory policy, and public administration. Dr. Clinger is also the chair of the Murray-Calloway County Transit Authority Board and a past president of the Kentucky Political Science Association. He currently resides in Hazel, Kentucky. 

[1] Adams, Willi Paul.. The First American Constitutions: Republican Ideology and the Making of the State Constitutions in the Revolutionary Era / Willi Paul Adams; Translated by Rita and Robert Kimber; with a Foreword by Richard B. Morris. Expanded ed. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers; 2001.

[2] Amar, Akhil Reed.   The Words That Made Us: America’s Constitutional Conversation, 1760-1840.  Basic Books,

2021.

[3] Adams, loc cit.

[4] Squire, Peverill.  The Evolution of American Legislatures: Colonies, Territories, and States, 1619-2009.  Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.   p.83

[5] Squire, loc cit., p. 87

[6] Lutz, Donald S. “The Theory of Consent in the Early State Constitutions.” Publius 9, no. 2 (1979): 11–42.

[7] Tarr, G. Alan.  “Contesting the Judicial Power in the States.”   Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy 35, no. 2 (2012): 643-661.

[8] Lutz, loc cit.

[9] Lutz, loc cit.

[10] Lutz, Donald S. “The State Constitutional Pedigree of the U.S. Bill of Rights.” Publius 22, no. 2 (1992): 19–45.

[11] Vincent Phillip Muñoz, “Church and State in the Founding-Era State Constitutions.”   American Political Thought  4, (Winter 2015):1-38.

[12] Wilson, John K. “Religion Under the State Constitutions, 1776-1800.”  Journal of Church and State.  32, no. 4 (1990): 753-773.

[13] Herron, Paul E. “Slavery and Freedom in American State Constitutional Development.” Journal of Policy History 27, no. 2 (2015): 301-336.

[14] Ireland, Robert M.  “The Kentucky Constitution.”  Clinger, James C., and Michael W. Hail.  Kentucky Government, Politics, and Public Policy. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2013.

[15] Tarr, 2000

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Ken has spent more than two decades working at the highest levels of national policy and communications. He serves as the policy translator for the firm’s communications strategies to ensure that complex issues in areas such as healthcare, transportation, technology, homeland security, and many others, are understandable and actionable for clients’ intended audience(s).

Prior to joining the firm, Ken served as Chief Counsel and Deputy Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee where he served under then-Chairman Ted Stevens of Alaska. Ken also served under Committee Chairman John McCain. Ken joined the Committee after serving as an attorney in the Issues and Appeals Division of the law firm Jones Day, and also as Senior Law Clerk to the Honorable Donald Ivers on the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans’ Claims.

Ken is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and Capital Law School in Columbus, Ohio. He is a proud-native of Cleveland, Ohio, and he is married with two teenage children.

In 2000, Keith realized his vision for a multidimensional communications strategy firm that not only focused on the public relations needs for clients but also designed growth strategies for companies and organizations ranging from small start-up businesses and nonprofits to multinational corporations.

Keith believes that every organization has a story to tell. When the story is told well and strategically, that organization will be better equipped to reach its goals.

A 27-year veteran with top-level experience advising, designing, and managing some of the largest campaigns in US history, Keith has worked for governors, members of Congress, and served in the White House under the first Bush Administration. His work has taken him around the world to dozens of countries and almost every state in the nation. Among other roles, Keith has served as Special Assistant to the Vice President of the United States, Special Assistant to the Governor of New Jersey, consultant to the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), consultant with top-secret security clearance to national security agencies, and campaign manager to Congresswoman Michele Bachmann in the 2012 presidential campaign.

Among his many career achievements, Keith has worked for six presidential campaigns, managed the messaging priorities for HHS at the request of the Secretary, and orchestrated both the Medicare Part D prescription drug enrollment campaign and the HHS Prevention and Value Driven campaign.

Keith has significant experience working with the media and has been a frequent source of commentary for national news outlets, including the Washington Post, New York Times, Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, ABC, CNN, NBC, CBS, Fox News, NPR, and others.

Keith is married to his wife Courtney and holds a B.A. in History from the College of Wooster.

From a very early age, music was an integral part of Wil Gravatt’s life. Wil’s mother worked for the legendary Capitol Records; and he was exposed to the sounds of the Beatles, Janis Joplin, Buck Owens, and Waylon Jennings to name a few. His first love was the drums; teaching himself to play and forming his first band when he was only 14. More of a rocker in the early years, Wil switched to country music in his late teens while in college. He bought an acoustic guitar and taught himself to play by listening to BB King, Bruce Springsteen, and others.

Wil released a solo record “Ready to Cross That Line” in the late 90’s to critical acclaim. In the early 2000’s Wil put together a band of high-caliber musicians and started performing many energetic shows to a packed house at the now-defunct Whitey’s in Arlington, VA. Eventually they released “Live at Whitey’s.” It’s a staple of the collection of many country music fans.

In 2005 and 2009 the band was invited by Presidents Bush and Obama to perform at their respective Inaugural Balls – quite an honor for any band. The Wil Gravatt Band has shared the stage with Robert Earl Keen, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Pat Green, Little Big Town, ZZ Top and myriad other renowned artists. Based in Washington, DC they continue to perform 75+ shows a year to long-time fans and new recruits to their unique brand of high-energy Honky Tonk music.

The band features former Danny Gatton sideman Steve Wolf on bass, Gary Crockett on drums and vocals, Jimbo Byram on steel guitar, Bobby Spates on fiddle, and Wil on vocals and guitar. A new album of original music recorded in Nashville is slated for release in late 2016.

Peter Roff is a longtime Washington, D.C. writer and commentator whose work has appeared in U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, and other publications. He appears frequently on radio and television and holds fellowships with several public policy organizations. He can be reached by email at RoffColumns@GMAIL.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeterRoff.

At one time the political director of Newt Gingrich’s GOPAC, Mr. Roff planned and directed political education programs that trained tens of thousands of candidates for public office and political activists. Prior to his years at GOPAC, he spent nearly five years as executive director of Americans for Tax Reform, the organization that created the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge.”

Leaving politics in the late 1990s, he began a new career as a journalist, spending five years as the senior political writer for United Press International.

While at UPI he regularly filled the wire with breaking news and analysis, working on some of the biggest political stories of the 20th century including the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack and the election of George W. Bush in one of the narrowest political contests in U.S. history.

A frequent commentator on politics and public issues, Mr. Roff has appeared on a variety of radio and television programs including “CBS News Overnight,” “Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher,” “The Dennis Miller Show,” “Hannity & Colmes,” “The O’Reilly Factor,” “C-SPAN’s Washington Journal,” and even once appeared as himself on the hit ABC comedy “Spin City.”

Mr. Roff’s observations have been quoted in major publications including USA TodayThe New York Times, the online version of The Wall Street JournalThe Washington Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and National Review.

A 1988 graduate of The George Washington University, Mr. Roff has lived in Northern Virginia for much of the last 25 years along with his children and his beagle Watson.

Nashville songwriter Steve Dean has co-written six number one hits, including the most played song on country radio in 2007, “Watching You” for Rodney Atkins, the Grammy nominated “It Takes A little Rain” for The Oak Ridge Boys, “Southern Star” for Alabama, “Round About Way” for George Strait, “Walk On” for Reba McEntire and “Heart’s Aren’t Made To Break” for Lee Greenwood.

Among Steve’s musical influences are The Beatles, The Byrds, The Eagles, Buck Owens,
Johnny Cash, and Roger Miller.

Steve’s songs have been recorded by LoCash Cowboys, Joe Nichols, Dierks Bentley, Lee Ann Womack, Waylon Jennings, The Roys, Pure Prairie League, John Michael Montgomery, Point of Grace, Conway Twitty and others.

Steve has earned eight BMI Songwriter Awards, two BMI Publisher Awards, two BMI 2 Million Air Awards and three BMI 1 Million Air Awards.

Steve’s song “Walk On” is on the Grammy winning CD, Reba’s Greatest Hits Volume 2.
Steve’s song “Expecting Good Things”, is the title track to Jeff and Sheri Easter’s Grammy nominated CD “Expecting Good Things”.

As a singer/songwriter, Steve lets his audience in on a behind the scenes look at, and a unique opportunity to hear the stories surrounding the inspiration for and why these songs were written.

Mark Rodgers is the Principal of The Clapham Group, a company that seeks to influence culture upstream of the political arena. Mark served as the third-ranking Republican leadership staffer in the U.S. Senate for six years overseeing strategic planning and strategic communications. He also served as a high profile chief of staff to Senator Rick Santorum, working on Capitol Hill for a total of 16 years. He was known on the Hill for his work on such issues as poverty alleviation and global AIDS, as well as protecting life at its most vulnerable stages. Mark is a published writer and a speaker at large and small gatherings on the topics of faith and public life, culture and caring for the least of these. His work over the years has involved consulting with some of the largest foundations in the world, Fortune 500 companies, internationally known music artists and filmmakers, and even famous comic book creators. He is a published writer and a speaker on the topics of faith and public life, culture and caring for the least of these.  His work over the years includes outreach to “culture creators,” and he has worked closely with artists from diverse fields including computer gaming, graphic novels, film and music.  Mark is also a social entrepreneur, and enjoys finding ways to help people “do good while doing well.”

He earned a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering from Penn State, and attended Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry. Mark is married to Leanne, and together they have four children and four grandchildren. Mark resides in Burke, Virginia.

Gail MacKinnon joined the Motion Picture Association (MPA) in November 2017 and is the current Senior Executive Vice President for Global Policy & Government Affairs. A skilled senior executive with experience in public policy advocacy, issues management, and strategy development, Gail oversees the MPA’s government relations portfolio and policy agenda, as well as its international advocacy and policy, including in the APAC and EMEA regions.

Previously, Gail served as Executive Vice President, Government Relations for Time Warner Cable, where she led all aspects of federal, state, and local government relations for the telecommunications company. She positioned the company as a trusted advisor to government leaders on a range of public policy issues; including video reform, cybersecurity, tax, and privacy.

Prior to her role at Time Warner Cable, Gail was Senior Vice President of Government Relations at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. She has held senior positions at Viacom, CBS Inc., Telecommunications Inc., and Turner Broadcasting. She began her career on Capitol Hill, serving as Legislative Director for Congressman Jack Fields (R-TX).

In 2016, Gail helped co-found WE Capital, a consortium of women in the Washington, D.C. business community investing in female-led startups focused on social impact work. She was named one of Washingtonian’s Most Powerful Women in 2019. Gail received a Bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University.

Born and raised in Dallas Texas, Moses Uvere was the first born to Patience and Gabriel Uvere, immigrants who came to America to seek “the American Dream.” Being brought up by parents from a different country, Moses witnessed firsthand what “the American Dream” was all about and the struggle to achieve a better life. Living in poverty-stricken areas Moses had an up-close view of growing up poor, sharing clothes with his brothers, wearing hand-me-downs, and not getting much during the holidays. Moses was an active kid who always played sports and was a fine football prospect in high school where his career was cut short. Due to the fact that his mom left the family, he the eldest of the four had to grow up quickly to help his dad raise his two little brothers and his little sister. “The things in my life didn’t break me, but made me the man I am today.” Music had always been a part of his life and after being in the group minority authority for a few years, Moses struck out on his own. He met up with Dustin Cavazos who produced his first release, From Worse to Better. (2008) The album is a reflection of past experiences that he has seen and lived. A few years later, (2011) Uvere signed a record deal with Universal / Motown producer Geoff Rockwell under the imprint of chaos creative and released an album entitled Mind the Gap which received critical acclaim. Following that album, Uvere had his highest-profile release yet with Never Been Better which led him to be in front of 13.9 million people (according to anchor marketing), with his latest release Kingdom of the Fallen. The album reached the top 100 of the iTunes charts and was followed up with a performance at the historic Klyde Warren Park as the first Christian hip hop artist in its history to be invited as a headliner. Each project of his musical offerings was influenced by artists such as Kanye West, Common, Pigeon John, Issac Hayes, and Musiq Soulchild. He is a husband, a father of three, and currently the Lead Pastor at the Vine of Life in Garland, TX.

Shane Tews is a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on cybersecurity issues, including privacy and data protection, next-generation networking (5G), the Internet of Things, international internet governance, digital economic policy, information and communications technology, artificial intelligence (AI) and the metaverse, cryptocurrency and non-fungible tokens, and emerging technologies. She is also president of Logan Circle Strategies, a strategic advisory firm.

She is vice chair of the board of directors of the Internet Education Foundation; chair of the Internet Society’s Washington, DC, chapter; member of the board of SeedAI; chair of the board of directors at TechFreedom; and chair of the Dynamic Coalition on the Internet of Things of the Internet Governance Forum.

Previously, Ms. Tews served as co-chair of the Internet Governance Forum USA. She was a member of the board of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, the Information Technology Industry Council, and Global Women’s Innovation Network. She also managed internet security and digital commerce issues as vice president of global policy for Verisign. She began her career in the George H. W. Bush White House as a deputy associate director in the Office of Cabinet Affairs and later moved to Capitol Hill as a legislative director for Rep. Gary Franks (R-CT).

Ms. Tews studied communications at Arizona State University and American University, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in general studies with an emphasis on communications and political science.

Experience

  • Logan Circle Strategies: President, 2014–present
  • Vrge (formerly 463 Communications): Outside Policy Consultant, 2015–19
  • 463 Communications: Principal and Chief Policy Officer, 2012–15
  • Internet Education Foundation: Vice Chair, Board of Directors, 2011–present; Member, Board of Directors, 2004–11
  • Verisign: Vice President of Global Public Policy and Government Relations, 2001–12
  • Distilled Spirits Council of the United States: Vice President for Federal Affairs, 1997–2001
  • Citizens for a Sound Economy and Citizens for a Sound Economy Foundation: Director of Government Relations, 1995–97
  • Office of Congressman Gary A. Franks (R-CT), US House of Representatives: Legislative Director, 1992–95
  • The White House: Deputy Associate Director, Office of Cabinet Affairs, 1991–92
  • US Department of Transportation: Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary for Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs, 1991; Staff Assistant to the Secretary of Transportation for Scheduling and Advance, 1989–91

Education

BA, public relations and political science, American University
Attended Arizona State University

Guest Essayist: Tony Williams


The Americans of the founding period were a strongly Protestant people of various denominations including dissenting Presbyterians, Baptists, and Congregationalists. Some historians have estimated that Protestants made up over 98% of the American population. Their Protestantism was characterized by a strong dissenting tradition against religious and civil tyranny as well as a strong streak of individualism.

Their Protestantism—especially the Puritan tradition—was also exemplified by appeals to the natural law in its covenant theology that was consistent with Lockean social compact theory. Covenant theology caused Americans to view themselves as a Chosen People of a new Israel who formed a covenant with God. The natural law of covenant theology was consistent with both reason and revelation as they reconciled their reason and faith in the natural law and natural rights philosophy of the American Revolution.

The American founders drew from a variety of traditions in arguing for their natural rights and liberties. Ancient thought from Greece and Rome, the English tradition, and the ideas of John Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers combined with Protestantism for a rich tapestry. While the Enlightenment provided a strong influence on the founders, the contribution of their religious beliefs has often been downplayed or ignored. The average American colonial farmer or artisan may not have read John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government or ancient philosophy, but they heard dissenting religious ideals and Lockean principles from the pulpit at religious services.

Toward the end of his life, Thomas Jefferson had cause to reflect on the meaning of the Declaration of Independence, a document which later influenced the United States Constitution. He wrote to Henry Lee in 1825 about the purpose of the Declaration:

“This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent…it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day.”

The “harmonizing sentiments” of the 1760s and 1770s supported a natural law opposition to British tyranny in the American colonies. James Otis was one of the earliest articulators of natural law resistance. In 1764, he wrote, “Should an act of Parliament be against any of his natural laws, which are immutably true, their declaration would be contrary to eternal truth, equity, and justice, and consequently void.”

In 1774, Thomas Jefferson expressed the same sentiments in his Summary View of the Rights of British America. In the pamphlet, he wrote that God was the author of natural rights inherent in each human being. The Americans were “a free people claiming their rights, as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate… the God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time: the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.”

A year later, a young Alexander Hamilton wrote a pamphlet, Farmer Refuted, in which he eloquently described the divine source of universal rights. “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.”

These “expressions of the American mind” were common formulations of natural rights that influenced the Declaration of Independence. The four mentions of God in the document demonstrate their understanding of the divine, but it also showed that God was the author of good government according to natural law.

First, the Declaration appeals to the “separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” This first mention of God is that of Protestant and Enlightenment natural law. They saw God as the author of truth in the moral order of the universe. This moral order defined their thinking about republican self-government.

Second, the Declaration asserts that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” God is the Creator and author of natural rights in this formulation. Since rights are from a higher authority, no earthly power can violate an individual’s inherent rights. Interestingly, God here acts as a supreme legislator who makes the natural law and grants natural rights.

Third, the Declaration appealed to “the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.” God is a judge who authored the idea of justice and who judges human actions. God here represents the judicial branch of government.

Fourth, the Declaration stated that, “With a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” Americans believed that God was a providential God who intervened in human affairs and protected his Chosen People. This conception of God represents the executive branch of government.

The Declaration of Independence was a reflection that the American natural rights republic was rooted in the natural law. Reason and divine revelation supported the natural law that shaped a good government built upon the understanding of human nature and the rights given to human beings by God.

In Federalist #1, Alexander Hamilton explained the entire purpose of establishing free government based upon the principles of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. He stated that Americans had the opportunity and responsibility to form good government by “reflection and choice,” not by “accident and force.” The United States was founded uniquely upon a set of principles and ideals.

In 1861, President Abraham Lincoln had occasion to reflect upon the principles of the American Founding. Using a biblical metaphor, he thought that the Declaration of Independence was an “apple of gold” because it contained the foundational principles of the new country. The Constitution was the “picture of silver” framing the apple with the structures of republican government, thus preserving the purpose of the Declaration. In the mind of Lincoln—and those of the Founders—an inextricable link bound together the two documents in creating a free government.

Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America, with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.

 

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Guest Essayist: J. Eric Wise


Everything comes back to the Declaration of Independence. In a way, the seeds of the Federalist Anti-federalist dispute in the framing of the Constitution were sown in the Declaration.

The Declaration of Independence established the basis of just government as consent as against the divine right of kings. To quote Thomas Jefferson, “the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them.”

Consent leads to forms of majority rule, although it must be a reasonable and restrained majority which respects the rights of the minority. Consent requires some kind of deliberation for the sake of forming consensus, and public deliberation over a proposed charter leads to disputes for and against.

But that is not the sole connection. The Declaration of Independence establishes a right of revolution. Whenever a government becomes abusive of the ends of just government it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it. Revolution is an extra-legal right. The oppressions of King George – “[a] Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant” – entitled the colonists to rebel, illegally.

The Declaration of Independence – a “unanimous Declaration of thirteen united States of America” – also stated that “That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.”  A new nation was born that was having a hard time saying clearly whether it was one nation or many. Babes lisp, and so it was with the young United States.

The first charter of the United States was entitled the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. Confederation comes from the Latin con meaning “with or together” and foederare meaning treaty or league. Again, the early babble of United States suffered some polysemy. It was a union that was perpetual but also a treaty of several states.

The Articles of Confederation, as a practical matter, were inadequate. Among other things, the new government was unable to enforce its laws directly and the scope of its powers was narrow, particularly in commercial and financial matters. The result was a chaos of creditor-debtor disputes and a moribund economy that began to threaten the viability of the United States. Both France and Britain anticipated the collapse of the new United States, and were eager to pick up the pieces.

A convention was called in 1787 to repair the defects of the Articles.  The convention produced a proposal for an entirely new charter, the Constitution, to replace the Articles. The Constitution would have many new features, including drawing its authority directly from the people rather than a compact of states, exclusive coinage and bankruptcy power, and a radically new executive power embodied in a president of the United States. It also proposed that it would be deemed adopted when ratified by only nine states.

This last proposal flatly contradicted the Articles. The Articles required a unanimous vote of its member states for amendment. Like the revolution the proposal for a new Constitution, though an appeal to ballots and not bullets, was illegal.

The ground for the adoption of the Constitution was similar to that of the Revolution, an appeal to the “necessity” and (echoing the Declaration) the “law of nature and nature’s God.” The Articles were incompetent and had to be “thrown off” to for the “preservation” the country. Federalist 43.

In politics it is important to pick the name of your movement.  If you do not, your political adversaries will pick it for you. The proponents of the new Constitution, led by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, took the name Federalist. Opposition to the new Constitution was labeled Anti-federalist, locking in rhetorical disadvantage.

Anti-federalists argued with some alarm that the new Constitution permitted the national government to resort to force. Federalists argued that the states were protected from invasion by the Federal power by their militias and from domestic insurrection or invasion by the new federal government. Federalist 28.

The Anti-federalists argued that the confederal form should have been preserved. The Federalists argued that the proposed government was “partly federal and partly national.” Federalist 39.

Anti-federalists argued that the convention did not have the authority to adopt the Constitution. The Federalists argued that the new Constitution was “necessary.” Federalist 40.

Anti-federalists argued that the proposed Constitution was too difficult to amend, and that it should be amended whenever a department of the government exceeds its authority. Federalists rebutted that frequent appeals to the people would undermine the authority and reasonableness of the new government. Federalist 49.

Anti-federalist argued that the judiciary was too independent.  Federalists argued that the new Constitution’s judiciary was its least dangerous branch, and that unconstitutional judicial decisions could be ignored. Federalist 78.

The Federalists prevailed, but experience has at times exposed weaknesses in the Federalist’s arguments. The federal government has overtime supplanted the states in their power. Appeals to the people to amend their Constitution have not just become infrequent, but have ceased almost altogether: The Constitution has not been amended “soup to nuts” in more than 50 years. And this has happened as the judicial power has expanded under the doctrine of a “living constitution” to displace the amendment function; this raises the question whether the Constitution can continue to be the people’s document if the courts, and not they, are its author in key respects.

J. Eric Wise is a partner in the law firm of Alston & Bird.

 

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Guest Essayist: Tom Hand
Declaration of Independence painting by John Trumbull depicting the five-man drafting committee, left to right: John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. The original hangs in the U.S. Capitol rotunda.


The Declaration of Independence was America’s first and, arguably, greatest document. It not only laid out the reasons why we should leave the British Empire but also eloquently explained a different set of rules by which a nation should be governed. The background leading to the creation of this document is critical to understanding its content.

At the end of the French and Indian War (or Seven Year’s War) in 1763, the British Empire’s treasury was depleted due to the terrible expense of the war. Although it had been fought in several parts of the world, King George and Parliament decided to recover much of the cost on the backs of their American subjects.

Parliament enacted the Stamp Act (taxes on most printed materials) in 1765 and then the Townshend Act (taxes to fund royal officials, as well as language reinforcing Parliament’s right to tax the colonies) in 1767. While Parliament felt it reasonable that the colonies share of the cost of the recent war, the colonists felt quite different.

To understand where the Americans were coming from, it is important to understand that for much of our early history the British Empire had neglected their American colonies. As a result, Americans had developed a strong independent streak. Out of necessity, our early leaders created their own assemblies and learned how to govern themselves.

Colonial officials reasoned that since the colonies were not directly represented in Parliament, that legislative body did not have the right to levy taxes on them. Not surprisingly, tensions rose over the course of the next few years as the Americans resisted and found ways to avoid paying these new taxes.

Following the Gaspee Affair in 1772 in which colonists burned a British ship, and the Boston Tea Party in 1773 when the Sons of Liberty threw a shipload of tea into Boston Harbor, Parliament attempted to assert its authority with a series of bills known in America as the Intolerable Acts (in England they were called the Coercion Acts).

They essentially stripped Massachusetts of most of the freedoms it had enjoyed since its founding. The harshness of these acts first surprised and then outraged people in all thirteen colonies. People reasoned if England could do that to one, they could do it to all.

To address this crisis and craft a response, colonial leaders convened the First Continental Congress in September 1774. They met in Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia, and delegates attended from 12 of the 13 colonies; Georgia chose not to attend. They decided to impose a boycott on British goods and send King George a list of their grievances, but their petition fell on deaf ears.

As one month led into the next in 1775, matter grew worse. On April 19, American militiamen first fought British regulars at the Battle of Lexington and Concord, and on May 10 colonial leaders convened the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

Most of the representatives still hoped for a reconciliation with England. After all, most still thought of themselves as English. Their ancestors had come over from England, their laws were based on English laws, and we spoke the same language.

Not surprisingly, the first point of business for Congress was to try to forge a reconciliation with England, and John Dickinson led this effort. Because most colonists viewed Parliament and not the King as the real problem, they sent a second petition, the so-called Olive Branch petition, directly to King George in July 1775. They soon found out they did not have a sympathetic ear with the King.

On August 23, in reaction to the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, Parliament passed the Proclamation of Rebellion which formally declared the colonies to be in a state of rebellion. By the time Congress’ petition arrived at court in late August, King George refused to even receive it, and the chance for reconciliation was essentially at an end.

Notified in late 1775 of these developments, John Adams and others who saw independence as the only choice for the colonies began to agitate for it. Then, in January 1776, Thomas Paine, an Englishman newly arrived in America, published a pamphlet called “Common Sense” which advocated for complete independence from England. His timing was perfect.

Much like Harriett Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” crystallized the abolitionist movement in the 1850s, Paine’s pamphlet presented to the American people a sound and well-reasoned argument for why separation from England made sense. Ideas that only months before were almost too extreme to discuss were now seen as the best alternative. The table was now set for the great debate to reach its inevitable conclusion.

The discussions were intense, but by late June enough progress had been made toward securing the votes that Congress formed a “Committee of Five” to draft a resolution declaring independence. This committee which included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman, and Thomas Jefferson wanted Adams to draft the document. However, Adams insisted that Jefferson do the writing with Adams editing it as needed.

On July 2, the Congress approved the Lee Resolution, introduced by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, calling for independence from Great Britain. The Committee of Five promptly submitted its declaration document to Congress which they approved, after several modifications, on July 4. Thus, in the minds of the delegates, and soon in the eyes of the world, our nation was born.

The words contained in the Declaration of Independence were some of the most revolutionary ideas ever printed. When Congress approved the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” they were going where no government had gone before.

The preamble further declared that “Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Given that, in 1776, hereditary monarchies ruled all the nations of the earth, this too was a radical doctrine.

The Declaration of Independence also listed 27 grievances the King had committed against his subjects in America, essentially justifying our decision to separate from England.

These complaints ranged from “He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly” to “He has made Judges dependent on his will” to “He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the consent of our legislatures.” Taken together, they made a compelling case for leaving the British Empire.

Ultimately, the American colonists in 1776 were left with two choices. They could either completely submit to the authority of Parliament and the Crown, becoming vassals of England, or declare complete independence and thereby control their own destiny. Time has shown that they chose wisely.

So why should the background to the Declaration of Independence matter to us today? It is important to know that our Forefathers tried to reconcile with the mother country and that rebellion was not our preferred choice.

We also must recognize the intensity of the debate and the widely varying opinions regarding the proper course of action to take and understand that our Forefathers agonized over their decision.

Finally, we must appreciate that these words revolutionized the way that not only Americans but also the rest of the world viewed the role of government and the very concept of where the right to govern originates.

Tom Hand is creator and publisher of Americana Corner. Tom is a West Point graduate, and serves on the board of trustees for the American Battlefield Trust as well as the National Council for the National Park Foundation. Click Here to Like Tom’s Facebook Page, Americana Corner. Click Here to follow Tom’s Instagram Account.

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Guest Essayist: Andrew Langer


Prior to the drafting and ratification of the United States Constitution, our founders had nearly two hundred years of colonial governance from which to draw lessons regarding both the proper, and the improper, management of such territories, and the best way to add new lands to a governmental structure.

Among the threads that run through the Constitution, the assurance of fair and equal treatment of all citizens and the necessity of “due” process as a way to protect those citizens’ rights is repeated in a myriad of ways.

When it came to colonization and settlement, the founders could draw on the history of Great Britain’s management of the colonies (and, in many cases, their mismanagement) to ensure that the deficiencies in British governance could be corrected and their mistakes not repeated.

A central problem was consistency in the development of colonies and the application of British law. Colonial charters, the documentation actually allowing British subjects to establish colonies in North America, could be granted by the King (directly) or by the King’s officers, and they were granted to both corporate entities and groups of individuals.

But these charters could also be revoked, and most colonial charters were, at some point or another, revoked and reinstated by the Crown.

If Americans were going to settle the western portions of the recently-unionized states, they would have to be guaranteed, under the law, that the same kinds of arbitrary actions that plagued British colonial governance would not be continued by an American government.

Not all were even in agreement about such expansion (that became encompassed in the 19th century as the Monroe Doctrine. An Anti-federalist, writing under the name Brutus I in response to the Federalist papers written by James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton under the pseudonym Publius, voiced deep concern about American empire building.

Jonathan Marshall, writing for Inquiry Magazine in 1980 (and republished in The Journal of Libertarian Studies) wrote:

“[T]he Antifederalist world view was profoundly shaped by their abhorrence of “empire”-that is to say, the rule of a vast territory by a strong, consolidated government. In rejecting the Federalist dream of a glorious American empire, they challenged the notion that the confederated states had to mimic European empires to safeguard their independence. Ultimately, the Antifederalists insisted, empire could be achieved only at the expense of their most cherished and hard-won prize: liberty.”

That skepticism is certainly shared when viewed in the context of another failure of British rule—the abandonment of the principle of “salutary neglect.” Discussed at length by one of the earliest historians of the American Revolution, Dr. David Ramsay (a revolutionary-era politician and physician), the concept is straightforward: the best way for a colony to prosper is for the parent nation to take a “light touch” in terms of direct governance, to let the colonists themselves make decisions and solve problems.

As the American colonies grew more powerful and determined to make decisions on their own, the British crown became more determined to bring them to heel. This only served to frustrate and anger the colonists, and eventually led them to declaring themselves free and independent states.

The Constitution addresses these concerns squarely—most clearly in Article IV, Section 3, more commonly known as the Admissions Clause.

The clause has two parts—the first, granting power to Congress to admit new states. The second, a restriction on that power, saying that Congress cannot create a new state by dividing the territory of an existing state or by joining two states together, without the consent of the legislatures of those states.

Both are essential to the practice of good governance. The people of the United States and potential states, i.e., territories know that there is one body with the power to admit states into the Union. It cannot be done or denied arbitrarily by a President, or the President’s bureaucratic functionary.

The second clause is almost more important than the first since it essentially prevents a state from being punished or the federal government otherwise abusing its powers by tearing apart states or forcing them to join with other states against their will. There has to be agreement from that state’s duly elected legislative representatives.

It is, essentially, another form of Due Process, protecting the rights of these citizens from arbitrary or capricious behavior on the part of the Federal Government.

Interestingly enough, though not outlined in the Constitution, the process for newly-settled lands to become states has largely been codified over time. Public lands are declared U.S. territory. Through a variety of means, the people in that territory vote to declare their intent to become a state, and then Congress passes an “enabling act” legislating that the territory becomes a state.

One aspect of this, for many of the states that entered after the middle of the 19th century, was to declare that all “unappropriated public lands” within those territories to be the property of the United States itself.  This was a way of “clearing title” to those lands for the purpose of encouraging further settlement (clear title, as the property rights scholars Hernando DeSoto and Richard Pipes have both written, is an essential element of strong protection of private property). It is also the reason why, as a percentage of a state’s territory, so much more land is owned by the federal government west of the Mississippi River (which has had huge implications for the balance of power between federal and state governments for the last half-century).

The British government had both successes and failures when it came to their management of the North American colonies. The authors of the Constitution learned from those mistakes and crafted clear language to safeguard against making them again.

Andrew Langer is President of the Institute for Liberty.

 

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Guest Essayist: Tom Hand


The Colony of Virginia was established at Jamestown by the Virginia Company in 1607 as a for-profit venture by its investors. To bring order to the province, Governor George Yeardley created a one-house or unicameral General Assembly on July 30, 1619.

This body of men was comprised of an appointed Governor and six Councilors, as well as 22 men called burgesses (a burgess was a freeman of a borough in England). Most importantly, the burgesses were elected by the eligible voters (free white males) in the colony, thus making this General Assembly the first elected representative legislature in British America.

In 1642, Governor William Berkeley split the legislature into two houses initiating a bicameral assembly, with the elected representatives in the newly created House of Burgesses and the appointed Councilors of State meeting separately.

It was here, the leading men of Virginia met and debated the great issues of the day. Until the 1760s, this legislative body largely determined how the colony would be governed, including how its citizens would be taxed.

This began to change in 1765 when Parliament passed the Stamp Act which imposed a tax on paper products such as newspapers, pamphlets, and legal documents. Importantly, it represented the first time Parliament placed a direct tax on the colonies in North America.

This revenue grab did not go over well with the colonists who were used to controlling their own internal affairs. The debates and the documents that flowed from the House of Burgesses after that act spearheaded our nation’s drive for independence from England.

On May 29, 1765, Patrick Henry introduced a series of resolutions known as the Virginia Resolves. These declarations essentially denied Parliament’s right to tax the colonies since the citizens in America did not have representation in England.

By late June, many newspapers throughout the colonies had printed these resolutions which inflamed the passions of people. The “no taxation without representation” sentiments led to the Stamp Act Congress of 1765, marking the first time the colonies joined forces against the Mother Country.

The years passed and the relationship with England continued to deteriorate as the Mother Country introduced more burdensome legislation. In 1774, after Parliament passed the Boston Port Act which closed the port of Boston, the House of Burgesses again voiced their opposition in a series of resolves. The result was that Governor Lord Dunmore dissolved the assembly.

However, the Burgesses would not be denied their right to assemble and immediately convened in a public house called the Raleigh Tavern. Here, they called for a series of five Virginia Conventions to meet in defiance of the governor.

It was at the Second Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775, that Patrick Henry gave his most famous speech by concluding, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, God Almighty! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.”

In addition to Patrick Henry (Burgess from 1765-1776), the men who passed through the House of Burgesses was a group that had an outsized influence in the founding of our great nation. Its alumni list is a “Who’s Who” of Founding Fathers:

George Mason (Burgess from 1758-1760) who wrote the Fairfax Resolves in 1774 which denied Parliament’s authority over the colonies, and in 1776 formulated Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, a precursor to our Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights.

Thomas Jefferson (Burgess from 1769-1774) whose 1774 paper A Summary View of the Rights of British America clearly expressed our grievances against King George and, of course, he authored our landmark Declaration of Independence in 1776.

George Washington (Burgess from 1758 to 1775) who commanded our Continental Army in the American Revolution, was our first President, and became the Father of our Country.

With the advent of the new Virginia Constitution in 1776, the House of Burgesses was finally dissolved. In its place, the new state government formed an elected Senate and an elected House of Delegates, which continues to govern the Old Dominion today. In 1780, Virginia moved its capital to Richmond, ending Williamsburg’s long run as the center of politics in America.

Sadly, the unity of these deeply patriotic men ended within a few years of achieving our independence in 1783. Defeating the British had been a cause on which all the former Burgesses could agree. With that task accomplished, they began to splinter over how to run the United States.

The Articles of Confederation under which the country operated provided a weak central government and allowed the states a great deal of autonomy. This system did not vest any taxation authority in the central government or allow for a federal standing army or navy. Many worried our new nation could not survive without a stronger federal authority.

Consequently, leaders organized a convention for the fall of 1787 to meet in Philadelphia to address issues with the Articles. Known at the time as the Philadelphia Convention but to posterity as the Constitutional Convention, the delegates did more than fix the Articles; they designed our new Constitution.

Former Burgesses like George Washington who saw the need for a strong central government were called Federalists. They argued that without this change the nation would be virtually defenseless in the face of foreign aggression. Additionally, the numerous currencies and laws of the thirteen states would tend to destabilize the nation, possibly leading to its dissolution.

Those former Burgesses that opposed the new Constitution, Anti-federalists like Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, worried that creating a powerful central authority would simply replace the tyranny of the king with a different tyrant. These men preferred local control and felt states should be governed as each one saw fit.

By 1796, a mere thirteen years after the signing of the Treaty of Paris, the nation had divided into two deeply antagonistic political parties. These men, once so unified in thought and action when they were fighting for our freedom, were never able to bridge the divide regarding the proper direction for America after that freedom had been secured.

So why should the history of the House of Burgesses matter to us today?

In its day, many of the men who assembled there later assembled on the national stage to lead our country. Throughout the crisis with England, it was an eloquent and vocal proponent for American liberty and many of the ideas found in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution were first debated and refined in their meetings.

Tom Hand is creator and publisher of Americana Corner. Tom is a West Point graduate, and serves on the board of trustees for the American Battlefield Trust as well as the National Council for the National Park Foundation. Click Here to Like Tom’s Facebook Page, Americana Corner. Click Here to follow Tom’s Instagram Account.

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Guest Essayist: Tom Hand


When the English began to settle North America in the 1600s, the leaders of the various colonies had different motives. While all colonies exercised their authority in the King’s name, they were not created in the same mold, and some had more autonomy than others. In fact, there were three different types of colonies: royal, self-governing, and proprietary.

Royal colonies were owned and completely administered by the Crown. The Governor and his Council were appointed by the King and these lands existed simply to generate wealth for England. Although few land grants began as a royal colony, by the American Revolution, eight of the thirteen colonies were this type: Virginia (converted in 1624), New Hampshire (1679), New York (1685), Massachusetts (1691), New Jersey (1702), South Carolina (1719), North Carolina (1729), and Georgia (1753).

Self-governing colonies were formed when the King granted a charter to a joint-stock company which set up its own independent governing system. These organizations were essentially corporations formed to make money for the investors.

Like the entrepreneurs of today, a few men came up with an idea, presented it to their friends and associates, and asked them to invest in their plan. Their organizations had wide latitude to appoint leaders and run their business as they wished. Virginia, Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, and Rhode Island were all initially established as self-governing colonies.

However, these colonies soon found out that their independence was on a short leash. If the colony was poorly administered like in Virginia or if the people proved troublesome like in Massachusetts, these dominions were converted into a royal colony with all the restrictions that came with it. By the time of the American Revolution, only Rhode Island and Connecticut, retained their original self-governing charter. The King always had the final say.

Proprietary colonies were land grants given by the King to one or a few favored men called proprietors. They in turn were to administer these areas for the Crown but in a manner to be determined by them. The proprietors appointed the Governor and his Council, determined the laws (but they had to be approved by the Crown), and ran the territory as they saw fit. While the King had the ultimate authority, the rule of the proprietors resembled that of a monarch.

Maryland was an example of a proprietary colony. It was established by Cecil Calvert in 1632 upon receiving a land grant from King Charles I. Lord Calvert, also known as the 2nd Baron Baltimore, wanted to develop a land where Catholics could openly profess their faith without fear of retribution.

After several starts and stops, settlers for this new colony finally arrived in 1634. The colony prospered and in 1649 Maryland passed the Maryland Toleration Act, the first law establishing religious tolerance in British North America. Although Lord Calvert never visited Maryland, the Calvert family managed the province well and never had their charter revoked.

Not surprisingly, these proprietary colonies which operated without a great deal of input from England, were not as anxious to sever ties with the Mother Country as those with more stringent controls. For example, the Pennsylvania Assembly had to replace five of its initial nine delegates to the Second Continental Congress to get a majority of delegates to be in favor of independence.

Delaware, which was another proprietary colony, had to send an extra delegate, Caesar Rodney, on a midnight 80-mile ride to Philadelphia to break the tie in their delegation so the state could vote for independence. By the time of the American Revolution, only Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania remained as proprietary colonies, none of which were hot beds of rebellion.

WHY IT MATTERS: So why should the way in which colonies were organized and governed matter to us today?

The three types of colonies with their different systems of government generated varying attitudes towards English rule and our independence. Understanding these conflicting feelings helps us to better appreciate why not all Americans wanted to break from the Mother Country.

What we see is that those colonies left to govern themselves were fairly content living under English rule and not as anxious to break from England. In retrospect, England may have been wiser to allow all the colonies to operate with more autonomy and to manage them in a less oppressive manner.

SUGGESTED READING: If you are interested in a deeper dive into this subject, Colonial America: A History to 1763 is an excellent book on background, founding, and development of the thirteen British North American colonies. It was written by Richard Middleton and Anne Lombard and originally published in 1992, but it was updated in 2011.

PLACES TO VISIT: The statehouse in Annapolis, Maryland, is an incredibly beautiful building and a great example of architecture from our colonial era. It is the oldest state capitol in continuous legislative use and is the only statehouse ever used as the nation’s capitol. Seeing it and the rest of this historically significant seaside city would be well worth your time.

Until next time, may your motto be “Ducit Amor Patriae,” Love of country leads me.

Tom Hand is creator and publisher of Americana Corner. Tom is a West Point graduate, and serves on the board of trustees for the American Battlefield Trust as well as the National Council for the National Park Foundation. Click Here to Like Tom’s Facebook Page, Americana Corner. Click Here to follow Tom’s Instagram Account.

 

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Guest Essayist: Adam Carrington


In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” He contrasts these persons with him who “hears these words of mine and does not do them.” This latter man built his house “on the sand.” When rain and storms come, the first house stands firm while the second, not only falls, “but great was the fall of it.”

Americans must ask upon what kind of foundation they built their political house. What first principles created us, define us, and thus should continue to guide us going forward? Some have posited that our rightful foundation rests on a literal rock—Plymouth Rock. By saying so, they mean that the Puritans who came to New England in 1620 defined our Founding and should prescribe our tomorrow.

These persons point to the Mayflower Compact, the charter those settlers signed as the basis for their political community. This document clearly displays the political ends which these Puritans pursued and the means they established in that pursuit. We must declare them and then assess them. We thereby must ask whether this foundation of Plymouth Rock in 1620 is in fact our own as Americans in 2022.

The Compact says that it seeks to “plant” a colony. More importantly, it states what it intends to do in establishing that political community. It first lists “the Glory of God.” It follows with the “advancement of the Christian Faith,” then the “honour of our King and Country,” and, finally, their “better ordering and preservation.” Together, these make up the ends of their political community.

We must see in the first purpose the overarching one, the final end to which all others in the Compact strive. The Puritans were defined by a faith that placed God’s glory the highest in priority and all-comprehensive in its pursuit. Thus, they must advance the Christian faith, increasing who glorified God. Their honoring king and country also assumed a religious element, since they saw King James as a Christian prince and England as a Christian nation. Their honor was a mere reflection of God’s glory. Even good ordering and preservation linked back to God’s glory, since the Compact says they will so do in “furtherance of the ends aforesaid.”

Clearly, the foundation laid on Plymouth Rock required a particular kind of religious subscription by all citizens and officers in the colony. To be a rightful citizen, one must be a rightful believer. Did Americans who wrote the Declaration of Independence and ratified the United States Constitution build on this foundation or on another?

The Founders did not deny the importance of God in general or the Christian faith in particular. The Declaration of Independence mentions God no less than four times. God authors the laws of nature. He is the Creator who “endows” human beings with equal rights. The Declaration also calls God the “Supreme Judge of the world,” to whom they make the ultimate appeal for the justice of their revolution. Finally, the document concludes by a “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.”

But the Founder’s God took a different approach to religious practice than did the one whose glory the Puritans pursued. The Puritans demanded as a political act of citizenship on earth uniform practice aligned with citizenship in Heaven. In other words, religious liberty as we understand they rejected as hostile to the proper ends of good government.

Our Constitution, while not contradicting the Declaration, made sure that religious liberty helped define the political implications of God. The Constitution denied all religious tests for holding national office. Its First Amendment rejected the establishment of a national church as well as protecting the free exercise of religion for all. The purpose of human life might be to glorify God. But our politics would leave wide sway for persons to come to that conclusion on their own. Our laws would let persons who so decided additional liberty to consider how exactly to glorify God. Our laws would not enforce the advancement of Christianity. But we would permit its spread and protect the right of its adherents to share, to persuade throughout the land. We must also say, then, that it protected the right of conscience for even those who rejected this view of God or the existence of God altogether.

Thus, we understand that our foundation owes some influence to Plymouth Rock. Yet we cannot call it our perfect and complete foundation. We did not follow its ends in the exact same way. Instead, the Mayflower Compact influenced the Founding even more in the additional means it posited to run its political community. To achieve their ends, they wrote they would “Covenant and Combine ourselves together in a Civil Body Politic.” They founded a political regime on the basis of consent, of the willing agreement of their citizens. No outside tyrant imposed their ends upon them. In the same way, our Constitution opens that “We, the People,” did “ordain and establish” the Constitution for the purposes written therein.

Moreover, they said this new political community would, “constitute and frame…just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices.” They committed themselves to the rule of law, not the fiat of human beings. These Puritans also declared that rightful laws should contain two qualities: justice and equality. They must pursue the good and do so equally for all. Our Founding agreed. The Constitution’s Preamble gives one of its purposes as “to establish justice.” The Declaration’s commitment to equality informs so much of the Constitution, but especially the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause, which says that no state shall deny any person the equal protection of the laws.

Thus, we see ourselves on a different foundation than that laid on Plymouth Rock. Ours did not deny God but recognized Him as one of political and religious liberty. At the same time, we took much in the means from Plymouth, especially consent of the governed and just as well as equal laws. Was this foundation on a true rock or did we build a sandy foundation doomed to a great fall? We find the answer in the experience of the last 250 years. America endured. More than endured, it thrived. It rose to become a beacon of human equality and liberty, the “last, best hope” as Abraham Lincoln once called it. Its true foundation rested on those commitments—human equality and liberty—as understood through the laws of nature and of nature’s God. Those principles still hold out the promise of provision, provision of a strong foundation against all storms, internal or external. It does; but only if we continue to build wisely and faithfully upon it.

Adam M. Carrington is an Associate Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College. There, he teaches on matters of Constitutional law, American political institutions, and separation of powers. His writing has appeared in such popular forums as The Wall Street Journal, The Hill, National Review, and Washington Examiner. His book on the jurisprudence of Justice Stephen Field was published in 2017 by Lexington. Carrington received his B.A. from Ashland University and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Baylor University. He lives in Hillsdale with his wife and their two daughters.

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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams


Throughout U.S. history, Americans have appealed to the idea that the country is a “city upon a hill” and exceptional in its natural rights republican principles and constitutional government. These ideas were present at the time of the American founding as the founders had a sense of destiny and an understanding of the unique historic moment.

The concept of a “city upon a hill” originated with Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity” sermon aboard the Arbella. He described the purpose of establishing a godly society to work towards the common good, just government, and civic virtue. Winthrop’s thinking about a “city upon a hill” was influenced by covenant theology: “We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.” The same ideals about a religious and civil covenant with God and each other were present in the Pilgrims’ “Mayflower Compact.”

Pilgrim and Puritan thinking about a “city upon a hill” focused on establishing a pure church that was free of the perceived corruptions of the Anglican Church as well as creating a civil commonwealth on biblical principles. While they were very specific to colonial Massachusetts, they influenced the founders’ purpose to create a republic based upon natural rights and liberties. American exceptionalism thus enlarged to a national vision at the time of the founding.

After the Constitutional Convention, a vibrant political debate centered on the proposed Constitution and addressed larger political principles upon which the American republican regime was to be built. This deliberation took place in newspaper essays, pamphlets, state ratifying conventions, and in public spaces such as taverns. It was one of the greatest debates about human nature, political principles, and government the world has seen.

The debate revealed significant differences of political philosophy among American statesman as noted by numerous historians and political scientists. While the Federalists, who supported the new Constitution, and Anti-federalists, who opposed it, acknowledged that the Articles of Confederation had deficiencies that needed to be remedied, they differed significantly on the character of the changes that were needed.

The Federalists wanted a more energetic government than had existed under the Articles of Confederation because they believed it would promote better governance and thereby protect liberty. Of particular note, they argued for a stronger executive and independent judiciary under the principles of separation of powers and national supremacy.

On the other hand, the Anti-federalists admitted that the national government needed greater powers to regulate trade and to tax, but they were deeply concerned about a powerful executive, a corrupt Senate, and an imperial judiciary or perhaps a cabal of those branches acting tyrannically against the liberties of the people and the powers of the states.

This great deliberative moment during the American founding belies the fact that the opposing sides of the debate shared several fundamental republican tenets in common. They believed in popular sovereignty and representative government, limited government, federalism, separation of powers, the liberties of the people, and other essential constitutional principles even if they differed over the best means to achieve them in the framing of the constitutional order.

The Federalists and Anti-federalists also shared common roots in their thinking about government and human nature. They were influenced by ancient history and philosophy, Enlightenment ideas, the English tradition and colonial experience, and Protestant Christianity. Their Protestantism contributed to their thinking about resistance to tyranny, religious and civil liberty, and American exceptionalism.

The Federalist has several references to American exceptionalism. Most notably, in Federalist #1, Alexander Hamilton famously stated, “it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country to decide, by their conduct and example, the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.” The American opportunity to discuss those principles of government by “reflection and choice” was not merely a coincidence. Many of the founding generation thought it a sign of divine providence in their creation of a virtuous constitutional republic.

James Madison demonstrated this belief more directly in Federalist #37, when he wrote, “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 & signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution.” Similar words were written by George Washington and others reflecting on the unlikely victory of the American Revolution and the founding.

The Anti-federalists were also pious Christians whose religious views shaped their understanding of the republican experiment in America. Brutus (widely assumed to be New Yorker Robert Yates) wrote his first essay about the danger of a large republic and struck a chord of Puritan covenant theology. Much like John Winthrop’s “City Upon a Hill,” Brutus wrote that if Americans were faithful and built a virtuous republic, they would be blessed. “[If] you will lay a lasting foundation of happiness for millions yet unborn; generations to come will rise up and call you blessed.” If they established a despotism or tyranny that destroyed liberty, they would be punished and, “posterity will execrate your memory.”

President Washington used the occasion of his First Inaugural Address to advance the republican principles of free government and free society in the new nation. He stated, “The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.” This assertion of American exceptionalism made the American experiment in liberty a sacred obligation not only for the destiny of America but as a model of republican government for the world.

Abraham Lincoln would echo these dutiful sentiments at Gettysburg when he said, “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom –and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America, with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.

 

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Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath


During the Middle Ages, a distinct separation of church and state existed, at least in theory. The pope in Rome and his bishops and priests throughout Western Christendom took care to protect the souls of the people. The emperors, kings, and other secular nobles protected the physical safety of their subjects. The subjects would “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

In fact, matters were more ambiguous, because popes frequently called on secular rulers for protection, and the latter looked to the former to confirm the legitimacy of their rule in the eyes of God and their subjects. Moreover, the ecclesiastical rulers, including the pope, also exercised sovereign political control in various territories and sat in the political councils of others. The emperors and other nobles, in turn, frequently sought to control the appointment of ecclesiastical officials within their domains and, in the case of the king of France, to control the selection of the pope himself.

With the split in Western Christendom caused by the Reformation, and the emerging concentration of power in single political rulers in national kingdoms and lesser principalities, two significant changes occurred from the medieval order. Those changes are important for understanding what led to the Mayflower Compact.

First, in the struggle over who had supreme authority in the physical world, emperors or popes, kings or bishops, the balance shifted decisively in favor of the secular rulers. A secular ruler might become the head of a religious establishment, as happened in England beginning with Henry VIII. Less drastically, the ruler might ally with the bishops to control the authority of the pope in matters temporal or secular, as happened to the Church in France. Or, under the doctrine of cuius regio, eius religio (“whose realm, their religion”), the religion practiced by the prince became that of his subjects. The last was the situation in most German states after the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 ended the initial wave of religious wars between Lutherans and Catholics.

The second change was the renunciation among a number of Protestant dissenters of the episcopal structure of the Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran churches. Whatever might have been the dissatisfaction of Anglican and Lutheran theologians with Catholic doctrine, practices, and administration, the dissenters viewed those established Protestants as merely paler imitations of the Church of Rome. Building on the teachings of the lawyer John Calvin in Geneva, they emphasized salvation through faith alone and living in a community of the faithful governed by themselves or by some elected elders.

In Scotland, these dissenters formed the Presbyterian Church. In England, the Calvinist dissenters became the “Puritans.” They sought to purify the Church of England from various Catholic practices and doctrines while continuing to associate their congregations with the official church. Their goals seemed within reach after the English Civil Wars in the 1640s. They were well represented in the Rump Parliament and among the military leaders, such as Oliver Cromwell and John Lambert. The Anglican majority proved too immovable, however, and, after the Restoration, many Puritan leaders left England. Another group, however, believed that the Anglican Church was hopelessly corrupt, and that the only available path to personal salvation was through separation. This group has become known as the “Pilgrim Fathers,” although they referred to themselves by other names, such as “Saints.”

Both groups of English dissenters established settlements in New England not far apart. Their theological differences, however, kept them separated for decades. Not until 1690 was the Pilgrims’ Plymouth colony absorbed by the much larger Massachusetts Bay Colony.

The two groups shared certain characteristics, which contributed to the development of American constitutional theory. It is part of American mythology that Europeans came to English North America in search of religious freedom, which they joyfully and readily extended to all who joined them. The matter is much more nuanced. While such toleration might well describe the Quaker colony of Pennsylvania and the Catholic colony of Maryland, both of which were formed later, the Pilgrims and Puritans had a different goal. Theirs was to establish their respective visions of a Christian commonwealth, the City of God in the New World. Having left England for a wilderness because of despair over the allegedly corrupt nature of the Anglican Church, never mind the Catholic one, neither group was inclined now to welcome adherents of such beliefs to live among them. Religious freedom, indeed, but for individuals of like beliefs in a community gathered together for mutual assistance in living life according to those beliefs. Conformity in community, not diversity of doctrine, was the goal. God’s revealed law controlled, and governance was put in the hands of those who could be trusted to govern in accordance with that law.

The two groups also shared another characteristic, alluded to above: voluntary community. The individual alone could find salvation through studying and following the Bible. As an inherently social creature, he could, of course, join with others in a community of believers. The basis of that community would be consent, individual will, not an ecclesiastical order based on apostolic succession. Some years after arriving in the New World, the Massachusetts Bay Puritans in the Cambridge Platform of 1648 declared that “a company of professed believers ecclesiastically confederate” is a church, with or without officers. This was the origin of the Congregational Church, founded on a clear separation from all forms of hierarchical church government.

The congregation would govern itself according to the dictates of its members’ consciences and the word of God, while in the secular realm it would be governed under man’s law. What would happen, if man’s law, and the teachings of the established church, conflicted with the word of God, as the believers understood it? What if, to resolve such conflicts, that religious community left the existing secular realm? A political commonwealth of some sort is inevitable, as most political theorists claim. That is where the experience of the Puritans and the Pilgrim separatists differed.

The Puritans formed their Massachusetts Bay Colony on the same basis as the Virginia Company had been formed to settle at Jamestown two decades earlier. It was a joint stock company, somewhat analogous to a modern business corporation, formed by investors in England. The company’s charter provided a plan of government, which included meetings of a General Court composed of the freemen of the Company. The charter failed to specify where these meetings were to occur. English custom was that such shareholder meetings took place where the charter was kept. Some historians have written that the charter was surreptitiously taken from the company’s offices and spirited to the New World, thereby making Boston the site of the General Court. That is a suitably romantic story of intrigue and adventure, indeed. More prosaic is that the change in locale occurred through the Cambridge Agreement of 1629 between the Company’s majority, composed of its members seeking to establish a religious community in Massachusetts, and the minority which was interested in the possibilities of commerce and profit. The majority was permitted to take the charter and thereby secure a de facto independence from English authorities for a half-century. The minority received certain trade monopolies with the colony.

The formation of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, like the Virginia Colony’s, was based on voluntary association and contract. Once the mercantile interest of the English investors was severed, the charter provided a political constitution for the colony’s governance. But the political consequence was the by-product of a commercial enterprise. The best example of an organic constitution created by consent of a community’s members for the express purpose of self-government was the Mayflower Compact concluded almost ten years earlier.

After vigorous attempts at suppression of them by King James I for their separatist beliefs, many Pilgrims fled to the religiously more tolerant United Provinces of the Netherlands. Eventually, however, English pressure on the Dutch induced the Pilgrims to leave their temporary domicile in Leyden. Having procured a ship and picked up additional travelers in England and a license from the Virginia Company to settle on its land, a group of Pilgrims embarked on their journey westward to their future Zion.

Upon reaching the New World in late November, 1620, at what today is Provincetown, Massachusetts, they discovered to their dismay that they had arrived a few hundred miles north of the Virginia Company’s boundary. Many of the 101 passengers aboard their small ship, the Mayflower, were ill, supplies were dwindling, and bad weather loomed. The group eventually decided to land on the inhospitable coast, rather than continue to sail to their allotted land. Before they did so, however, 41 men signed the Mayflower Compact on November 21, 1620, under the new calendar. It must be noted that fewer than half of the men were Pilgrims. Many were “adventurers,” a term of art which referred to individuals sent over by the Company of Merchant Adventurers to assist the colony, tradesmen and men such as the military leader, Myles Standish. The Company had lent money to the settlers. Repayment of those loans depended on the colony’s success.

Not having the luxury of a drawn-out convention meeting under agreeable conditions, the settlers made the Mayflower Compact brief and to the point, but also rudimentary. In significant part, it declared, “Having undertaken for the glory of God, and advancement of the christian [sic] faith, and the honour of our King and country, voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia; [we] …combine ourselves…into a civil body politick, for furtherance of the ends aforesaid ….” Framing “just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and officers, … as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony …,” was left to another day.

The Mayflower Compact is a political application of the voluntary consent basis of religious congregation which the Pilgrims accepted. There was renewed interest in social contract theory as the ethical basis of the state, as an alternative to the medieval theory of a hierarchical political order created by God. Both approaches, it must be noted, were also used by defenders of royal absolutism in the 17th century. Bishop Robert Filmer in his Patriarcha adapted Aristotle’s connection between the family and the state as social institutions and Cicero’s correlation of monarchy and the Roman paterfamilias, to present the monarch as having whatever power he deems needed to promote the public welfare. To give his contention a more appealing, religious basis, Filmer wrote that God gave Adam absolute control over the family in Genesis, thereafter to the three sons of Noah, and finally, as the nations grew, to monarchs.

Thomas Hobbes used contract theory in his work Leviathan to justify royal absolutism. Humans seeks to escape the abysmal state of nature, where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” because a state of war exists of all against all. To gain physical and psychological peace, the desperate people enter into a covenant with a powerful ruler. In return for the ruler’s protection and a life of security, they agree to surrender whatever rights they may have had in the state of nature as the ruler deems it necessary. One exception is the right to life.

One might view the Mayflower Compact as an iteration of the Hobbesian covenant. Indeed, the early governance of the colony at times seemed like a military regime, an understandable state of affairs considering the existential danger in which the residents found themselves over the first few years. Alternatively, one might consider the arrangement as simply a settlement within the existing English state, like any town in England. After all, the Pilgrims expressly avowed themselves to be “the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign Lord, King James,” declared that their voyage, in part, was for the “honour of our King and country,” and noted that they were signing during “the reign of our sovereign Lord, King James.”

One might, however, view the Mayflower Compact as a glimpse into the future, to the work of the social contract theorist John Locke a half-century later. The Pilgrims had removed themselves from an existing commonwealth whose laws they found oppressive. Their persecution over their religious faith was a profound breach of the Lockean social contract under which government was created as a useful tool better to protect a person’s personal security and estate. One remedy for such a breach was to leave political society. For Hobbes, this would have been impossible, because it would have placed the individual back in the intolerable state of nature. For Locke, however, the state of nature of human society was not as forbidding. Locke had more of that Whig confidence in man’s goodness. Government was just a way to deal with various inefficiencies of the state of nature in promoting human flourishing, rather than a Hobbesian precondition to such flourishing.

Solitary contemplation and Bible study allowed one to recognize the glory of God and to deepen one’s Christian faith, a journey made more joyful by joining a religious congregation of believers. In similar manner, joining together in a “civil body politick” as set forth in the Mayflower Compact aided in achieving those objectives. Dealing efficiently with quotidian matters of the physical world permitted more contemplation of the spiritual. Happily also, despite all the challenges the New World presented, it had sufficient bounty to give sustenance to the saints in the new Zion, to “lead the New Testament life, yet make a living,” as the historian Samuel Eliot Morison summarized it.

The singular importance of the Mayflower Compact was in the foundation it provided for a theory of organic generation of a government legitimized by the consent of the governed. Self-government became realized through a contract among and for those to be governed. Later American constitutional theories about the people as the source of legitimacy for government had to deal with the practical difficulty of having many thousands of people in each of the already existing political arrangements called “states.” American writers sought to get around that difficulty by having state conventions rather than ordinary legislatures approve the Constitution, a logically rather precarious substitution. Still, the Mayflower Compact set a readily understood paradigm.

A more troubling lesson drawn from the New England colonies, is to recognize the unsettling connection between seeking religious freedom for oneself and prohibiting the same for others. It requires confronting the tension between community and individuality, law and liberty. The right to associate must include the right not to associate. The right to worship in association with other believers must include the right to reject non-believers. To what extent might the rights of the majority to create their “civil body politick” as an embodiment of their City of God on Earth override the rights of others in that community to seek a different religious objective, or no religious objective at all? Massachusetts Bay provided one answer. New settlers were limited to those who belonged to their approved strain of Puritanism. Dissenters were expelled. Those who failed to get the message of conformity were subject to punishment, such as four Quakers who were publicly executed in 1659 after they repeatedly entered the colony and challenged the ruling authorities. The Pilgrims at Plymouth were more accommodating to others, if grudgingly so, because their original settlers had included a substantial number unaffiliated with their iteration of Christianity.

The framers of American constitutions had to face those issues, and tried to balance these interests through concepts such as free exercise of religion, establishment of religion, and secular government. The problem is that such terms are shapeshifters which allow users to project diverse meanings onto them. These difficulties have not disappeared.

Both the organic creative aspect of the Mayflower Compact and its theocratic imperative were found in other constitutional arrangements in New England. The “Fundamental Orders” of the Connecticut River towns in 1639, a basic written constitution, set as their purpose to “enter into…confederation together, to maintain and preserve the liberty and purity of the gospel of our Lord Jesus which we now profess, as also the discipline of the Churches, which according to the truth of the said gospel is now practiced among us ….” As in Massachusetts Bay, justice was to be administered according to the laws established by the new government, “and for want thereof according to the rule of the word of God.” The Governor must “be always a member of some approved congregation.”

The colonies of Providence and Portsmouth in today’s Rhode Island, established in the 1630s, had similar founding charters as the Mayflower Compact, because they, too, were formed in the wilderness. A distinctive aspect of those colonies was that they were founded by Puritan dissenters, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, respectively, who had been expelled from Massachusetts Bay. Shaped by their founders’ experiences, these colonies allowed freedom of conscience and did not establish an official religion in the manner of other New England settlements.

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.

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Guest Essayist: Adam Carrington


In the last essay, we discussed the British political system of the 17th century. That system consisted of King and Parliament, supposed to share rule but really locked in a battle for supremacy. While the division of power between them originally consisted of their number—the one king as well as few Lords and the many Commons in Parliament, the division between legislative and executive power grew up in the midst of the English Civil War.

King and Parliament did not fight this war merely for which institution would wield more power. A religious dispute arose, lighting the fires of war as well. In this religious dispute, we see much with which to compare to the American Constitution and the Republic that operates through it.

Every society holds some things in common. Short of total communism, they do not hold everything communally, but divide everything between personal ownership and the common stock. This division includes more than land or stuff. It includes principles. By what a society holds in common, they thereby define who they are and what they should do as a people.

For 17th century English society, people considered religion an essential glue holding them together. They saw God and His commands as essential to right believing and right living. They saw those commands as stretching to public actions pertaining to law and custom. Therefore, they assumed as necessary some king of religious uniformity. A common God understood by a common theology and common church helped to make England one nation. The English Reformation, with King Henry VIII declaring a national church apart from Roman Catholicism, only bolstered the link between national identity and religious conformity. There was a Church of England with dissenters often punished and forced to attend the official state religious body.

This history also bolstered the position of the king within England’s national religion. The Act of Supremacy (1534) had named Henry VIII “Supreme Head of the Church.” Since then, for theological reasons, English monarchs have taken the slightly different title of “Supreme Governor of the Church of England.” Still, the monarch stands as the head of the church.

This view has a utopianism to it. It hopes for uniformity of practice religiously to create a kingdom that conforms to God’s rules here on earth. It sees a unity in the king that helps to bring about this conformity through his or her governing of the Church of England. We see in here some remnants of the old divine right of kings. As God set him on the throne, so the king must made sure right religion reigns so long as he does reign, too.

The civil war saw armies with competing theologies, even as they fought under the banner of Crown or Parliament. The Cavaliers and the Roundheads, as they were called, fought over issues such as religious rites and how to structure church government. So violent did this conflict go that, in 1649, King Charles I was beheaded after a questionable trial by a small portion of Parliament.

America took a different track, both regarding religion and the king’s role related to it. In the United States Constitution, our First Amendment had two clauses related to religion. The first protected its free exercise, the second forbade the national government from making any law regarding establishing a religion. There would be no “Church of America” like existed across the pond. Moreover, the Constitution forbade any religious test be required to hold federal office.

Taken together, these provisions set up a baseline of religious liberty for all. State establishments and tests did continue in some places, including an established Congregational church in Massachusetts as late as 1833. However, even most states quickly adopted similar provisions in their own laws and constitutions.

This position took an anti-utopian stance. It saw religion as something that cannot hold us together because we must leave the individual conscience free to worship or not worship God as that person sees fit. No coercion should fall on the dissenters from majority belief.

This point mattered for the president. He would never be head of a church. He would never protect doctrinal purity. This point, again, connected with the lack of divine right. The people set him up to rule, not his birth. He would rule for four-year terms, not for life.

But our presidents do take some role in religious expression. George Washington’s Farewell Address warned of the need for religious belief among the people. That belief would shore up national morality among the ultimate human rulers, We the People. It would aid in public and private happiness, in the ruling of self that is a prerequisite to running a popular government.

Moreover, since Washington, most presidents have published proclamations or given speeches that thank or make requests of God. John Adams warned in 1798 that our Constitution was made for a religious people and the need to cultivate those beliefs, consistent with human liberty. Perhaps the greatest speech ever given on American soil, Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, consisted of an extended meditation on God’s will in the American Civil War and an affirmation of God’s goodness in the midst of so much hardship and bloodshed.

These appeals to religion should be seen, not as coercions to make one believe, but as encouragements, as attempts at persuasion. In that, we have come a long way from the English Civil War. Much divides us that people think we must hold in common these days. But we continue to hold the right to believe as we see fit and to act on those beliefs within reason, within not hurting others. We can thank our Constitution for that and be thankful for a president who is chief executor of the laws, not governor of an American church.

Adam M. Carrington is an Associate Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College. There, he teaches on matters of Constitutional law, American political institutions, and separation of powers. His writing has appeared in such popular forums as The Wall Street Journal, The Hill, National Review, and Washington Examiner. His book on the jurisprudence of Justice Stephen Field was published in 2017 by Lexington. Carrington received his B.A. from Ashland University and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Baylor University. He lives in Hillsdale with his wife and their two daughters.

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Guest Essayist: Adam Carrington


When Americans speak of the Civil War, we of course have our own conflict (1861-1865) in mind. However, the term “civil war” does not name one conflict in world history. It categorizes a certain kind of conflict. Many political communities have suffered from civil wars. Such conflicts pit one portion of a country against another in armed battle.

Human beings often turn civil wars into the worst of conflicts. They do so because of why civil wars occur. People will invade other countries for money, for glory, for responding to a slight, perceived or real. Civil wars nearly always become conflicts about what a country is. Combatants spar over what principles truly define the country and who rightfully belongs as citizens within it. Our civil war centered those questions around the issue of slavery.

England had its own civil war two centuries before America’s. From 1642 to 1651, with little respite, Englishmen formed armies and killed each other in ugly, pitched battles. They did so over competing visions of England. These competing visions divided along two lines. The first was political, a battle over the English constitution regarding who should rule the country and through what kinds of institutions, especially the institutions of the king and the Parliament. The second was religious. Devoutly Christian persons on both sides, and those caught in-between, desired that England adhere in true fashion to the true God.  But, as with the constitution, they did not come to the same answers. In this essay, we will examine the political differences and compare them to America’s constitutional system. In the following, we will take up the religious question of the English Civil War in relation to the American experiment.

To understand the political question of England, we must delve into the history and development of how countries organized themselves politically. In ancient and medieval times, political thinkers divided all good forms of political rule into three camps: the rule of the one (monarchy), the rule of the few (aristocracy), and the rule of the many (polity). Many of the same men extolled the good of a fourth option they referred to as the “mixed regime.” This form of government involved sharing powers among some combination of the one, the few, and the many. They intended this mixture to ensure that a country would receive the good qualities of each pure governmental form and suppress potential vices that could turn monarchy to tyranny, aristocracy to a wealth-obsessed oligarchy, or a polity into a mob-terrorizing democracy (democracy was a negative term at the time).

The English system in the 17th century had developed into one that shared power between the king and the parliament. In so doing, it incorporated the rule of all three groups. The monarch represented the rule of one, Parliament’s House of Lords the rule of the few, and Parliament’s House of Commons the rule of the people.

Such a system is impossible under our form of government. It first is so because of our principles. Kingship and aristocracy, in their pure form, begin with human inequality as the basis for ordering a political society. So, the sharing of rule comes between equals and un-equals within the country. However, our Declaration of Independence states as a “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal.” This equality means no person can rule another without consent. No person can rule another unless the ruled can set limits on the ruler and even remove and replace him from time to time.

We legalized our commitment to equality in several places in the United States Constitution. Most notably for this issue, Article I, Sections 9 and 10 deny both the state and the national government from bestowing a “title of nobility.” The Constitution thus forbids the creation of a legal caste, a codified aristocracy who then receives special treatment by the law. Therefore, we cannot have a “House of Lords” because no lords, or dukes, or any other such legally titled persons reside among us. We cannot have a king because no hereditary right to such a position can exist for us. Our system of elections reinforced this point. Our Congress and our president both come into office by means of elections. These elections prove that “We, the People” exercise the ultimate or sovereign power through these officers, not act as subjects under their independent fiat. Our rejection of a king was of particular vehemence on this point, not wishing to elevate one man in such a way above his fellow citizens.

But the British system has evolved dramatically from this earlier setup. The English Civil War pitted Parliament against the English King, each with an army fighting for its claims. Instead of sharing power, both sought to rule outright, with the other subservient. They thus sought to make easier the exercise of the worst vices of each system. During this time, for example, we continued to see English monarchs claim their rule based in some form of divine right. God placed them on the throne and that meant something akin to absolute power in relation to parliament and English subjects.

America’s system, again, rejected these kinds of arguments. For one, we rejected the divine right of kings because of our commitment, discussed above, to human equality. Thomas Jefferson famously said that no person was born with spurs or with a saddle, the former then knowing he had a natural right to ride the latter. Human equality meant no legally born kings to subjects. Instead, the people, again, created offices to which they delegated their sovereign power to rule. That difference is why, in American history, persons often called presidents “kings” to disparage them (Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln are two examples).

For another, Americans intentionally divided power among its political institutions in a way different from that which enveloped the English in the 17th century. They did not divide by who ruled, since the people ruled entirely. They divided by governmental function. They divided these functions and thus institutions into three, not England’s two: a Congress to make laws, a president to enforce them, and a judicial system to decide disputes based on the law. This separation of powers has proven far more consistent and effective over its history.

The English system, in fact, partly followed America’s route even before America existed. Parliament more and more took the lead for making laws—the legislative power. The monarch still possessed the power to veto legislation parliament passed, keeping such bills from becoming law. However, the monarch took the lead on matters we now would call executive and judicial. The king enforced the laws. He did so through ministers and other officers who arrested and restrained persons or collected taxes. The king enforced the law through his judges. Thus, England has had one court named The King’s Bench. During the commonwealth period (1649-1660), England acted as a government without a king. But they failed to truly form a government of, by, and for the people, succumbing to a de facto king in Oliver Cromwell. By 1660, England returned to a mixed regime of sharing power between Parliament and monarchy.

Over time, our president fared much better than England’s monarch. Our president only has grown in power over the centuries. He has done so as each officeholder has cultivated his role as representative of the people. As the legitimacy of rule by kings faded, though, so did the real political powers of the monarch. Vetoing legislation, for instance, is now virtually unthinkable. The British courts occupy a firmly independence existence. Parliament eventually gained total supremacy, a fate made nearly certain by the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. Due to that dominance, the English system lacks a true separation of powers. The Prime Minister in the House of Commons occupies the real role of executive head. Meanwhile, the British king or queen now occupies a figurehead position. TV shows like “The Crown” argue for the virtues of this circumstance. They claim it allows for the monarchy to represent the country as a whole, to reside above partisanship, and to guide softly by manner, gesture, and example. But this mostly covers up a loss of political power near total in scope.

Thus, the modern British government has moved nearly all real political power, not just into Parliament, but into its House of Commons. Legislative and executive power both reside therein, with the Prime Minister doing both. Our system maintained its separation by keeping a strong executive with real powers distinguished firmly from the legislative branch. In doing so, we built a system both popular in basis and workable in execution. We maintained our independent executive power by making him not a creation of divine right but of the sovereign people. And that will continue, so long as the Constitution continues to rule the United States of America.

Adam M. Carrington is an Associate Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College. There, he teaches on matters of Constitutional law, American political institutions, and separation of powers. His writing has appeared in such popular forums as The Wall Street Journal, The Hill, National Review, and Washington Examiner. His book on the jurisprudence of Justice Stephen Field was published in 2017 by Lexington. Carrington received his B.A. from Ashland University and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Baylor University. He lives in Hillsdale with his wife and their two daughters.

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By Jay McConville

America is the great nation that it is because we revere and honor the memory of brave souls who gave their lives to preserve it. Let the memory and sacrifices of those who have come before, for liberty purchased at such an immeasurable price for future generations, be forever written in our hearts.

“Whether we observe the occasion through public ceremony or through private prayer, Memorial Day leaves few hearts unmoved. Each of the patriots whom we remember on this day was first a beloved son or daughter, a brother or sister, or a spouse, friend, and neighbor.” (President George Herbert Walker Bush, Proclamation 6442—Prayer for Peace, Memorial Day, 1992)

Regardless of one’s faith tradition, one must acknowledge that the Bible is one of the greatest books in all human history. Many expressions we use daily come from it, and people often use biblical phrases without ever knowing it. In Jeremiah, from the Old Testament, one such memorable phrase relates to the covenant that God made with Israel. Jeremiah 31:33 (NIV) reads, in part, “I will put my law in their minds and will write them on their hearts.” This is repeated in the New Testament letter to the Hebrews (10:16, NIV), which reads, “I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.”

While biblical scholars may disagree on the specific meaning of this verse, it is generally believed to indicate that the laws, in this case from God, are followed not merely out of obedience, but because we accept them as part of us at a much deeper level. Those with the laws written in their hearts live those laws as part of their very being.

I am partial to President H.W. Bush, who I quoted above, for personal reasons. He was my Commander-in-Chief during the war, that I was part of as an Army Officer, Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Like hundreds of thousands of others who served then, and millions and millions who have served in other conflicts, I had raised my hand and taken an oath to defend the United States Constitution. While military oaths differ, every military member, regardless of rank, swears “that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same…” That defense of the Constitution, for some, includes making the ultimate sacrifice.

Memorial Day is unlike any other holiday, in that it remembers those who died to write the laws of the U.S. Constitution in our hearts and on our minds. On this special day, all Americans remember those who have, as was movingly described by President Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address (1863), given the “the last full measure of devotion” so that the ideals reflected in the U.S. Constitution would endure. As Lincoln said, those who gave that last full measure, did so “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Constituting America’s mission is to educate, empower, and inspire. We do this by teaching the relevancy of the U.S. Constitution and the principles of self-governance inherent in our founding documents. That relevancy is more than just the legal principles of the Constitution, or even the ideals detailed in our founding documents. It comes from the meaning and significance that those principles and ideals promote in how we live our lives, both as individuals and as members of the national community. Those we remember on Memorial Day made the ultimate sacrifice for those principles and ideals, and lived them to the fullest, ensuring our nation would endure. From Bunker Hill to Gettysburg, Antietam to the Ardennes, from Iwo Jima to Seoul, and Ia Drang to Mogadishu, as well as many other places and battles known and unknown, Americans have bravely sacrificed their lives to preserve the freedoms we all enjoy. The memory of each of those who died lives in the hearts of all patriots, and their sacrifice ensures that the Constitution lives there along with them.

So, on this Memorial Day, as we celebrate with friends and family, enjoy the emergence of summer, and bask in the bounty that we have been blessed with, let us rededicate ourselves to remembrance, so that those who died to make us free live forever in our hearts and on our minds. Let us also educate new generations about the sacrifices that have come before, so that what was purchased at such great price will inform how we live today, and how we persevere in days to come. Let us all dedicate ourselves, as those who died did, to the preservation of our great nation, and let us inspire all future generations to do the same.

As President Calvin Coolidge wrote on May 30, 1923, it is “to the spirit that places the devotion to freedom and truth above the devotion to life, that the nation pays its ever enduring mark of reverence and respect.”

The Constitution is more than just a legal document. It is the embodiment of what makes America the great nation that it is. Hundreds of thousands of brave souls have died to preserve it. Let their memory always be in our hearts, and let the Constitution be written there also. We must never take for granted what has been bequeathed to us by generations past. Let the Constitution be part of our being. In that way we will honor those who died to make it so.

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” (President John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961)

Jay McConville is a military veteran, management professional, and active civic volunteer currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, Virginia Commonwealth University. Prior to beginning his doctoral studies, he held multiple key technology and management positions within the Aerospace and Defense industry, including twice as President and CEO. He served in the U.S. Army as an Intelligence Officer and has also been active in civic and industry volunteer associations, including running for elected office, serving as a political party chairman, and serving multiple terms as President of both his industry association’s Washington DC Chapter and his local youth sports association. Today he serves on the Operating Board of Directors of Constituting America. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Government from George Mason University, and a Master of Science in Strategic Intelligence from the Defense Intelligence College. Jay lives in Richmond with his wife Susan Ulsamer McConville. They have three children and two grandchildren.

Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath


There have been few times as crucial to the development of English constitutional practice as the 17th century. The period began with absolute monarchs ruling by the grace of God and ended with a new model of a constitutional monarchy under law created by Parliament. That story was well known to the Americans of the founding period.

The destructive civil wars between the houses of York and Lancaster, known as the War of the Roses, ended with the seizure of the throne by Henry VII of the Welsh house of Tudor in 1485. The shifting fortunes in those wars had shattered many prominent noble families. Over the ensuing century, the Tudor monarchs, most prominently Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, consolidated royal power. Potential rivals, such as the nobility and the religious leaders, were neutralized by property seizures, executions, and dependence on the monarch’s patronage and purse for status and livelihood. Economic and social change in the direction of a modern commercial nation-state and away from a feudal society where wealth and status were based on rights in land had already begun before those wars. This change was due to financial necessities and a nascent sense of nationalism arising from the Hundred Years’ War between the English Plantagenet kings and the French house of Valois. Under the Tudors, England’s transition to a distinctly modern polity with a clear national identity was completed.

When Elizabeth died childless, the Tudor line came to an end, and the throne went to James VI Stuart of Scotland, who became James I of England, styling himself for the first time, “King of Great Britain.” On the whole, James was a capable and serious monarch but had strong views about his role as king. His pugnaciousness brought him into conflict with an increasingly assertive Parliament and its allies among the magistrates, especially his Attorney General and Chief Justice, Sir Edward Coke. The need for revenues to pay off massive debts incurred by Elizabeth’s war with Spain was the catalyst for the friction. James was well educated in classic humanities and had a moderate literary talent. He wrote poetry and various treatises. He also oversaw the production of the new English translation of the Bible. As a side note, I have found it amusing that, 400 years ago, James warned about the dangers of tobacco use.

It was James’s political writing, however, which irked Parliament. He was a skillful defender of royal prerogative and seemed to derive satisfaction from lecturing his opponents in that body about the inadequacies in their arguments. James was able to navigate relations with Parliament successfully on the whole, mostly by just refusing to call them into session. But his defense and exercise of his prerogatives, his claim to rule as monarch by the grace of God, and his pedantic and irritating manner, coupled with the restlessness of Parliament after more than a century of strong monarchs, set the stage for confrontation once James departed this mortal coil.

Parliamentary authority had accreted over the centuries through a process best described as punctuated equilibrium, to borrow from evolutionary biology. Anglo-Saxon versions of assemblies of noble advisors to the king existed before the Norman Conquest, in accordance with the customs of other Germanic peoples. William the Conqueror similarly established a council of great secular and ecclesiastical nobles of the realm, whom kings might summon if they needed advice or political support before issuing laws or assessing taxes. This rudimentary consultative role was expanded when the council of English barons gathered at Runnymede in 1215 and forced King John to agree to a Magna Carta. A significant provision of that charter required the king to obtain the consent of his royal council for any new taxes except those connected to his existing feudal prerogatives. This was a major step in developing a legislative power which future parliaments guarded jealously.

In 1295, Edward I summoned his Great Council in what the 19th-century English historian Frederic William Maitland called the Model Parliament because of the precedent it set. This Great Council included not just 49 high nobles, but also 292 representatives from the community at large, later referred to as the “Commons,” composed of knights of the shire and burgesses from the towns. Edward formalized what had been the practice off and on for several decades at that point. Another constitutional innovation was Edward’s formal call for his subjects to submit petitions to this body to redress grievances they might have. This remains a vital constitutional right of the people in England and the United States.

The division of the Great Council into two chambers occurred in 1351, with the high nobility meeting in what later came to be known as the House of Lords and the knights and burgesses meeting in the House of Commons. Within the next few decades, parliaments increasingly insisted that they controlled not just taxation, but also the other side of the power over the purse, expenditures. They faced some hurdles, however. Parliaments had no right to meet, and kings might fail to summon such a gathering for years. Also, these bodies were in no sense democratic. The Lords were a numerically small elite. Due to property restrictions, the Commons, too, represented a thin layer of land-owning gentry and wealthy merchants. The degree to which bold claims of parliamentary power succeeded depended primarily on the political skill of the monarch. Strong monarchs, such as most of the Tudors, could either decline to call parliament into session or push needed authorization through dint of their standing among powerful and respected members of those bodies. A politically adept king could secure those relationships through a judicious use of his patronage to appoint favorites to offices.

During the rule of James I, parliamentary opponents of the king increasingly expressed their displeasure through petitions to redress grievances. English parliaments also manipulated the process as a tool of political power against the king. While those petitions might in fact come directly from disgruntled constituents, they were often contrived by members of Parliament using constituents as straw men to initiate debate in a way which suggested popular opposition to the monarch on a matter. These were political theater, albeit sometimes politically effective. Even if such a petition were granted by Parliament when in session, relief would have to come through the king or his officials, an unlikely result.

After the death of James I, relations between king and Parliament deteriorated further under his son. More affable than his father, Charles I was also less politically astute. As adamant as his father had been about protection of royal prerogative, Charles made too many political missteps, such as arresting members of Parliament who opposed various policies. Much of his political trouble arose from England’s precarious financial situation, partly due to misbegotten and unpopular military campaigns precipitated by Charles’s foreign minister, the Duke of Buckingham. When Parliament proved uncooperative, he attempted to finance these ventures and various household expenses through technically legal, but constitutionally controversial, workarounds.

One constitutional theory held that taxes, especially direct taxes on wealth or persons, were not part of the king’s prerogative. Rather, such taxes were “gifts” from the people. As with other gifts, the king might ask but could not compel. The people could refuse. It was impractical to ask each person. Instead, the Commons collectively could vote to grant such a gift to the king. The king had the prerogative, however, to enforce feudal obligations, collect fees, or sell property to raise funds. When Parliament in 1626 refused to vote taxes to pay for the military expeditions, Charles instead imposed “forced loans” on various individuals. Although such loans were deemed legal by the courts, this constitutional legerdemain was exceedingly unpopular and failed to produce significant income. Worse for the king, Parliament adopted the Petition of Right in 1628, which, in part, reaffirmed Parliament’s sole power of taxation. Charles at first agreed, but soon reneged. He dismissed Parliament and reasserted his power at least to collect customs duties. The Petition would prove to be significant eventually for another reason, because it also asserted certain rights which the king could not invade.

Charles then ruled without Parliament. To pay for his expenses, he resorted to various arcane levies, fees, fines, rent assessments, and sales of monopoly licenses. Still, he ran out of funds by 1640. Needing money for a military campaign against the Scots, he called Parliament into session. The first session proved unproductive, but he summoned another Parliament, which met in various forms for most of the next twenty years and became known collectively as the Long Parliament. Friction between Charles and Parliament led to civil war, a military coup by General Oliver Cromwell and other officers of the New Model Army, the trial of Charles by a “Rump Parliament” purged of his supporters by the Puritan military, and the regicide in 1649.

Following the execution of Charles, the Rump Parliament abolished the monarchy and proclaimed England to be a “Commonwealth.” Deep political divisions remained. If anything, executing who historians consider one of the most popular English kings undermined the legitimacy of the Commonwealth with the people. Cromwell finally dismissed the Rump Parliament forcibly in 1653, after scorning them with the splendidly pungent “In the name of God, go!” speech the likes of which would not be heard today.

The Protectorate established later that year did not smooth relations between Parliament and Cromwell. In essence, this was a military dictatorship, and even the absence of royalists in the Commons and the interim abolition of the House of Lords did not prevent opposition to him. The two Protectorate Parliaments also were dissolved by Cromwell when they proved insufficiently cooperative, especially in matters of taxation, and too radically republican for Cromwell’s taste, having dared to challenge the Lord Protector’s control over the military.

Although the Protectorate’s military government was an aberration in English history, it produced some notable constitutional developments. The Instrument of Government of 1653 and the Humble Petition and Advice of 1657 collectively are the closest England has come to a formal written constitution. They created a structure of checks and balances which captured the trend of the English system from an absolutist royal rule to a limited “constitutional” monarchy. Although these two documents eventually were jettisoned by the “Cavalier Parliament” after the Restoration, they became a model for resolution of a subsequent constitutional crisis.

The Instrument provided the basic structure of government for the Protectorate. It was drafted by the radical republican Puritan General John Lambert and adopted by the Army Council of Officers in 1653. It was based on proposals which had been offered in 1647 to settle the constitutional crisis with Charles I, but which the king had rejected. The Instrument set up a division of power among the Lord Protector, a Council of State, and a Parliament that was to meet at least every three years. The last had the sole power to tax and to pass laws. The Protector had a qualified veto over the Parliament’s bills. However, he had an absolute veto over laws which he deemed contrary to the instrument itself. Moreover, Parliament could not amend the Instrument. Although these provisions put Cromwell in the position of final authority over this “constitution,” the proposition that Parliament was limited by a higher law contradicted principles of Parliamentary supremacy. It anticipated the later American conception of the relationship between a constitution and ordinary legislative bodies. The Humble Petition and Advice was adopted by Parliament in 1657. It proposed some amendments to the Instrument, among them making Cromwell “king” and creating the “Other House,” a second chamber of Parliament, composed of life-term peers. Cromwell rejected the first and accepted the second.

After Cromwell’s death in 1658, and the resignation of his son Richard as Lord Protector the following year, the Protectorate ended. This created a political vacuum and a danger of anarchy. In the end, one of Cromwell’s trusted leaders, General George Monck, led elements of the New Model Army to London to oversee the election of a new “Convention Parliament.” Though Monck had been personally loyal to both Cromwells, he was also a moderate Royalist. The new Parliament technically was not committed either to the Commonwealth or the monarchy. However, it was controlled by a Royalist majority, and popular sentiment was greatly in favor of abolishing the military government and restoring the monarchy. Monck sent a secret message to Charles II for the prince to issue a declaration of lenity and religious toleration. After Charles complied, Parliament invited him to return as king.

Although the new king also fervently believed in his divine right to rule and proceeded to undo the Protectorate’s laws and decrees through his friends in Parliament—which again included the restored House of Lords—he was savvy enough not to stir up the hornet’s nest of Stuart absolutism too vigorously. A period of relative constitutional calm ensued, although Whig exponents of radical theories of popular sovereignty and revolution could still find their works used against them as evidence of treason and plotting.

Upon Charles’s death in 1685, the crown went to his brother, James II, an enthusiastic convert to Catholicism. When he and his wife, Mary of Modena, had a son in 1688, it presented the clear possibility of a Catholic dynasty, a scenario which repelled the Anglican hierarchy. Even more objectionable were James’s exertions at blunting the Test Acts and other laws which discriminated against Catholics and Protestant dissenters from the established Anglican Church. The main tool was his dispensing power, a prerogative power to excuse conformance to a law. But, at the likely instigation of the Quaker, William Penn, he also issued his Declaration for Liberty of Conscience in 1687, a major step towards freedom of worship. The Declaration suspended penal laws which required conformity to the Anglican Church.

James’s Anglican political supporters began to distance themselves from him, and seven Protestant nobles invited the Stadholder of the United Netherlands, William of Orange, to bring an army to England. The Glorious Revolution had begun. James initially planned to fight the Dutch invasion, but lost his nerve and tried to flee to France. He was captured and placed under the guard of the Dutch. William saw no upside to having to oversee the fate of James, who was his uncle and father-in-law. To rid himself of this annoyance, he let James escape to France.

With James gone, William refused the English crown unless it was offered to him by Parliament. At the behest of a hastily gathered assembly of peers and selected commoners, William summoned a “Convention Parliament.” The throne was declared vacant due to James’s abdication. The Convention Parliament drafted and adopted the Declaration of Right. The following day, February 13, 1689, they offered the crown to William and Mary together as King and Queen, with William alone to have the regal power during his life. After accepting the crown, William dismissed the Convention Parliament and summoned it to reconvene as a traditional parliament.

The Convention Parliament was another milestone in the development of Anglo-American constitutional theory and built on the earlier Protectorate’s Instrument of Government. The process instantiated the radical idea that forming a government is different than passing legislation, in that the former is, in the later phrasing of George Washington, “an explicit and authentic act of the people.” The opponents of the Stuarts had long claimed that all power was derived originally from the people. However, parliaments had challenged the king’s supremacy with the claim that they represented the estates of nobles and commons, and that the people had vested all constitutive power in them. But, if the people were truly the ultimate source of governmental legitimacy, how could they permanently surrender that to another body? This debate was carried on among the Whig republican thinkers of the era, such as the radical Algernon Sidney and the moderate John Locke. It raised knotty and uncomfortable issues about revolution. Those very problems would occupy Americans for several decades from the 1760s on in the drive toward independence and the subsequent process of creating a government.

There was no concrete condition that William and Mary accept the Declaration, but the crown was offered on the assumption that the monarch would rule according to law. That law included the provisions of the Declaration, once the reconvened parliament passed it as the Bill of Rights in December, 1689. Until then, the Declaration had no force of law, not having been adopted by Parliament as a legislative body and not having received the Royal Assent. This has been the process of the unwritten English constitution. As with the various versions of the Magna Carta and other famous charters and proclamations, an act of Parliament is required to make even such fundamental arrangements of governance legally binding. The English Bill of Rights is, mostly, still a part of that unwritten constitution, although some provisions have been changed by subsequent enactments.

The English Bill of Rights built on the Petition of Right to Charles I in 1628 and the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 in expressly guaranteeing certain rights. Among them were protections to petition for redress of grievances, to have arms for self-defense for Protestants, against cruel and unusual punishments or excessive bail or fines, and for trial by jury. Moreover, it protected members of Parliament from prosecution for any speech or debate made in that body. Many of these same protections appeared in American colonial charters, early American state constitutions, the petitions of state conventions ratifying the Constitution, and the American Bill of Rights. At first glance, the failure to protect religious liberty seems to be a glaring omission. However, anti-Catholic feelings ran high, and, contrary to James II, the Anglican majority was not in the mood for religious tolerance. As to Protestant Nonconformists, their religious liberty was recognized in the Toleration Act of 1689.

The Bill of Rights also made it clear that the monarch holds the crown under the laws of the realm, thereby rejecting the Tudor and Stuart claims of ruling by divine grace. This postulate was a crucial step in the evolution towards a “constitutional” monarchy. Following the approach of the Protectorate’s Instrument of Government, the Bill of Rights provided that laws must be passed by Parliament, although the monarch had an unqualified power to withhold consent. One must note, however, that this veto power has not been exercised since 1708 by Queen Anne. An attempt to do so by a British monarch today might trigger a constitutional crisis.

As a reaction against the perceived Catholic sympathies of the Stuarts and, in James II’s case, his actual Catholicism, the Bill of Rights very carefully designated the line of succession if, as happened, William and Mary died childless. That line of succession was limited to what were traditional Protestant families. To make the point clearer, the Bill of Rights defiantly debarred anyone who “is … reconciled to, or shall hold communion with, the see or church of Rome, or shall profess the popish religion, or shall marry a papist …” from the throne. The last prohibition likely was due to the habit of the Stuart kings to marry devout Catholic princesses, and an understandable concern over the influence that such a spouse might have in spiritual matters. On that point, too, the English experience affected later American developments, with the protection of religious freedom in the Bill of Rights and the prohibition of religious test oaths in the Constitution.

In addition to the importance of these historical antecedents to American constitutional development, the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution demonstrate an uncomfortable truth. When the ordinary means of resolving fundamental matters of governance prove unavailing, those matters will be resolved by violence. Constitutional means work during times of relative normalcy, but on occasion the contentions are infused with contradictions too profound for compromise. It is an axiom of politics that politicians will seek first to protect their privileges and second to expand them. The increased demands by parliamentarians for political power inevitably clashed with the monarchs’ hereditary claims. Both sides appealed to traditional English constitutional custom for legitimacy. With their assumptions about the source of political authority utterly at odds, compromise became increasingly complex and fleeting. It was treating a gangrenous infection with a band-aid. Radical surgery became the way out. The American Revolution in the following century, and even the American Civil War of the century thereafter, showed evidence of a similar progression, with the two sides operating from fundamentally contradictory views of the nature of representative government and proper division of power between the general government and its constituent parts.

The Glorious Revolution resolved the contest over these conflicting views of legitimate authority and the proper constitutional order between king and Parliament. The earlier Commonwealth with its Protectorate was an abortive step in the same direction. It failed due to the political shortcomings of the military leaders in control. Although further adjustments would be made to the relationship between monarch and parliaments, the basic constitutional order of a limited monarchy reigning within a political structure of Parliamentary supremacy was set. The new constitutional arrangement became a model for political writers of the 18th century, such as the Baron de Montesquieu. American propagandists of the revolutionary period readily found fault with the British system. Once they turned to forming governments, however, Americans more dispassionately studied and learned from the mother country’s rocky path to a more balanced and “republican” government in the 17th century. Both sides in the debate over the Constitution regularly used the British system as a source of support for their position or to attack their opponents.

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.

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Guest Essayist: Andrew Langer


Though the words attributed to King Louis XIV are apocryphal (they don’t appear in print attributed to him until decades after his death), they present a chilling picture of the danger of absolute monarchy to individual freedom, and it should come as no surprise that the French had a revolution, and then a series of power struggles, starting at the end of the 18th century and for almost a century after.

In the wake of our own revolution, our founders, and then those who became the architects of our constitutional republic, were rightly worried about the descent from a free people into monarchy, and the further descent from monarch, to absolute monarch, to despotism.

As historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote, “The power to do good meant also the power to do harm, the power to serve the republic also meant the power to demean and defile it,” and in the proximate sense of the founding, they had history from which they could draw. In 1974, Professor Raoul Berger wrote, “the Framers were steeped in English history; the shades of despotic kings and conniving ministers marched before them.”

But they could also look to the reign of King Louis XIV—his consolidation of power, his undermining of the potential for opposition, and his creation of a civil service corps personally loyal to him—to see the dangers of centralized executive power.

Law professor Jonathan Turley has written extensively about this, especially with regards to our present executive branch and its largely unaccountable administrative state, saying:

“The growing dominance of the federal government over the states has obscured more fundamental changes within the federal government itself: It is not just bigger, it is dangerously off kilter. Our carefully constructed system of checks and balances is being negated by the rise of a fourth branch, an administrative state of sprawling departments and agencies that govern with increasing autonomy and decreasing transparency.”

What Professor Turley is saying is that without adherence to the system of checks, balances, and a diffusion of sovereign power, this lack of transparency and increased autonomy is dangerous to individual rights.

In Federalist 68, 69 and 70, Alexander Hamilton further discusses the concerns (both real and imagined) with a strong governmental executive in making the case for the Constitution’s constraints against a President’s powers.  In Federalist 70, he invokes the ghosts of Imperial Rome:

“Every man the least conversant in Roman story, knows how often that republic was obliged to take refuge in the absolute power of a single man, under the formidable title of Dictator, as well against the intrigues of ambitious individuals who aspired to the tyranny, and the seditions of whole classes of the community whose conduct threatened the existence of all government, as against the invasions of external enemies who menaced the conquest and destruction of Rome.”

While Hamilton was referencing Rome, he could also have been talking about the excesses of the court of Louis XIV in France—and also warning against the converse, the dangers of a weak president.

The key was to weigh the powers of a reasonably strong executive, and executive branch, against the checking powers of the other two branches. This was the focus of both Federalist 68 and 69, in which Hamilton details how the President, as envisioned by the proposed Constitution, differs markedly from monarchs, and monarchies, of all kinds.

It starts with the simple—in Section 1 of Article II, the President’s term is limited to four years, and with the ratification of the Twenty-second Amendment in 1951, the President was limited to two terms in office.  So, unlike a king, a president’s time in power is limited.

Then, the engineering of a presidency balanced between strength and limitation gets more complicated. The President can appoint senior officials including cabinet members and Supreme Court justices, but these positions have to be confirmed by a vote of the Senate. So again, unlike a king, the President cannot merely pick individuals who are personally loyal to him—they have to be picks that will satisfy a majority of the members of the Senate as well.

The President is commander-in-chief of the United States Military. But the President cannot declare war; only Congress can. Yes, the President can engage in limited military action, if such a response is immediately necessary, but if this action is going to go more than several months, Congress must have its say. Congress also controls the budget. This is an enormous check both on the power of a President to wage war, and also on the President’s ability to engage in other policymaking.

Most importantly, unlike most monarchies absolute or otherwise, Congress has the power to remove a President from office via an impeachment for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” King Louis XIV expended a great deal of energy in working to ensure that his aristocracy could not undermine his regal powers and to make sure that France did not descend into civil war.

In America, the power of impeachment works to ensure that a President doesn’t abuse his office—either by abusing the rights of American citizens or by using his office for his personal enrichment.

The founders were deeply troubled by centralized power, especially the idea that an absolute monarch could become a tyrannical despot. While ensuring that a President could do his job, they created a constitutional system that checked the strong powers of the executive branch.

Andrew Langer is President of the Institute for Liberty.

 

 

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Guest Essayist: Andrew Langer
1598 Edict of Nantes which granted extensive religious freedom.


In 1992, U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, succinctly and eloquently summed up the essence of our federalist form of government:

“federalism secures to citizens the liberties that derive from the diffusion of sovereign power.” New York v. United States, 505 U. S. 144, 181 (1992)

Power is diffused among branches and levels of government, so that no one branch can become any more powerful than any other—and the architects of our government were purposeful in this construction.

They did so because they were inherently distrustful of overly centralized power, because they knew that power could be abused, especially the power of an executive, probably the greatest threat to individual liberty. Both Federalist 69 and Federalist 70 focus on the dangers of concentrated or overly powerful chief executives, and how that power ought to be reined in, and while Federalist 69 spends a tremendous amount of time focusing on the English monarchy (and Federalist 70 looks at Ancient Rome), the Federalist’s authors (Madison, Hamilton, and Jay) were well-aware of the recent history of France’s Bourbon monarchs, especially King Louis XIV, the self-proclaimed “Sun King.”

Louis XIV had been coronated when he was only 4, and while contemporaneous observations noted only a casual interest in ruling while he was a boy, when he assumed true personal rule of France in 1661 (following the death of Cardinal Mazarin, the king’s Chief Minister), he worked to ensure that his regal power was both consolidated and secure—building on the tutelage of his mother, Queen Anne, and having witnessed the chaos of a series of French civil wars (The Fronde) as a boy.

These civil wars were of deep concern to him—from both a standpoint of his personal safety and from the standpoint of ensuring his power.  Louis, in turn, began to enact a series of reforms to strengthen his role as an “absolute monarch.” While there was a legislature, and there were ministers, Louis served to create a royal civil service corps that were loyal to the crown itself, while at the same time making requirements of both the titled and military aristocracy that served to weaken their power over time.

By making the privileges of aristocracy dependent upon presence and participation at court, the king took both the political and military aristocrats away from their estates—placing them under direct scrutiny of the king and those closest to him, while frustrating any efforts that could undermine Louis’ hold on power (or present a military threat to him).

While it is apocryphal, given the concentration of power by the monarch, the king is reported to have said, “I am the state!”

It is interesting to note that all three of the Federalist’s authors viewed this concentration of power with deep skepticism, but for widely different reasons.

James Madison, one of Thomas Jefferson’s closest friends, shared Jefferson’s affinity for the French generally, but of the three authors of the Federalist essays was probably the most-skeptical of concentrated power from a political perspective, and would have seen the concentration of power as not just a threat to individual rights but also as politically unsound in the long term, something that was proven right decades after Louis XIV’s rule, when the French people revolted.

In contrast, Alexander Hamilton, the author of Federalists 69 and 70, believed in greater concentration of power in the federal government, as well as greater concentration of power in the executive branch. That being said, Hamilton was no fan of the French, and ultimately tried to start a war with the French, despite their assistance to America during the Revolution.

But it was John Jay whose antipathy toward the French monarchy was deeply personal—and who certainly had no love for King Louis XIV.

Jay was raised as a Huguenot, a French protestant sect. The Huguenots were persecuted for a very long time by the French government, until the 1598 Edict of Nantes granted them extensive religious freedom.

But in October 1685, King Louis XIV issued the Edict of Fontainebleu, which revoked the freedoms granted nearly a century earlier (Louis may have done this to placate the Catholic Church, whose political power he had also been trying to diffuse). Persecution of the Huguenots began anew, and John Jay’s great-grandfather sent his wife and children to England to avoid being targeted. As a result, Jay’s great-grandfather had his property confiscated, and he eventually joined his family in England.

When Jay was born in America, he was raised in Rye, New York, and educated in a French Huguenot church school in the next town, New Rochelle named for La Rochelle, a Huguenot center in France.

There is no doubt that his family’s experience colored his own views of the relationship between a central government and the rights of citizens, especially when it came to the freedom to worship and the right to enjoy private property. Interestingly enough, Hamilton, too, had at least one Huguenot ancestor, a grandfather, and this may have contributed toward his antipathy toward the French as well.

To be certain, whether based upon familial experience or an overall approach to political philosophy (and most likely a combination of the two), the authors of the Federalist saw that the political machinations and concentration of absolute monarchic power during the reign of King Louis XIV as something to not just avoid, but to actively work against.

Andrew Langer is President of the Institute for Liberty.

 

 

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Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath


Two noted maxims of Roman constitutional law contained in the code of Justinian’s 6th century Corpus Juris were, “What pleases the prince is law,” and, “The prince is not bound by the law.” These are classic expressions of sovereignty. They locate the ultimate power and authority to make and enforce law in one identifiable person. They reflect the full imperium of the Roman emperor and create a contrast with the earlier Roman republic, when a similarly complete dominance was exercised only outside the city, by proconsuls in the provinces.

Yet there was another maxim in the Corpus, “What touches all must be consented to by all.” This suggests that the ultimate authority rests not in the governor, but in the governed. In the Roman republic, actions were taken in the name of the Senate and People of Rome. That idea was symbolized by the SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus) which was prominently displayed even on the standards of the imperial Roman legions. There is an obvious tension between these maxims. One might locate in that tension the beginning in Western political thought of the lengthy and ongoing debate over the nature of sovereignty.

One of the most influential expositors of the concept was the 16th century French jurist Jean Bodin. In his Six Livres de la République (Six Books of the Commonwealth), published in 1576, Bodin defines sovereignty as the power to make law. Political society, like other human organizations, is hierarchical. Someone must make the rules. Thus, sovereignty must exist as a precondition for a state. Sovereignty, Bodin insists, must be indivisible. And it must be ultimate and absolute. While his preferred sovereign is a monarch, that is not requisite. As a student of the classics, he asserts that all political constitutions are monarchic, aristocratic, or democratic. As a man of the Renaissance, he believes in scientific epistemology. But, before one can effectively study a country’s laws, one must know the source of those laws, which is in one identifiable man or body of men.

The appeal of such a theory to a strong ruler is clear, and there were few rulers of the early modern period as absolute in power and self-assured of his sovereignty as Louis XIV of France. The “Sun King” ruled from 1643 to 1715, said to be the longest recorded of any monarch in history, although during his minority France was governed under the regency of his mother, Queen Anne. He took over sole rule in 1661, after the death of his chief minister, the political and diplomatic virtuoso Cardinal Mazarin who had been the de facto ruler of France for a couple of decades. Louis’s famous dictum, “L’état, c’est moi” (“I am the State”), may well be apocryphal, but it summarizes his view of government.

Louis certainly was not alone in that regard. The Early Modern Period saw the rise of the nation-state and, as an essential component, the absolute monarch ruling by divine right. By the reasoning of various defenders of the new order, an absolute monarch as sovereign was as natural as the rule by the paterfamilias over the family and the rule of the pope over the community of believers. While Martin Luther and other early Protestant leaders might challenge the second analogy, they had no problem with the bigger point. On its way out was the old divided feudal structure, based on personal covenants of fealty, with power divided between popes and emperors, emperors and nobles, and nobles and freeholders. The conflict between King John and the nobles at Runnymede, which culminated in the Magna Carta of 1215, was an anachronism. More representative of the new order of things was King Henry VIII’s campaign of arrest and execution of English noblemen and seizure of noble estates. In similar manner, the walk by Emperor Henry IV over the wintry Alps in 1077 to Canossa to beg forgiveness from Pope Gregory VII and have his excommunication lifted, would be seen as rather odd. Instead, there was that same King Henry VIII first making himself head of the Catholic Church in England and, soon thereafter, head of the new Church of England.

Historians have speculated about the many possible causes of the rise of the modern nation-state. It is difficult to pinpoint any one cause, or even to distinguish between causes and symptoms. Was it the increased sophistication of weaponry and the changed structure of military operations, which eroded the relative equality of power among various nobles because of the greater expense of the new technologies and the larger armies drawn from commoners? Was it the growing influence of commerce due initially to the greater affluence and stability of society in the 12th and 13th centuries and then, ironically, to the economic recovery in the 15th century after the prior century’s population collapse from pestilence and famine due to the colder climate of the Little Ice Age? Was it the result of the decimation of the nobility due to the many wars among nobles, such as that between the House of York and the House of Lancaster in the English War of the Roses in the 15th century? Was it the European expansion and exploration in the Age of Discovery, enabled by European technological superiority, the expense of which could only be undertaken by comparatively large states and which, in turn, brought great wealth to their rulers? Was it simply, as Niccolo Machiavelli might declare, due to Fortuna and the virtu of dynamic statesmen with which a particular political entity was favored?

Whatever the reason, every ruler, it seemed, wanted to be what Louis XIV became. Timing was not uniform. England under the Tudors became the domain of an absolute monarch a few generations before France did, but also lost that status well before France did. The German princes operated on a smaller scale and were well behind France in their pretensions to absolute rule; indeed, the Holy Roman Empire never coalesced into a nation-state. But the common thread for these rulers, other than in various city states and in a few oddities such as the Holy Roman Empire, the Swiss Confederacy, and the United Provinces of the Netherlands, was that they claimed to exercise full sovereignty in fact.

The existence of the aforementioned oddities presented a problem for theorists such as Bodin. The confederated natures of such realms and their distributions of power among various political organs vexed him. His solution was simple. He either just assigned such divided governments to a pure system or declared them not to be true states. Thus, he characterized the intricate constitution of the Roman Republic as a democracy. The Holy Roman Empire, with its imperium in imperio, that is, a purported dual sovereignty, was not really a state, but a chimera of one.

Along with Bodin, another influential author of the doctrine of sovereignty was the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, whose major work on the topic was Leviathan. As Bodin had done, Hobbes declares sovereignty to be indivisible and absolute. But Hobbes goes further. His approach is more pragmatic and more rigorous than Bodin’s. Hobbes analyzes sovereignty less in terms of authority to make law, but rather in the ruler’s power to coerce others. That is the essence of the old Roman imperium, to command. For Hobbes, the sovereign’s legitimacy arises from the consent of the governed rooted in the social contract. That contract results from the human psychological need for peace. Mankind’s desire for survival impels humans to escape the brutal Hobbesian state of nature with its war of all against all. Human nature is both rational and self-interested. Hence, humans seek the safety of the political commonwealth and the strength of its organized coercive power.

Hobbes’s view of the relationship between subject and ruler is best described as covenantal, and his reference to an Old Testament creature is not coincidental. There is no equality of bargaining and equality of relationship as in a typical contract. The subject agrees to obey unconditionally, and the ruler provides protection and peace. To do that, the ruler must have unquestioned power to bend all persons and all institutions to his rule. The sovereign can act in accordance with established law or contrary to it. Church-state divisions are no longer an issue. The secular sovereign controls the ecclesiastical bodies, as Henry VIII controlled the church. It need hardly be added that a divided state or a system of distributed powers would be an abomination for Hobbes, as it would undermine the commonwealth’s stability and raise the likelihood of a return to the state of nature.

The Bodinian and Hobbesian approbation of undivided sovereignty in an absolute ruler sits rather ill at ease with certain assumptions about the American system. The drafters of the United States Constitution deliberately sought to create a system of balanced powers divided between the general government and the states and among several branches of the general government. The supporters of the Constitution frequently discussed the division between the general government and the states in terms of sovereignty, particularly the residual sovereignty of the states, in their efforts to assuage the concerns and blunt the criticisms of their opponents during the ratification debates. James Madison and others even argued that the Constitution was in many ways just a novel and workable modification of the confederal structure of the Articles of Confederation.

The Anti-federalists were not persuaded and, like Bodin and Hobbes, insisted that sovereignty was indivisible and that, within a union, imperium in imperio was impossible. Either the states were the sovereigns, as under the Articles of Confederation, or the general government was. While the framers may have attempted to “split the atom of sovereignty,” in the vivid words of Justice Anthony Kennedy, the effort was bound to fail. Either the states would control the general government or the latter would control the former. For the Anti-federalists, the teleological direction of the Constitution was clear: The general government would inevitably diminish the states to mere administrative appendages and become a tyranny.

This controversy over the nature of sovereignty in the Constitution has continued. Is there, indeed, an identifiable sovereign at all under the Constitution, with the split in authority among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, as well as between the House of Representatives and the Senate? This does not even consider the role of what is, in the evaluation of some, the true sovereign: the wholly extraconstitutional vast bureaucracy with its essentially unreviewable combined rule-making and rule-enforcing power.

That question also leads to another controversy. To counteract the criticism that the Constitution was a path to oligarchic rule at best, and outright dictatorship at worst, the Constitution’s supporters made frequent references to the power of the people to participate in various political processes. In similar manner, there arose the claim that, in the United States, unlike even in Britain, “the people are sovereign.” In 1776, George Mason asserted in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, “That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the People; …” Although he also expressed caution about this principle, James Madison in Number 49 of The Federalist accepted Thomas Jefferson’s dictum that, “the people are the only legitimate fountain of power,” and acknowledged that, at least, in certain unexplained extraordinary matters, the people should decide directly.

But how do “the people” exercise indivisible and ultimate authority and power? Leave aside various inconvenient facts, such as the usual exclusion of large groups of “the people” from the political system, the often low fraction of eligible voters who actually participate, the ability of unelected bureaucracies or courts to frustrate the political decisions reached, and the dubious premise that “the people” have acted when the vote is, say, 51% in favor and 49% opposed. As the experience of ancient Athens and Rome shows, it is not possible for “the people” to gather in one place. As an interesting side note, modern technology makes such an event less implausible, but even with the capacities of a premium Zoom version, it might be difficult to get a couple of hundred million of “the people” to participate in policy-making. It is a far cry from an 18th-century New England town meeting, and even there, a majority assumes a power over a minority.

Moreover, aside from the Constitution’s optimistic reference to “We, the people of the United States,” every part of that document is about entities other than the people making laws and coercing individuals to obey those laws. Indeed, “the people” did not adopt the Constitution. Nor can they amend it. Technically, there is not even a guaranteed right in the document for “the people” to vote, as the states control the qualifications for voting in the first instance. True, here or there across the American constitutional landscape, one might spot an exemplar of popular sovereignty. Some states provide for direct participation by voting on ballot initiatives and referenda to make law, and there remain in some localities the afore-mentioned town meetings. One might even point to jury nullification as another example. But all of these are well outside the norm.

This dissonance between declarations of popular sovereignty and the reality of governments nevertheless has led some writers to try to reconcile them. Jean-Jacques Rousseau asserted that the people cannot act individually to legislate. Instead, their particular interests are collectivized and transformed rather mystically into the community’s “general will.” For Rousseau, the community is an actual, albeit incorporeal, entity with a will. That general will is expressed in laws through some legislative body. This seems to be a well-perfumed version of the Roman empire’s old constitutional sleight of hand that the people are the ultimate source of political authority but have ceded their sovereignty to the emperor.

Rather than resolve these tensions, one might distinguish between “theoretical sovereignty” and “practical sovereignty.” In a system whose claimed legitimacy is based on consent of the governed and which purports to base the legitimacy of its actions on some degree of popular participation, one might indeed posit a theoretical grounding on “the people” as the unlimited sovereign. The then-future Supreme Court justice James Wilson, a prominent lawyer and intellectual who signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, wrote in his law lectures that a constitution originates from the authority of the people. “In their hands, it is as clay in the hands of the potter: they have the right to mould, to preserve, to improve, to refine, and to finish it as they please.” But that is not how government operates in practice. It is certainly not how the Constitution was adopted and how it has actually been amended.

Just as the high-minded assertion in the Declaration of Independence that “All men are created equal” states a Christian view of us all as God’s children or perhaps a still-aspirational secular equality before the law, “popular sovereignty” or “consent of the people” is a useful philosophic device to communicate the difference between a government and a bandit. It establishes a conceptual basis, perhaps a noble lie, for political obligation, that is, why one is obligated to obey the commands and coercions of the former, but not the latter.

The more difficult and practically relevant investigation is where in our constitutional system does the practical sovereignty lie. Who really governs, makes the rules, and coerces obedience? There indeed is no clear Bodinian sovereign in the Constitution’s formal dispersal of power. Despite Alexander Hamilton’s expansive views of executive power in The Federalist and his subsequent Pacificus letters, the President’s constitutional powers fall well short of a monarch’s, as Hamilton wrote, as well. Even Louis XIV, despite his pretensions, found out that his word was not everyone’s command. He did ultimately acknowledge on his deathbed, “I depart, but the State shall always remain.”

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.

 

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Guest Essayist: Ron Meier


In Federalist 31, using references to math and science, Hamilton says that, “IN DISQUISITIONS of every kind, there are certain primary truths, or first principles, upon which all subsequent reasonings must depend. But in the sciences of morals and politics, men are found far less tractable; yielding to some untoward bias, they entangle themselves in words and confound themselves in subtleties. Strong interests, passions, and prejudices may degenerate into obstinacy, perverseness, or disingenuity.”

In Federalist 37, Madison says, “In some, it has been too evident from their own publications, that they have scanned the proposed Constitution, not only with a predisposition to censure, but with a predetermination to condemn.” On the other hand, (The Federalist Papers) “solicit the attention of those only, who add to a sincere zeal for the happiness of their country, a temper favorable to a just estimate of the means of promoting it. A faultless plan was not to be expected.  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 notes that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention sought to find the best combination of features in the construction of government that would provide “stability and energy in government with inviolable attention due to liberty and to the republican form. They sought to avoid those features that they believed would risk the destruction of their proposed government as quickly as was that of the Republican government of Florence in the early 16th century.

In the turmoil of Florentine politics, Machiavelli believed that Republican government was necessary for good government, but that many who sought to be autocratic rulers had different ideas of what good government looked like. Machiavelli observed that those opposed to good government under a Republican form believed (1) that moral and spiritual virtues are not essential for the administration of government and must be avoided by ensuring that government is secular; (2) that Christianity, in particular, is destructive to governing; (3) that fear and the threat of coercive force are more important than legal force; (4) that a forceful, and even violent, response is the only appropriate means to prevent enemies of the state from upsetting the political order of the state; (5) that what’s good for the state should guide government rather than what’s good for its individual citizens; (6) that the head of state must use whatever means is at his disposal to do whatever is necessary to maintain control and power; (7) that, to ensure peace and tranquility in the country, a consequence is that citizens will be disarmed.

It’s not difficult to understand Machiavelli’s observations when one considers the period in which he was an official in Florence’s government. Although a Republic existed after the Medici government was overthrown, it lasted less than 20 years; in addition, a co-conspirator in the overthrow of the Republic was the Papal forces. Thus, he seems to have concluded that Christian leaders may have been no more moral than secular leaders and that Christian leaders were as willing as secular leaders to exercise force to gain control of government and the populace.

America’s Founding Fathers, all of whom had studied the Bible as an essential part of the classical education, believed that moral and spiritual virtues were necessary for good men to establish good government.  They believed that the government should be entrusted with limited powers, with those powers determined by the people through their elected representatives, rather than with unelected governors who used force to obtain security for the people, but at the expense of the people’s liberty. And they believed that government existed to secure the rights of the people rather than to ensure the long-term viability of the state.

As they debated the construction of a new Republican form of government in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, they sought to use their knowledge of republican and authoritarian governments over thousands of years to construct one that might prevent their proposed republic from ultimately being overcome by authoritarian-minded opponents. The features of acquiring authoritarian power in government noted by Machiavelli were features that the Convention delegates sought to minimize in their new Constitution.

Their Christian education and study of Aristotle’s Ethics informed them that leaders of good character were necessary for good government.  John Adams, in a speech to the Massachusetts militia in 1798, said that “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people,” and George Washington reflected a similar sentiment when he said, in his Farewell Address, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. . . And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.”

Yet they also recognized that no particular religion should require support by the citizens of the nation and that no religious affiliation should be required to hold federal public office. At the time, many of the 13 states had state-sponsored religions and, at a minimum, required that those citizens eligible for public office must be Protestants. In Article VI, Clause 3, of the United States Constitution, the Constitution clearly stated that, “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”  So, good character, moral, and ethical principles, generally acquired from education in religious and philosophical principles, were recognized as important for helping citizens acquire responsible civic virtue that the Founders considered necessary for good government of the people.

In crafting the Second Amendment, the Founders recognized that citizens who were disarmed would be unable to retain their liberty should authoritarian politicians attempt to seize power in the federal government.

Rather than adopting Machiavelli’s concept that government existed for the “good of the state,” the Founders decided that government existed to secure liberty for the people. The Constitution was designed to provide the government’s structure in support of the principles of the Declaration of Independence, most specifically the Declaration’s statement that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” To more forcefully communicate that government existed to secure the rights of the people, Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution specifies limited powers of the federal government and the Ninth Amendment states that, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

Additional measures in the Constitution provided for two houses in Congress, one to represent the people and the other to represent the individual states. The President was given power to veto laws passed by both houses of Congress to prevent the legislature from accruing excessive power, and the Congress was given the power to override a Presidential veto to prevent a President from accruing excessive power.  The Supreme Court was given the power to ensure that laws passed by Congress and signed by the President were in accord with the Constitution to prevent a situation in which both houses of Congress as well as the office of President were occupied by politicians of one faction and attempted to enact legislation to benefit their faction, in conflict with the Constitution.

If all else fails, then Article I of the Constitution provides for impeachment of the President, Vice President and all civil Officers for treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors, with the additional check and balance providing that the House has the sole power to impeach and the Senate has the sole power to try all impeachments.

As noted above in Federalist 37, “A faultless plan was not to be expected.” The Founders attempted, to the best of their abilities, to construct a Constitution that reflected the strengths and minimized the weaknesses of republican governments over thousands of years of history, a history they knew well because of their classical education.  Yet, they recognized that their conception of a federal government structure was an experiment, as reflected in what Benjamin Franklin said in his final speech at the Convention, “when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views.” Later, when he was asked by a group of citizens what sort of government the delegates had created, his answer was, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

We’ve kept it for more than 230 years, overcoming many challenges to its existence. In his Gettysburg Address, President Lincoln reminded us that, “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”  And President Reagan said in his 1964 speech, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected and handed on for them to do the same.” It’s up to us, we the people, not the government, to keep it going for another 230 years.

Ron Meier is a West Point graduate and Vietnam War veteran. He is a student of American history, with a focus on our nation’s founding principles and culture, the Revolutionary War, and the challenges facing America’s Constitutional Republic in the 20th and 21st centuries. Ron won Constituting America’s Senior Essay contest in 2014 and is author of Common Sense Rekindled: A Rejuvenation of the American Experiment, featured on Constituting America’s Recommended Reading List.

 

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Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath


Among the common definitions one finds for “Machiavellian” are “unscrupulous,” “cunning,” “deceitful,” and “duplicitous,” words associated with disreputable character. The namesake for these malignant traits is Niccolo Machiavelli, a Florentine diplomat who lived from 1469 to 1527. He was a scion of an ancient Florentine family. His father, a lawyer, provided him with a classic education. That learning shows in Machiavelli’s various books about political science, warcraft, and history. In addition, Machiavelli wrote numerous letters and shorter essays and a satirical play, Mandragola, which was immensely popular at the time. Whether or not he intended it as such, this play has been described as an allegory about political events in 16th century Italy, a bawdy dramatization of the advice Machiavelli gave to the Medici family in his notorious work, The Prince (De Principatibus or Il Principe).

Machiavelli and his family were firmly associated with the republican factions in Florence. Through that connection, he held diplomatic offices in service to his city, traveling extensively to political centers and royal courts in Italy and the rest of Europe. In this capacity, he met a number of rulers, including the charismatic Cesare Borgia, after which the protagonist in The Prince is supposedly styled. With the return to power of the anti-republican faction of the Medicis in 1512, Machiavelli’s political fortune cratered. The following year, he was accused of plotting against the regime, arrested, imprisoned, and tortured.

It has long been claimed that he wrote The Prince while in prison as a testimony that he was loyal to the regime and, indeed, should be permitted to serve in the new government. The fawning dedication to Lorenzo de Medici, Duke of Urbino, that Machiavelli wrote in the preface of the book lends credence to that claim. Whether or not Lorenzo or any other member of the family ever read the book, Machiavelli’s hope for a further diplomatic career remained unfulfilled. He retired to a life of contemplation and writing.

Around 1517, he wrote his other famous work on politics, The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy, wherein he examined the politics of the early Roman Republic. From Rome he sought to learn the necessary conditions for a successful republic, an aspiration for his own city’s future. Although there are common threads, such as the judicious use of violence when needed to maintain the government, The Prince is different in tone and goal than The Discourses. This has led to much speculation about Machiavelli. Was he the amoral cynic who scorned Christian ethics, which the former book displays? Or was he the admirer of republican Rome, who emphasized the need for constant “rebirth” to maintain that best of all systems? In the latter work, he is alarmed that corruption of republican character will destroy the republic, unless something spurs its rebirth, preferably from reforms within the republic itself. John Adams, writing a quarter-millennium later in A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, agreed. But that is not The Prince.

In short, one must look at The Prince on its own terms. Readers then and since have been shocked—or piously professed to be shocked—by its content and tone. But why? The book makes no claim to promote virtue, either in the classic or Christian sense. He does not disparage Christianity or challenge Christian virtue in this or any other of his works. As one commentator has noted, “What should not be assumed is that whatever Machiavelli thinks about things in general is necessarily ‘Machiavellian.’ His view of politics is, but it simply does not follow that his view of everything is ‘Machiavellian.’” The Prince purports to deal with the world as it is, not as philosophy or religion would like it to be. It followed a long literary tradition called “the mirror of princes,” books whose lessons instructed future rulers about “proper” governance. It should come as no surprise that such instructions during the Middle Ages came with a heavy dose of Christian ethics to civilize the prince and habituate him to just and temperate rule. After all, as Thomas Aquinas noted, God gave the ruler care of the community for the general welfare, not a license to exploit the people for the ruler’s own benefit.

Machiavelli builds on that literary tradition but uproots it from its philosophical grounding. He tosses aside the Aristotelian conjoining of ethics and politics, the classic assumption that what defines a good person also defines a good ruler, where the private virtue is elevated to the public. It is an abandonment of the scholasticism of the High Middle Ages and its synthesis of philosophy and religion, of which Thomas was a prominent expounder. The Prince warns the ruler that, to be successful in politics, assume the worst of everyone, whereas the classical version of politics as ethics writ large held that a few people are virtuous, more are evil, and the great majority are in-between. It was for the last group that habituation to ethical behavior might move the needle.

Machiavelli is not interested in saving the prince’s soul, but in having him survive, a matter of particularly acute relevance in the chaotic and often murderous factional politics of the Italian states. He does not hold up his examples as paragons of morality, and his praise of virtu means a prince’s skill at the craft of statesmanship, not the ideal character of a Christian nobleman or the pursuit of personal excellence by a Roman Stoic sage. His advice is specific and based on assumptions about how human beings consistently respond to certain events and actions. These assumptions are drawn from hard-nosed examination of human behavior and contemporary events. Machiavelli engages in empirical psychology, no less valid because his analysis often also draws from historical sources made familiar through his classical education. Like the image of Janus, the Roman two-faced god of transitions, Machiavelli and his contemporaries looked ahead to a more secular world revealed through humanistic tools of discovery but still could not avert their gaze from the medieval world receding behind them.

The Prince is divided into several sections and chapters, dealing with the particular conditions of various principalities. There are secular and ecclesiastical princes.. Among the secular are those who became rulers by conquest, by criminal acts, or by acclaim of the people. Just as all cars might have certain similar requirements for maintenance, yet need different manuals to address their particular components, so does the governance of people in different polities.

Starting with commonalities, there are certain common sense postulates derived from experience. It is better to be feared than loved by the people. He acknowledges that it is best to be both respected and loved by the people. A ruler who is loved is likely to return that love and act magnanimously and govern moderately. But love is unsteady. In human relations, lovers betray each other constantly, through deceit or worse. That behavior is the theme of much literature, dramatic as well as comedic, including Machiavelli’s own Mandragola. At the impersonal level of a state, love becomes even less stable, which Machiavelli’s own fate in a city riven with factionalism demonstrated all too well. No politician is loved by everyone and should not even try. Sic transit gloria mundi should be a warning for every politician, as the glory of today becomes the exile, or worse, of tomorrow. Fear, on the other hand, provides a more stable rule, because it always produces the same reaction from people, of obedience and, indeed, respect for the ruler’s decisive leadership.

True, some might feel so much hatred for a strict ruler that it overcomes their fear. Therefore, the ruler must apply the precautionary principle: treat everyone as a potential assassin, more practical advice to survive in 16th century Italian politics. From this, another general rule emerges. Feign affability, but never let down your guard by mistaking your disguise for reality.

Of particular relevance to the Medicis would be the advice for rulers of conquered lands. Upon victory, the new ruler might react in an understandable human way and be indiscriminately magnanimous to the conquered people. Big mistake. The ruler must put himself in the position of various groups among those people. First, there is the former ruler and his family, around whom those with loyalty to the prior regime might coalesce. To the extent possible, the prior ruler’s family must be exterminated to eliminate this mortal danger to the new prince.

Another group might be those who have invited the prince to invade as a result of factional strife within that domain. This group expects to be rewarded. It is safe to ignore them, as they have no one to support them against the new prince. Their own people consider them traitors, and their very existence depends on the prince’s success. He holds their reins, not they his.

A third group are the sizable portion of the people who have something to lose in wealth or position, but are not among the first two groups. They might be, for example, merchants, artisans, and bureaucrats. The advice: be generous to make them feel connected to him. Kill those with loyalties to the old regime, fine. But get it done quickly, and do it through a subordinate who can then be blamed for having been overly zealous. One might think of King Henry II of England and his cry to the nobles, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest” about killing Thomas Becket, the 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury. Better yet, kill the executioner, for there is no better way of showing that executions are over than hanging the hangman. The conquered people are afraid and cowed, uncertain of what will become of them, their families, and their property. They look for any sign of humanity in the conqueror and want to believe in the ruler’s good will. Such an approach will reassure them that they are safe and will be seen by them as one of generosity. After all, the condemned man is thankful for a pardon, even though it may have been the ruler whose prosecution put the man in the position of needing one. The reader might find it difficult to avoid the sense that this part may have been about Machiavelli and his own family’s situation while he wrote The Prince.

People, by nature, lack gratitude. Over time, the effect of not having been killed or lost their property wears off. Now the prince should reward them, but do so gradually and without raising taxes. The people may see through this, but will respect the prince for his fiscal discipline which has benefited them financially. One other noteworthy point that Machiavelli makes is that this third group of people might accept their conqueror because they blame the prior ruler for their situation. They will believe that the prior ruler lost because of corruption of his moral or political bearings, with the latter due either to the ruler’s laziness in attending public affairs or to a rot of the political structure as a whole. In any case, the prior ruler proved unfit, which makes the new one worthy of respect and fealty.

The last group is the remainder of the population. One option is to rule with perpetual fear and to strangle their livelihoods with taxes to keep them struggling for survival rather than engaging in political scheming. But, sooner or later, the prince will need them as soldiers. It will not do to impoverish the people because, with nothing for them to lose, it will make them unable and unwilling to fight on his behalf.

This broaches the topic of war, one of Machiavelli’s favorites, not coincidentally also a frequent pursuit of the rulers of Italian states during his time. War, he declares, is ubiquitous and inevitable among states. The prince should embrace it, but be smart about how and when to fight. War must deliver benefits for his people, such as tribute or new lands. Internal politics are inevitably connected to foreign policy, an interrelation which a diplomat such as Machiavelli would be sure to emphasize. War also can be a useful distraction from domestic trouble by rallying the people to the prince.

The “how” of fighting the war is of particular significance and requires long-term choices. One might use one’s own forces, those of allies, or mercenaries. While some combination among them, particularly the first two, is possible, he addresses the benefits and drawbacks of each. If one relies on allies, one takes a risk. They may help you and fight with elan. However, they may want a division of the conquered territory. If you refuse, they may turn on you. Therefore, be hesitant about allying with more powerful entities, but at least make sure that there is not one predominant ally among the group.

Mercenaries are always a problem, during war or peace. Perhaps he based this on the experience Italian states had with their frequent use of mercenaries, particularly German and Swiss. He broadened the argument to include professional soldiers in general. They fight for money and often are on retainer during peacetime. Therefore, they want to avoid war and will counsel against or even frustrate the ruler’s political decision about war. If war happens, they feel a certain fraternity with those on the other side. They may know them and even may have fought alongside them in other wars. Mercenaries do not fight vigorously, because the soldier on the other side is “just doing a job,” just as they are. The mercenaries lack the necessary conviction for the cause, because, in the words of one commentator, they “no more hate those they fight than they love those whom they fight for.” Even if they win, they could turn on the prince. At the least, they might raise their fee, a demand it would behoove the prince not to ignore lest the mercenaries act against his interest.

Best, then, to rely on one’s own citizen militia. If there are military reverses, the citizens will fight most vigorously for their hearth and home. If they are victorious, they can be rewarded with a moderate degree of plunder. They might also be useful to colonize the new realm. However, this migration must be undertaken with the long view towards intertwining the conquerors with the original inhabitants. It must not produce a collection of isolated communities of occupiers. Assimilation works best if the conquerors and the conquered share language, religion, and customs. Otherwise, particular care must be taken to be sensitive to deeply-held customs of the conquered people to pacify them. This reflects a practical strategy employed successfully by the ancient Romans as they spread across alien lands.

Machiavelli’s commendation of citizen militias and his distrust of professional soldiers reflects his republican leanings. Such broad-based military service was at the heart of the classic Greek and Roman conception of citizenship. His views became a staple of classic republican argumentation. During the debates over the American Constitution in 1787 and 1788, the Anti-federalists vigorously objected to a standing army as a tool of tyranny that would doom the republic. Hamilton and Madison used several essays in an attempt to blunt those objections.

Another aspect of Machiavelli’s instruction was that the ruler must consider the role of luck in events, particularly in war. He uses Fortuna, the Roman goddess of luck and fate. She is capricious, moody, and willful. She must constantly be courted to keep her on one’s good side. Her capriciousness cannot be tamed, but fortunately, if one may use that word, it may be calmed by the ruler’s virtu. Machiavelli is a Christian, so he does not believe in unalterable fate; man has free will. Moreover, the history of warfare shows not only the influence of luck, but of skill at warcraft, such as when a commander executes a deft maneuver that allows his army to escape a precarious situation. Hence it behooves a ruler to act decisively. Fortuna and virtu, working together, are irresistible.

Unlike the legitimacy a prince has by succession under established constitutional rules, conquest by itself cannot bestow legitimacy on the new prince. Machiavelli’s prince is not Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. Machiavelli calls to mind Aristotle’s distinction between king and tyrant. The non-pejorative meaning of “tyrant” was someone who came to power outside the customary process. That said, a consistently “lucky” prince will be seen by the people as beyond ordinary men, which creates legitimacy in their eyes. It is a well-known psychological urge in people to “go with a winner.” One need note only the increased attendance at sporting events in our time when the team is on a winning streak that season. As in the case of the ancient Greek heroes favored by their deities, Fortuna smiles on the prince. The concrete evidence of the prince’s success bestows the legitimacy on him which medieval Christians believed occurred through God’s anointment of kings and emperors. A lot of this may be theater, where elaborate court pomp and ritual provides the stage to make it appear that the prince is powerful and favored by fortune. The medium becomes the message, as the phrasing goes. As in Plato’s parable of the cave, the appearance becomes the reality in the minds of the subjects, a metamorphosis to which citizens of modern republics certainly are not immune, either.

The requirement that a successful prince take account of Fortuna’s fickleness and need for constant attention and courting sounds very much like Plato’s and Polybius’s critiques of the “pure” forms of democracy. For them, the general citizenry was fickle and willful and craved constant flattery from would-be leaders. The extent to which the latter possessed the political virtu to manipulate the citizens would determine how much support such demagogues would get. One also is reminded of Hamilton’s concern in Number 68 of The Federalist that direct election of executives is undesirable, because it rewards men who offer nothing more than their “[t]alents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity.”

The Prince has often been compared—unfavorably—to the works of political theorists who followed Machiavelli within a few generations, preeminently Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes. The latter, critics have charged, produced much more sophisticated and internally consistent investigations of political systems. Bodin, a French academic and jurist who wrote in the 16th century, analyzed different forms of government and organized them around the concept of sovereignty. Hobbes, an Englishman writing a hundred years later, claimed his work to be a new science of politics. He provided a modern psychological basis for the origin of political society in the rational self-interest of mankind, foremost the desire for personal security and safety. Meeting that primal psychological need established for Hobbes the legitimacy of an absolute ruler such as his Leviathan.

These criticisms miss the purpose of writing The Prince. Like Bodin, Machiavelli favored centralized and effective power through his prince. He hoped for a strong leader to unify Italy, much as Bodin wrote in favor of the French monarchy which had mostly completed the unification of France. Like Hobbes, Machiavelli in The Prince rejects established ethical justifications for a ruler’s legitimacy and justifies a strong and energetic ruler based on that ruler’s success in governing. As was essentially the case for Hobbes, there is no universal moral order of natural law which actually limits the prince’s law-making. To borrow from Justinian’s Code, the prince is the law because there is no earthly sovereign above him. This had also been the position of certain medieval churchmen, especially William of Occam, in regards to the divine realm and God’s omnipotence. Machiavelli and Hobbes secularized those arguments. It is true that The Prince lacks the philosophical wholeness and complexity of other works, but Machiavelli was not aiming for that. His Discourses on Livy comes closer to it. With The Prince, he was writing a practical guide for a successful ruler, a guide drawn from experience and an exemplar of a new science of statecraft.

Machiavelli’s prince did not, then, fail as a political concept. Indeed, Machiavelli’s goal of Italian unification through a dynamic leader, possessed of virtu and smiled upon by Fortuna, was realized, albeit more than three centuries later. Rather, because so much depended on the political skills of each ruler, particular princes failed while others succeeded. This flux destroys the social stability which is needed for productive lives and is traditionally the goal of government. Machiavelli reveals the concurrent strengths and weaknesses of monarchy and other single-executive systems of government. Leaving aside the potential problems of standing armies and heavy taxation discussed earlier, The Prince provides many lessons for us and reveals parallels to how our system functions.

For one, Machiavelli’s methodology is strikingly similar to the approach in The Federalist. Alexander Hamilton declared in Number 6, “Let experience, the least fallible guide of human opinions, be appealed to for an answer to these inquiries.” Use of illustrative historical events and commentaries on human nature based on similar psychological investigations run throughout those essays. One goal of the authors of The Federalist was to explain to their readers how this republican system could be successful as a practical undertaking, regardless of its conformance to some ethical ideal, the virtue—or lack thereof—of its politicians, or the problematic legitimacy of its creation.

Machiavelli also recognized that the fate of the prince and the people ultimately are tied together. The prince’s wise practice of statecraft will bring prosperity, which the citizens will defend vigorously, if needed. This is an eminently pragmatic position, well supported by examining history. As James Madison wrote in Number 40 of The Federalist in response to criticisms that the Philadelphia convention had acted illegitimately and against existing constitutional rules, “[If] they had violated both their powers and their obligations, in proposing a constitution, this ought nevertheless be embraced, if it be calculated to accomplish the views and happiness of the people of America.”

Another lesson is the need to avoid dependence on the particular qualities of one leader. It has long and often been recognized that the Constitution creates a potential for strong executive government. Examples abound, from Alexander Hamilton’s broad claims of implied executive powers in his Pacificus essays from 1793, to Woodrow Wilson’s positively Machiavellian observation in his book Constitutional Government, “If he rightly interpret the national thought and boldly insist upon it, he is irresistible. . . . His office is anything he has the sagacity and force to make it.” Most telling are the numerous claims of far-reaching power to act in emergencies by presidents down to the present, which emergency powers then conjure more emergencies. While the political benefits from energy and decisiveness in the executive were duly noted, the framers of the Constitution intended the system of structural separation of powers to diminish the dangers from concentration of power in a single ruler.

Finally, there was the need to deal with the destructive factional politics that plagued Italian cities during Machiavelli’s time and beyond. The Prince proposes one manner—the charismatic leader whose skill will prevent these factions from entrenching themselves. The Constitution recognizes the problem, but proposes a different solution, to set the factions against themselves in peaceful competition by multiplying their number and diversity so that none become entrenched.

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.

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Guest Essayist: Ron Meier


As Professor Joerg Knipprath notes, Webster defines Machiavellian as a term often used to describe someone who employs cunning, duplicity, or bad faith tactics to get what he wants. Synonyms include cutthroat, immoral, unconscionable, unethical, unprincipled, unscrupulous.

Only 250 years before the rise of revolutionary fever in the American colonies, Machiavelli’s observations on political power were published.  Those observations were more a description of how government worked at the time he wrote than a prescription of how government should work.  Government in the British colonies in the 18th century, in many ways, looked too Machiavellian to our Founding Fathers and influenced their decisions about how to form a new government, more specifically how to minimize human nature’s inclinations for control and power by those to be trusted as America’s future political leaders. Machiavelli’s tenure in political office in the Republic of Florence was sandwiched between the long Medici reign before its overthrow and the Medici restoration, with the aid of Papal troops, less than 20 years later.

In the turmoil of those years, Machiavelli saw that raw power determines who rules; natural law, religious faith and morality were irrelevant to rule and therefore, a secular government was more the norm. Preserving the state, not protection of individual rights by the state, was the objective of government; and whatever force was necessary to preserve the state, provide security for its citizens, and stability was acceptable. Machiavelli is considered by many today as the father of political science, generations before the term “political science” came into common usage.

Considerable discussion occurred during and after the 1787 Constitutional Convention between those arguing for and against a strong, energetic President. This was understandable in light of the recently concluded war of independence from a perceived strong British ruler whose “long train of abuses and usurpations” were listed in the Declaration of Independence.

In Anti-federalist 70, the author, arguing against a strong and energetic executive says, “In the first place the office of President of the United States appears to me to be clothed with such powers as are dangerous.”  He then adds, “So far is it from its being improbable that the man who shall hereafter be in a situation to make the attempt to perpetuate his own power, should want the virtues of General Washington, that it is perhaps a chance of one hundred millions to one that the next age will not furnish an example of so disinterested a use of great power.”  Although Washington was not yet in office as President, the author recognized that Washington would probably be elected President if the Constitution were ratified, but that subsequent Presidents, lacking the moral and civic virtues of Washington, may hunger for unlimited power and become the despot that all feared. The author went on to say that, “If we are not prepared to receive a king, let us call another convention to revise the proposed constitution, and form it anew on the principles of a confederacy of free republics.”

In Anti-federalist 71, the author says that “the best security for liberty was a limited duration, and a rotation of office, in the chief executive department.”  And, in Anti-federalist 72, arguing against unlimited reelections of a President, “Upon his being invested with those powers a second or third time, he may acquire such enormous influence and, haughtily and contemptuously, turn our poor lower house (the only shadow of liberty we shall have left) out of doors, and give us law at the bayonet’s point. We seem to be fast gliding away; and the moment we arrive at it — farewell liberty.” The Anti-federalists’ knowledge of the history of ancient governments reflected their concerns that political offices in the proposed Republic didn’t have more stringent restrictions on the ability of those elected to federal office to be reelected. Where restrictions were in place, the risk of despots holding office was reduced and where such restrictions were not in place, authoritarian government often grew.

The Federalists, on the other hand, took pains to illustrate that the checks and balances and separation of powers in the proposed Constitution would slow down the enactment of laws with extensive debate and thereby check the authoritarian impulses of the various branches. In modern terms, days, weeks, and months of debate were preferred to the ability of a President to use his phone and pen to enact new law rapidly.  They also believed that the two, four, and six-year terms of office in the Legislative and Executive branches were long enough to enable the occupants of those offices to have a positive impact on the exercise of their enumerated powers, yet short enough to allow citizens to turn them out of office when their Machiavellian methods and authoritarian impulses, to override the will of the people, became too strong.

In Federalist 51, Madison states that, “In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates.” Therefore, to avoid a legislative branch aggrandizing its power at the expense of the executive branch, the Founders believed that care must be taken in constructing the government to grant powers to the President to check legislative overreach. Also, they recognized that a legislature which knew that the President who, after his four-year term ended could not be reelected, could wait out a President whom the legislature deemed too willing to check their power and hope that the next occupant of the executive branch would be less willing to check the legislative powers with a veto.  Over a period of time, patience by the legislature would enable them to accrue significant power. Therefore, the Founders decided that a President would not be forced to vacate his office, but could be reelected if the citizens so decided.

In Federalist 71, Hamilton discusses the advantages and disadvantages of a term of four years for the President. He says, “a duration of four years will contribute to the firmness of the executive but not long enough to justify any alarm for the public liberty.” In Federalist 72, Hamilton argues that a President shouldn’t be limited to only one four-year term, stating that there is a connection between “the duration of the executive magistrate in office and the stability of the system of administration.” This is easily observed in recent years as the Executive Orders of a prior President are frequently reversed immediately open the ascension to office of a new President, especially when a sitting President is defeated after his first term of office. Businesses that don’t know if a President’s Executive Orders will stand in the next administration are not willing to make long-term investments to grow their businesses.

In Federalist 23, Hamilton discusses the problems encountered during the fighting of the War under a Confederation form of government. He states the difficulty of requisitioning troops, supplies, and money to fight the war and of keeping morale high in the military ranks under such conditions. Hamilton says, of the country, “the Union ought to be invested with full power to levy troops; to build and equip fleets; and to raise the revenues which will be required for the formation and support of an army and navy, in the customary and ordinary modes practiced in other governments.” The President, as Commander in Chief, also must know that he has the authority to effectively lead the nation in time of war.

The Founders’ knowledge of the successes and failures of all types of government was deep; Machiavelli’s observations of what government transitions normally looked like provided an important, more recent, reminder of how quickly a Republic can fail internally if its government is not well constructed at birth and externally when confronted by powerful, amoral governments, led by autocrats’ intent on seizing and holding power.

Ron Meier is a West Point graduate and Vietnam War veteran. He is a student of American history, with a focus on our nation’s founding principles and culture, the Revolutionary War, and the challenges facing America’s Constitutional Republic in the 20th and 21st centuries. Ron won Constituting America’s Senior Essay contest in 2014 and is author of Common Sense Rekindled: A Rejuvenation of the American Experiment, featured on Constituting America’s Recommended Reading List.

 

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Guest Essayist: Andrew Langer


In making the case for the ratification of the Constitution, the authors of the Federalist papers (Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay) routinely looked to history for examples of what to follow, and, almost more importantly, what shouldn’t be followed. The Constitution, of course, was to be an improvement over the previous Articles of Confederation, and document whose flaws in the separation and balance of powers necessitated the drafting of the Constitution itself.

The Articles of Confederation was also built on historic example, and among these was the 1579 constitution of the Netherlands provinces—the subject of Federalist #20, authored by Madison. Created as a result of the “Union of Utrecht”—a treaty created between the seven northern Dutch provinces who had allied with one another to oppose the Habsburg-controlled southern provinces, this constitution laid out the shared power structure between these unified territories.

But Madison recognized that the flaws endemic in the document creating this Dutch confederacy were duplicated by the flaws in the Articles of Confederation. In laying out his criticism of the Netherlands Constitution, he said the following:

“What are the characters which practice has stampt upon it? Imbecility in the government; discord among the provinces; foreign influence and indignities; a precarious existence in peace, and peculiar calamities from war.”

In other words, because of the structural flaws in how this constitution laid out the relationship between the provinces, it left this union weak and vulnerable. Madison went on to say, “It was long ago remarked [that] nothing but the hatred of his countrymen to the House of Austria, kept them from being ruined by the vices of their constitution.”

To be fair, there was a flaw in Madison’s essay (and it was a flaw repeated by others), in that Madison suggested that votes on issues of importance to these provinces had to be unanimous. This was untrue.  William Riker, a political scientist and expert on federalism, said this in his 1957 journal article, “Dutch and American Federalism”:

“Nearly all the framers who spoke on the subject seemed certain of one statement about the Netherlands; and in this they were mistaken. Nearly all seemed to believe that the decisions of the general government required unanimity of the seven provinces-an even more stringent requirement than in the Continental Congress. But, misled by inaccurate commentaries, they did not know what this requirement meant or how it worked in practice or what significance it had in Dutch politics.”

Riker noted how favorably many of the founders (other than Madison) looked at the governmental practices within the Netherlands—which should come as no surprise given the breadth of Dutch colonial activity in the continent prior to the American founding.  He said:

“[W]hen the records of the Constitutional Convention and the state ratifying conventions are superficially examined, it appears that our heritage from the Netherlands is considerable. The records show that members of the conventions referred to the government of the United Provinces more frequently than to any other modern European government, except that of Great Britain.”

It should be noted that Professor Riker’s views on federalism changed over time as his expertise on the subject grew.  In his 1987 book, The Development of American Federalism, he admits the following in the introduction:

“Given my ideological shift [from “New Dealer” to “anti-statist”], I have also changed my evaluation of federalism. Initially I regarded it as an impediment-minor, perhaps—but still an impediment to good government. Now I regard it as a desirable, though still minor, restraint on the leviathan.”

But contemporaneous accounts underscore the relationship between the 1579 constitution and the Articles of Confederation. Pieter Paulus, who later became the first President of the Batavian Republic, wrote:

“It is surprising and to the credit of our ancestors, that these inhabitants of another continent, after a lapse of some two centuries, adopted practically the same measures and arrangements as they did when drafting the Union of Utrecht.”

Yet, here we have Madison’s criticism, a criticism which may have been informed by his fellow-Virginian, William Grayson, a lawyer and soldier who later became a member of the United States Congress.  Grayson had deep concerns about the Articles of Confederation, and how similar it was to the 1579 Netherlands constitution, writing to Madison:

“It is no wonder our Government should not work well, being formed on the Dutch model where circumstances are so materially different.”

This becomes reflected in Madison’s concluding remarks for Federalist #20, in which he says:

“The important truth, which it unequivocally pronounces in the present case, is, that a sovereignty over sovereigns, a government over governments, a legislation for communities, as contradistinguished from individuals; as it is a solecism in theory; so in practice, it is subversive of the order and ends of civil polity, by substituting violence in place of law, or the destructive coertion [sic] of the sword, in place of the mild and salutary coertion [sic] of the magistracy.”

The answer then is made manifest in the choices made in the structure of the Constitution as it was ultimately adopted: carefully enumerated powers for the federal government, a balancing of those powers between branches of government, and the retention of all power not surrendered in the hands of the people themselves as well as state governments.

This theme is made manifest throughout the Constitution and, in just one example, one can note the balance and contrast between what is discussed in Article 1, Section 10, and Article IV.  In Article I, Section 10, the founders placed very clear limits on the extent of state power—by making it clear, for example, that states cannot coin their own monies, nor could they negotiate treaties on their own. The reason for this is clear: building on the warning echoed by Madison in Federalist 20 (in part because of how he understood the flaws of the 1579 Netherlands Constitution), the drafters knew that while there might be intense internal debate between the states, that once an issue reached America’s shorelines, the nation had to speak with one voice. It would be chaos, for instance, if Massachusetts were negotiating one treaty with Spain, and Maryland were negotiating something different with Spain, or with an enemy of Spain.

In the same way that the federal government is responsible for regulating interstate commerce, these drafters also knew that it would likewise be chaotic if each state were creating its own currencies. So, they limited the power of the states in that regard as well.

But like all the other checks and balances, the trade-off to this is seen in Article IV—while the powers of the states are limited in terms of things like treaties and currency creation, Article IV gives a guarantee of protection to states. The federal government agrees to defend a state against military threats, and at the same time offers assurances in terms of working to make sure that each and every state treats each and every other state fairly. Article IV also makes guarantees as to the admission of new states into the Union, and a guarantee of a “republican” form of government.

With all of that in mind, the framers still felt it necessary to include the Supremacy Clause (Article VI, Clause 2), which says that the Constitution, and any laws that are created by Congress, are the “supreme law of the land.”  So long as Congress creates laws that are based on the powers delegated to the federal government by the people (and the states), should those laws come into conflict with state laws, the federal laws take precedence.

But those laws have to be within those enumerated powers—and this is central to many of the policy and political debates of today. For much of the 20th century, the federal government’s authority was virtually unlimited in terms of legislation, and thus holding sway over competing laws that might be enacted by state legislatures, due to an expansive interpretation of the Commerce Clause (Article I, Section 8, Clause 3).

But in a series of Supreme Court decisions in the 1990s, the limitations on federal power were re-asserted. The Supremacy Clause remains, but that “leviathan,” as Professor Riker described it, is checked by the limitations on, and diffusion of, that power within our system of federalism.

Andrew Langer is President of the Institute for Liberty.

 

 

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Guest Essayist: Chris Burkett

In Federalist No. 20, James Madison (with Alexander Hamilton) discusses the vices of the constitution of the United Netherlands. The United Provinces of the Netherlands, sometimes called the Dutch Republic, consisted of seven republics and was established through the Union of Utrecht in 1588. After decades of bloody religious wars, the sovereignty of the United Provinces was officially recognized with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, but the union collapsed in 1795 during the Batavian Revolution.

In theory, Madison observes, the constitution of the United Netherlands seems to have successfully combined effective executive power with republican representation in a legislative body. “The sovereignty of the Union,” Madison writes, “is represented by the States General, consisting usually of about 50 deputies appointed by the provinces.”[1] The States General has well-defined powers and responsibilities – including the power to make treaties, to make war or peace, to raise armies and equip fleets, and to demand quotas of contribution from the provinces – and the individual provinces are restrained from engaging in certain actions that are deleterious to the other provinces or to the Union as a whole.

“The executive magistrate of the Union is the Stadtholder,” Madison continues, “who is now a hereditary Prince.”[2] Each of the seven provinces was led by a stadtholder, but the offices eventually became hereditary and, in time, the Prince of Orange came to hold most or all of the individual stadtholderships. The Stadtholder of the union was given many powers and prerogatives, including the power to settle disputes between provinces, and to command the federal troops and navy.

The United Provinces of the Netherlands, “as delineated on parchment,” seemed to have struck a form that balances popular representation with an energetic executive. “What are the characters which practice has stampt upon it?” Madison asks. “Imbecility in the government; discord among the provinces; foreign influence and indignities; a precarious existence in peace, and peculiar calamities from war.” The first vice of the constitution of the United Provinces is that there is a nearly constant tension between the different aims and policies of the States General – which wants to preserve the republican nature of the government – and the Stadtholder, with his ties to wealth and other monarchical powers in Europe. In fact, Madison writes, the authority of the Stadtholder arises mainly “from his great patrimonial estates [and] from his family connections with some of the chief potentates of Europe.”[3] This tension between the foundations and objects of the Stadtholder and States General had led to frequent disagreements and conflicting policies between the two departments over commercial affairs and defense policies.

The second vice of the union is that the States General, though vested with general legislative authority, requires “unanimity and the sanction of their constituents” for the enactment of all policies and laws. Although the unanimity requirement arose from an assumed equality of the seven provinces, and a desire to protect the provincial interests of each, it had led to two further difficulties. First, the unanimity requirement meant that a single deputy in the States General could veto measures necessary for the good of the whole union. “The Union of Utrecht,” Madison writes, “reposes an authority in the States General seemingly sufficient to secure harmony, but the jealousy in each province renders the practice very different from the theory.”[4] The second difficulty this produces is that in times of great and urgent emergencies, the States General and the Stadtholder frequently violated the constitution by ignoring the rule of unanimity. A constitution that, of necessity, is frequently violated, Madison suggests, is fundamentally flawed and in need of improvement.

The Articles of Confederation, which governed the union of American states prior to the Constitution, suffered from this second vice in some important ways. The unanimous consent of all the state legislatures and state delegations in Congress was required for all amendments to the Articles of Confederation. In the Confederation Congress, supermajorities (nine out of thirteen state delegations) were required for Congress to raise revenues, make treaties, and do other things necessary for the good of the American Union. The Federalists defended the new Constitution’s ability to remedy these potentially deadly defects: the requirements for ratifying and amending the Constitution were reduced from unanimity to a supermajority of state conventions; furthermore, all acts of Congress under the new Constitution would require only a majority vote of both houses of Congress. This last improvement especially makes it less likely that the federal government would need to violate the Constitution to take necessary actions in times of crisis, as the United Netherlands had done on numerous occasions. This problem is further mitigated by the independence and discretion of the president to take certain actions in times of crisis without prior authorization from Congress; it is further mitigated by the fact that there are implied powers in the Constitution, as indicated by the necessary and proper clause in Article II. These improvements would give the federal government a degree of flexibility to better fulfill its responsibilities, especially with regard to national security, without the need to undermine the sanctity of the Constitution by frequent violations.

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

 

[1] The Federalist ­No. 20

[2] The Federalist ­No. 20

[3] The Federalist ­No. 20

[4] The Federalist ­No. 20

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Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath


Historians have usually described the government of the Netherlands in the two centuries between 1579 and the political system’s collapse in the late 18th century as a “republic.” Consistent with his commentary about the government of Venice, James Madison did not approve of this characterization. In Number 20 of The Federalist, he deemed the United Netherlands “a confederacy of republics, or rather of aristocracies, of a very remarkable texture.” While at times complimentary in his assessment, overall he saw in their government further evidence of what ailed, in his view, all confederations, including the United States under the Articles of Confederation.

Like the Articles, the Dutch system was forged in a war for independence, the first goal of which was to survive militarily. The Dutch referred to their Revolt of the Netherlands as the “Eighty Years’ War.” Fighting against Spain began in 1566, the seven northern provinces of the Spanish Netherlands formally united in their common cause through the Union of Utrecht in 1579, a watershed step not unlike the agreements of mutual aid and action among the North American colonies in the years before 1776. The Dutch analogue to the American Declaration of Independence was the Act of Abjuration of 1581 against the king of Spain. There were some truces and cessations of hostilities in subsequent decades, but independence was not officially recognized until the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 which ended the much broader European conflict known as the Thirty-Years’ War. Still, the Dutch Republic had been functioning as an independent nation long before the status became official.

In the romanticized founding myths of the Dutch, the struggle was about religious toleration and national independence precipitated by an inquisition launched by the Spanish crown in support of the Council of Trent of 1543 and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. That may have been the motivator for some portion of the populace, and the assertion was useful in papering over the tensions which arose among the provinces during the war. The general reality was less lofty and more prosaic.

The Habsburg family ruled the Holy Roman Empire. They had received 17 provinces of the Duchy of Burgundy in 1482, which were allotted to the family’s Spanish branch in 1556. What happened next sounds familiar to the student of American history. The new Spanish king, Philip II, sought to centralize administration over these provinces located some distance from Spain, and to increase the efficiency of tax collecting. This would diminish the power that local bodies had previously exercised under the more hands-off approach of the Burgundians and the Emperor. The commercial towns in the southern provinces and the local nobles viewed this as an attack on their ancient privileges, secular and religious.

With resistance turning into rioting in 1566, the Spanish government sent an army, led by the Duke of Alba. Although a very capable military leader said by some to be one of the greatest of all time, he was a harsh governor, referred to by the Dutch as the “Iron Duke.” His army was generally successful against the rebels, but his policy of mass executions, sackings of towns, and massacres coalesced the population against the Spanish. The rebels received the support of a Catholic German-Dutch prince, William of the House of Orange-Nassau, the incumbent royal governor of several of the provinces. Colloquially—but unjustifiably—known as William the Silent for his supposed self-control not to erupt in anger, he was an effective political leader. As one of the richest Dutch nobles, he was also an important financial supporter of the rebels.

Although William had some successes against the Spanish army, the Duke of Alba eventually defeated his forces. William fled to his ancestral lands in Germany, from where he organized several mostly unsuccessful invasions. In 1573, Philip II relieved Alba of command and instituted a policy of reconciliation and acquiescence to greater local control. That split the rebels. The mostly Catholic southern provinces, which constitute Belgium today, returned to the Spanish fold. The seven increasingly Protestant provinces of the north remained in rebellion under William’s leadership. Dutch military fortunes brightened after the army of the United Provinces was formed following the Union of Utrecht. The army was placed under the command of William’s son, Maurice, after William was assassinated by a Spanish agent in 1584. Prince Maurice remained a prominent military and political leader for the next forty years.

One facet of the conflict at which the Dutch were consistently better than the Spanish was at sea. The northern provinces had long been oriented to fishing and maritime trade. Their coastal trade surpassed that of England and France in the 16th century. By the 17th century, their horizon had expanded to oceanic trade and the acquisition of colonies and foreign trading concessions. Along with that experience came skills in naval warfare. Professor Scott Gordon, in his thorough work on checks and balances in older constitutions, Controlling the State, estimates that, in the middle of the 17th century, the United Provinces owned more shipping capacity than England, France, the German states, Spain, and Portugal—combined. Amsterdam became the leading financial center of the world until it was finally replaced by London a century and a half later. It was the Dutch bankers from whom John Adams sought help during the American Revolution, because that was where the money was. Amsterdam was also one of the largest cities in Europe in the 17th century, having grown from 100,000 to 200,000 population in the middle decades.

Although the seven provinces were formally the main constituent parts of the “United Provinces of the Netherlands,” the towns were the actual foundation of the Dutch Republic’s political structure. The approximately 200 native Dutch noble families had status but limited power. There was not the same tradition of feudalism based on relationships of lord and vassal as in other European domains. In part, this was due to the closeness to the sea, with its sources of sustenance and wealth. In part it was due to the fact that for generations, land had been recovered by draining swamps or building dikes. These “polders” were claimed by commoners.

The towns were governed by the Regents, a wealthy subgroup of the merchant elite. The towns traced their charters and privileges to the medieval period. The Regents claimed to act for and represent the citizenry. However, their authority did not rest on broad political participation. From that perspective, the structure was not a republic, but an oligarchy. Meetings of the town councils controlled by the Regents were not open to the public. At the same time, the Regents did not constitute a class-conscious bourgeoisie in a Marxist sense. Rather, their actions seem to have been driven by local identity and preserving their local power. This town-centric system of governance remained until the reorganization of the Netherlands after the end of the Republic in the 1790s.

The towns built their own defense installations and levied taxes to maintain them, to preserve public order, and to provide for the poor. They also operated their own courts, enforced provincial laws, and administered provincial policies. The policy-making bodies, the town councils, generally had between 20 and 40 members. They elected various burgomasters annually from the Regent class to carry out executive and judicial functions.

The oligarchic character of the town governments was modulated somewhat through the militia, a combination military unit and social club. They were composed of troops of well-trained and heavily-armed men. Because members had to supply their own weapons, the militias consisted of middle and upper-middle class volunteers. They were led by officers from Regent families appointed by the town councils and were expected to carry out the latter’s wishes in case of civil disturbances. According to sources cited by Professor Gordon, riots were a not-uncommon manner for the citizenry to provide feedback to the Regents about their policies. The militia sometimes stood back if they opposed those policies themselves. Such expressions of popular discontent would have been particularly potent because the towns were still rather small, with the homes of the Regent families in close proximity to the other residents.

Gordon considers the failure of the Dutch Republic to provide less destructive means of popular expression of opposition to the town councils as one of its defects. Perhaps. But such riots were not uncommon in the history of the American republic, with apparently a customary acceptance of a degree of violence before the militia would be summoned. Recent events show that still to be a characteristic of American society. Whether that shows a defect in the republican nature of the political structure created in the constitutions of the United States and the several states is an interesting speculation.

The level of government above the towns were the provinces, formally the constitutional heart of the Dutch Republic. They were governed by entities called the “provincial states,” another institution formed in the Middle Ages. This term is not to be confused with the American concept of “states” as distinct political domains. Rather, the term refers to specific constitutional bodies which governed such political domains. These were assemblies of delegates from the towns. The members were selected by the town councils typically from the members of the Regent families. A town could send more than one delegate, but each town only had one vote, regardless of its population. However, despite this formal equality where decisions were generally reached by compromise and consensus, a dominant town would necessarily exercise a greater influence. Amsterdam as the largest and wealthiest town within the province of Holland provides a telling example. A province’s nobility also had one vote.

The principal obligation of the provincial states was to maintain the province’s military forces and to provide a system of provincial courts to preside over trials for various crimes and for appeals from the local courts. These assemblies could also assess taxes, but were dependent on the towns to collect them. Not infrequently there might be tension between the provincial state and the stadholder, the province’s chief executive from the House of Orange. Those tensions were especially acute and frequent in Holland, due to the strong anti-Orangist sentiments of Amsterdam, with its bourgeois merchants, its growing tradition of secular and religious dissent, and its cosmopolitanism. At times, Holland, as well as other provinces, refused to elect a stadholder when the prior one died.

At the apex of the Republic’s constitutional structure was the States-General, the body of around 50 delegates from the provinces. It met at The Hague. Although a province might send more than one delegate, each province had one vote. This equality of sovereigns marked the constitutional nature of the Republic in Madison’s characterization of it as a confederacy. As with the provincial states, this formal equality was tempered by the inequality of size and wealth among the provinces, in particular, Holland. That province’s delegation’s willingness to provide—or not—needed funding gave it influence which better reflected its economic position. The terms of office of the delegates were determined by the provinces and could be at pleasure, for one or more years, or for life. The agenda of the States-General was set by its president, which position rotated weekly among the provinces. Unanimity was required for action, although that was sometimes ignored if a particular need arose. It had various working committees to formulate policy and a Council of State to carry out its executive functions. The Council of State was composed of the provincial stadholder and twelve other appointees of the provincial states.

Initially, the States-General was to deal with the military campaign for independence. Thereafter, its role continued to be about war in the various conflicts in which the republic found itself in the 17th century. Beyond that, the States-General had broad responsibilities over coinage, diplomacy and foreign commerce and, as the Dutch quickly entered the pursuit of overseas empire, colonial affairs. Although it had the potential to become a national legislative body, that potential remained inchoate. Aside from the overarching political jealousies of the provinces and towns to maintain their local privileges, there were more direct limitations on the powers of the States-General, as well. For one, that body could not generally impose taxes directly. It could tax the colonies, but that yielded rather little. It could make assessments on the provinces, but that depended on the willingness of their delegates to agree, especially the delegation from Holland which typically had to bear at least half of the burden of an assessment. Any loans sought by the States-General for the benefit of the Republic must be approved by the provinces. It becomes clear why Madison saw the Republic as a case study for the fate of the Articles of Confederation.

Finally, there were the stadholder of the provinces and the de facto stadholder of the United Provinces. The office was derived from the provincial governorships the Holy Roman Emperor had established. Each provincial state selected that province’s stadholder for life. More than one province could appoint the same person, a very common scenario. During the two centuries of the Republic after 1589, all provinces always appointed members of the House of Orange-Nassau. When the need arose, the province of Holland, as the most important of the union, always appointed the head of that family. Technically, there was no Stadholder of the United Provinces. However, by customary practice, the States-General always appointed the stadholder of Holland to be the Republic’s commander-in-chief. This made the head of the House of Orange the main political leader of the most populous and prosperous province and the commander-in-chief of the Republic’s armed forces. The stadholderships generally became hereditary in the mid-17th century.

The power of the Prince of Orange over the armed forces included the power to set up military tribunals and to appoint higher-level officers. He also met with foreign ambassadors and had some adjudicatory powers, such as settling disputes among the provinces. His influence was bolstered by two broad sources. First, at the level of the union, he sat on all working committees of the States-General and on the Council of State. Together with his life term, this gave him broad knowledge about political matters over a much longer time frame than the provincial delegation, analogous to the Venetian Doge’s position in relation to the Senate and Great Council. If knowledge is power, this made the prince powerful, indeed.

Second, being the stadholder of Holland and, usually, several other provinces gave him significant control over provincial and even town affairs. The provincial stadholder was the head the province’s highest court, could pardon criminals, and had significant patronage powers over the appointment of officials at all levels. He could appoint certain burgomasters, although those had to be made from lists submitted by the Regent-controlled town councils. These roles, some formal, others by accepted practice, exercised at all levels of government, and extending to civil, military, and judicial matters, made the Prince of Orange in some ways the vortex around which Dutch politics swirled. In the end, however, with the vague constitutional dimensions of the office, it was the personality and talents of the particular stadholder which defined his powers.

A curious spectacle occasionally arose when various provinces left their stadholderships unoccupied. Even the province of Holland at one point in the 18th century left that position unoccupied for 45 years. In the 17th century Holland also prohibited the House of Orange from holding the stadholderships. Soon thereafter, its provincial state abolished the office altogether. That experiment lasted only five years, when those acts were repealed in the face of an invasion by England and France. One modern commentator quoted by Professor Gordon described the princes of the House of Orange as having “a special status within the Dutch state, almost mystical … in its nature.”

The Republic’s constitution was weakened in the 18th century in part due to factional rivalries in Amsterdam, the largest and wealthiest city in the largest and wealthiest province. The monarchist pretentious of the House of Orange clashed with the increasingly militant endemic anti-Orangist attitudes of the urban bourgeoisie. With a hardening of factional positions, political accommodations became more difficult. As well, the financial burdens of the colonial empire and the military needed to support it began to overwhelm the capacities of what was, after all, a rather small country. Still, it took the military might of, first, the Prussian Army and, thereafter, Napoleon’s forces, to end the Republic’s two centuries of successful government.

Madison in Number 20 of The Federalist disparages the Dutch system, his stand-in for the Articles of Confederation, as, “Imbecility in the government; discord among the provinces; foreign influence and indignities; a precarious existence in peace; and peculiar calamities from war.” He seems to have derived his information from a book by Sir William Temple, a 17th century British ambassador to the United Provinces. But Temple was hardly an unsympathetic observer of the Republic. Where Madison saw deadlock leading to eventual dissolution and anarchy, Temple saw a system which attracted large numbers of foreigners from polities less conducive to liberty. Certainly, the federal nature of the United Provinces stood in stark contrast to the centralization of power in national governments generally, and in monarchs particularly, which was ascendant in the Europe of the time.

If one uses classic designations of constitutions, the Dutch system at first blush most closely resembles an oligarchy. If one uses Madison’s definition in Number 10 of The Federalist, it was a closed system controlled by the wealthy Regent families and the Prince of Orange. It failed the test of broad public participation even by the limited standards of the early American polities. But, if one evaluates a republic functionally, as a political structure which provides overall social stability, fosters the general well-being of the people, and promotes the liberty of individuals to follow their own paths to fulfilled lives, all by reigning in various political institutions through a functioning balancing of powers, the constitution of the United Provinces qualifies. The mutual checks provided among the levels of government (town, provinces, union), among the provinces themselves, and between the stadholder on the one hand and the provincial states and States-General created a system which protected the liberties of the people better than other contemporaneous countries. More bluntly, as Professor Gordon explains, “[W]ith this political system, the Dutch not only fought Spain and France to a standstill and invaded England, but also made their little collection of swamps and polders into the richest, most civilized, nation in the early modern world.”

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.

 

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Guest Essayist: Chris Burkett


In the previous essay we saw the Federalist’s critique of the Holy Roman Empire and its two principal vices: first, a lack of effective executive authority in the confederacy; and second, a lack of centralized control and effective checks by the national authority over the member states. Both of these defects were strongly prevalent in the American Union under the Articles of Confederation as well. Under the Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1781, there was no independent executive branch. Important matters affecting foreign policy and national security were handled by Congress, which created numerous “executive boards” to formulate and execute defense policies. This uncoordinated approach to fulfilling executive functions, as Alexander Hamilton observed, meant that “their decisions are slower, their energy less, their responsibility more diffused.” Hamilton continued, “Congress is properly a deliberative corps and it forgets itself when it attempts to play the executive. It is impossible such a body, numerous as it is, constantly fluctuating, can ever act with sufficient decision, or with system.”[1]

Congress also lacked any real power – especially a tax power – under the Articles of Confederation, and had no way to coerce or enforce their policies upon delinquent or disobedient states. “The next most palpable defect of the subsisting Confederation, is the total want of a SANCTION to its laws,” Hamilton wrote. “The United States, as now composed, have no powers to exact obedience, or punish disobedience to their resolutions.”[2] All revenue for the purposes of defensing the Union was raised through the voluntary compliance by the state legislatures, which was frequently lacking. Furthermore, the manner in which Congress was constituted gave the individual states great influence – if not complete control – over the affairs of Congress. Each state had one vote in Congress, and state legislatures selected their congressional delegations with authority to recall those delegations at any time. Supermajorities (nine out of thirteen state delegations) were required for Congress to enact important matters such as requisitions for revenue and making treaties. Despite specific restrictions on the states, the structure of government under the Articles of Confederation gave the individual states enormous influence and control over Congress; Congress, on the other hand, had no means by which to compel the states to comply with the Articles of Confederation. In other words, the Articles of Confederation had recreated the same fundamental defects of the constitution of the Holy Roman Empire. The result was a lack of unity, coordination, and effectiveness in doing those things vitally important for the good of the whole Union – or as James Madison put it, there was a complete “want of concert in matters where common interest requires it.”[3]

The framers of the Constitution remedied these defects by creating an independent executive with a large degree of discretionary power, especially in the area of foreign affairs. “Energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government,” Hamilton observed. “It is essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks; it is not less essential to the steady administration of the laws.”[4] The unitary nature of the executive – as opposed to executive boards or committees – provides the office with the “energy” to act on important matters with “decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch.” The Constitution deems the president “Commander in Chief” of the military forces of the nation, giving the office a further degree of discretion, free from the influence of a cumbersome Congress, in taking swift measures necessary for the security of the Union. Even the longer four-year term in office, combined with the mode by which the president is elected – through an electoral system rather than being appointed by Congress or the state legislatures – gives the executive a degree of independence to do those things necessary for the steady administration of the laws and the protection of the states from foreign threats.

The framers of the Constitution also found remedies to prevent the “inordinate pride of state importance” from hindering the national government’s efforts to promote the good of the whole Union.[5] By dividing Congress into two houses, the preponderance of state influence in national affairs is confined to the Senate, in which state legislatures would appoint the senators (as opposed to direct election by the people of members in the House of Representatives). Rather than each state having one vote in the Senate, the two senators do not need to agree or vote in the same way on any particular law or policy. The framers also overcame reliance on the voluntary compliance of the states to provide the needed revenue for national purposes by giving to Congress a real tax power. “There is no method of steering clear of this inconvenience,” Hamilton observed, “but by authorizing the national government to raise its own revenues in its own way.”[6] Even the “republican guarantee” clause in Article IV section three gives the national government the right to protect every state of the Union “against Invasion [and…] domestic violence.” “Without a guaranty,” Hamilton wrote, “the assistance to be derived from the Union in repelling those domestic dangers which may sometimes threaten the existence of the State constitutions, must be renounced. Usurpation may rear its crest in each State, and trample upon the liberties of the people, while the national government could legally do nothing more than behold its encroachments with indignation and regret.”[7]

Through these improvements, the Constitution of the United States provides the national government with the “energy’ needed to effectively repel foreign and domestic dangers, a higher degree of independence from state interference in national affairs, and the means to prevent the frequent dissentions, rebellions, and civil wars that constantly plagued the Holy Roman Empire.

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

 

[1] Alexander Hamilton to James Duane, 3 September 1780.

[2] The Federalist No. 21.

[3] James Madison, “Vices of the Political System of the United States,” 1787

[4] The Federalist No. 70

[5] The Federalist No. 21

[6] The Federalist No. 21

[7] The Federalist No. 21

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Guest Essayist: Chris Burkett

In the months leading up to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, James Madison carefully studied ancient confederacies so as to learn from their failures and improve upon their defects. He published his critique of the Holy Roman Empire in The Federalist essay number 19, co-authored by Alexander Hamilton.

The Holy Roman Empire was a union of kingdoms in Western, Northern and Southern Europe. It arose in the Early Middle Ages and lasted over eight centuries until its dissolution after the Napoleonic Wars. The Holy Roman Empire was initially under the nominal authority of one “emperor,” who claimed the right to rule as the heir of the emperors of Rome.  Eventually the office became “elected” after political control devolved to the dozens of kingdoms and territories that comprised the union.

Madison’s critique of the Holy Roman Empire focuses on two fundamental defects. The first is a lack of effective executive authority in the confederacy. Though initially under the centralized control of a single sovereign, the “principal vassals” claimed more localized control over the affairs of the union. “In the eleventh century the emperors enjoyed full sovereignty,” Madison writes. “In the fifteenth they had little more than the symbols and decorations of power.” The Emperor did retain certain prerogatives, including a veto power over the resolutions of the legislative body. Two judicial bodies, under control of the emperor, had “supreme jurisdiction in controversies which concern the empire.” From these institutions one might surmise that the supreme executive was extremely capable and efficient in directing the affairs of the union. But real political power in the Holy Roman Empire was vested in a Diet that represented the constituent members of the union.

The lack of an efficient executive had left important matters of security and commerce in the hands of a Diet whose members were deeply divided over local interests. “Military preparations must be preceded by so many tedious discussions, arising from the jealousies, pride, separate views, and clashing pretensions of sovereign bodies,” Madison writes, “that before the diet can settle the arrangements, the enemy are in the field; and before the federal troops are ready to take it, are retiring into winter quarters.” The military forces of the union are “defectively kept up, badly paid, infected with local prejudices, and supported by irregular and disproportionate contributions to the treasury.” This vice has left the confederacy constantly open to the predations of neighboring enemies.

Madison’s second and most important critique of the Holy Roman Empire is a lack of centralized control and effective checks over the member states. In theory, the member states are expected to restrain themselves from infringing upon the duties of the central government and are pledged to obey its authority. As Madison writes,

The members of the confederacy are expressly restricted from entering into compacts prejudicial to the empire; from imposing tolls and duties on their mutual intercourse, without the consent of the emperor and diet; from altering the value of money; from doing injustice to one another; or from affording assistance or retreat to disturbers of the public peace. And the ban is denounced against such as shall violate any of these restrictions.

Sufficient constitutional restraints seem to have been placed on the member states to prevent them from undermining the interests of the whole union. However, as Madison writes: “Nothing would be further from the reality. The fundamental principle on which it rests, that the empire is a community of sovereigns, that the diet is a representation of sovereigns and that the laws are addressed to sovereigns, renders the empire a nerveless body, incapable of regulating its own members, insecure against external dangers, and agitated with unceasing fermentations in its own bowels.” The central authority, in its weakness, had been forced of necessity to rely on local enforcement of the acts and policies of the Diet. “This experiment has only served to demonstrate more fully the radical vice of the constitution,” Madison writes. “Each circle is the miniature picture of the deformities of this political monster. They either fail to execute their commissions, or they do it with all the devastation and carnage of civil war. Sometimes whole circles are defaulters; and then they increase the mischief which they were instituted to remedy.”

The lack of any effective centralized authority to enforce the policies of the Diet reveals the tenuous nature by which the parts of the union remain barely united. This defect is revealed in the nearly constant acts of violence and injustice among the member states. “The history of Germany is a history of wars between the emperor and the princes and states; of wars among the princes and states themselves; of the licentiousness of the strong, and the oppression of the weak,” Madison writes. In sum, the vices of the constitution of the Holy Roman Empire are marked by “general imbecility, confusion, and misery.”

Despite these vices, one might ask, what allowed the Holy Roman Empire to persist for more than eight centuries? Not the constitution and institutions of the union, Madison concludes, but matters that rely more on “accident and force” rather than “reflection and choice.” “They are kept together by the peculiarity of their topographical position,” Madison writes, “by their individual weakness and insignificancy; by the fear of powerful neighbors…[and] by the mutual aid they stand in need of, for suppressing insurrections and rebellions.”

In the following essay we will explore the remedies to these defects that Madison and the framers worked into the Constitution of the United States.

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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Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath

Much of the history of the Holy Roman Empire was one of conflict and intrigue: among emperors and popes, emperors and nobles, and nobles themselves. Periods shaped by forces that fostered centralization of power in the hands of strong and capable emperors were eclipsed by developments that threatened to tear apart the Empire due to personal weaknesses or military miscalculations by the holders of the imperial title. Several generations of extraordinarily wise and astute rulers were inevitably followed by the collapse of dynasties and periods of political turmoil and social misery.

The collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century A.D. led to the formation of various Germanic kingdoms throughout the former territory. The Visigoths and other invaders attempted to carry on the Roman civilization, but lacked the administrative capabilities, technological know-how, and economic wherewithal to do so. They, in turn, also collapsed within a few generations. For the inhabitants of the former Roman domain, there was continuing danger from Germanic tribes, other marauders that are said to have been successors to the Huns, and, beginning in the 7th century, Arab raiders and armies. The Byzantine emperor’s control over those lands was nominal. The Roman Catholic Church was organizationally weak and doctrinally disorganized.

In the 8th century, the situation improved. A new line of kings had been elected by the nobles of a Germanic people, the Franks. The most prominent was a warrior-king, Charles. He defeated other German tribes and pushed against the Muslims in Spain whose advance into Frankish territory had been stopped by his grandfather, Charles the Hammer. Pope Leo III, eager to distance himself from the political and religious influences of the Orthodox Byzantine Empire, and hoping to spread the influence of the Catholic Church through the physical security offered by the Franks, crowned Charles emperor on Christmas Day, 800 A.D. Carolus Magnus, or Charlemagne, as he came to be known, was proclaimed the successor to the Roman Empire in the west. Indeed, from the imperial capital at Aachen, in the current Germany, he governed, as “Emperor of the Romans,” an area of Europe larger than anything seen since that empire.

Three decades after his death, Charlemagne’s realm was divided among his grandsons. Several centuries later, the western portion became the kingdom of France. The eastern portion became the German dominions. The end of the Carolingian dynasty in 911 resulted in the fracturing of the eastern portion. There were strong tribal loyalties within the various ancestral German domains, centered on several dukedoms and on the holdings of other, less powerful local strongmen.

In 936, Otto, the duke of the Saxons, a particularly warlike people who had been barely Christianized through force by Charlemagne a century earlier, was elected King of the Germans by the other nobles. A successful military campaigner who extended the eastern Frankish realm, Otto was given the imperial title in 962, after the Pope had appealed to him for military help. Referred to as Otto the Great, he established a new dynasty of emperors. His grandson, Otto III, revived the imperial seal of Charlemagne which had the motto, in Latin, that stood for “Renewal of the Roman Empire.” He understood this to be a clearly Christian empire, not only a political unit as imperium romanum, as reflected in his designation of the realm as imperium christianum. The successors of Otto III were weak and saw themselves as primarily German kings who happened to have holdings in Italy, not as rulers of a multicultural and transcendent Christian empire.

Once political conditions in western Europe became relatively settled by the end of the 10th century, the era of the warrior-king was succeeded by the era of the great landholding magnates. High feudalism emerged as the dominant social and political structure. Wealth, social standing, and power were based on land ownership and formalized through personal obligations between lords and vassals. On the continent more so than in England, local great men were independent of the emperor, who was addressed at times as “King of Germany” or the “German Roman Emperor.” These nobles retained their ancestral privileges and often claimed new ones.

Nevertheless, the idea of Empire remained alive. This political tension of a universal empire, yet of a German people, led externally to frequent, and not always enthusiastic or well-received, involvement of the Germans in the affairs of Italian communities. Internally, it resulted in the strange federal structure of what formally became known in the 13th century as the Holy Roman Empire. The interactions between emperors and popes further underscored the claims to universality. Papal coronation bestowed God’s recognition of the emperors’ legitimacy as secular rulers in Christendom. Refusal by a pope to grant that legitimacy, or removing it later by issuing a ban on the emperor, endangered the emperor’s rule by absolving the people, particularly the nobility, of loyalty to their earthly lord and excused them from fealty to any oath sworn to that lord. In a society vastly more religious than ours, within a feudal structure fundamentally based on mutual personal loyalties and obligations, such a development could prove fatal to the ruler.

After the end of the Saxon Ottonian line in 1024 and of its successors, the Frankish Salians, control over the Holy Roman Empire shifted in 1127 to a family from another part of the realm, the Hohenstaufen line from the Duchy of Swabia in southwest Germany. Under their best-known ruler, the charismatic and militarily and politically astute Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa (“Red beard”) from 1155 to 1190, the Empire achieved its greatest geographical expanse. Shortly after the rule of his similarly powerful grandson, Frederick II, the Hohenstaufen line ended, and the Great Interregnum brought considerable turmoil to the Empire and contests among various noble families for the imperial title. Rival emperors from different houses were chosen, and a general decline of the Empire’s territory and influence occurred. Not until the 16th century did the Empire regain a prominent position in Europe.

The struggle between emperor and nobles ebbed and flowed, depending significantly on the dynamism and capabilities of the emperors. These contests were endemic, with a parallel for several centuries in the conflict between the emperors and the popes. An example of the latter was the Investiture Controversy over the right to name local church leaders which led to a half-century of civil strife in Germany in the late 11th and early 12th centuries and ended with the emperor’s powers reduced as against popes and local nobles. Even as strong an emperor as Frederick II out of political expediency had to confirm, in statutes of 1220 and 1232, previously only customary privileges to the nobles, such as over tolls, coinage, and fortifications.

In 1493, Maximilian I from the Habsburg family, became Holy Roman Emperor. From that year, the Habsburg line provided an almost uninterrupted sequence of emperors until the Empire was abolished in 1806. A significant change in outlook under Maximilian was a turn to a more national identity and the stirrings of a nascent nation-state, in part due to the proposed Imperial Reform during the late 15th century supported by the energetic Maximilian. As a consequence, the realm began to be known as the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.

The Imperial Reform of 1495 was an attempt to modernize the administration of the realm and to increase the power of the emperor through more centralized governance. Aside from some success in making aspects of legal administration uniform through the use of Roman Law, the reforms came to naught by being ignored in the local principalities. There, the rulers generally strove to exercise the absolute powers of monarchs in England and France. As to the Empire, these local nobles guarded their privileges. Not to be outdone, the independent imperial “free” German cities, with their rising populations and increasingly powerful commercial bourgeoisie, were no less jealous of their privileges than the landed nobility.

The problem with the political structure of the Holy Roman Empire in the eyes of the framers of the American Constitution of 1787 was the overall weakness of the emperor in relation to the nobles. The Empire was a federal system, but, in their view, an unsuccessful version. The criticism is, overall, a fair one. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, writing in The Federalist repeatedly identified the sources of weakness. Both emphasized the straightened financial circumstances in which the emperor frequently found himself to fund the costs of imperial government or necessary military actions against foreign countries. That difficulty was due at least in part to the obstructions created by local rulers to the flow of commerce.

Hamilton mentioned in Federalist Number 12 the emperor’s inability to raise funds, despite the “great extent of fertile, cultivated, and populous territory, a large proportion of which is situated in mild and luxuriant climates. In some parts of this territory are to be found the best gold and silver mines in Europe. And yet, from the want of the fostering influence of commerce, that monarch can boast but slender revenues.” Along the same lines, quoting from the Encyclopedia, he wrote in Number 22, “The commerce of the German empire is in continual trammels, from the multiplicity of the duties which the several princes and states enact upon the merchandises passing through their territories; by means of which the fine streams and navigable rivers with which Germany is so happily watered, are rendered almost useless.” In Number 42, Madison seconded Hamiltons’s point, “In Germany, it is a law of the empire, that the princes and states shall not lay tolls or customs on bridges, rivers, or passages, without the consent of the emperor and diet [the parliament]; though it appears from a quotation in an antecedent paper, that the practice in this, as in many other instances in that confederacy, has not followed the law, and has produced there the mischiefs which have been foreseen here.” Both writers painted this bleak picture as an omen of what would occur in the United States under the Article of Confederation. The Constitution would prevent this problem because, there, Congress was given “a superintending authority over the reciprocal trade of [the] confederated states.”

More fundamentally, however, the problem of the Empire and, by analogy, the United States under the Articles of Confederation was in the structure itself, an imperium in imperio, a state exercising sovereignty within another state. In Number 19 of The Federalist, Madison presented a lengthy overview of the Empire’s history. He identified problems with the structure, such as the difficulty to meet military emergencies or collect requisitions. The emperor had no holdings as such, only in his position as a hereditary sovereign in his ancestral lands or those acquired by marriage. Madison dismissed the Empire as a playground of foreign rulers because of the conflicts among the members of the Empire and between the emperor and the nobles large and small. This division allowed foreign rulers to split the allegiances of the nobles and to keep the empire weak. The worst example of this was the Thirty Years’ War from 1618 to 1648. While there were limitations on the powers of the nobles, and while the emperor had various prerogatives, these were paper powers, not real. Ultimately, the problem was that the empire was a community of sovereigns.

In support of Madison’s critique, one can look at one locus of power, the Reichstag, the name for the Imperial Diet or parliament. The Diet in some form already existed during Charlemagne’s time. Originally intended as a forum for discussions, not as a modern legislative body, by the 11th century it presented a serious counterweight to the emperor and a source of power for the nobles in two ways. First, the Diet participated in the making of law, typically through a collaborative manner with the emperor. Second, certain members of the Diet elected the Emperor.

The Diet during the Middle Ages comprised two “colleges.” That number was eventually raised to three as feudalism gave way to a more commercial modern society, and the growing importance of the bourgeoisie in the cities required representation of their estate. Each member of those colleges in essence represented a sovereignty, and the Diet in that light was a “community of sovereigns.” When the Diet met, the colleges and the emperor attended together. All were seated in a carefully prescribed manner, respecting their rank, with the emperor front and center and raised at least three feet above all others. Voting might be either per individual or per collegium as an estate in a complicated arrangement, depending on the rank of that individual and group.

The most important of these groups was the college of electors, which represented another locus of power in the Empire. Not only did the prince-electors vote individually, rather than as an estate, but they had the important occasional task of electing the emperor, the third institution of power. There was a fourth locus of power in the Empire, that is, the pope. Papal influence precipitated many political crises in medieval Europe, because the emperor was not properly installed until crowned by the pope, a practice discontinued after Charles V in the 16th century. However, papal influence is not crucial to an examination of the Empire’s political constitution as that structure influenced the debates over the American Constitution of 1787.

The election of the emperors was derived from the ancient practice of German tribal councils to elect their leaders for life. The direct male heirs of a deceased ruler generally had the advantage in any succession claim, but heredity was never a guarantee. That practice was extended first to the election of the kings of Germany by the dukes of the largest tribes in the 10th century, and then to the election of the emperors in the 13th century. Initially, the number of electors was somewhat fluid, but eventually there were four set secular and three set ecclesiastical electors. Over time, the membership was increased to nine and, briefly, to ten electors. The ecclesiastic rulers from certain archbishoprics eventually were replaced by secular electors, and, in time, the secular rulers themselves might be replaced by others as power shifted among rulers of various local domains.

A critical moment came with the promulgation of the Golden Bull of 1356 by the Imperial Diet at Nuremberg. A “bull” in this usage is derived from the Latin word for a seal attached to a document. Because of such a decree’s significance, the imperial seal attached to this document was made of gold. This particular golden bull was the closest thing to a written constitution of the Empire. It was the result of the political instability caused by contested elections and succession controversies. It specified the number—seven—and identity—by secular or ecclesiastical domain—of the imperial electors. Procedures were set for the emperor’s election, the specific functions of the electors were prescribed, and an order of succession was provided if an elector died. For example, to prevent rival claims from lingering and dragging the realm into disunity and war, the deliberations of the electors must result in a timely decision. Failure to decide on an emperor within 30 days in theory would result in the electors being given only bread and water as sustenance until they concluded their task.

Also significant was the Golden Bull’s undermining of the emperor’s power. Sometimes described as a German analogue to the Magna Charta of 1215 imposed by the English nobility on King John, it affirmed the privileges of the nobility against the emperor. Tolls and coinage were the right of the nobles in their domains. Crimes against them, including presumably through actions by the emperor, became treason against the empire itself. The rulings of their courts could not be appealed to the emperor. With a few notable episodic exceptions, such as the rule of Maximilian I and Charles V in the 16th century, this decree put the Empire on a gradual path to disintegration and reconfiguration as independent nations-states.

Voltaire is credited with the quip in his Essay on Customs in 1756 that the Empire was “neither Holy nor Roman nor an Empire.” Whatever might have been the veracity of his derision half a millennium earlier, when he wrote the essay his satire did not require much nuanced reflection on the part of his readers. The emperor in a basic sense was always the primus inter pares, and his power rested on the prestige of his title, the size and wealth of his own ancestral domain, and his skills as a political operator and military leader. Even with the emergence of the modern nation-state, the Holy Roman Empire remained just a confederation of de facto sovereignties, a matter underscored by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the Thirty Years’ War. The Habsburg ruler’s power was a far cry from the classic imperium of Octavian.

With the Reformation and the rise of the self-confident nation-state, the Roman and classic medieval idea of the universal Christian empire also became anachronistic. And it was no longer “Roman.” The conscious effort of Frederick I Barbarossa in the 12th century to demonstrate that the Empire was “Roman” stands in stark contrast with the 16th century, when emperors and the Diet emphasized its German character. As constituent German entities in the Empire, such as Prussia and Bavaria, grew more powerful, the struggles between emperor and nobles intensified and sharpened into outright wars as between independent nations. The imperial structure and its institutions, such as the Diet, became weaker and, indeed, irrelevant. Despite some belated and ineffectual efforts at reform and reorganization around the turn of the 19th century, the Empire, the thousand-year Reich, was dissolved a half-century after Voltaire’s remark, when Napoleon’s army crushed the emperor’s forces and effected the abdication of Francis II in 1806.

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.

 

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Guest Essayist: Daniel A. Cotter


America’s Founders and Constitution Framers who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787, 235 years ago this May, did not arrive without examples of what worked and what did not work in past empires or republics. In Essay #12, we examined the Constitution’s wisdom in light of the Roman Empire and how certain provisions helped ensure against regime failure. In this essay, we explore further some of the Constitution’s wisdom in preventing such failures.

The Republic of Venice

While the Republic of Venice officially lasted eleven hundred years, the five hundred years referred to here is the constitutional period, from 1297 until the fall of Venice in 1797. In 1297, an ordinance was passed providing for the Council of Forty. Venice was ruled by the doge, elected by the Council, and ruled for life. The Founding Fathers would consider the form of government of Venice and provide protections against regime failure, including the Republican Guarantee Clause.

The Guarantee Clause

Article IV, Section 4 of the Constitution provides:

“The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion; and on Application of the Legislature, or of the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened) against domestic Violence.”

This was an important provision included by the drafters to ensure a process of governance through elections. The drafters had examples of the Republic of Venice and Rome and other regimes in collapse, with concerns about other forms of government, even those labeled republics, at its core.

In Federalist No. 57, the reality of various forms of republican government is acknowledged:

“The elective mode of obtaining rulers is the characteristic policy of republican government. The means relied on in this form of government for preventing their degeneracy are numerous and various. The most effectual one, is such a limitation of the term of appointments as will maintain a proper responsibility to the people.”

In 1787, ahead of the Constitutional Convention and back from a trip to the Netherlands, John Adams published the first of his three-volume set, “A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America.” In it, his goal was to defend the tripartite form of federal government. He examined other republics, including Venice. As to Venice, he wrote:

“It was at first democratical…. the people…determined that one magistrate should be chosen, as the center of all authority…. He was to be for life…he was to have the nomination of all magistrates, and the power of peace and war.”

Adams then discusses the evolution of the system in Venice, with power being in a few and not in the populace. Adams proposed the form of republican government that would find its way into the Constitution.

Adams concluded Volume I:

“All nations, under all governments, must have parties; the great secret is to controul them: there are but two ways, either by a monarchy and standing army, or by a balance in the constitution. Where the people have a voice, and there is no balance, there will be everlasting fluctuations, revolutions, and horrors, until a standing army, with a general at its head, commands the peace, or the necessity of an equilibrium is made appear to all, and is adopted by all.”

In Federalist No. 39, James Madison refers to Venice and how the republican form of government, as the Founding Fathers envisioned it, was to be different.  Madison wrote:

The first question that offers itself is, whether the general form and aspect of the government be strictly republican. It is evident that no other form would be reconcilable with the genius of the people of America; with the fundamental principles of the Revolution; or with that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government. If the plan of the convention, therefore, be found to depart from the republican character, its advocates must abandon it as no longer defensible.

“What, then, are the distinctive characters of the republican form? Were an answer to this question to be sought, not by recurring to principles, but in the application of the term by political writers, to the constitution of different States, no satisfactory one would ever be found. Holland…has passed almost universally under the denomination of a republic. The same title has been bestowed on Venice, where absolute power over the great body of the people is exercised, in the most absolute manner, by a small body of hereditary nobles…These examples, which are nearly as dissimilar to each other as to a genuine republic, show the extreme inaccuracy with which the term has been used in political disquisitions.

“If we resort for a criterion to the different principles on which different forms of government are established, we may define a republic to be, or at least may bestow that name on, a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behavior. It is ESSENTIAL to such a government that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion, or a favored class of it; otherwise a handful of tyrannical nobles, exercising their oppressions by a delegation of their powers, might aspire to the rank of republicans, and claim for their government the honorable title of republic.”

(Emphasis added.)

With the Guarantee Clause, majority rule is the way, and each state must have an electoral process in place, to prevent the usurpation of power by a monarchial actor such as the doge. It is an important safeguard put in the Constitution by the founders.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the Guarantee Clause cannot be challenged in federal court, as it is nonjusticiable.

Conclusion

The Constitution’s wisdom is shown in many ways, including with the Guarantee Clause of the Constitution. The careful drafting in 1787 has helped to ensure American Exceptionalism once again.

Dan Cotter is Attorney and Counselor at Howard & Howard Attorneys PLLC. He is the author of The Chief Justices, (published April 2019, Twelve Tables Press). He is also a past president of The Chicago Bar Association. The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to anyone else.

 

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Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath

 

In Number 39 of The Federalist, James Madison objects to the habit of political writers of referring to Venice as a republic. He asserts that Venice is a system “where absolute power over the great body of the people is exercised, in the most absolute manner, by a small body of hereditary nobles.” Later, in Number 48 of the same work, Madison raises the need of providing practical security for each branch of the government against the intrusion by others into its powers. He quotes Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. Jefferson, commenting about the formal separation of powers in the constitution of Virginia which he had been instrumental in creating, bemoaned the lack of effective barriers among the branches which would better preserve their respective independence. As a part of his critique, Jefferson opined that the concentration of legislative, executive, and judicial powers in one body would be “the definition of despotic government.” Further, it mattered not “that these powers would be exercised by a plurality of hands, and not by a single one. One hundred and seventy-three despots would surely be as oppressive as one. Let those who doubt it, turn their eyes on the republic of Venice.”

Leaving aside the historical veracity of Madison’s and Jefferson’s characterizations of Venice, their perceptions shaped their ideas of a proper “republican” political structure and how that would differ from Venice. Madison’s critique of a city governed absolutely by a small body of men made Venice an aristocracy or, more accurately, an oligarchy for him. It is ironic that opponents of the proposed Constitution launched that very calumny against the structure which Madison was defending. The Anti-federalists maintained a drumbeat of attacks about the supposed anti-republican, aristocratic Constitution. Some were thoughtful and substantive objections. Other writers opted for the popular appeal of satire, not likely nuanced and subtle humor, but an entertaining burlesque style.

Two examples suffice. A writer styling himself “Aristocrotis” wrote a lengthy satire in a pamphlet published in Pennsylvania in 1788.

“For my own part, I was so smitten with the character of the members [of the Philadelphia Convention], that I had assented to their production, while it was yet in embryo. And I make no doubt but every good republican did so too. But how great was my surprise, when it appeared with such a venerable train of names annexed to its tail, to find some of the people under different signatures—such as Centinel, Old Whig, Brutus, etc.—daring to oppose it, and that too with barefaced arguments, obstinate reason and stubborn truth. This is certainly a piece of the most extravagant impudence to presume to contradict the collected wisdom of the United States; or to suppose a body, who engrossed the whole wisdom of the continent, was capable of erring. I expected the superior character of the convention would have secured it from profane sallies of a plebeian’s pen; and its inherent infallibility would have debarred the interference of impertinent reason or truth.”

With the tune of satire set, Aristocrotis applied it to a libretto of feigned aristocratic enthusiasm for a document which, according to him, set the few to rule over the many, in accord with the law of nature. Particularly useful for this aristocratic scheme was a powerful Senate and both direct and deviously hidden restrictions on the potentially dangerous House of Representatives. Establishing the latter was an unavoidable practice reflective of the corrupt practices of the times, he acknowledged. However, providing for 2-year terms, instead of the annual elections common to republican state constitutions, in combination with Congress’s power to set the times, places, and manner of elections allowed that body’s membership to perpetuate itself. In addition, Congress had the power to tax so as to give itself independence over its own pay. Raising taxes on the people would have another salubrious effect: it will make them industrious. “They will then be obliged to labor for money to pay their taxes. There will be no trifling from time to time, as is done now….This will make the people attend to their own business, and not be dabbling in politics—things they are entirely ignorant of; nor is it proper they should understand.” If the people object, Congress had the power to make them comply by raising an army. This backhanded compliment reflected the deep republican antipathy to peacetime armies.

Another example of the style was an essay by “Montezuma,” which appeared in the Philadelphia Independent Gazetteer on October 17, 1787, a month after the constitutional convention adjourned. If anything, Montezuma was even more prone to literary absurdity and plot lines reminiscent of a Gilbert and Sullivan production a century later than was Aristocrotis. He begins, with all emphases in the original,

“We, the Aristocratic party of the United States, lamenting the many inconveniences to which the late confederation subjected the well-born, the better kind of people, bringing them down to the level of the rabble—and holding in utter detestation that frontispiece to every bill of rights, “that all men are created equal”—beg leave (for the purpose of drawing a line between such as we think were ordained to govern, and such as were made to bear the weight of government without having any share in its administration) to submit to our friends in the first class for their inspection, the following defense of our monarchical, aristocratic democracy.”

After this mockery of the Constitution’s preamble, Montezuma proceeds to a listing of provisions that animate his imagined constitution. Any semblance of republicanism in the actual proposal, such as the election of the House of Representatives is a mirage. After all, the actions of the House can be overridden by the aristocratic Senate’s refusal to go along or by the monarchic President’s veto. Moreover, there is no limit to their re-election, so that the basic republican principle of “rotation of office” found in the Articles of Confederation is eliminated. This will result in perpetual re-election and soon make the representatives permanent members of the ruling elite. The Senate is the main home of this elite and is structured with long overlapping terms so that there is continuity in membership to acculturate any newcomers to the elite’s ways. The states are made subordinate to, and dependent on, the national government and will be “absorbed by our grand continental vortex, or dwindle into petty corporations, and have power over little else than yoaking hogs or determining the width of cart wheels.” The office of President is so named to fool the rubes with a republican title which hides his kingship. After all, “[W]e all know that Cromwell was a King, with the title of Protector.” He is the head of a standing army, which will start out small, ostensibly to defend the frontier. “Now a regiment and then a legion must be added quietly.” This allows the elite “to entrench ourselves so as to laugh at the cabals of the commonality.” There is no bill of rights, including the “great evil” of freedom of the press. The list goes on. Concluding his send-up of the Constitution through its closing phrase, Montezuma writes, “Signed by unanimous order of the lords spiritual and temporal,” a direct reference to the British House of Lords.

Montezuma and Aristocrotis recited the common themes of the Constitution’s opponents about the document’s insufficient republicanism: Long terms of office, no rotation in office through mandatory term limits, an aristocratic Senate, a president elected and re-elected for sequential lengthy terms, a standing army, consolidation of the formerly sovereign states into a massive national government, and lack of a bill of rights. There were other, more specific concerns raised by thoughtful opponents, but the foregoing resonated well with the citizenry.

If those themes defined a constitution’s non-republican character, Venice looked little different from what the Philadelphia Convention had produced. True, a formal nobility was prohibited under the Constitution, but there had been no formal nobility set in place in Venice until the previous constitutional structure was changed in 1297. Rather, wealth determined one’s status. Further, the commoners controlled the operations of the government through the bureaucracy. There were other important political institutions, such as the Senate with its important role to define public policy in Venice, but the ultimate power to make law was in the most populous branch, the Great Council, acting without fear of a veto by another branch of government. Unlike the proposed American system, membership in the Venetian Senate and the executive apparatus, with the exception of the Doge, was limited to annual or even shorter terms, as was the practice in the early state constitutions. While the President’s selection was filtered through electors chosen by the state legislatures, and the election might finally be determined by the House of Representatives, the selection of the Doge occurred through a process which had a strong component of what was classically viewed as a “democratic” tool, the drawing of lots of the names of those who would make that selection. The likelihood of a cabal controlling this convoluted process in order to install a puppet as the head of government was no more likely in Venice than under the Constitution. Moreover, the Doge had little formal power, unlike the President. Finally, Venice had no standing army, although it did have a large and powerful navy. In short, to an opponent of the Constitution, “aristocratic” Venice had at least as “republican” a character as the proposed American system, and Madison’s contemptuous dismissal of the city as a small group governing with absolute power sounded hollow.

The writers of The Federalist strove mightily to rebut these attacks. Madison’s narrowly formalistic definition of a republic in essay Number 10 that its distinguishing characteristic was its system of government by indirect representation, rather than direct action by the citizenry, was useful to establish a minimum of republicanism in the proposed system. But, by itself, it would hardly suffice to address the Anti-federalists’ multiple attacks. Madison understood this weakness and went on the attack, cleverly turning his opponents’ arguments against them in connection with the problem of “factions” and their threat to individual liberty and political stability.

Today, that essay is considered a brilliant insight into how political actors operate and how the framers were practical men who set up the constitutional machinery for our system of interest group politics later dubbed by the American political theorist Robert Dahl as Madisonian “polyarchy.” Yet, at the time of its publication, essay Number 10 aroused hardly a murmur. The reason likely was that few disputed his premises or his discussion about the existence, sources, and problems of factions in society seeking their own ends in contrast to the republican ideal of the general welfare. Alexander Hamilton, for one, had addressed the same point in essay Number 9. As well, no one really challenged his definition as a necessary characteristic of a republic. They disagreed about its sufficiency for a republic and, more profoundly, about whether the Constitution adequately balanced the self-interests of factions while at the same time preserving liberty.

As in so many other instances, the writers of The Federalist took to heart the maxim that “the best defense is a good offense.” Madison argued first that the republican principle of the vote, as qualified by the states themselves per the Constitution, would protect against extended dominance by some political minority. As to liberty, Madison asserted that the very variety of political factions spread across the country made the national council less likely to succumb to a dictatorship of an entrenched faction than would be the case in a smaller, culturally more homogeneous polity, whether democratic or republican in structure, such as a state or a city, including Venice. In a memorable paragraph, he wrote:

“The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular states, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other states: a religious sect may degenerate into a political faction on a part of the confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it, must secure the national councils against any danger from that source: a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the union, than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire state.’

In other words, to prevent the deleterious effects of factions, the answer is, the more, the better, and the larger the domain, the more factions will exist. In at least the sense of guarding against a federal tyrant, diversity really is our strength. He repeated this defense of the general government in other essays, including one of the most renowned, Number 51.

Essay Number 51 also provides a thoroughgoing refutation that the states will be “consolidated” into the general government, and that the latter will degenerate into a tyranny. Madison relied on the formal structural separation of powers with its mutual checks and balances and on reflections about human nature. As to the first, he found common ground with his opponents:

“In order to lay a due foundation for that separate and distinct exercise of the different powers of government, which, to a certain extent, is admitted on all hands to be essential to the preservation of liberty, it is evident that each department should have a will of its own; and consequently should be so constituted, that the members of each should have as little agency as possible in the appointment of the members of the others….It is equally evident, that the members of each department should be as little dependent as possible on those of the others, for the emoluments annexed to their offices.” In the opinion of its supporters, the Constitution did that, and to exactly the correct degree.

As to the second, Madison tapped into the cynicism of some of his antagonists and the generally pessimistic views most Americans had about human nature in its fallen state. In another series of hard-hitting paragraphs, he urged:

“But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department, the necessary constitutional means, and personal motives, to resist encroachments of the others….Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interests of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, 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 framing a government of men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

In short, government is a necessary evil commensurate with the fall of mankind. But, as a human creation, it, too, is naturally corrupt. To protect liberty, one cannot overly rely on the virtue of the citizenry, and certainly not on that of the rulers. Constitutions are made of parchment and need robust pragmatism to work. To do that, it is best to harness the natural self-interest of politicians to maintain and then expand their power, by setting them against each other in various independent centers of power, state, national, legislative, executive, and judicial. The scandalous and amoral proto-capitalist assertion by the early-18th-century economist Bernard de Mandeville in his satirical Fable of the Bees about how private vices, such as greed, lead to public benefits, such as economic growth, applies well in the political realm, it seems. Such a multiplicity of political institutions acting as checks on each other, exists in the entire system of human affairs, private and public, according to Madison. An examination of the competition among political bodies and offices which characterized constitutions throughout Western history, from Athens and Sparta to Rome and Venice, bears him out.

It must be noted that, by engaging their opponents in a debate about the objects of government in a republic, not merely about its operational grounding in the particulars of the concept of representation, the writers of The Federalist were able to turn the contest to their advantage. Debates over annual versus biennial election of representatives, or four-year terms for the President versus three-year terms for the governor of New York, was playing small ball. Those issues must be addressed and were, in various writings. Excepting the careful obfuscation of the institution of slavery, the big issues were given their proper due. Reassuring the people incessantly that the federal government was of little consequence when compared to the reserved powers of the states; that the President had exactly the right degree of power to provide energy to government while also being checked by Congress’s or the Senate’s power over the purse, war, and treaties; that a standing army was necessary to protect the country’s security and that the possibility of that army becoming dangerous to liberty was remote in light of the vastly larger number of armed Americans organized into militia.; that a bill of rights was both unnecessary and would be proposed once the Constitution was adopted. Those were the republican principles which mattered, and it was there that Madison and others successfully advocated the Constitution’s republican bona fides.

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.

 

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Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath


In Number 10 of The Federalist, James Madison defines “republic” and distinguishes that term from “democracy.” The latter, in its “pure” form, is “a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, ….” Think of the classic New England town meeting or the administration of justice through a jury drawn by lot from the local citizenry. A republic, by contrast, is “a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, ….” It is distinguished by “first, the delegation of the government … [given] to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of the country, over which [a republic] may be extended.” The last quality is due to the fact that direct participation by citizens means that the place of government cannot be too far from their homes, lest they must leave their livelihoods and families, whereas the indirect system of governance in a republic only requires that the comparatively small number of representatives be able to travel long distances from their homes. One argument by historians for the collapse of the Roman Republic and its popular assemblies is that eventually there were too many Roman citizens living long distances from the city to make the required direct participation in the assemblies possible.

Political theorists and Western expositors of constitutional structures have characterized various systems as republics more broadly than Madison’s functional and limited definition. Examples abound. Plato ascribed the title Politeia (“Republic”) to his principal work on government. His conception of the ideal system was one of balance among different groups in society, with the leaders to come from an elite “guardian” class bred and trained to govern. This has been called government by philosopher-kings, but it was an obvious aristocracy in the true meaning of the word, government by the best (aristoi). Such government would establish a realm of “justice,” the cardinal virtue of the individual and the political order, through trained reason. He analogized the system to a charioteer who, through his reason guides the chariot safely along the path to the destination. The charioteer relies on the help of the strong obedient horse to control and direct the unruly horse which, driven by its appetites for physical satisfaction, wants to bolt off the path in search of immediate gratification of its desires. The charioteer is the guardian class, the strong horse the auxiliaries—disciplined and competent military officers and civil administrators—, and the unruly horse the masses. The system allows all to achieve their proper status in society in reflection of their inherent natural inequalities, provides stability necessary for social harmony, and is guided by an ethical principle—justice; hence, it is a republic.

Aristotle in his Politika did not discount the role of the demos in Athens. Like Madison, Aristotle considered democracy to be unstable and dangerous. From an analytic perspective, as was the case for Plato, democracy was a corruption of politeia, which he considered the best practical government for a city. Man is a politikon zoon, a creature which by his nature is best suited to live in the community that was the Greek polis. Once more, preserving a stable society and governing system was the key to maximizing the flourishing of each resident in accordance with the natural inequalities of each. Aristotle saw that balance in the “mixed” government of Athens, neither pure democracy nor oligarchy, in which the formal powers of the demos in the assembly and the jury courts were balanced by the Council of 500 and the practice of deference to the ideas and policies advanced by the elite of the wealthy and of those who earned military or civic honor.

The government of Rome before at least the First Triumvirate in 59 B.C. of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus has consistently been described over the centuries as a “republic.” Polybius explained mikte (mixed government), the political structure of the Roman Republic, differently than did Aristotle. But he, too, deemed Rome a republic because of the balance among the monarchic, aristocratic, and democratic elements of its constitution. As important, the practical functioning of the competing political institutions limited the power of each. Polybius related the political structure and its evolution to Roman character traits that reflected Rome’s history and contemporary culture, which had stressed the maintenance of civic virtue. Polybius also understood that Romans were not immune to human passions and vices. Like Madison writing nearly two millennia later, he warned that Rome’s republican structures were better than other forms of government but were not impregnable barriers against political failure.

Cicero also described Rome as a mixed government, although his declaration that the people were the foundation of political authority was opposed to his approving description of the patrician Senate as preeminent. For Cicero, Rome’s system reflected the natural divisions of society, with leadership appropriately assigned to the best, the optimates. What made Rome a republic was that the mutual influences and overlapping authority of the various political institutions provided the stability for a successful community oriented to the thriving of all, the res publica. In the Ciceronian version, Rome was a republic, but an aristocratic one.

Closer to Madison’s time were the observations of Baron Montesquieu, an authority well-respected by the writers of The Federalist. Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws has been criticized as contradictory and lacking systematic analysis. In a relevant portion which describes the English system, he calls the structure a mixed government, with separate roles for monarch, Lords, and Commons. He characterizes this as a republic, similar to the Rome of Polybius, because they embodied different interests and were able to check each other to prevent any of them from exercising power arbitrarily. England was a republic in function, but a monarchy in form.

Today, one sees systems self-named as republics that are a far cry from the foregoing examples. North Korea as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the People’s Republic of China, and the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics appear to have at most a passing resemblance to the Rome of Polybius or the England described by Montesquieu. Their “republican” connection seems to be at best a theoretical nod to the concept of the people, in the form of the proletarian class, as the source of authority, with the ruler chosen for long term, often life, by a token assemblage of delegates in a closed political system.

What then made classical Venice a republic? Based on classical taxonomy of “pure” political systems, Venice was an aristocracy. Although Venice had been founded under Roman rule, the most revealing period was the half-millennium between the constitutional reforms of 1297 and the Republic’s end after the city’s occupation by Napoleon in 1797. Like Rome and other classical polities, Venice had no written formal constitution or judicially applied constitutional law. The political structure was the result of practical responses to certain developments, the demands of popular opinion, and, as in Rome, the deference to custom traceable to the “wise ancestors.”

In 1297, membership in the nobility became fixed in certain families, and the previous fluid manner of gaining access through the accumulation of wealth during a period of economic expansion was foreclosed (the “Serrata”). That said, the number of nobles was significant, with estimates that it amounted at times to 5% of the population. The nobility governed, and their foundational institution was the Great Council. All adult males of the nobility belonged to the Council and could vote in its weekly meetings. That body debated and enacted laws. It voted on the appointment of the city’s political officials, of which at times there were estimated to be more than 800. Since the officials’ terms of office were brief, and turnover frequent, this task occupied considerable time of the Council.

In addition, there was another powerful political body, the 300-member Senate, Venice’s main effective policy-making institution. Nobles at least 32 years old were eligible to be selected by one of two procedures, election by the Council or by lot drawn from nominations by retiring Senators. Their annual terms overlapped, with no uniform beginning and end. As well, senior civil and military officers were members. The Senate determined policy for the government, most particularly in foreign and financial affairs. However, the agenda of the Senate was set by the 26-member Collegio, a sort of steering committee. While the Collegio could control what matters were debated by the Senate, it could only offer opinions held by various of its members about an issue, not submit concrete proposals.

The administrative part of the Venetian government was particularly complex, as described by Professor Scott Gordon in his well-researched book, Controlling the State. Regarding Venice, he refers frequently to Gasparo Contarini’s classic work from 1543, De Magistratibus et Republica Venetorum. Selection to office involved a confusing combination of voting and selection by lot. Gordon provides a schematic of the selection of the Doge, the city’s head. At once amusing and awe-inducing for its complexity, a simplified version is shown by: 30L-9L-40E-12L-25E-9L-45E-11L-41E-Doge, where L stands for selection by lot and E for election. In other words, at a meeting of the Great Council, the names of 30 members were drawn by lot. From them, 9 were drawn by lot. Those nine voted for 40 members of the Great Council. From those, 12 were drawn by lot, and so on, until 41 nominators were selected who would select the duke. This convoluted procedure had some anticipated benefits. Together with the prohibition of formal campaigning, the unpredictability of the eventual selecting body discouraged election rigging. Moreover, the time delays involved and the likely variation of opinions among the members of the Council encouraged debate in the Council and among the public about the qualifications of various potential candidates. Factionalism is unavoidable in large bodies, but its effects likely were somewhat blunted by this procedurally chaotic approach.

Although elected for life, the doge himself had little formal substantive power. He could do nothing official by himself. To meet visitors, or when he engaged in correspondence, at least two members of the Ducal Council had to be present. The Ducal Council was composed of six members elected for eight-month terms by the Great Council, each representing a geographic district of the city. They were the doge’s advisors, but also his watchdogs, much as the ephori (magistrates) of Sparta shadowed their kings.

Upon election, the new doge had to swear an oath on a document which detailed the limitations imposed on his office. Those limitations could vary, depending on the political conditions and the identity of the person selected. To remind him, the oath was reread to him every two months. After the doge died, his conduct was subject to an inquiry by committees of the Great Council. If he was found to have engaged in illegality, his estate could be fined, a not unusual result.

The office had little formal power, but it was more than simply ceremonial. The Doge presided over the meetings of the Great Council and the Senate, though he did so attended by the Ducal Council and the three chief judges of the criminal court. His power came from his long tenure and his participation in the processes and deliberations of all of the important organs of the city’s government.

There also were security and secret police organs, such as the shadowy Dieci (Council of Ten), elected by the Grand Council to staggered one-year terms, and the three Inquisitors. The Dieci targeted acts of subversion. The usual legal rules did not apply to them, to allow them to move quickly and secretly. The Inquisitors were a counterintelligence entity, set up to prevent disclosure of state secrets. Like all such extraordinary bodies connected to national security, they represented a potential threat to the republican structure of Venice. Notably, there is no record of them attempting to subvert the republic and seize power.

A final and very significant component of the Venetian system were the bureaucracy, the craft guilds, and the service clubs. All of these were controlled by the non-noble citizens of Venice. The first, especially, was an ever-expanding part of the government. Excluded from the political operations, commoners sought power through the bureaucratic departments. Eventually, a sort of bureaucratic oligarchy developed, as prominent families came to dominate certain departments over the generations. These cittadini roughly equaled the nobles in number, and they had the advantage that, unlike the annual terms of noble officeholders, they held their offices for life.

Venice acquired the reputation among writers during the 15th through 17th centuries of an “ideal” republic, with a stable constitution able to survive even catastrophic military defeat in 1508. The city was marked by good government and the protection of political and religious liberty. As noted by one modern commentator, Venice was “a Catholic state where the Protestant could share the security of the Greek and the Jew from persecution.”  The system stood in contrast to the violent chaos and bouts of persecution that characterized the history of Florence and other Italian cities, and the economic backwardness and lack of social mobility of the emerging nation-states, such as France. It was a wealthy, capitalist society, which was easily able to raise more tax revenues than nation-states with several times its population. On the military side, although it had no regular army or militia, Venice had for several centuries the most powerful navy in the world, with bases around the eastern Mediterranean to protect its far-ranging commercial interests.

However, by the 18th century, the “myth of Venice” had become tarnished, as the city acquired a reputation for civic decay. Hamilton and Madison wrote disparagingly about it in The Federalist, the latter claiming that the city did not meet the definition of a republic. Thus, coming back to that earlier question, why was Venice’s constitution described as such by so many? Madison’s own definition in No. 39 of The Federalist, in which he rejects characterizing Venice as a republic, emphasizes that the governing authority in a republic must come directly or indirectly from the “great body of the people,” and the government must be administered by persons holding office during good behavior.

It is true that the organs of state in Venice were controlled by a noble elite of at most 5% of the population. Yet, the general exclusion of women, children, convicts, and slaves from governance in the American states, along with the impact on free male adults of the property qualifications imposed by many states on voting well into the 19th century, undercuts Madison’s claim that the American states were republics. Moreover, in Venice the cittadini carried out the ordinary operations of the government and were, therefore, a significant force in the execution of government policy. Looking at terms of office, with the exception of the doge’s life tenure, office holders in Venice were usually selected for annual terms, unlike the longer terms of office for President, Representatives, Senators, and judges in the United States. Indeed, it was the very length of the tenures of officers of the general government which the Anti-federalists decried as unrepublican, and which Madison defended.

That is not to say that Madison’s focus is misplaced. It is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition of a republic that there is a significant element of popular participation, albeit one not amenable to precise reckoning. As important, however, is that the government is not unlimited and power is not concentrated in a single person, class, or body of persons. The balance and separation of powers which Madison considers to be crucial in The Federalist Numbers 10 and 51, when he defends against the charge that the Constitution is a prescription for tyranny, is also clearly present in Venice’s, one might say Byzantine, structure of overlapping entities checking and supervising each other. It was a structure that, by Madison’s time had, with some alterations, served the city for 500 years since the Serrata, and another three centuries since its independence from Byzantium before then. It took Napoleon’s mass army, the military might of a large nation-state, to end Venice’s long-functioning, but obsolete city-state constitution.

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.

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Guest Essayist: Daniel A. Cotter


Those who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787, 235 years ago this May, did not arrive without examples of what worked and what did not work in past empires or republics. With such wisdom, the Founding Fathers made sure the Constitution addressed regime failure. Two of those provisions are the Necessary and Proper Clause and the vesting clause of executive power.

The Necessary and Proper Clause

Article I of the United States Constitution sets forth the Congressional powers. Article I, Section 8, Clause 18 of the Constitution provides:

“[The Congress shall have Power] … To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.”

This clause has been referred to as the “elastic clause” or the “sweeping clause” because the language on its face appears to expand significantly the powers of Congress. The clause has been referred to as the most important provision in the Constitution, for good reason – most federal laws are enacted under this Clause 18.

From the beginning, the clause has been debated. In Federalist No. 33, Alexander Hamilton argued the “virulent invective and petulant declamation against the proposed Constitution” caused in large measure by the Necessary and Proper Clause was misdirected, writing in part:

They are only declaratory of a truth which would have resulted by necessary and unavoidable implication from the very act of constituting a federal government and vesting it with certain specified powers. This is so clear a proposition, that moderation itself can scarcely listen to the railings which have been so copiously vented against this part of the plan, without emotions that disturb its equanimity.

“What is a power, but the ability or faculty of doing a thing? What is the ability to do a thing, but the power of employing the MEANS necessary to its execution? What is a LEGISLATIVE power, but a power of making LAWS? What are the MEANS to execute a LEGISLATIVE power but LAWS? What is the power of laying and collecting taxes, but a LEGISLATIVE POWER, or a power of MAKING LAWS, to lay and collect taxes? What are the proper means of executing such a power, but NECESSARY and PROPER laws?”

James Madison in Federalist No. 44 reiterated much the same. Anti-federalists expressed concern about the unlimited power the Clause presented. Writing in Anti-federalist No. 32, Brutus wrote: “It is truly incomprehensible. A case cannot be conceived of, which is not included in this power. It is well known that the subject of revenue is the most difficult and extensive in the science of government.” The concern would play out in the Supreme Court over the years, beginning early in the republic.

In 1819, the Court supported the views of the Federalists, in McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. 316 (1819). Chief Justice John Marshall wrote the opinion, and after explaining the meaning of the clause, echoed the language of Federalist No. 44:

“We admit, as all must admit, that the powers of the Government are limited, and that its limits are not to be transcended. But we think the sound construction of the Constitution must allow to the national legislature that discretion with respect to the means by which the powers it confers are to be carried into execution which will enable that body to perform the high duties assigned to it in the manner most beneficial to the people. Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the Constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the Constitution, are Constitutional.

(Emphasis added.)

Vesting Clause

Article II, Section 1 begins: “The executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States.” Known as the “vesting clause,” this clause too has been the subject of debate. With no settled meaning of the term “executive power” at the founding, some have argued that the term refers only to those powers set forth in the Constitution in other provisions. The opponents of the minimalist view assert that the power is expansive, subject only to specific limitations included in the Constitution. The latter view is referred to as the “unitary executive” and many have argued the president has such powers, often the party of the president in the White House asserting he has such powers, but not when the opposing party is inhabiting the White House.

In Federalist Nos. 69 and 70, Hamilton wrote of the need for a singular executive and the powers. In Federalist No. 70, Hamilton wrote in part:

“This unity may be destroyed in two ways: either by vesting the power in two or more magistrates of equal dignity and authority; or by vesting it ostensibly in one man, subject, in whole or in part, to the control and co-operation of others, in the capacity of counsellors to him. Of the first, the two Consuls of Rome may serve as an example; of the last, we shall find examples in the constitutions of several of the States. New York and New Jersey, if I recollect right, are the only States which have intrusted the executive authority wholly to single men. Both these methods of destroying the unity of the Executive have their partisans; but the votaries of an executive council are the most numerous. They are both liable, if not to equal, to similar objections, and may in most lights be examined in conjunction.”

Conclusion

The Constitution’s wisdom is shown in many ways, including with the two provisions covered by this essay.  The careful drafting in 1787 has helped to ensure American Exceptionalism.

Dan Cotter is Attorney and Counselor at Howard & Howard Attorneys PLLC. He is the author of The Chief Justices, (published April 2019, Twelve Tables Press). He is also a past president of The Chicago Bar Association. The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to anyone else.

 

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Guest Essayist: Will Morrisey
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Plutarch writes of the life of Gaius Marius, the noted Roman general who seized power in the Roman Republic early in the first century B.C., that Marius was no patrician. He was born into the equestrian class—“poor smallholders,” as Plutarch describes them, a family living outside the great city. He rose to prominence on the strength of his own abilities and of his leading virtue, courage. As a young man, he had disdained the liberal arts education which had entered Rome from Greece. After all, were not the Greeks now the slaves of Rome, their education corruptive of the manliness that resists enslavement? A real man evidently needed no Aristotelian moderation, in Marius’ judgment: Plutarch cites Marius’ “harsh and better character,” his “inordinate love of power,” and “insatiable greed,” along with his inveterately superstitious mind, as markers of his rejection of everything urbane and civil. No gentleman he, and proud of it.

A great military strategist and tactician, Marius began his rise to prominence by crushing the Teutones and Ambrones at today’s Aix-en-Provence in 102 B.C. Using paupers and slaves as his soldiers, he next defeated and captured the formidable African monarch, Jugurtha. When the Teutones and the Cimbri joined forces to invade Italy, moving towards Rome, the Romans elected Marius consul, empowering him to repel the enemy. In this war, he proved a superb manipulator of the souls of his men, taking them to battle with appeal to their fear, their courage, their shame, their honor—all, sometimes, in the same speech.

“In a military context,” Plutarch writes, Marius’ “status and power were based on the fact that he was needed, but in political life his preeminence was curtailed, and he took refuge in the goodwill and favor of the masses”—not the patrician senators—and “abandoned any attempt to be the best man in Rome, so long as he could be the most powerful.” To do that, he needed to keep his soldiers satisfied and thereby to maintain his power base. This political necessity mirrored the character of his soul: “He was incapable of just quietly enjoying what he had.” Therefore, when he ran out of foreign wars, he could only turn to civil war. Forced into exile by his even more vicious rival, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, he regrouped his forces and came back, turning the city into a field of blood.

For centuries, Rome had been a proud republic, with elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy mixed in rough balance, with the senate as the balance-wheel. Marius and Sulla overturned that regime temporarily, foreshadowing the end of the republican regime at the hands of the Caesars, several decades later. Military overthrow of republics had occurred many times in Greece as well, and modern history has seen such revolutions in England (Oliver Cromwell), France (Napoleon Bonaparte), Iraq (Saddam Hussein), and many other countries. If there is any truth to the claim of ‘American exceptionalism,’ the absence of any such coup d’état in our own history undoubtedly ranks among the most striking examples of it. The dogs of war have barked no less frequently for Americans than for other nations, but the wolf of military takeover has remained silent. And this, despite the fact that we have seen some twelve U.S. generals elevated to the presidency, beginning with George Washington. Unlike Marius, our military men have been able to become first in peace after having been first in war, without bringing a general’s command-and-control temperament with them. The framers of the Articles of Confederation and the ‘anti-federalist’ opponents of the proposed United States Constitution in the late 1780s had provided for no presidency at all, in large measure to avoid the possibility that an independent executive branch could be seized by a military man, using the equivalent of the Roman consulship as his vehicle.

As students of the Roman regimes, the Framers of the Constitution recognized the need of energy in the executive as much as the Romans did. They also wanted to make their chief executive a defender of republican liberty, not its subverter. Politically ambitious military officers might channel their vigor and courage into peaceful civilian life, including high office, but no more than that. With this intention, the Framers designed the ruling institutions of the new republic in ways that have kept tyrannical souls like those of Marius and Sulla out of the presidency.

Marius could not have risen to power in Rome except by exploiting Rome’s factionalism, the inveterate resentment of the many plebeians for the few patricians. In Federalist 10, Publius famously calls faction the characteristic vice of popular governments. Factions typically center on what he calls the various and unequal distribution of property. The regulation of property has become “the principal task of modern legislation,” since “neither moral nor religious motives” adequately moderate factitious passions. As Rome itself had repeatedly proven, “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.” One way to control faction and thereby to prevent the tyranny that may arise to eradicate it is by designing the republic’s ruling offices not so much along the lines of a mixed regime, as in Rome, but in accordance with the principle of representation. The people will have a voice, but not directly—only through their elected delegates to the bicameral legislature and, much more indirectly, through the Electoral College to the presidency. The most democratic part of the government, the House of Representatives, will consist of persons who know their constituents but do not need simply to register their desires. Representative government enables officials to deliberate, to “refine and enlarge the public views.” The kind of appeal Marius made to the Romans would find itself quickly diluted among the Americans.

If there is something resembling a ‘mixed-regime republican’ element in the Unites States government, it can be found in that bicameral legislature. Although, as a democratic republic, America doesn’t have a born-to-rule patrician class as in Rome (and indeed as in Europe at the time of the Founding), there is no question that Senate members tend to be wealthier than members of the House. In the thirty-fourth Federalist, Publius examines how this kind of legislature will govern military expenditures. Such expenditures, he writes cannot be limited constitutionally, as it’s impossible to estimate far in advance the cost of wars, “contingencies that must baffle all the efforts of political arithmetic.” As we are not “entirely out of [Europe’s] reach,” and would indeed become less so as naval technology advanced, “to model our political systems upon calculations of lasting tranquility would be to calculate on the weaker springs of the human character.”

Rome exemplified this dilemma, Publius observes. Its liberties “proved the final victory to her military triumphs.” As for modern Europe, its “liberties…as far as they have ever existed, have, with few exceptions, been the price of her military establishments” (Federalist 41). This being so, a standing army “is a dangerous, [and] at the same time that it may be a necessary, provision.” Therefore, “a wise nation will combine all these considerations.”

The federal union, however, “by itself, destroys every pretext for a military establishment which could be dangerous.” Although one or a few states might be easy prey to foreign invaders, “America united,” even without a standing army, “exhibits a more forbidding posture to foreign ambition than America disunited.” “The moment of [the Union’s] dissolution will be the date of a new order of things.” In that event, “the face of America will be but a copy of that of the continent of Europe,” its liberty “crushed between standing armies and perpetual taxes.” Worse still, a disunited America would see foreign powers playing divide and rule on this continent, even as they do in Europe. As I write these lines, this has been exactly the strategy followed by Russia in its several invasions of Ukraine, perhaps with more to come, beyond Ukraine.

The fact that all spending bills must originate in the House—again, the most democratic branch of the democratic republic—will limit such spending nonetheless, as the people have won the battle against taxation without representation. At the same time, the more nearly patrician, or at least richer, Senators, with their longer terms in office, will moderate any impassioned rush into war. Congress as a whole can check and balance ambitious presidents, if only by exercising the power of the purse. Further, Congress must limit its funding, as “the Constitution ties down the legislature to two years as the longest admissible term” for military appropriations.

The Framers built additional constraints into the office of the executive itself. Publius forthrightly observes that “energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government”—a character the Articles of Confederation lacked. “A feeble executive implies a feeble execution of the government,” which is one way of having “a bad government.” This, he continues, is especially true in war, which is why the American president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces. In Federalist 70, Publius pays considerable attention to the executive offices of the Roman republic.

The “ingredients” of executive energy are unity, duration in office, financial support, and competent power.” Safety in the executive depends upon a due dependence upon the people and due responsibility for one’s conduct in office. How did Rome measure up to these standards?

In its frequent wars, Rome “was obliged to take refuge in the absolute power of a single man, under the formidable title of dictator, as well as against the intrigues of ambitious individuals who aspired to tyranny, and the seditions of whole classes of the community whose conduct threatened the existence of all government, as against the invasion of external enemies who menaced the conquest and destruction of Rome.” The dictator had little or no dependence upon the patricians, let alone the people as a whole. And he made sure that he could not be prosecuted for anything he did while dictator.

When it did not suffer under dictatorship, however, Rome had not one but two co-equal executives, the consuls. That is, if something went wrong, each pointed the finger of blame at the other. Responsibility was lacking. This executive dualism might well have led to even more rivalry than it did, except that the patricians were so frequently in conflict with the plebeians at the same time they were faced with foreign wars and invasions. This led the Romans to give one consul authority over foreign policy, the other over domestic policy, keeping the two men distracted from one another. “This expedient must no doubt have had great influence in preventing those collisions and rivalships which might otherwise have embroiled the peace of the republic.”

In the American republic, by contrast, the executive enjoys the unity of a Roman dictatorship along with the powers of commander-in-chief while at the same time being constrained by four-year terms in office and by dependency on Congress for financial support. Publius is well aware that an executive might be tempted to undertake a life of Marius. “Self- love” often causes “the great interests of society [to be] sacrificed to the vanity, to the conceit, to the obstinacy of individuals, who have credit enough to make their passions and their caprices interesting to mankind.” Against this, the Framers designed a regime that frustrates such passions, while recognizing that they will never be extirpated so long as human beings are what they are.

In addition to the institutional structures ordained in the Constitution, one must notice that the way of life in republican Rome differed from that of America. Rome had begun as a military monarchy, then became a military republic. Even in its founding legend, Romulus overpowered Remus and, as Roman historians from Livy to Tacitus testify, it fought its way through the centuries. Because it was so good at pursuing that way of life, its great generals became its principal heroes. More, as those men ranged farther afield in the republic’s extensive empire, their troops became more attached to their generals than to Rome and its republic. A military republic thus encourages not only habits of obedience to one commander but the geopolitical circumstances in which such a regime might easily threaten the civilian-ruled capital.

America’s commercial republic is as extensive as many of the ancient empires, but the American way of life inclines us to think of territory less in terms of military rule than of free trade. From the start, Americans have understood their political union as a vast free-trade zone. Ambitious citizens most often devote their lives and energies to peaceful commercial competition, not military rivalry. The best accounts of the distinction between military and commercial republics remain Montesquieu’s Considerations on the Greatness of the Romans and their Decline and his massive and authoritative The Spirit of the Laws both works well known to the American Founders.

Finally, the purpose of the American republic differs from that of the Romans. The Declaration of Independence maintains that government should aim at securing the safety and happiness of the people. Romans most assuredly sought their own safety, but it wasn’t happiness so much as glory that its leading men prized. War did not only seek them out; they sought it. And so have many rulers and many peoples, before and since—America (mostly) excepted. Our presidents have sometimes conquered for territory—invoking our ‘Manifest Destiny’ to rule from sea to shining sea on this continent—but seldom for fame, which Alexander Hamilton called “the ruling passion of the noblest minds.” Thanks to the Framers’ work, that ruling passion has stayed within the boundaries of reason, along with the men whose minds are ruled by it.

Will Morrisey is Professor Emeritus of Politics at Hillsdale College, and Editor and Publisher of Will Morrisey Reviews.

 

 

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Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath


Rome, the city-state on the Tiber River, like her counterparts in Greece, had no cohesive written constitution. There were the Twelve Tables from around 450 B.C., of which mere fragments remain, which are sometimes presented as the Roman Republic’s constitution. However, the tablets were more an attempt to codify certain principles of criminal and civil law, rather than to lay the foundation for a political system. However, they did begin the practice in Roman law of published codes enacted by a legislative body and accessible to all citizens, which remained a core characteristic of European legal systems influenced by Rome.

Much of Rome’s political constitution by contrast was the product of custom. That custom evolved through responses to changes in the society’s social structure, through the citizens’ tacit acceptance of political bodies that arose from critical events, and by incorporating founding legends. An example of the first was the change in sources of wealth and the nature of the aristocracy comprising the leading families. The second would include the expulsion of Rome’s last king, the Etruscan Tarquin the Proud, at the end of the 6th century B.C. That event resulted immediately in the preeminence of the established aristocratic council, the Senate, and, a half-century later, in the emergence of the assemblies as sources of political influence for the commoners. The last would be the creation of institutions (such as the Senate and the tribunes) and practices said to go back to the 8th century B.C., and the acts of Rome’s first king, the legendary Romulus, and his successor, the Sabine Numa Pompilius.

While the writings of historians such as Livy and Sallust and political leaders such as Cicero are instructive, the single most authoritative source for the Roman constitution is its earliest expositor, the great Greek historian and father of constitutional analysis, Polybius of Megalopolis. Born in 200 B.C., he became a prominent politician in the Achaean League, of which his city was a member. The League, had for some years, had to tread a narrow path in relations with Rome, by then in control of most of Greece. With some exceptions, the leaders of the Greek cities generally were less than thrilled about Roman control. Such lack of enthusiasm raised suspicions and put those politicians in potential danger.

After Rome in 168 B.C. defeated Macedon for the third and final time, the Senate decided to break up that kingdom into four tributary republics. Rome also “went Roman” on the Greeks allied with Macedon, destroying 70 towns in the region of Epirus and selling a reported 150,000 into slavery. Rome’s Greek “allies” fared better but were disciplined for their lack of commitment. Polybius was among the 1000 Achaean leaders suspected of “fence-sitting” who were deported. Most were sent to provincial towns away from Greece.

Polybius was allowed to stay in Rome itself, due to the intervention of two powerful Roman leaders, Scipio Aemilianus and his brother. The developing friendship between Scipio and Polybius gave the latter access to the Roman elite. His learning and gregarious and active personality further solidified those connections. Polybius, in turn, became a committed advocate for the city and its system of government. As well, his favored status gave him extensive freedom to travel. When the Senate authorized the Greeks to return to their cities, Polybius declined. Instead, he eventually accompanied his friend Scipio to North Africa when the latter was given the command of the army sent to destroy Carthage in the Third Punic War. Polybius was well acquainted with Rome, its history, and its institutions, and he wrote about them with affinity.

The Histories is Polybius’s major influential work. It was a massive undertaking of 40 books, although one needs to keep in mind that the physical limitations of papyrus scrolls meant that a “book” might be more like a quite lengthy chapter today, and the entire effort perhaps a couple of thousand pages. The first five books are fully available, with more or less extensive excerpts from many others. Some are entirely lost. Most of the work covers Roman history from the Second Punic War (against Hannibal) to Polybius’s time. Most important to constitutional analysis is Book 6, the numerous preserved fragments of which cover, in the estimate of one authority, about two-thirds of the book. Missing is a thorough analysis of the Roman assemblies, in contrast to his discussion of other elements of the Roman constitution.

The constitution Polybius describes is that of his time, after Rome has finalized its drive for dominance of the Mediterranean world. The Punic Wars lie in the past, Carthage has been eradicated, and the destructive Social Wars and civil wars are in the future. Romans’ confidence in their institutions is high, and the republic which Polybius describes is at its political zenith. As was the habit of classic Greek observers of political systems, Polybius believed in a duality of good and bad forms of government, with an inexorable process of degeneration between those forms. But, unlike, for example, Plato and Aristotle, he claimed to see in the Roman constitution a system resistant to such degeneration. He also observed that states commonly moved through those forms sequentially and even attempted an anthropological explanation for the origins of government. Thus, he argued an archaic form of monarchy emerged when the physically dominant member of a primitive band of humans took command.

As societies become more sophisticated, that archaic form of tribal leadership proves inadequate. A more stable form of kingship emerges, one based on reason and excellence of judgment, which, in turn, fosters consent of the governed. Initially, such kings are elected for life. Eventually, the dynastic impulse of rulers to pass their office from father to son leads to kingship often becoming hereditary. Over time, such dynastic succession induces a sense of superiority and entitlement, which results in formal distinctions and ceremonies to set the royals apart from commoners. Worse, these royals begin to consider themselves exempt from rules and morals. As ordinary people begin to react with disgust at such licentiousness and arrogance, the ruler responds with anger and force. Thus, the inevitable outgrowth of kingship is tyranny.

The wealthy and talented members of respected families chafe at the tyrant’s rule the most. Conspiracies develop and the tyrant is replaced by a ruling class of high-minded men, the aristocracy. Recalling Plato’s criticism of oligarchy, Polybius saw the degeneration as the fault of the sons, not the fathers. As he wrote, the descendants “had no conception of hardship, and just as little of political equality or the right of any citizen to speak his mind, because all their lives they had been surrounded by their fathers’ powers and privileges.” Soon enough, the government controlled by supremely moral and wise men gives way to a self-interested oligarchy “dedicated … to rapaciousness and unscrupulous money-making, or to drinking and the non-stop partying that goes with it ….”

The general populace, encouraged in their passions by manipulative leaders, murders or banishes the oligarchs and itself takes on the responsibilities of government. Democracy, according to Polybius, is based on majority rule, but a majority tempered by “the traditional values of piety towards the gods, care of parents, respect for elders, and obedience to the laws.” This sounds strikingly like the admonition of republicans through the ages, that self-government requires self-restraint, focus on the common good and general welfare, and a strong moral and religious framework to promote republican virtue. John Adams’s observation that the American system was fit only for a moral and religious people is one example particularly relevant to the American experience. The exhortation in the third article of the great North-West Ordinance of 1787, about “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind” is another.

Regrettably, such values prove to be in short supply, and the population of the democracy, now encouraged in their delusions by manipulative politicians, believes instead that it has “the right to follow every whim and inclination.” Those ambitious for power and wealth seek to get ahead by corrupting the people with money to obtain their support. The common people become greedy for such largesse, and democratic self-government degenerates into ochlocracy (“mob rule”). As Polybius described the fate of democracy, “For once people had grown accustomed to eating off others’ tables and expected their daily needs to be met, then, when they found someone to champion their cause … they instituted government by force: they banded together and set about murdering, banishing, and redistributing land, until they were reduced to a bestial state and once more gained a monarchic master.” This is the predictable and depressing lifecycle of political systems. Polybius would have nodded knowingly, had he been present at Benjamin Franklin’s reply to his interlocutor about the type of government produced at the Philadelphia Convention, “A republic, Madam; if you can keep it.”

Fortunately, such a cycle of corrupt and degenerate forms of government could be avoided, and Rome showed the way. Polybius exalted Rome as a “mixed” government, composed of essential elements of all taxonomic forms, monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Unlike Plato’s fictitious ideal republic, Rome’s was a functioning system which had proved its mettle for centuries. Unlike Aristotle’s description of the Athenian government as a workable, but uneasy, mixture of popular and oligarchic elements in the Assembly on one side and the Council of 500 and other institutions on the other, Rome succeeded because of its more developed balance of powers. In that, according to Polybius, Rome’s constitution resembled that of Sparta, although Rome’s developed by natural evolution rather than from a conscious decision by a wise lawgiver like the mythical Spartan Lycurgus. Polybius regarded Sparta’s system as particularly enlightened and wrote with great favor about it, although he recognized that the structure did not prevent Spartan hubris from engaging in ultimately disastrous foreign military adventures. In light of Sparta’s legal totalitarianism, it is ironic that Polybius ascribed to this mixed government a long history of liberty in Sparta. Perhaps by this he meant independence. In any event, his characterization of mixed government became the classic understanding of what today would be called a system of limited government.

The preeminent political institution of the Roman Republic was the Senate. Although eligibility changed over time as membership was opened up to the more prominent plebeian class, the equites ((knights), the Senate was primarily the institution of Rome’s aristocratic families, the patricians. The body had begun as a council composed of 100 men chosen by Romulus from the leading land-holding families as city fathers (“patres“). Initially, it was solely a hereditary body, but eventually the primary determinant, if one sought admission to the Senate, became landed wealth. The Senate had the power over appropriations. The civil functionaries had to obtain Senate consent for all expenditures, most importantly for the massive funds spent every few years on the repair and construction of public buildings. Major crimes, such as treason, conspiracy, and gang murder were under Senate jurisdiction. Foreign relations, colonial administration, and matters of war and peace were the domain of the Senate.

Striking about the Senate was that it had no formal role except to act as an advisory council, the same as under the earlier monarchy. In reality, it was the single most powerful body in the republic, due to its class ties and consciousness, its continuous sessions, and its life membership. Moreover, the mos maiorum (the “custom of the ancestors”), the powerful force of tradition in the Roman constitution, sustained the legitimacy of the Senate. A senatus consultum was merely an advisory opinion by the Senate, but such an opinion was required for any law proposed for adoption by an assembly. Although a consultum could be overridden by the assembly or could be vetoed by a plebeian tribune, in reality an unfavorable consultum usually spelled the end of the proposed law or, if enacted, caused it not to be enforced by the magistrates. Polybius noted, if one were to look solely at the Senate, one would believe that Rome was an aristocracy. Or, in the more jaundiced view of some historians who claimed that the Senate was actually controlled by a tightly knit small hereditary group of families, it was an oligarchy.

There was also, however, another long tradition in Rome’s constitution, “What touches all must be approved by all.” As Cicero put it in Republic, “res publica, res populi.” The consent of the people was given through the assemblies. Polybius described their role in assessing taxes, the ratification of treaties, actual declaration of war, and confirming the appointment of officials. Moreover, the people had a role in legal processes. All death penalties had to be approved by an assembly. The same held for more general criminal cases where a substantial fine would be imposed. He concluded that, from this perspective, one might declare Rome a democracy.

There were various assemblies over time, and Roman citizens could attend any. Histories does not have much discussion of them. This might be because Polybius was not a great admirer of those bodies or, more simply, because his discussion is in the chapters which have been lost. These explanations are not contradictory, and there is evidence for both. One such body was the Centuriate Assembly, the oldest. It can be traced to a 6th century B.C. king and was modeled on the centuriae, the military units of 100 infantry and 10 cavalry that each of the ten subunits of the three “tribes” of Rome had to provide. As in Athens, these tribes were not based on ethnicity but were simply geographic constituencies within the city.

As the city grew, so did the number of tribes and the size of the voting units. For a long time, there were 193 “centuries.” They were organized on the basis of land ownership, wealth, and age, which, in turn, was related to the type of military service and associated weaponry of the members. At the top were the equites (knights), who were wealthy enough to provide horses and served in the cavalry. They had 18 centuries. Next were 170 centuries for the infantry, divided further into five classes based on their members’ wealth and weaponry. Below them were five centuries for the proletarii (the poor), those who could not supply weapons and typically were assigned to the navy.

In contrast to the Athenian ekklesia, in the Roman system the citizens did not vote simply as individuals. Although they met in the same place, the actual voting took place within their respective centuries. Each century had one vote, determined by the majority vote of citizens assigned to that century. The Assembly’s approval depended on a majority vote of the centuries, not of the undifferentiated citizens. With 193 centuries, the votes of majorities in 97 of those centuries would be required to approve a measure. In fact, voting was heavily skewed in favor of the equites and the wealthiest layer of the others. Between them, they were assigned 98 centuries, on the reasoning that those who provided the most financial support and had the most to lose in military service should have the most influence. Moreover, voting was done in class order, with the centuries of the equites voting first, those of the wealthiest class of others voting next, followed by the next lower group, and so on. The poor voted last. As a result, the vote of the poor rarely mattered. Class solidarity, the number of centuries weighted towards the wealthy, and the staggered voting meant that most issues would be decided well before the smaller landowners or the poor voted. Even the reforms of the 3rd century B.C., which expanded the number of centuries for the landowning classes to 350, had little effect on the dominance of the wealthy.

The Assembly could only consider bills which were on the agenda set by the tribunes or the magistrates. The citizens could vote on the proposal but not debate the bill at issue or offer amendments. Finally, all voting was done in the city of Rome. As the city’s domain spread, it became more difficult for any but wealthy citizens to travel to Rome for the duration of the Assembly’s legislative or appointive tasks. Based on his analysis of the system, the historian Scott Gordon doubts that even one-tenth of the 400,000 Roman male citizens at the end of the 2nd century B.C. attended a voting assembly in their lifetimes. The formal powers of the Assembly eventually were transferred to the Senate by the Emperor Tiberius.

There was, however, one mechanism by which the public could express its views, the contio. After a bill was proposed by a tribune, there had to be a period of at least twenty-four days before the Assembly could vote on it. This allowed for informal discussion among citizens of the bill’s merits. Moreover, any tribune could call for a formal meeting, the contio, which all residents, including women, foreigners, and slaves, could attend. The only speakers permitted were those selected by the presiding tribune and usually were senators or various magistrates. Public comment was limited to shouts and other sounds indicating support or opposition.

The final part of the formally operating civil government were judicial, executive, and administrative officials. Chief among them were those sought by ambitious Romans embarked on the cursus honorum, the “path of honors” along a sequence of offices, the apex of which was the consulship. All were initially open only to those of senatorial rank, but eligibility was expanded in the 4th century B.C. In practice, only scions of the wealthy families were likely to be elected, especially as consul. Thus, Cicero, a non-patrician resident of a non-Roman town in Latium and member of the knightly class, the highest of the plebeian classes, climbed this ladder of success quickly.

Election to these offices was by the Assembly for a one-year term, with minimum age requirements. The lowest office was that of the quaestor, who had to be 30 years old and have completed several years of military service. Quaestors were in charge of financial administration, a source of influence for further political advancement, and of record-keeping for the state archives. Above the quaestor was the aedile, in charge of public facilities and public festivals and celebrations. The next rung in the ladder was the praetor, a multi-function office. Praetors performed judicial functions but also could step into the executive role of consul if both of the consuls were absent from the city. As jurists, praetors had significant influence on the development of the body of Roman law. After his term ended, a praetor could also be awarded a foreign post as propraetor. This included military power, with full governing authority in the province. There was no term limit for that office.

At the end of the cursus honorum beckoned the consulship. The Assembly elected two consuls each year, at least one of whom was usually engaged in military campaigns in the provinces, the consul peregrinus. The one in Rome, the consul urbanus, had no real military function, because armed forces had to be kept some distance from Rome during peacetime, a constitutional limit broken, for example, by Julius Caesar when he crossed the Rubicon River. The consul’s position in the Republic was one of influence, not formal power. Any executive decision could be vetoed by the other consul and any of the ten plebeian tribunes, Moreover, he could not override the actions of other magistrates. However, his status as a member of a leading family and constant interaction with the Senate, plus the fact that he had survived the competition to reach the apex of the cursus honorum gave his opinions and actions great constitutional legitimacy. After his one-year term ended, a consul could not be re-elected for at least ten years, until the general Marius destroyed that informal constitutional limit in the 1st century B.C. After his term, a consul could be elected as proconsul, the highest military and administrative position in the provinces, with no term limits. This usually arose from the extended military campaigns abroad, which necessitated continuity of command.

Finally, outside the formal cursus honorum were the tribuni plebis, ultimately ten in number, who originally represented the “tribes” or sections of the city. Tribunes spoke for the political interests of the plebeians. They were elected to one-year terms by the Assembly. In that capacity, they were responsible to assist any plebeian who had been wronged by a magistrate. This included the power to overrule an unjust judicial order of punishment. The tribunes’ political power extended to vetoing any bills proposed to the Assembly by other magistrates and to consulta of the Senate deemed contrary to the plebeians’ interests. Eventually, they became members of the Senate and set the agenda for that body. While they formally represented the plebeian classes, with some exceptions such as the famous Gracchi brothers, they were no radicals. They were typically drawn from the patricians and the knights, the high-status classes, and shared their interests. As well, their potentially significant power was impeded by the fact that any affirmative act of a tribune could be vetoed by any of his nine colleagues. In reality, tribunes could act as a shield for the commoners against the wealthy, but rarely as an effective sword to advance the interests of the lower classes in opposition to the wealthy.

One additional aspect of the Republic’s constitutional practices bears mention. Every system has to deal with the state of emergency that can arise over time, the most common of which is war, either foreign or civil. For a long time, in such exceptional circumstances the Roman Senate would formally appoint a dictator to rule by decree for six months. That practice was discontinued by the end of the 3rd century B.C. Instead, during later troubles, such as those of the civil wars of the 1st century B.C., such exceptional powers would be authorized under the terms of a senatus consultum ultimum, a “final act of the Senate” needed to protect the Republic.

Polybius saw in the structure of the magistracies, especially in the consuls, the monarchic element that was part of the “balance” in the Republic’s constitution. In the various interactions of Senate, Assembly, and tribunes, and in their mutual formal and practical limitations, he perceived a system of “checks” on the power of any of them. In some of the particulars, he was off the mark. For example, unlike the Spartan kings to which he compared the consuls, the latter served for only one year, not life. Moreover, the consuls lacked the formal powers one normally associates with kingship. On the whole, however, his assessment has merit.

Historians have long debated the causes of the Republic’s demise. There is certainly no reason to limit the matter to one such cause. Among them was the collapse of broadly-distributed land ownership which sustained a “middle class” in an agricultural republic. As the wealthy became more so regardless of the source, they bought up more land. Land was a reflection of one’s status. Indeed, because commercial ventures were formally prohibited for Senators, one needed land to join that body. The demand raised the price of land and the taxes imposed on it. The growth of these large latifundia drove the previous smaller landowners into the city. There, they became part of the urban proletariate and competed for employment with the large and growing number of slaves acquired through foreign conquests and with other foreigners attracted to the increasingly imperial city.

Another cause was the opportunity for power and wealth afforded to successful generals operating as proconsuls in the provinces. With the troops often ill-paid by Rome, local taxes were extracted by these commanders and used to pay the troops directly. Loyalties became redirected from the city to the commander. The republican slogan SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus), “the Senate and the People of Rome,” which appeared on the standards of the legions, was supplanted by the reality that, “You take the king’s silver, you become the king’s man.” Especially as those troops were increasingly formed from poor Roman volunteers or foreigners, especially after the military reforms of Gaius Marius around the turn of the 1st century B.C., it became easier for generals to use those professional troops—or threaten to do so—against the city itself and to rule by force. Marius himself, and his erstwhile protégée Sulla, set unfortunate examples.

Perhaps most significant was the fundamental change in the political and social conditions of Rome. Consistent with Polybius’s theory, the societal degeneration about which he had warned as the inevitable result of the democratization of politics and the weakening of the population’s character brought about thereby, in fact occurred a couple of generations after his death. The impoverishment of a large portion of society and the resultant dependency on public largesse for survival, made those citizens susceptible to the slogans and programs of the populares, such as Julius Caesar and other, more dangerous demagogues. The bloody competition among families of the oligarchic upper classes, as shown in the Social Wars and the proscriptions of the military commanders Marius and Sulla, contributed to the chaos which sent the Republic on the path to the monarchy of the Empire.

The same events that brought about that radical social transformation also manifested themselves in the essential incongruity of governing a huge multi-cultural empire through institutions designed for a small city-state on the Tiber River. The notion of “community,” with shared traditions, civic and religious, and an ethic of sacrifice necessary to sustain the civic engagement at the core of real self-government, is eroded in the chaos of ethnic, linguistic, religious, and cultural diversity and the impersonality of large numbers. Had the Roman elite been willing to open up its political institutions and to extend citizenship and formal participation in the political system to all parts of their domain sufficiently and in a timely manner, a republican structure of sorts might have survived. As it was, the city had become an empire in fact well before its political structure changed from Polybius’s republic to Octavian’s monarchy.

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.

 

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Guest Essayist: Ron Meier


Not all the political leaders in the 13 states were sold on the Constitution presented to the states for ratification in the fall of 1787. It was common under the Articles of Confederation to require unanimous agreement, of the states to changes, made to the Articles. Aware that unanimous agreement on the Constitution was unlikely, the Constitutional Convention delegates decided that the Constitution would require only nine states’ ratification to become effective. Had Las Vegas existed then, the betting would have reflected the more-likely result that the Constitution would not be ratified.

Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay, and others realized that a marketing and communication campaign had to be waged. They were especially concerned about New York, and proceeded to write a series of 85 essays in New York newspapers to sell the new Constitution to the public. Those essays are known as the Federalist Papers. Those opposed to the new Constitution, known as Anti-federalists, countered with their own essays to disprove the points in each of the Federalist Papers.

The Anti-federalists were as well educated on the history of governmental structures of the past and, in particular, knew that Democratic Republics were unlikely to survive because of their greater trust in the political wisdom and virtue of the common man. The Anti-federalists also were concerned that a “national” government, rather than a stronger Confederation, would quickly erode the Sovereign powers of the individual states. They feared a national government, not unlike the British government they had just relinquished, that would dictate to the states and leave the state governments with few powers, even over more local matters. Although the Tenth Amendment was designed to ensure that the states retained significant powers, to some extent, the Anti-federalist fears have been increasingly realized, especially since the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment when the Senate was effectively made into a second House of Representatives by popular election of the Senators rather than the Senators being “representatives” of the states who sent them to Washington. Since then, Federal mandates have diminished the power of the states to act independently with respect to many otherwise local issues.

The Federalists had a difficult job to sell the Constitution, but their wisdom eventually won the day. Some of the major issues addressed are reflected below.

In Anti-federalist 47, the author writes, “Mr. Adams has traced the constitution of every form of government that ever existed. A republican, or free government, can only exist where the body of the people are virtuous.” All our founders were very familiar with the writings of Cicero and Aristotle regarding individual and community virtue and many Anti-federalists doubted that sufficient civic virtue existed in man to make this new experiment at republican government successful.

“But Hamilton’s notes for his famed five-hour (only) speech to the Convention cite Cicero, as well as Aristotle and Montesquieu, in favor of the Constitution’s proposed mixed government theory, and Madison’s notes, while drafting the Federalist Papers, cite Cicero in addition to Aristotle and Polybius. Hamilton based his foundation of republican government on Cicero’s as that strong, representative government which is most conducive to liberty and resistant to tyranny.”[1]

In Anti-federalist 57, the author notes that “the men most commonly presented to the people as candidates for the offices of representatives include (1) the natural aristocracy, (2) popular demagogues, and (3) the substantial and respectable part of the democracy, a numerous and valuable set of men, who discern and judge well, but from being generally silent in public assemblies are often overlooked. He fears that those elected to the national House of Representatives will be less likely to come from the third category than from the first two categories.”

In Federalist 57, Madison counters this argument saying, “Who are to be the electors of the federal representatives? Not the rich, more than the poor; not the learned, more than the ignorant; not the haughty heirs of distinguished names, more than the humble sons of obscurity and unpropitious fortune. The electors are to be the great body of the people of the United States. They are to be the same who exercise the right in every State of electing the corresponding branch of the legislature of the State. No qualification of wealth, of birth, of religious faith, or of civil profession is permitted to fetter the judgement or disappoint the inclination of the people.” Furthermore, Madison notes that a key restraint to the election of representatives, who are found unworthy after their election, is the requirement in the Constitution that Representatives be elected every two years, allowing constituents to “throw the bums out” quickly.

Separation of powers was an important element of the new Constitution.  Anti-federalists weren’t convinced of the validity of the claim that such separation would be effective. But in Federalist 47, Madison observes that “the oracle who is always consulted and cited on this subject (separation of powers) is the celebrated Montesquieu.” Madison then quotes Montesquieu as saying, “There can be no liberty where the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person or body of magistrates, or if the power of judging be not separated from the legislative and executive powers.”

The authors of the Federalist papers used extant facts from foreign governments as well as from the Constitutions and practices of the 13 states to demonstrate that what the Constitution proposed is not so distinct but, in fact, identifies deficiencies in those documents and proposes solutions to correct those deficiencies. Madison, in Federalist 47 examined the Constitutions of each of the states to prove his case that provisions such as separation of powers already existed at the state level; if they existed there, then why would the anti-federalists believe that such a provision wouldn’t work at the national level?

Whether to have one or two bodies in the legislature was a topic of contention in the Convention. The final Constitution proposal was for two bodies, a House and a Senate. In Anti-federalist 63, the authors state, “But they are so formed, that the members of both must generally be the same kind of men, men having similar interests and views, feelings and connections, men of the same grade in society, and who associate on all, occasions. The Senate, from the mode of its appointment, will probably be influenced to support the state governments; and, from its periods of service will produce stability in legislation, while frequent elections may take place in the other branch.”

In Federalist 63, Madison notes that, “history informs us of no long-lived republic which had not a senate.” And, as to an equivalent to the Constitution’s House of Representatives, Madison states that, “in Sparta we meet with the Ephori, and in Rome with the Tribunes; two bodies, small indeed in numbers, but annually ELECTED BY THE WHOLE BODY OF THE PEOPLE, and considered as the REPRESENTATIVES of the people, almost in their PLENIPOTENTIARY capacity,” and “The Tribunes of Rome, who were the representatives of the people, prevailed, it is well known, in almost every contest with the senate for life, and in the end gained the most complete triumph over it.”

Because of the breadth and depth of the Founding Fathers’ understanding of both good and bad governments from ancient to then-current history, their debates in the Constitutional Convention, and in the political pamphlets produced in those days, were robust. The citizens read the Anti-federalist and Federalist arguments and heard both sides’ arguments in the churches and meeting halls in their communities. Because civic virtue was an important part of their formal and informal education in the 18th century, they were able to decide that the strengths of human nature could prevail over its weaknesses and that the experiment the Convention created, had a better than even chance of success.

Ron Meier is a West Point graduate and Vietnam War veteran. He is a student of American history, with a focus on our nation’s founding principles and culture, the Revolutionary War, and the challenges facing America’s Constitutional Republic in the 20th and 21st centuries. Ron won Constituting America’s Senior Essay contest in 2014 and is author of Common Sense Rekindled: A Rejuvenation of the American Experiment, featured on Constituting America’s Recommended Reading List. 

(1) What the founders learned from Cicero // The Observer (ndsmcobserver.com)

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Guest Essayist: Ron Meier
The School of Athens, Raphael, 1509-1511, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City

In our schools over the past century or so, we’ve learned, and quickly forgotten after the test, a little about some of the great philosophers who lived thousands of years ago, the ancient Greek and Roman empires, the Kings of medieval Europe, the pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock and Jamestown in the 17th century, and the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Since the early 19th century, academic attention has increasingly shifted to a focus on more utilitarian subjects, particularly STEM over the past half century since the first rockets left the earth’s atmosphere to circle the earth in outer space.

All our Founding Fathers were educated in the early-to-middle 18th century. Some were able to attend the colleges of the day, but most were not so able and were self-taught or homeschooled. Primary and secondary education for all included study of the Bible. Libraries were few until Benjamin Franklin and his Junto Club[1] members started the first public library in the early 18th century. Soon thereafter they started the American Philosophical Society to “promote useful knowledge.”

With so few books and libraries, no internet to provide instantaneous acquisition of virtually any information or knowledge one would like to acquire, no email to communicate with anyone anywhere in the world, no Zoom to interact with experts on any topic, it’s natural to wonder how America’s Founding Fathers could have acquired the knowledge required to write the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, and later, the United States Constitution. How were they able to create a Constitution, admired around the world, in only three months meeting in the humid city of Philadelphia in a building with no air conditioning?

Whether in a formal school or not, colonial children had to acquire a broad body of knowledge to survive in the largely agrarian, merchant, and shopkeeper society of that time; knowledge of religion, science, literature, art, rhetoric, human nature, and politics were necessary to solve the problems each would encounter in daily life, both individually and in their spiritual and political communities. Few could afford specialization in one body of knowledge as is more common today. We call those few among us today with such a wide-ranging body of knowledge Renaissance Men (and Women).

The Colonies’ most influential authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution included Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison.

Thomas Jefferson attended the College of William and Mary where he studied science, philosophy and law. He learned the law from the leading Virginia legal scholar, George Wythe. Acknowledging the importance of education, he later founded the University of Virginia.[2] Jefferson, well-educated in the classics, “argued that the Declaration of Independence rested on the authority of Cicero and Aristotle as well as that of Locke. This is most evidently seen by Jefferson’s altering of Locke’s natural rights formulation of ‘life, liberty and property’ into the famous American creed: ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ in the Declaration’s preamble.”[3]

John Adams attended Harvard College, which expressed as its primary purpose “to educate future members of a learned ministry and an effective civil government.”  At Harvard, all students took the exact same curriculum with no electives, which included courses in theology, mathematics, and natural science.[4] Adams then studied law with a Massachusetts lawyer, which was how preparation for a career in law was conducted in Colonial America.

“It was upon John Adams that Cicero had the greatest influence among early Americans. The Harvard curriculum had at its core in the colonial grammar schools and colleges the study of the Latin and Greek languages, literatures and antiquities, what some called the “Sacred Classics.” The aims of this learning were to expose students to classical authors from whom they could derive “useful knowledge.” And among these selected Classics in early America Cicero took pride of place in the admiration of many liberally educated men as model authority for diction and style, as orator, lawyer, political theorist, letter writer, and guide to “private and public virtue.”[5]

James Madison, considered the “Father of the Constitution,” attended the College of New Jersey (Princeton). His primary and secondary education included mathematics, geography, modern and classical languages, particularly Latin, and ancient philosophy. At college, he studied classical languages, mathematics, rhetoric, geography, philosophy, Hebrew, and political philosophy under university president John Witherspoon, later a signer of the Declaration of Independence.[6]

Because of their education, focused on the “sacred classics,” as described more fully by Professor Joerg Knipprath in Essay #7, our political authors were well-educated in alternate political philosophies and structures. Even those not-highly-educated citizens of Colonial America, in what might be called the Middle Class today, were reasonably familiar with the political thoughts of the day from their pastors, town-hall meetings, and widely distributed pamphlet writings of the more highly educated Colonists.

All our Founding Fathers accepted the Stoic’s fundamental concept of a universal moral order based on reason and nature, but they rejected the Stoic’s concept of an individual moral order being unrelated to the laws of the political community. They understood the importance of religious faith, which at that time was almost exclusively Protestant Christianity, in the development of moral and civic virtue, the necessary ingredients of good government. They recognized the impossible Stoic vision that man could control his passions, prejudices, and pride by perfecting his reason, ethics, and morality. Civic virtue, not perfection, was expected by the founders. As Madison states in Federalist 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” and in Federalist 55, Madison says that, “In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever character composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason.”

In Federalist 6, Alexander Hamilton notes that a basic assumption about people is that “men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious.” If that is a valid assumption, then expecting that a divided nation would continually live in harmony is pure folly.  It would “disregard the uniform course of human events, and set at defiance the accumulated experience of ages.”

Our Founding Fathers, including those whose debates on the issues, some of which became known through their writings and discussions as Federalists and Antifederalists, were amazingly well-educated in the political philosophies of ancient governments. They were therefore able to identify those components of governmental structure that worked and those components that didn’t work as they met in Philadelphia to construct a new government and provide that government a structure that might survive longer than the Republics of the past. Yet they still recognized that it was to be an experiment, not a proven solution.

Ron Meier is a West Point graduate and Vietnam War veteran. He is a student of American history, with a focus on our nation’s founding principles and culture, the Revolutionary War, and the challenges facing America’s Constitutional Republic in the 20th and 21st centuries. Ron won Constituting America’s Senior Essay contest in 2014 and is author of Common Sense Rekindled: A Rejuvenation of the American Experiment, featured on Constituting America’s Recommended Reading List. 

(1) formed to “discuss queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy [physics])” Franklin’s Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society (ushistory.org)

(2) Thomas Jefferson Biography, History, and Facts

(3) What the founders learned from Cicero // The Observer (ndsmcobserver.com)

(4) John Adams as a Harvard student, by Richard Alan Ryerson | Harvard Magazine

(5) View of The influence of Cicero on John Adams (unito.it)

(6) The Life of James Madison | Montpelier

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Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath


It has been said that Stoic metaphysics was the state philosophy of ancient Rome. While perhaps an overstatement, the point is well taken. Rome did not achieve the prominence of the Greeks in original philosophy, but there were a number of outstanding expositors who adapted Stoic principles to Roman conditions. Seneca the Younger, a wealthy Roman statesman, dramatist, and tutor to the future emperor Nero; Epictetus, born as a slave, but freed by his wealthy master on reaching adulthood; and Marcus Aurelius, known as the last of the “Five Good Emperors” of Rome, were particularly influential Roman Stoics.

The absorption of the Greek city-states into the Macedonian Kingdom of Philip and his successors in the 4th century B.C. shocked the Greeks’ self-regard. Hellenic culture for centuries had emphasized the special status of citizenship in the polis, and its necessity for achieving eudaimonia, human flourishing. The polis was not just “political” in the modern sense. It was a “community” in all manner, political, yes, but also social, religious, and economic. Aristotle associated such community with a true form of friendship, wherein one acts for the friend’s benefit. Plato and Aristotle both concerned themselves at length with what constitutes such a community that is suitable for a fulfilled life. For Plato, the city was the individual writ large, which formed a key component of his description of the ideal government in his Republic. For Aristotle, politics was an extension of ethics. The moral and the political, the personal and the public, were joined. The teaching and practice of individual virtue (arete—the root word for aristocracy) were necessary for a just society, and a polis operating on that basis created the conditions for individual virtue to flourish. Those outside the polis, be they hermits, bandits, or barbarians, and no matter their wealth or military prowess, could not attain that level of full human development.

The Macedonian occupiers were not much different than the Greeks and, such as Alexander, were hardly ignorant of Greek ideas or unsympathetic to Greek social and political arrangements. Moreover, the Greek poleis did not vanish, and ordinary daily life continued. Still, after unsuccessful attempts to rid themselves of their Macedonian overlords, it became clear that the Greeks were just one group competing with others for influence in a new empire. Politics being a branch of ethics, the ideal for the Greeks had been to do politics “right.” With the Macedonian success, it seemed that the foundation of the entire Greek project had collapsed.

The result was a refocus of the meaning of life from the ultimately outward-looking virtue ethics of Aristotle and the vigorous political atmosphere of the polis. In this psychological confusion and philosophic chaos arose several schools. One, the Skeptics, rejected the idea that either the senses or reason can give an accurate portrayal of reality. Everything is arbitrary and illusionary, truth cannot arise from such illusions, no assertion can claim more intrinsic value than any other, and everything devolves into a matter of relative power: law, right, morality, speech, and art. Such a valueless relativism can expose weaknesses in the assumptions and assertions of metaphysical structures, but its nihilism is self-defeating in that it provides no ethical basis for a stable social order or workable guide for personal excellence.

Another group was the Cynics, who responded to the psychological shock of the collapse of the city-state by rejecting it. The correct life was to understand the illusory and changing nature of civilizational order and withdraw from it. Life must be lived according to the dictates of nature, through reason, freedom, and self-sufficiency. The good life is not a project of study and speculation, but practice (askesis). Live modestly through your own toil so that you may speak freely, unperturbed by the turmoil and illusions around you. One of the most prominent Cynics, Diogenes, allegedly lived in a rain barrel in the Athenian market and survived through gifts and by foraging and begging. Social arrangements and conventions are not necessarily inimical to this quest, but they often hide the way. Thus, it becomes the Cynic’s duty to light the way, as Diogenes sought to do with his lamp, by exposing and ridiculing such conventions. The Cynics saw themselves no longer as citizens of the polis, but as citizens of the world.

While principled, the Cynics’ grim lifestyle in order to “speak truth to power” was not for most. An alternative school was founded by Epicurus in the late 4th century B.C. The Epicureans urged people to focus foremost on themselves to achieve the good life. The gods have turned away from the city, political decisions are made in royal capitals far away, and the only control is what you have over your actions. Thus, obeying rules, laws, and customs is practically useful but should not be a matter of concern. To live the good life was to obtain pleasure, the highest end. “Pleasure” is not to be understood as we often do as some form of sensory stimulation. Rather, it was to achieve a state of tranquility (ataraxia) and absence of pain. This ultimate form of happiness would come through a life of domestic comfort, learning about the world around us, and limiting one’s desires. Crucially, Epicureans avoided the turbulence of politics, because such pursuits would conflict with the goal of achieving peace of mind. The best one could hope for in this life was good health, good food, and good friends.

Stoic philosophy was an eclectic approach, which borrowed from Plato, Aristotle, and competing contemporary investigations of ethics and epistemology. Its name came from a school established by Zeno, a native of Citium on Cyprus, who began teaching in Athens around 300 B.C. The “school” met on a covered colonnaded walkway, the stoa poikile, near the marketplace of Athens. Its 500 years of influence are usually divided into three eras (Early, Middle, and Late), which eras broadly correspond to changes from the austere fundamentalist teachings of its ascetic founder into a practical system of ethics accessible to more than wise and self-abnegating sages.

There were two key aspects to Stoicism. First, at an individual level, there was apatheia. It would be massively misleading to equate this with our term “apathy.” Apathy is negative, conveying passivity or indifference. Apatheia means a conscious effort to achieve a state of mind freed from the disturbance of the passions and instincts. It is equanimity in the face of life’s challenges. The Stoic sage would “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” over which he has no control and focus instead on his own actions. Reason being man’s distinctive and most highly evolved innate feature, the Stoic must train himself to live life in accordance with nature and reason. He must control his passions and avoid luxuries and material distractions that would lead to disappointments and frustrations. His happiness is within himself. The virtuous life is a simple life, achieved through constant discipline “in accordance with rational insight into man’s essential nature.”

Second was universalism. Hellenic culture became Hellenistic culture, as Greek ideas and practices were adapted to the new world order, as the polis became the cosmopolis. A Stoic saw himself in two ways. In the political realm, he was a citizen of his city or state; in his self, he was a human. As Marcus Aurelius expressed it, “My city and country, so far as I am Antoninus [a title for emperor—ed.], is Rome, but so far as I am a man, it is the world.” Stoicism, unlike its Platonic and Aristotelian sources insisted that the universe was governed by law which applied equally to all and raised all to equal status, a “universal brotherhood of man.” This revolutionary claim would profoundly influence Roman and Christian ideas thereafter.

Stoicism differed from Skepticism in that it rejected the latter’s nihilistic pessimism that life was simply a competition for power. It projected a vision of personal improvement and sought to construct a positive path towards happiness within a universal order of moral truth. It differed from the Cynics in that Stoicism did not reject the basic legitimacy of the state and its laws and conventions or urge withdrawal from the public sphere. Rather, the Stoics separated the universal moral order, by which each person’s individual conduct must be measured, from the reality of the political world and the obligation to obey the laws of the community. Stoics did not reject the secular authority or make a point to ridicule it. From a Christian perspective, it was not exactly “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” But it was close enough, coming from a pagan philosophy.

Finally, the Stoics differed from the Epicureans. The latter’s goal of a tranquil private life through the pursuit of health, learning, good food, and good company was at odds with the former’s demands of a more disciplined private life of constant self-reflection and self-improvement, plus the continuing duty to shoulder one’s obligations under the civic law. Those differences made Stoicism much more attractive than Epicureanism to the average Roman. The Roman upper classes might well be drawn to the Epicurean vision, but Stoicism could appeal to more than the leisure class. Most significant, with its emphasis on self-reliance, simplicity, and service, Stoicism more closely reflected the Roman sense of self during a half-millennium of the Republic and the early Empire. The historian Will Durant observed, “A civilization is born stoic and dies epicurean.” By that he meant that civilizations degenerate. As he explained, “[C]ivilizations begin with religion and stoicism; they end with skepticism and unbelief, and the undisciplined pursuit of individual pleasure.” Though at times turbulent and seeming to veer into dissolution as the political edifice of the Roman Republic became Octavian’s principate, the Roman culture did not yet fundamentally change, due in part to the stability provided by Stoic philosophy.

Stoicism fit well the Roman character imagined by the Romans themselves and reflected in their laws and history. As the historian J.S. McClelland wrote, “The Greeks might be very good at talking about the connection between good character and good government, but the Romans did not have to bother much about talking about it because they were its living proof.” Not unlike Sparta, Rome had always had a strong martial component to its policies, which Romans took to be an essential part of their character. It was a masculine, male-dominated culture, and unabashedly so. At the root of virtus, that is, virtue or excellence, is vir, the word for adult male or hero. Stoicism “spoke” to Romans in a way that Epicureanism could not. That said, the Middle and Late Stoic writers from the second century B.C. on were willing to refine some of the school’s rough homespun aspects and accepted that a materially good life was not inconsistent with Stoicism. Self-discipline and self-reflection were key. Moderation, not excess, all in accord with nature and reason, sufficed. Self-deprivation and the ascetic life were not necessary.

American polemicists of the post-Revolutionary War period often associated the Stoic virtues with the Roman Republic and saw those virtues reflected in themselves. This required turning a blind eye to certain fundamental assumptions. For example, as noted, Stoicism separated the universal moral order’s control over private conduct from the need for unquestioning adherence to the state’s laws made for the welfare of the community. For the Americans, a distinction between private morality and virtue on the one hand, and public morality and law on the other was not readily conceivable, at least as an idea. Though at times John Adams was quite doubtful about the capacity of Americans for self-government, in his message to the Massachusetts militia in 1798 he wrote, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” James Madison writing in The Federalist, No. 55, noted that republican self-government more so than any other form requires sufficient virtue among the people.

There was another, profound, appeal Stoicism had for the Romans, which connected to their views of good government. Rome prided itself on its balanced republican government, a government meant for a cohesive community, that is, a city-state. “The Eternal City,” the poet Tibullus called it in the 1st century B.C., and so it became commonly known through the works of Virgil and Ovid during the reign of Octavian, long after it had ceased to be a mere city on the Tiber and become an empire in all but name. Indeed, Octavian styled himself princeps senatus, the highest ranked senator, avoided monarchical titles and insignia, and purported to “restore” the Roman Republic in 27 B.C. The trappings of the republican system were maintained, some for centuries.

As in the earlier Greek city-states, Roman citizens had the right and the duty to participate in their governance. Stoicism called on its adherents to involve themselves in res publica, public affairs, working for the benefit of the whole, not themselves, a commitment of personal sacrifice and service. This mirrored basic obligations of Roman citizenship, from military service to political engagement to contribution for public works. These burdens with their physical and economic sacrifices were to be borne with equanimity. Marcus Aurelius, the last great Stoic sage, spent a large portion of his reign on the frontier leading armies against invading German tribes. It is said that he wrote his famous inward-directed Meditations on Stoic ideas and practice during those campaigns.

An important component of the Roman political system was law, both as a collection of concrete commands and as an idea. As noted, Romans were not, by and large, known for original contributions to Western philosophy. For them, that was the role of the Greeks. They were, however, exceptional jurists. As they gained territory, the need to administer that territory required a system of law capable of adapting to foreign conditions. As they gained dominion over cultures beyond the Italian peninsula, and as Roman trade ventured to even farther corners of the world, the Roman law might differ in particulars from that of the local population. At the same time, there appeared to be certain commonalities to the Roman law and those of disparate communities. For the politicians, such commonalities could help unify the realm through a “common law” and support the legitimacy of Rome and its administrators. For the merchants, it could help make commercial dealings more predictable and lower their transaction costs. For the jurists, it raised the possibility of universal influences or elements in the concept of law itself.

The Stoics provided the framework for systematic exploration of that possibility. Stoicism, it may be recalled, had a cosmopolitan, indeed universal, outlook. The Stoic universe was an orderly place, governed by immutable, eternal, constant principles. In other words, an eternal law. At the center was the universal moral law. Law in general had its basis in nature, not in the arbitrary creative will of a human ruler or the cacophony of mutually cancelling irrationalities of the multitude. Humans have an inborn notion of right and wrong. Unlike Adam Smith’s theory of moral sentiments, which he based on our social nature, the Stoics ascribed this to our essential human nature, with each individual participating in this universal moral order. There was an essential equality to Stoicism that eliminated the lines between ruler and subject, man and woman, freeman and slave. Gone was Aristotle’s attempt to explain slavery with the claim that the nature of some conduced them to slavery.

Of course, this only applied to one’s ability to achieve individual virtue through Stoic self-discipline in the personal realm. The outside world still maintained those distinctions in positive law. Many were slaves in Rome. While the Stoics could consider slaves their brethren as members of the human community within the moral law, they accepted the separate obligation imposed on them to obey the political world in its flawed, but real, condition. Epictetus, himself a former slave, blurred that duality when he declared slavery laws the laws of the dead, a crime. But for most, the reality of despotic and corrupt government, the suppression of freedom, and prevalence of slavery were the actions of others over which the Stoic had no control and the consequences of which he had to deal with as best he could through apatheia.

Still, the concept of eternal law, possessed of inherent rightness, and connected to human nature, had some profound implications for human governance and freedom. The universal order is right reason itself and exists within our nature, accessible to us through our own reason. The Apostle Paul addressed this from a Christian perspective in Romans 2:14 and 15: “For when the Gentiles who do not have the law, by nature observe the prescriptions of the law, they are a law for themselves even though they do not have the law. They show that the demands of the law are written on their hearts ….” Proper human law, in its essential principles, is a practical reflection of this higher moral law and necessary for good government. Despite the shortcomings of actual Roman politics, this set a standard.

Because the moral law is universal, eternal and beyond the control of human rulers, it implies a lawgiver of similar qualities. The character of the Stoic “god” was often unclear and differed among various Stoic philosophers. It was certainly not the gods of the Greek and Roman civic religions, with their all-too-human character failings and pathological urges to interfere, usually disastrously, in human lives. Nor was it the personal and loving Christian God of the Gospels, cognizant of each creature within His creation and particularly interested in the flourishing of those created in His image. Rather, the Stoic god is best viewed as a force which created and through its presence maintained the universal order. This force has been described variously as a creative fire, world soul, pneuma (breath), or logos (word). The last two are particularly interesting in relation to Christian writings. Logos not only meant “word” but also the reason, cause, or ultimate purpose or principle of something. The Stoic moral order was an expression of divine reason and accessible to us through the reason that is part of our nature.

One of the foremost Roman commentators and synthesizers of Stoic doctrine in law was Cicero, the great lawyer, philosopher, and statesman. Cicero claimed he was not a Stoic. He seemed to have seen himself as a follower of contemporary versions of Plato’s ideas. Indeed, his two major works on good government, The Republic and Laws, paralleled the titles of Plato’s major works on politics. However, his introduction of the ius naturale (natural law) to Roman jurisprudence, a fundamental step in human freedom, owes much to the Stoics. Note his justification for the right of self-defense: “This, therefore, is a law, O judges, not written, but born with us, which we have not learnt, or received by tradition, or read, but which we have taken and sucked in and imbibed from nature herself; a law which we were not taught, but to which we were made, which we were not trained in, but which is ingrained in us ….”

Or consider the following that vice and virtue are natural, not mere artifices: “[In] fact we can perceive the difference between good laws and bad by referring them to no other standard than Nature: indeed, it is not merely Justice and Injustice which are distinguished by Nature, but also and without exception things which are honorable and dishonorable. For since an intelligence common to us all makes things known to us and formulates them in our minds, honorable actions are ascribed by us to virtue, and dishonorable actions to vice; and only a madman would conclude that these judgments are matters of opinion, and not fixed by Nature.”

Perhaps most famous is this passage from The Republic: “True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting; … It is a sin to try to alter this law, nor is it allowable to attempt to repeal any part of it, and it is impossible to abolish it entirely. We cannot be freed from its obligations by senate or people, and we need not look outside ourselves for an expounder or interpreter of it. And there will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens, or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and all times, and there will be one master and ruler, that is, God, [note the use of the singular, not the plural associated with the Roman pantheon—ed.] over us all, for he is the author of this law, its promulgator, and its enforcing judge. Whoever is disobedient is fleeing from himself and denying his human nature, and by reason of this very fact he will suffer the worst penalties, even if he escapes what is commonly considered punishment.”

From these recognitions, it is but a short step “self-evident [truths], that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” A short step conceptually, but centuries in time to realize fully.

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.

 

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Guest Essayist: Andrew Langer


In the previous essay, we discussed how classical history (i.e., the history of Greek and Roman political structures) informed the debates over the Constitution—and how James Madison drew on history to make the case for the Constitution’s immediate necessity and importance.

In this essay, we focus again on Federalist #38, but this time discussing how the same examination of historic political structures informed the architecture or structure of the U.S. Constitution itself.

Madison and most, if not all, of the other founders were students of classical history, and well-understood how governance had changed through the ancient Mediterranean societies. They learned how Athenians’ political choices compared and contrasted with those of the Spartans and Minoans, and how the Roman Republic came into existence, but eventually turned into an imperial tyranny.

When reviewing these governments, which ranged from benign monarchies to democracies to despotic autocracies, the founders came to a stunning conclusion: that these historic examples pointed to the necessity of a balancing of powers and interests. Concentrate too much power in one person or one body, and that power could become corrupted as happened in Rome as respect for the rule of law degenerated over time, giving rise to the imperial dictatorship.  Rely too much on pure democracy, and it could descend into the rule of the mob, something equally feared.

As Benjamin Franklin is alleged to have said, “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.”

The statement is a truism (regardless of whether it was Franklin who said it first!), reflected, in turn, in how the architects of the Constitution ultimately designed our federal government. Our system is one that is rooted in the principles of democratic governance—we elect our legislators and cast votes in a presidential electoral system.

But in order to stave off the possibility of “mobocracy,” those democratic ideals are balanced with republican limitations—from a Bill of Rights which underscores limitations on how government exercises its power, to the idea that each branch of our federal government has its powers specifically enumerated.

Consider, for example, the voicing of unpopular ideas—a subject hotly debated today. There are some, there have always been some, who would like to see unpopular speech outlawed or severely restricted, whether it is so-called “hate speech” or speech that is sharply critical of America, to the point of the burning of a flag. In a pure, Athenian-style democracy, the majority declaring this speech outlawed would be it—the “mob” would have spoken.

But our Constitution recognizes that it is unpopular speech that requires the greatest amount of protection; popular speech requires no protection, after all. So, regardless of what the majority of citizens might demand, and regardless of what the Congress might enact, or the Executive Branch attempts to pursue through the administrative process, the First Amendment presents a counterbalance to a majoritarian tyranny.

It is that explicit assignment of powers, and the careful balancing of those powers against one another, that serves to protect the rights of individual Americans.

In Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, the legislative powers of Congress are laid out. In Article II, the Executive Branch is given the power to interpret and carry out the laws Congress has passed. Under Article III, the Judicial Branch enforces those laws and ensures that both the laws that have been passed and the interpretation and administration of those laws by the Executive Branch withstand constitutional scrutiny.

In theory, this is supposed to ensure that no branch is more powerful than any other branch—and that the creation and administration of federal policies does not injure or harm the individual rights of American citizens.

In theory.

The ongoing concern is similar to that which brought the aforementioned descent of ancient Rome from republic to dictatorial empire—an increasing disrespect for the regular order of governmental processes and the overall rule of law. In Rome, as chaos and corruption grew, first Julius Caesar and then Augustus offered Romans greater safety and security in exchange for their democratic political rights. The result was the end to any real sort of Roman republic and centuries of despotism.

Again, it was Benjamin Franklin who warned, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

In modern America, we see this playing out in a myriad of ways—from those who seek to simply circumvent the Constitution’s rules to those who use Congress’ political propensity to pass vaguely defined pieces of legislation as a pretext to increase the power of the federal Executive Branch.

Because of the manner in which power is distributed and balanced, if Congress passes a piece of legislation in which the subject-matter is vaguely defined, the Executive Branch can, in turn, define it. The result is a situation in which, while the Executive Branch isn’t creating law out of “whole cloth,” the power of the Executive Branch is expanded.

Take the Clean Water Act of 1972, a piece of legislation with the noble purpose of dealing with America’s polluted waterways of the 1970s—rivers were, literally, catching on fire! In it, Congress declared that we cannot “pollute” a “navigable water of the United States.”

But Congress didn’t define “pollution,” didn’t define “navigable,” didn’t define “water of the United States”—and for a half-century, all of those terms have been subjected to intense debate as various presidential administrations have offered a varying degree of definitions, some focusing on the plain-language of the act, but others which seem to encircle not just America’s major rivers but even disparate and unconnected bodies of water, or even patches of dry land, that would otherwise have been under the regulatory purview of state and local governments (the definition of “Waters of the United States” or “WOTUS” is once again under debate in Washington).

In the end, this balancing of interests is supposed to protect the population at large to prevent the kind of overreach we have been discussing and to also ensure that we “look before we leap” in terms of public policy solutions. This is especially true when it comes to foreign policy.

The President is Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. armed forces and the military operates under the auspices of the federal Executive Branch.  But it is only Congress that can declare war.  The President, and his duly-designated officers, have the power to negotiate treaties, but it is within the power of the Senate to ratify them. Moreover, despite the power of the President and the Executive Branch to respond to national emergencies and international crises, and setting aside the legitimacy of the War Powers Resolution which asks the President to report on such actions within 48 hours of them being undertaken, Congress retains the power of the “purse strings” i.e., the power to actually fund the operations of the U.S. government, so the Executive Branch is further restrained.

In all, taking a cue from the governments of the Greek city-states as well as ancient Rome, the founders knew that there had to be a greater division of powers and balancing of interests, that good democratic principles have to be checked by the limitations that a republican form of government provides. When it works, this balance serves to protect the rights of individual Americans.

But we have to make sure that all of the branches are working properly, lest the American experiment become a cautionary tale that scholars two millennia from now examine as an example of what not to do.

Andrew Langer is President of the Institute for Liberty.

 

 

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Guest Essayist: Andrew Langer


In his play, The Tempest, William Shakespeare wrote, “What’s past is prologue.”  Building on this idea, in 1905, philosopher George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Our founders were acutely aware of this concept—even if they were unfamiliar with Shakespeare or preceded Santayana by more than a century.  Firmly grounded in both the history of classical antiquity and the philosophies underpinning the various Greek and Roman societies, men like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison relied firmly on what they had learned as they were envisioning the American Republic (and, to be certain, Jefferson found great inspiration from the Greeks and the Romans in his architectural pursuits as well).

Nowhere is this more evident than in Federalist #38.  Written by Madison, this essay continues his efforts to counter the rhetoric of those opposed to the ratification of the Constitution—focusing squarely on the flaws in those opponents’ reasoning, and drawing on the lessons of history in order to sway support in favor of ratification.

After briefly discussing the Minoans, the Spartans, and the Romans, Madison focuses on Athens—the cradle of early democracies (the word “democracy” is in and of itself Greek, meaning “ruled by the people”).  After discussing some of what led to the formation of the Athenian democratic government, he asks by the people of Athens,

“should consider one illustrious citizen as a more eligible depositary of the fortunes of themselves and their posterity, than a select body of citizens, from whose common deliberations more wisdom, as well as more safety, might have been expected?”

In other words, there was concern as to whether one person—whether a “divine right” monarch or someone selected through a democratic process—would serve the nation (though in the case of the Greeks we’re generally talking about “city states” better than some group of citizens, acting together to make decisions.

In fact, Athens made participation in their democracy mandatory, and each year a group of citizens would be compelled to serve in the government.

Madison then goes on to talk about the challenges that the founders of these governments faced, showing that there is indeed a lesson in the debates that existed in Greece and Rome for those debating the ratification of the Constitution:

“History informs us, likewise, of the difficulties with which these celebrated reformers had to contend, as well as the expedients which they were obliged to employ in order to carry their reforms into effect.”

In other words—these men faced challenges, too, but those challenges did not prevent them from moving forward with improvements. But most important is the lesson that correcting the mistakes of governance in the past is an essential element of a successful and enduring nation, while at the same time recognizing that opposition for opposition’s sake can be needlessly complicating:

“If these lessons teach us, on one hand, to admire the improvement made by America on the ancient mode of preparing and establishing regular plans of government, they serve not less, on the other, to admonish us of the hazards and difficulties incident to such experiments, and of the great imprudence of unnecessarily multiplying them.”

This is the real focus of Madison’s essay—his accusation to the critics of the Constitution that their arguments are not in any way constructive or substantive, but worse, that they are (in many cases) contradictory and harmful in that they are needlessly delaying the lawful formation of a national government.

The Constitution was meant as a necessary improvement over the Articles of Confederation, a document that, like many implemented first drafts, was found to be wanting and ultimately unworkable.  It was a document full of contradictions—a central government given responsibilities but little authority to exercise those responsibilities.  In fact, it could be said that this is by design, that these flaws were embedded in the Articles of Confederation to make that document (and any government trying to operate under it) unworkable (in modern legal parlance, this is referred to as a “poison pill”).

But Madison knew time was of the essence—and that pointing out the contradictions in the arguments of the Constitution’s opponents was essential to the speedy adoption of that document, framing it as a mortal health issue:

“A patient who finds his disorder daily growing worse, and that an efficacious remedy can no longer be delayed without extreme danger, after coolly revolving his situation, and the characters of different physicians, selects and calls in such of them as he judges most capable of administering relief, and best entitled to his confidence. The physicians attend; the case of the patient is carefully examined; a consultation is held; they are unanimously agreed that the symptoms are critical, but that the case, with proper and timely relief, is so far from being desperate, that it may be made to issue in an improvement of his constitution…

“Such a patient and in such a situation is America at this moment. She has been sensible of her malady. She has obtained a regular and unanimous advice from men of her own deliberate choice. And she is warned by others against following this advice under pain of the most fatal consequences. Do the monitors deny the reality of her danger? No. Do they deny the necessity of some speedy and powerful remedy? No.”

Sometimes, we forget the precarious nature of the fledgling American republic.  Yes, we had just won the war for our independence, but the nation’s future was hardly guaranteed.  In fact, it was even more precarious because of the failure of the Articles of Confederation in producing the balancing of interests between the states, the central government, and the people themselves.

Ultimately, Madison prevailed upon the readers of his essays to consider that as flawed as the Constitution might be, it was better than either of the two alternatives (as he saw them): the Articles of Confederation or no organizing document whatsoever.  Whichever the particular complaints of the Constitution’s opponents, Madison needed them to see that point.  With the past being prologue, Madison knew what would happen to the American experiment otherwise.

Andrew Langer is President of the Institute for Liberty.

 

 

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