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: 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: Chris Burkett

How did the American Founders acquire the wisdom to frame a Constitution that has withstood many challenges to liberty and self-government for over two hundred years? Their deep interest in understanding human nature, derived from a careful study of history, allowed them to create a Constitution that both improved upon past constitutions and also anticipated future developments well beyond their time.

The American Founders studied ancient constitutions carefully, especially those of Greece and Rome, and sought to improve upon their imperfections. They found that these ancient regimes were all founded on unrealistic notions of human nature, which led the ancients to count on a degree of civic virtue that was either too high or too low. Many ancient regimes assumed that “there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; & that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying & devouring one another.”[1] The Founders discovered that ancient democracies – or “petty republics” as Alexander Hamilton called them – too often vibrated between the extremes of anarchy and tyranny.[2] The defect in these ancient constitutions was a lack of institutions necessary to preserve both virtue and liberty; many lacked, for example, a proper separation of powers, adequate checks and balances, and important representative bodies such as a senate. Without proper constitutional arrangements, as James Madison observed, “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates; every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”[3]

The American Founders needed to improve upon these constitutional devices because they wanted to create a political system that balanced civic virtue with liberty. To accomplish this, they established a Constitution framed upon a more realistic notion of human nature – one that acknowledged and anticipated both the good and bad aspects of human motives. “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection & distrust,” James Madison wrote, “so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem & confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities to a higher degree than any other form.”[4] The Founders’ study of history revealed that in some fundamental ways, human nature never changes. Human beings are capable of being reasonable and therefore self-governing, but one should not ignore the propensity of mankind to pursue and abuse power for self-interested purposes. By framing a constitution upon a realistic understanding of unchanging human nature, they anticipated all sorts of new political developments: the forms of tyranny might change in the future, but the sources would not.

The American Founders applied what they learned from history and human nature to fix the defects of the Articles of Confederation. The glaring defect of the Articles of Confederation was the frequent failure of the state governments to abide by the terms of that compact – despite the fact that they had all promised to do so. States often refused to pay their share of revenue for the good of the Union, violated international treaties, and exercised other powers that were prohibited by the Articles of Confederation. This led George Washington to observe in 1786, “We have errors to correct. We have probably had too good an opinion of human nature in forming our confederation. Experience has taught us, that men will not adopt & carry into execution, measures the best calculated for their own good without the intervention of a coercive power.”[5] The proposed Constitution, created by the Federal Convention of 1787 to correct these errors, was then submitted to the public for ratification.

The debate over ratification was also the greatest debate in history on human nature. Supporters and critics of the proposed Constitution – Federalists and Antifederalists – made insightful arguments learned from the lessons of history regarding human nature. The key to a good constitution, according to Antifederalist Brutus, for example, is establishing good representation. A virtuous citizenry is especially important under any constitution to check the self-interested abuses of power by elected representatives. “It is a truth confirmed by the unerring experience of ages,” wrote Brutus, “that every man, and every body of men, invested with power, are ever disposed to increase it, and to acquire a superiority over every thing that stands in their way.” This disposition to attain and abuse power, “which is implanted in human nature,” requires sufficient protections against potential tyranny.[6] “The principle of self-love, therefore, that will influence the one to promote the good of the whole, will prompt the other to follow its own private advantage. The great art, therefore, in forming a good constitution, appears to be this, so to frame it, as that those to whom the power is committed shall be subject to the same feelings, and aim at the same objects as the people do, who transfer to them their authority. There is no possible way to effect this but by an equal, full and fair representation; this, therefore, is the great desideratum in politics.”[7]

Federalist James Madison, considered to be the Father of the Constitution, agreed with Brutus on the fundamental difficulty of framing good government – the natural propensity of human beings, out of self-love, to put their private interest above the common good. In Federalist No. 10, Madison argued that a constitution must be framed on the understanding that men are prone by nature to become “factious,” and that the causes of faction are rooted in human nature. Factions are groups of people, according to Madison, united by a common interest or passion, who want to use political power to harm or violate the natural rights of others. From his careful study of history, Madison learned that factions have been “the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.” The causes of faction might only be eliminated, Madison argued, by eliminating liberty itself – in which case the “remedy” would be “worse than the disease.”[8] Rather than trying to eliminate the causes of faction, Madison’s solution was to frame a Constitution that acknowledged the likelihood of factions in politics, and sought to control their dangerous effects through the means of properly separating power and providing sufficient checks and balances between the branches of government. Madison’s insights into human nature led to important improvements to the science of politics and of constitution making.

The insights learned from history allowed the American Founders to infuse the Constitution with a wisdom that stretched far into the future. They understood well that so long as human beings are human beings, the possibility of tyranny will always exist. Even though new forms of tyranny might emerge, its causes remain the same. Because its foundation rested on an understanding of unchanging human nature, the Constitution has proven remarkably adaptable and capable of dealing with new challenges to liberty and self-government for over two hundred years.

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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[1] Federalist No 55

[2] Federalist No. 9

[3] Federalist No. 55

[4] Federalist No. 55

[5] George Washington to John Jay, August 15, 1786

[6] Brutus No. I

[7] Brutus No. IV

[8] Federalist No. 10