Guest Essayist: Chris Burkett


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guest Essayist: Chris Burkett


In the previous essay we saw the causes in the Twentieth Century that led to the creation of international organizations such as the League of Nations and the United Nations Organization. In this essay we look at why the American Founders and Framers would counsel a prudent caution against unlimited commitment to and reliance on international organizations for dealing with foreign affairs.

First, the Founders would remind us that, in committing our national resources to promoting the good of the world community through international organizations, we must not lose sight of the fact that our government has a paramount obligation to secure the rights and vital interests of the United States and its citizens. These are what James Madison called “the permanent and aggregate interests of the community” in The Federalist No. 10. This fundamental obligation of our government is expressed in the Declaration of Independence, which claims “that to secure these rights” – the natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, among others – “governments are instituted among men.” The Preamble to the United States Constitution reaffirms the fundamental purpose for which our government was designed; the American people ordained our Constitution to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to Ourselves and our Posterity.”[1] The American Founders would therefore caution against the view – as held by leaders such as Woodrow Wilson – that America’s highest obligation is to put our immediate interest aside in order to promote the good of the world community, an end that is most effectively achieved through our commitment to international organizations.

Some of the American Founders might have conceded the idea that international organizations could be useful to bring nations to a more common understanding of what justice among nations should be like. However, they would also caution that reliance on international organizations for this purpose could potentially lull us into abandoning the necessary discernment, vigilance, and prudence of determining the motives and measures of other nations – and possibly even the willingness to resort to force when necessary for our defense. A reliance on international organizations could beguile us into believing that all nations now behave rationally and can be trusted to resolve problems by dialogue alone. In other words, reliance on international organizations can give us the comfortable feeling that we have reached “the End of History,” and that modern nations have evolved beyond the motives and means of the Twentieth Century. However, plenty of real-world examples – the Russian invasion of Ukraine, for example – show the naivete of this view. Furthermore, we might be tempted to forget that The United Nations is made up of nations with governments or regimes that are fundamentally hostile to the principles of justice upon which the United States was founded. Alexander Hamilton, writing as Publius in The Federalist No. 6, reminds us that so long as human beings are capable of being “ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious,” and so long as governments are administered by human beings, there will always be nations inclined to go to war for a variety of reasons. As Hamilton writes:

The causes of hostility among nations are innumerable…Of this description are the love of power or the desire of pre-eminence and dominion – the jealousy of power, or the desire of equality and safety. There are others which have a more circumscribed though an equally operative influence within their spheres. Such are the rivalships and competitions of commerce between commercial nations. And there are others, not less numerous than either of the former, which take their origin entirely in private passions; in the attachments, enmities, interests, hopes, and fears of leading individuals in the communities of which they are members. Men of this class … have not scrupled to sacrifice the national tranquillity to personal advantage or personal gratification.

Even commercial republics and democracies – though founded on the principle of popular rather than monarchical rule – are prone to conflict amongst themselves. Alexander Hamilton might say, therefore, that “one must be far gone in utopian speculations” to assume that nations would actually put aside their own interests and govern cooperatively through the United Nations Organization for the good of the whole. Such an assumption would be dangerous and potentially destructive to the “permanent and aggregate interests” of the citizens of the United States.

The third concern the Founders might caution us about is that in committing the United States to the authority of international organizations, we might inadvertently relinquish our domestic sovereignty and our political independence from other nations. We might also lose our liberty as a nation to decide things like what our real obligations are to other nations, and when, how, and why we should act when dealing with foreign policy issues. These considerations are what led the U.S. Senate to vote against membership in the League of Nations in 1919.

This is a lesson President George Washington learned very well in the 1790s. The United States had signed a treaty of mutual defense with France in 1778; however, as the French Revolution turned into terror, the new French regime claimed that the treaty obligated the United States to assist them in their war against monarchical regimes throughout Europe. The treaty threatened to embroil the United States in a European war, effectively stripping the United States of its political independence and the liberty of choosing when, and when not, to go to war. From this example, Washington learned several lessons that should caution us against over-commitment to treaty-based international organizations today. “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world,” Washington wrote in his Farewell Address. “Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.” Washington understood that maintaining our political independence and national liberty is vital so that “we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.”

It is vital to maintain this political independence so that government may best choose how to fulfill its fundamental Constitutional duty of securing the rights and liberties of its citizens. This leads to a final word of caution regarding American commitment to international organizations. The American people, through their Constitution, have vested control over foreign affairs in Congress and the President. Congress, for example, is vested with the power of declaring war, and the President is vested with the authority to act as Commander in Chief of the country’s military forces. Because the American people have granted these powers, they have entrusted the American government with the responsibility of dealing with foreign policy issues for the security of our rights. According to the U.S. Constitution, however, the American people did not authorize our government to “delegate” that responsibility or those powers to another governing body, including international organizations – especially ones comprised of nations that abhor the very principles of justice for which the United States stands.

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

 

[1] Emphasis added.

 

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Guest Essayist: Chris Burkett


The United Nations Organization was officially established in 1945, but its conception arose much earlier. In the early Twentieth Century there was a growing worldwide movement calling for an international organization to work out military and arms limitations agreements among the “civilized” nations of the world – namely, European nations.

In the aftermath of World War I, the League of Nations was finally established with the lofty goal of preserving world peace. In reality, its purpose was to bring together the “democratic” (i.e., “civilized” or “historically advanced”) nations to work together regarding territorial disputes and colonial possessions through negotiation rather than resorting to war. However, the United States Senate rejected membership in the League of Nations on the grounds that it would strip our nation of some degree of its domestic sovereignty and its independence in choosing foreign policy actions. The League limped ineffectively through the 1920s and met with several failures in the 1930s, including failure to prevent the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the Italian war in Ethiopia. The League of Nations closed down with the outbreak of World War II in 1939 and officially disbanded in 1946.

Franklin Roosevelt, however, revived the idea of an organization of United Nations for the purpose of waging the war against the Axis Powers. President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill drafted the text of the Declaration by United Nations in 1941, and the following year it was signed by the United States, the United Kingdom, the U.S.S.R, the Republic of China, and twenty-two other nations. The official UN Charter was approved by 51 member states in San Francisco in April 1945, just after Roosevelt’s death.

As with the League of Nations, the object of the United Nations was to allow countries to settle international disputes through discussion rather than war. Near the end of World War II, Roosevelt seemed to believe that such a forum would be useful and necessary to continue peaceful cooperation between the United States and the U.S.S.R. This was reaffirmed under President Harry Truman after World War II as tensions began to develop between the two countries and eventually developed into the Cold War. The Soviet Union, however, used the United Nations for political posturing against Western “capitalist” and “colonial” nations. Still, some Americans believed that the United Nations was a vital tool for allowing dialogue between the Western nations and the Soviet Union as a means to avoid nuclear conflict.

Many Americans were inclined to withdraw from foreign affairs after World War II, but the developing atomic threat from the Soviet Union and specter of sprawling communism inclined the United States back toward active engagement in world affairs through the United Nations. The United States joined the UNO because, unlike under the League of Nations, participation is UN policies is, for all intents and purposes, optional; this means that no nation permanently gives up its domestic sovereignty or its independence in choosing foreign policy actions. On the other hand, this means that the United Nations has no real “teeth” in terms of coercive power; member states comply or not from a kind of international “peer pressure” in order to save face. For example, the UN’s International Court of Justice issues judgments in international disputes in accordance with its understanding of international law, but its decisions are binding only on those nations that recognize its authority and jurisdiction. This is one cause of the general ineffectiveness of the United Nations in preventing conflict in its nearly eighty years of existence. Its lackluster record is also a result of the structure of the UN’s Security Council, which consists of fifteen member states – five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and ten non-permanent members. Each of the five permanent member states has an absolute veto power and can immediately block any proposed policy (see Essay #20 on the defects of the United Provinces of the Netherlands).

The American Founders would have some words of caution about involving the United States in international organizations such as the League of Nations and the United Nations, which we will discuss in the next essay.

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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Mao Zedong’s bloody “The Cultural Revolution” led to the violation of life, liberty and property for millions of people. Though Mao claimed this was a revolution to promote communism and purge China of capitalism, it was also a manifestation of the kind of tyrannical faction that James Madison and other Framers of the United States Constitution warned about.

Mao’s Revolution was grounded upon a rejection of the tradition that human beings have natural rights as individuals, substituting instead the idea that people are, can, and should be simply “programmed” to behave as government desires with the right kinds of physical and psychological measures. According to Maoist ideology, human beings have absolutely no natural rights – including the right to life and property – that must be respected.

The American Founders, including Federalists and Anti-federalists, foresaw the kind of unspeakable horrors that could be unleashed when the idea of individual natural rights is rejected and abused by government or powerful leaders. As Anti-federalist Brutus wrote, Americans deeply believed that “all men are by nature free. No one man, therefore, or any class of men, have a right, by the law of nature, or of God, to assume or exercise authority over their fellows…This principle, which seems so evidently founded in the reason and nature of things, is confirmed by universal experience.”

Brutus understood very well that human beings, when entrusted with power, are prone to abuse that authority for their own purposes. “Those who have governed, have been found in all ages ever active to enlarge their powers and abridge the public liberty,” Brutus wrote. “This has induced the people in all countries, where any sense of freedom remained, to fix barriers against the encroachments of their rulers.” Brutus points out that the state constitutions at the time provided many of these “barriers” in the form of “due process of law” as protection for the individual natural rights of citizens.

For the security of life, in criminal prosecutions, the bills of rights of most of the states have declared, that no man shall be held to answer for a crime until he is made fully acquainted with the charge brought against him; he shall not be compelled to accuse, or furnish evidence against himself—the witnesses against him shall be brought face to face, and he shall be fully heard by himself or counsel.

Constitutional barriers also protected the individual natural right to private property. As Brutus writes, “For the purpose of securing the property of the citizens, it is declared by all the states, “that in all controversies at law, respecting property, the ancient mode of trial by jury is one of the best securities of the rights of the people, and ought to remain sacred and inviolable.”[1]

Federalist James Madison also believed that for government to be just it must protect the individual right to private property. In The Federalist No. 10, Madison wrote about how the different kinds and degrees of property people acquire, hold, and use are a reflection of human nature. “The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate,” Madison wrote, makes it difficult, if not impossible, for government to impose by force a universal uniformity of opinion (as Mao had attempted to do in the Cultural Revolution). “The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results.”[2]

For James Madison, “property” meant more than just ownership of material things and goods, such as “a man’s land, or merchandize, or money.” In a larger sense, Madison wrote:

[A] man has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them. He has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them. He has a property very dear to him in the safety and liberty of his person. He has an equal property in the free use of his faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them. In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.[3]

Just as the physical property one owns is acquired through physical labor, the opinions we hold – especially our religious opinions – are the products of the labor of our minds. And Madison, like Thomas Jefferson, believed that the human mind is made free by nature – or, as Jefferson put it, “Almighty God hath created the mind free.”[4] To violate the rights of property in either sense – as Maoist ideologues attempted to do during the Cultural Revolution – is to deny the natural freedom of the human mind.

Anti-federalists and Federalists understood that one of the best means for preventing abuses of natural rights is to find a way to prevent all political power from being held in the same hands. As Brutus wrote, “When great and extraordinary powers are vested in any man, or body of men, which in their exercise, may operate to the oppression of the people, it is of high importance that powerful checks should be formed to prevent the abuse of it.”[5] Federalist James Madison agreed: “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”[6] As we have discussed in earlier essays, Madison and the Federalists believed that the best way to keep power diffused was to separate powers through a combination of modes of election, qualifications for office, and different terms in office for the various branches of government. All of these constitutional barriers – from mandatory due process of law to the manner in which powers are separated – help to provide checks against the kinds of actions taken by Mao and his Revolutionaries with regard to violations of the individual natural rights of life, liberty, property, and religious liberty, and make the kinds of bloody “purges” of the Cultural Revolution less likely under a well-constructed Constitution.

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

 

[1] Brutus II.

[2] The Federalist No. 10.

[3] James Madison, “Property,” 29 March 1792.

[4] Thomas Jefferson, “A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom” in Virginia, written 1779, enacted 1786.

[5] Brutus XVI.

[6] The Federalist No. 47.

 

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In 1966, Mao Zedong launched what was known as “The Cultural Revolution.” This bloody period in China’s history lasted for more than a decade. Mao’s objective in calling for the revolution was to purge the People’s Republic of China of the bourgeois and capitalist elements that had allegedly infiltrated the government and produced a series of failures and setbacks in the communist nation’s development. In reality, it was an attempt by Mao, who was Chairman of the Communist Party of China, to reclaim social and political control in the country.

Mao created several radical groups to wage war against conservative and traditional groups within China. Groups of “Red Guards” went on the offensive to destroy precious artifacts in an effort to eliminate all memory of traditional Chinese culture. This also included attempts to eliminate all remaining traditional religious belief in the country, as it had been based, to a certain extent, on the idea that religious opinions were private and personal. To accomplish this, many historical and religious sites were destroyed by Mao’s revolutionaries.

Mao also called for the taking of all remaining private property from his “cultural” (i.e., political) enemies. In order to “cleanse the class ranks,” many people were sent to “the countryside” to work in “reeducation camps” (that is, concentration camps far removed from the eyes of people in the larger cities, at which hundreds of thousands – possibly millions – of people were tortured or killed). The Cultural Revolution finally ended with Mao’s death in 1976.

The terrible abuses of natural rights during Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” remind us of the importance of the United States Constitution, which explicitly guarantees the due process of law before anyone can be deprived of life, liberty, or property. The Constitution also enshrines the fundamental idea of individual freedom, perhaps most importantly in the First Amendment’s protection of religious liberty. And the separation of powers, and checks and balances written into the Constitution, make it less likely that any single so-called “Great Leader,” such as Mao, can carry out such brutal schemes of oppression and widespread murder. In the next essay, we will look at the wisdom of the Federalists and Anti-federalists affirming the importance of these ideas.

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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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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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