Monday, May 24th, 2010
E Pluribus Unum. “Out of Many, One.” This aphorism is one of the mottos adopted by the Confederation Congress in 1782 for the Great Seal of the new United States. It not just describes the union of states that was put together through the efforts of the Second Continental Congress. That particular choice also recognizes the relative novelty of the political experiment Americans were undertaking, a novelty memorialized as well in a motto on the Seal’s reverse, Novus Ordo Seclorum, “A New Order for the Ages.”
Federalist No. 19 continues the examination of dangers from weak confederations, a topic that has, in one form or another, been at the core of most of Publius’s preceding efforts. As in the adjoining papers, the theme is the tendency of weak confederations towards internal turmoil, external weakness, and eventual collapse. Here, Madison focuses on the weaknesses of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, an entity intended to re-create an old order for the ages.
The historical evolution of the Germanic realm that Madison describes is the opposite of E Pluribus Unum. “Out of one come many” better represents the unfolding of the usual order of things. That theme is common in creation explanations from religion, philosophy, and science. God created Adam, then Eve from Adam, who together multiplied. For Plato and his later interpreters, reality followed from the singularity of the Form of the Good. In physical science, everything developed from the singularity that is the source of the Big Bang. Under the theory of biological evolution, all life multiplied from some original single-celled organism. Out of one, many.
Likewise, the usual order of things is for systems, once established, to move from flourishing to decay, from order and unity to chaos and multiplicity, from the whole to the parts. This holds true for physical and biological systems, as well as systems of human organization. The body decays. Stars decay. Personal relationships decay. Political orders decay. Personal experience and a basic study of science and history lead us to these common sense conclusions.
Following initial Creation, subsequent creations may form new systems from pre-existing parts. People come together to form new families, communities, and states. At the level of states, these events are infrequent, and, as Madison points out in a later essay, usually the result of one charismatic man’s influence. But any such creation is immediately threatened by the tendencies towards decay and multiplicity.
The protection against decay and chaos is “energy.” To maintain our bodies, we use energy through food. Plants use the sun’s energy to stay alive. In families, it takes energy (physical and emotional) to maintain a well-functioning unit. So it is with political systems. The Germanic realm was created by Charlemagne, a very energetic statesman. But subsequent emperors were more ordinary, and the system itself failed to provide the structures that would allow the government to act with the requisite energy to maintain it. This need for “auxiliary measures,” that is, constitutional structures, to insulate the country from instability caused by variability in the qualities of the governing officials is raised in several essays.
Publius frequently raises the critical quality of energy in government in various writings. To underscore the force of his argument in Federalist 19, Madison’s recitation of the emperor’s formal powers suggests, not too subtly, those under the Articles. The princes, with their own claims to particular sovereignty, produced chaos within the system and intrigue from without. Madison’s warning about the deleterious effects of the decision to devolve power onto “circles” within the Empire was a pointed rebuke to supporters of the Articles who argued that common interests and customs within regions of the United States would produce amicability and desire for concord among neighboring states in ordinary matters, while the Confederation took care of external challenges. The Empire’s structure could not provide the conditions for energy in government when the emperor’s personal ordinariness could not surmount the system’s deficiencies. Neither could the Articles. The Constitution would.
Too little energy in government is a problem; so is too much. The sun’s energy is necessary for living systems. Yet too much energy kills as relentlessly as too little. Much of the debate over the Constitution was not about the need for energy in government, but about the amount. Some opponents of the Constitution thought that the Articles supplied enough. Others agreed with Publius that the Articles were defective, but worried that the Constitution went too far.
Though the particulars of Madison’s historical account might be open to question, his basic conclusions have merit. Still, the Empire lasted a thousand years. Indeed, Antifederalist writers lauded the relative stability and continuity of the systems that Madison derides. For well over three centuries (from the early tenth through the thirteenth), the Empire functioned effectively and energetically. It will take more than another century for the United States to reach that longevity. Meanwhile, we must ask whether the system that has emerged under the Constitution provides the right amount of energy to the central authority—or too much. Or did the Framers get the structure right, but have the people, through a lapse of republican virtue and political participation, permitted politicians and bureaucrats to stretch the structure beyond its original contours and to draw energy from individuals and other constituent parts to the central government?
As the mottos declare, the forming of the United States was a creative act to forge one out of many, first under the Articles and then, “to form a more perfect union,” under the Constitution. This was to be a new order for the ages, one that would seek to avoid the inevitable decay and dissolution through a novel constitutional accommodation. There is, too, a revealing third motto on the Great Seal, “Annuit Coeptis,” translated as “He [God] Approves Our Undertakings,” to complete the description of the project at hand. To avoid the fate of the polities that Madison describes in Federalist 19, we must remain vigilant to keep our constitutional, political, and social order true to the aspirations expressed in all three mottos and in the Constitution.
An expert on constitutional law, Prof. Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. Prof. Knipprath has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums. His website is www.tokenconservative.com