A Compound of Aristocracy and Monarchy

Etching of Jonathan Jackson. By: Max Rosenthal.

In the 1780s, Americans, like John Dickinson, observed that “[p]eople once respected their governors, their senators, their judges and their clergy; they reposed confidence in them; their laws were obeyed, and the states were happy in tranquility.” Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, Ford, ed., Pamphlets, 188. The authority of the government was declining. Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 507.

Jonathan Jackson, in 1788, wrote about common Federalist beliefs at the time: “there never was a people upon earth . . . who were in less hazard than the people of this country, of an aristocracy’s prevailing—or anything like it, dangerous to liberty.” Id. at 509 quoting Jackson, Thoughts upon the Political Situation, 54-118. In all, Jackson believed that there was little “inequality of fortune,” but this did not translate to a healthy democracy, as people “are nearly as unfit to choose legislators, or any of the more important publick officers, as they are in general to fill the offices themselves.” Id.

The framers of the Constitution were keenly aware of these concerns, however. They knew that they needed to “make a segregation of upright, virtuous, intelligent men, to guide the helm of public affairs.” Providence Gazette, Aug. 12, 1786; Madison, “Vices of the Political System,” Hunt, ed., Writings of Madison, II, 369. They wanted the federal government to act “as a kind of sieve, extracting ‘from the mass of the society the purest and noblest characters which it contains.'” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 512 quoting Madison, “Vices of the Political System,” Hunt, ed., Writings of Madison, II, 369.

John Quincy Adams commented that the Constitution was designed “to increase the influence, power and wealth of those who have it already.” John Quincy Adams, Life in a New England Town: 1787-1788 . . . (Boston, 1903), 46. In fact, aristocratic principles were “interwoven” into the Constitution. Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 515. The presidency and the Senate both were “a compound of monarchy and aristocracy,” and the House of Representatives could be characterized as “an Assistant Aristocratical Branch,” rather than an accurate representative body. Id. quoting “John De Witt,” Nov. 5, 1787, Kenyon, ed., Anti-federalists, 108.

Much of this seemed to conflict with the ideals and principles propounded during the years of the Revolution, prompting Republicans to ensure that elements of republicanism would not be lost in the formation of the new federal government. On the other hand, the difference in the discourse and collective feeling of the country was palpable.

Americans had embraced a different set of beliefs, not just being rebellious and universally united, but instead being cognizant that Americans would inevitably form different classes. This realization helped formulate a better tailored system of government for America and one that would foster representation of Americans of all levels of influence and wealth.

Notably, the Founding Fathers did not trust entirely that wise decision makers would emerge from every class of Americans. They believed that a “sieve” was needed, to find those would preserve “influence, power and wealth” for Americans, as the Constitution was designed. This begs the question: Is this the ideal system? Do those with influence, power, and wealth truly need a position carved out for them? This is part of an introspection that Americans should regularly undergo, to keep government tailored to society.

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