Guest Essayist: Professor Will Morrisey, William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College

Federalist 63: Responsibility and the Rule of Reason

A small Senate whose members serve long terms answers the need for “order and stability” in the national government, thus fostering respect for the “political system” of America—the institutional architecture of popular self-government.  In Federalist #63 Publius turns to the importance of cultivating respect for this people and their regime among foreign nations.  He then discusses the Senate’s capacity to ensure the truly indispensable thing for any government: the rule of reason.

Under the Articles of Confederation foreign policy was the primary focus of the unicameral Congress, domestic policy having been for the most part the domain of the states.  Despite this, Publius argues, America has lacked “a due sense of national character” in the world.  He means “character” in both senses: moral soundness, but also a well-defined identity.  If the world’s a stage, then each player needs a recognizable role or persona. Without one, the other actors won’t quite know what how to `play off him,’ so to speak.  With a bad one, the other actors will treat him as Iago, or maybe as one of Shakespeare’s clowns.  Such notable American statesmen as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin deliberately cultivated their public faces.  In choosing good roles and playing them with energy and intelligence, they strengthened their own inner characters and established their reputations among their fellow citizens and throughout the world.

A Senator’s term in office and his status as one of only two representatives selected by his state legislature—itself likely to know the character of their chosen representative better than the voters at large could do—will incline him to identify his own ambitions with the welfare of his state, knowing that “the praise and blame of public measures” will attach to his own public character.  He will be seen; he will be heard; he cannot evade the scrutiny of his colleagues in the Senate or in his state capital.

The matter of character fits well with Publius’ final consideration: responsibility.

Although Publius did not invent this word, as some scholars have imagined (it appears in English legal writings as early as the mid-seventeenth century), he did put it squarely on the American political map.  If representation is the central feature of a republican regime, then responsibility—meaning both responsiveness to those one represents and accountability for one’s actions—is the soul of representative government.  By reasonable responsibility Publius means that no one expects his representative to accomplish things beyond his powers; fittingly, the powers of the Senate are the topic of the subsequent three papers.

Here is where the bicameral institutional structure of Congress comes into play. The bicameral Congress will derive its energy from the often-impassioned House, its prudence from the Senate, which balances “the cool and deliberate sense of the community” against that community’s urgent desires.  “What bitter anguish would not the people of Athens have often escaped if their government had contained so provident a safeguard against the tyranny of their own passions?”  Even with the greater extensiveness of the American republic, which will serve as a brake upon popular excesses even in the House, the Senate will serve as an “auxiliary precaution.”  It is one thing to slow passions down; it is another to map out the right direction for the country.

Above all, it is the republican institution of representation, as opposed to the democratic device of all-citizen assemblies, which will make American lawmaking more stable and reasonable than that of any ancient polis.  In both foreign and domestic policy, then, the Senate will provide some of the long-term, prudential thinking previously seen mostly in aristocracies.

To those who fear that the Senate will become an outright aristocracy, dominating the other branches, Publius replies that this would require the Senate to corrupt the state legislatures, the House, and the people—an unlikely `trifecta.’  Sure enough, the Progressives succeeded in deranging the Constitution in just that way, not only by changing the election rules for Senators but by providing the House with bigger revenues via the income tax.  Even so, it remains quite far removed from a genuine hereditary aristocracy.

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

Will Morrisey holds the William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College.  His most recent books are Self-Government, The American Theme: Presidents of the Founding and Civil War, The Dilemma of Progressivism: How Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson Reshaped the American Regime of Self-Government, and Regime Change: What It Is, Why It Matters.


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