Constitution Sunday: “Americanus” V

“Americanus” V [John Stevens, Jr.]

Daily Advertiser (New York, December 12, 1787

The structure of the American government, with its division into three branches and its layered arrangement from top (federal) to middle (state) to bottom (local), made it an exception in 1787 from what had been previously known. Even with the Constitution’s framework appearing to better safeguard against the country devolving into a dictatorship or monarchy, there remained the plausible theory that, despite the Constitution’s best features, it would do nothing more than slow, or mitigate, that devolution; it would be unable to prevent it.

Those who were engaging in the debate of the Constitution looked to the philosophers of the day and those of yore to seek guidance for how best to tailor the document’s contours. In John Stevens, Jr.’s article, published on December 12, 1787, he looked to Montesquieu. The “general divisions” of government, as Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws explained, were “Republican, Monarchial, and Despotic.” A republican government operated with the people “possessed of the supreme power” while a monarchy saw a single person governing it subject to “fixed and established laws,” but the despot had its single person directing “every thing by his own will and caprice.” Within the scope of republican governments, there were two species: one had its source of power housed in the “body of the people”—which Montesquieu identified as a “free Government”—and the second had power sitting with “a certain number of persons, be they more or less, who form a class of men distinct from the people at large”—which was a government “in its nature Arbitrary or Despotic.”

The American form of a republican government was destined to be unique, according to Stevens: “Surely a President, whose term of office is so short, and whose powers are so limited, could have no object in view sufficiently important to recompence him for the disgrace and ignominy which would inevitably attend an action so atrocious.” Further, even if he did, “to corrupt a majority of the legislature to concur with him could this business be kept a secret? Would not suspicion set the minority to work, and would there be a possibility of preventing a discovery of the plot? And would not the President and his corrupt majority be hurled from their stations and consigned to everlasting infamy?” Proof that the American system could work was evidence in Great Britain, who had a hereditary monarch, and that monarch had pursued interests distinct from the community at large with a “house of Peers wholly at his devotion” as well as a majority in the House of Commons; but, despite these circumstances, wrote Stevens, “we can find few or no instances in which the general interest of the nation has been betrayed or neglected.”

Additionally, analyzing the structure of Congress revealed the type of democracy that the Constitution would foster. Stevens wrote, “the fact is, that no Government, that has ever yet existed in the world, affords so ample a field, to individuals of all ranks, for the display of political talents and abilities.” He continued:

“Here are no Patricians, who engross the offices of State. No man who has real merit, let his situation be what it will, need dispair. He first distinguishes himself amongst his neighbours at township and county meeting; he is next sent to the State Legislature. In this theatre his abilities, whatever they are, are exhibited in their true colors, and displayed to the views of every man in the State: from hence his ascent to a seat in Congress becomes easy and sure. Such a regular uninterrupted gradation from the chief men in a village, to the chair of the President of the United States, which this Government affords to all her citizens without distinction, is a perfection in Republican Government, heretofore unknown and unprecedented.”

The Constitution would not only protect against those abuses that plague despotic governments: it would succeed in elevating to positions of power those with merit and those who had been tested at every level of government. Even a monarchy, which had displayed in Great Britain its potential for holding single-person rule to the bounds that laws had set, could not match a republic of the American flavor—a flavor which, every four years, aspires to elevate the best qualified person to be President and hold that President to account if he or she acts outside the bounds of the country’s laws.

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