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Having felt the pinch of rule within an empire by a would-be absolute monarch wielding the powers of a modern state, Americans needed to solve two problems at once. United, they could depict themselves as a rattlesnake telling the world, “Don’t tread on me.” Disunited, severed into thirteen pieces, as depicted in an equally famous illustration of the period, they would die, prey to one or more of the surrounding empires. Americans needed a modern state to defend themselves against other modern states. Divided, they would be conquered, even as the American Indian nations and tribes had been, and would continue to be conquered, whenever they attempted to resist ‘modernity.’
At the same time, they had won their independence in resistance to tyranny, in resistance to an overbearing modern state that denied them their rights not only as Englishmen but as human beings. The natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness require self-government, civil society. Civil or genuinely political life, the association of citizens who share rule with one another, requires small associations—families, towns, city-states. How can civil society exist in a large, centralized, modern state, the very thing needed for self-defense in a world dominated by such states—a ‘Eurocentric’ world in which men armed with the instruments of modern science, very much including the new, Machiavellian science of politics, of statism, was already extending its tentacles onto every continent? Europeans ruled not only with gunpowder-propelled projectiles but with a new form of ruling organization, one sufficient to divide, conquer, and perhaps most crucially rule even a vast empire like China, or a subcontinent of such staggering diversity as India.
Statism and self-government at the same time: that sounds very much like a circle never to be squared. They found their answer in another institutional device: federalism.
Writing only a few decades before the American founding, the political philosopher Montesquieu had written, “If a republic is small, it is destroyed by a foreign force; it is destroyed by an internal vice”—typically, corruption. What is needed is a “constitution that has all the internal advantages of republican government and the external force of a monarchy,” namely, “the federal republic.” Each element of this republic should itself be commercial-republican—peaceful and moderate, not a warrior-state like that of Alexander the Great. Each element should have liberty, which “in no way consists in doing what one wants” but rather in “having the power to do what one should want to do and in no way being constrained to do what one should not want to do.” What one should want to do is to observe “the law of nature, which makes everything tend toward the preservation of species,” the “law of natural enlightenment, which wants us to do to others what we would want to have done to us,” and “the law that forms political societies,” which aims at the perpetuation of those societies. Certain moral virtues inhere in liberty itself. Republicanism consists of citizens who rule one another reciprocally, doing to one another as they would have done to themselves; federation enables republics to follow the political law of self-perpetuation.
If one were to draw a diagram representing a modern state, it might look like a wagon wheel: a solid border or rim; a central government or hub; strong but limited lines of control or spokes extending from the center to the border, reinforcing the border but emanating from the rim. But if civil society consisting of local associations and institutions exists in the spaces between the spokes, how can this state be republican, an association of self-governing citizens, and not mere subjects? A return to feudalism would solidify the spaces, widen the spokes at the expense of weakening the hub. Federalism retains the integrity of both the central state and the constituent, smaller states. In the United States Constitution, the central government gains certain enumerated powers, including the power to raise revenues from within the territories of the states without the consent of the state legislatures and governors and the power to regulate interstate commerce. The states retain powers not enumerated, albeit limited by their republican regimes, guaranteed by Article IV, section IV. State governments were assured a voice in the councils of the central government by their power of electing two representatives each to the United States Senate. The peoples of those states had their voice in the House of Representatives, elected by popular vote within voting districts located within the boundaries of each state. Additionally, of course, the people of each state also elected their representatives to the legislatures which chose the U. S. Senators, making the entire system republican either directly or indirectly. Neither the state governments nor the central governments exercise sovereignty over the people; James Monroe titled his book, The People the Sovereigns.
To return to the image of the wheel, in a federal-republican state we see the powers of the central government as strong filaments running through the spokes, which are the constituent states of the federation. If one shifts the image from a wheel to the more dynamic example of a power grid, the powers of the sovereign people are energies that run through intertwined, mutually strengthening wires. One wire depicts the government of your state; the other depicts the government of your country as a whole—the central government. Both derive their energy from the same source, the people, united through the political union of their states, each itself a political union encompassing smaller ‘unions’ from families to civil associations to counties.
The sovereign people in a republican regime will rule and be ruled, therefore more likely to do as they would be done by. Their way of life will be genuinely political, civic, fostering habits of mind and heart that incline toward civility because each citizen knows he needs the others and wants to do harm to none of them. At the same time, such a people will have the strength to defend themselves against other states and empires, far more centralized and far more ambitious for conquest.
For more than a century, the constitutional republicanism established by the Founders increasingly has given way to administrative government at the national, state, county, and even the local levels. As a result, Americans have needed to deliberate together less. The decline of civility in what remains of American political conversation may well originate in the decline of genuine civic life, genuine self-government, as part of the American way of life.
Will Morrisey is William and Patricia LaMothe Professor Emeritus of Politics at Hillsdale College, and is a Constituting America Fellow; his books include Self-Government, The American Theme: Presidents of the Founding and Civil War and The Dilemma of Progressivism: How Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson Reshaped the American Regime of Self-Government.
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