Constitution Sunday: “Brutus” IV

“Brutus” IV

New York Journal, November 29, 1787

At the heart of a healthy democracy is the power for people or their representatives to create, modify, or repeal the laws for those laws inevitably govern nearly all aspects of life. The New York Journal published an article that dissected fair representation in the proposed Constitution:

“The object of every free government is the public good, and all lesser interests yield to it. That of every tyrannical government, is the happiness and aggrandisement of one, or a few, and to this the public felicity, and every other interest must submit.—The reason of this difference in these governments is obvious. The first is so constituted as to collect the views and wishes of the whole people in that of their rulers, while the latter is so framed as to separate the interests of the governors from that of the governed. . . . The great art, therefore, in forming a good constitution, appears to be this, so to frame it, as that those to whom the power is committed shall be subject to the same feelings, and aim at the same objects as the people do, who transfer to them their authority. There is no possible way to effect this but by an equal, full and fair representation; this, therefore, is the great desideratum in politics.

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A farther objection against the feebleness of the representation is, that it will not possess the confidence of the people. The execution of the laws in a free government must rest on this confidence, and this must be founded on the good opinion they entertain of the framers of the laws. Every good government must be supported, either by the people having such an attachment to it, as to be ready, when called upon, to support it, or by a force at the command of the government, to compel obedience.

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In order for the people safely to repose themselves on their rulers, they should not only be of their own choice. But it is requisite they should be acquainted with their abilities to manage the public concerns with wisdom. They should be satisfied that those who represent them are men of integrity, who will pursue the good of the community with fidelity; and will not be turned aside from their duty by private interest, or corrupted by undue influence; and that they will have such a zeal for the good of those whom they represent, as to excite them to be deligent in their service; but it is impossible the people of the United States should have sufficient knowledge of their representatives, when the numbers are so few, to acquire any rational satisfaction on either of these points.

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By section 4, article I, the Congress are authorized, at any time, by law, to make, or alter, regulations respecting the time, place, and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives, except as to the places of choosing senators. By this clause the right of election itself, is, in a great measure, transferred from the people to their rulers.—One would think, that if any thing was necessary to be made a fundamental article of the original compact, it would be, that of fixing the branches of the legislature, so as to put it out of its power to alter itself by modifying the election of its own members at will and pleasure. When a people once resign the privilege of a fair election, they clearly have non left worth contending for.

It is clear that, under this article, the fœderal legislature may institute such rules respecting elections as to lead to the choice of one description of men. The weakness of the representation, tends but too certainly to confer on the rich and well-born, all honours; but the power granted in this article, may be so exercised, as to secure it almost beyond a possibility of controul. The proposed Congress may make the whole state one district, and direct, that the capital (the city of New-York, for instance) shall be the place for holding the election; the consequence would be, that none but men of the most elevated rank in society would attend, and they would certainly choose men of their own class; as it is true what the Apostle Paul saith, that ‘no man ever yet hated his own flesh, but nourisheth and cherisheth it.’—They may declare that those members who have the greatest number of votes, shall be considered as duly elected; the consequence would be that the people, who are dispersed in the interior parts of the state, would give their votes for a variety of candidates, while any order, or profession, residing in populous places, by uniting their interests, might procure whom they pleased to be chosen—and by this means the representatives of the state may be elected by one tenth part of the people who actually vote. This may be effected constitutionally, and by one of those silent operations which frequently takes place without being noticed, but which often produces such changes as entirely to alter a government, subvert a free constitution, and rivet the chains on a free people before they perceive they are forged.”

It is notable that the author’s fears were qualified in the ratified Constitution as Section 4 of Article I reads: “The times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations, except as the places of choosing Senators.” The concern remains over two centuries later, however, that those “well-born” remain the most likely to be in positions of power and that the possibility for voters to become well-acquainted with their representatives is too distant. Therefore, a dialog continues to play out as to whether representatives and senators are focused on the public good or simply appearing to be while executing their own agenda that may be hindering the public good.

In a system that empowers citizens to be truly represented in legislative bodies on the state and federal level, the onus is placed on those citizens to ensure that the representatives are in fact held to account for their actions. If confidence in a representative has been eroded because of his or her actions, then the citizens are and must be able to effect a transfer of power to a more worthy representative. For the sake of a functional democracy, those citizens must also ask themselves whether the representatives for whom they are voting are asking voters to send their collective views and wishes or are viewing issues and policies so as to aim for the same goals as their constituents.

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