Constitution Sunday: “Cato” V

“Cato” V

New York Journal, November 22, 1787

Following are excerpts from an anonymous article published in the New York Journal:

To the Citizens of the State of New-York.

In my last number I endeavored to prove that the language of the article relative to the establishment of the executive of this new government was vague and inexplicit, that the great powers of the President, connected with his duration in office would lead to oppression and ruin. That he would be governed by favorites and flatterers, or that a dangerous council would be collected from the great officers of state;—that the ten miles square, if the remarks of one of the wisest men, drawn from the experience of mankind, may be credited, would be the asylum of the base, idle, avaricious and ambitious, and that the court would possess a language and manners different from yours; that a vice-president is as unnecessary, as he is dangerous in his influence—that the president cannot represent you, because he is not of your own immediate choice, that if you adopt this government, you will incline to an arbitrary and odious aristocracy or monarchy—that the president possessed of the power, given him by this frame of government differs but very immaterially from the establishment of monarchy in Great-Britain, and I warned you to beware of the fallacious resemblance that is held out to you by the advocates of this new system between it and your own state governments.

And here I cannot help remarking, that inexplicitness seems to pervade this whole political fabric: certainty in political compacts which Mr. Coke calls the mother and nurse of repose and quietness, the want of which induced men to engage in political society, has ever been held by a wise and free people as essential to their security; as on the one hand it fixes barriers which the ambitious and tyrannically disposed magistrate dare not overleap, and on the other, becomes a wall of safety to the community—otherwise stipulations between the governors and governed are nugatory; and you might as well deposit the important powers of legislation and execution in one or a few and permit them to govern according to their disposition and will; but the world is too full of examples, which prove that to live by one man’s will became the cause of all men’s misery. Before the existence of express political compacts it was reasonably implied that the magistrate should govern with wisdom and justice, but mere implication was too feeble to restrain the unbridled ambition of a bad man, or afford security against negligence, cruelty, or any other defect of mind. It is alledged that the opinions and manners of the people of America, are capable to resist and prevent an extension of prerogative or oppression; but you must recollect that opinion and manners are mutable, and may not always be a permanent obstruction against the encroachments of government; that the progress of a commercial society begets luxury, the parent of inequality, the foe to virtue, and the enemy to restraint; and that ambition and voluptuousness aided by flattery, will teach magistrates, where limits are not explicitly fixed to have separate and distinct interests from the people, besides it will not be denied that government assimilates the manners and opinions of the community to it. Therefore, a general presumption that rulers will govern well is not sufficient security. . . . Americans are like other men in similar situations, when the manners and opinions of the community are changed by the causes I mentioned before, and your political compact inexplicit, your posterity will find that great power connected with ambition, luxury, and flattery, will as readily produce a Caesar, Caligula, Nero, and Domitian in America, as the same causes did in the Roman empire.

.     .     .

It is a very important objection to this government, that the representation consists of so few; too few to resist the influence of corruption, and the temptation to treachery, against which all governments ought to take precautions—how guarded you have been on this head, in your own state constitution, and yet the number of senators and representatives proposed for this vast continent, does not equal those of your own state; how great the disparity, if you compare them with the aggregate numbers in the United States. The history of representation in England, from which we have taken our model of legislation, is briefly this, before the institution of legislating by deputies, the whole free part of the community usually met for that purpose, when this became impossible, by the increase of numbers, the community was divided into districts, from each of which was sent such a number of deputies as was a complete representation of the various numbers and orders of citizens within them; but can it be asserted with truth, that six men can be a complete and full representation of the numbers and various orders of the people in this state? . . .”

The author is keen to compare the trajectory of America to that of Ancient Rome, noting that a principled society and government can dissolve when licentiousness, luxury, and flattery pervade them. Just as the Roman society produced modest, well-meaning politicians like Cicero and Cato, it produced Caligula and Nero, two infamous emperors of the early Empire. The author presents this progression as somewhat inevitable so long as there is prosperity and commercial success, as that tends to beget lack of restraint and inequality.

To protect against erosion of governmental institutions and the happiness of citizens, the author counts on the legislative branch; in this case, the proposed House of Representatives and Senate. However, for those institutions to succeed, they must have adequate representation so that citizens can have a direct influence on their government. Without that participation, there would be no opportunity to voice dissent should a strong leader occupy the presidency, with all of its accompanying power and prestige for when that occurs, the government, while still a democracy in name, becomes little more than a dressed-up monarchy or aristocracy that is only bound to serve those in power.

Inherently, the presidency is prone to abuse, according to the author, given its singular nature. The prediction that the president would have a council of advisors has come true in the nearly-two-and-a-half centuries since publication, and the danger for abuse is as present now as then.

At the heart of the author’s perspective is that an active, vocal citizenry will lead to a more stable, just government than any other. Representing the views and voices of a citizenry is the prime function of a representative democracy, as it enables the government to sustain itself and the citizenry to enjoy a level of control and resultant happiness that otherwise would not be possible in an opaque government. While that control must be moderated, as a general matter, it ultimately prevents or mitigates the likelihood of a leader that endangers the existence of the government or the country as a whole.

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