Friday, November 19, 2010

What the founders REALLY thought (2)

In his private correspondence, George Washington was particularly scornful of the argument advanced by opponents of the Constitution that it gave too much power to the national government.

"The Men who oppose a strong & energetic government are, in my opinion, narrow minded politicians, or are under the influence of local views," he wrote Alexander Hamilton.

Or, as he expounded on the matter in another letter: "No man is a warmer advocate for proper restraints and wholesome checks in every department of government than I am; but I have never yet been able to discover the propriety of placing it absolutely out of the power of men to render essential Services, because a possibility remains of their doing ill."

The framers of the Constitution were unarguably concerned that the power of government might be abused, but they were equally concerned that the general government be — as Washington put it — "strong & energetic" enough to carry out the duties of good governance. (And, by the way, despite the incredibly doctrinaire assertion by the tea partyites and their libertarian fellow travelers that the only legitimate purpose of government is to guard individual liberty, you would be hard pressed to find anyone among the founding generation who took so crabbed a view.)

Their concern was not that a powerful Federal government was in itself a threat to liberty (as I noted in my previous post, on the contrary the framers saw a powerful general government as the best guarantor of the rights of all against the factionalism, local interests, and unjust tendencies of the state legislatures); it was not, as the tea party comic book version has it, that government power was in itself tyrannical; they were rather concerned about three very specific problems which might lead to tyranny — and, strikingly, all three were evils that the founders saw not as stemming from the power of the Federal government but rather as inherent in the machinery of democracy itself: it was too much democracy, rather than too little, that they feared.

One, which seems quaint today but which greatly occupied their thoughts, was foreign influence and the danger that elections left the country vulnerable to such intrigues. "As often as Elections happen, the danger of foreign Influence recurs," John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson. (Adams, in fact — with more than a little justice in light of later experience — was suspicious of elections altogether for the opportunities for corruption they presented: "Elections, my dear sir, Elections to offices which are great objects of Ambition, I look at with terror. Experiments of this kind have been so often tryed, and so universally found productive of Horrors, that there is great Reason to dread them.")

Second was the tyranny of the majority I wrote about the other day: the danger that a majority made up of one religious sect, one economic class, or dominated by one region would favor its interests at the expense of the minority.

Third was a fear that the presidency would devolve into a de facto monarchy, perhaps even a hereditary one.

But Washington, for one, argued with some passion that even these fears were being grossly exaggerated by local politicians who simply feared their own oxen being gored. Ultimately, the government could exert no power that the people would not accede to through representatives of their own choosing and who were subject to recall at the next election. The popular cant that portrayed any exercise of power by government officials as "tyranny," he said, was simply a smokescreen for factional and local interests:

It is agreed on all hands that no government can be well administered without powers; yet the instant these are delegated, altho' those who are entrusted with the administration are no more than the creatures of the people, act as it were but for a day, and are amenable for every false step they take, they are, from the moment they receive it, set down as tyrants; their natures, one would conceive from this, immediately changed, and that they could have no other disposition but to oppress. 

Of these things, in a government constituted and guarded as ours is, I have no idea; and do firmly believe that whilst many ostensible reasons are assigned to prevent the adoption of it, the real ones are concealed behind the Curtain, because they are not of a nature to appear in open day.

By the way, why do the tea partyites look upon the Constitution with a reverence bordering on idolatry while simultaneously making a cult of Patrick Henry (or at least his name) — who was one of the most implacable foes of ratification?