Preserving the Health of the Constitution

general_george_washington_at_trenton_by_john_trumbull
General George Washington at Trenton. By: John Trumbull.

Corruption was rife in England in the decades leading up to the American Revolution, and Americans were keenly aware of that fact. For many individuals, the English Constitution was viewed as a hollow document, as the crown had taken the power away from all other sources. See Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 34-35. Americans knew that this corruption “always begins amongst the Rich and the Great” and would spread to the common people, leaving them “enfeebled and their souls depraved.” Id. at 35 quoting Pinkney’s Wmsbg. Va. Gazette, June 15, 1775; Phila. Pa. Packet, May 29, 1775, Aug. 8, 1774; Purdie and Dixon’s Wmsbg. Va. Gazette, Sept. 5, 1771. Read more

Infancy, Manhood, and Decline

Portrait of Niccolo' Machiavelli
Portrait of Niccolo Machiavelli. By: Santi di Tito.

The political spirit of the colonies in the 1700s, while unfamiliar in many respects, has parallels to the modern political landscape in America. The colonies political thought was closer to Niccolo Machiavelli and Montesquieu, rather than John Locke.

The colonists generally “did not conceive of society in rational, mechanistic terms; rather society was organic and developmental.” Gordon Wood, Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 29. One of the common views at the time was: “It is with states as it is with men, they have their infancy, their manhood, and their decline.” Id. quoting Stow Persons, “The Cyclical Theory of History in Eighteenth-Century America,” American Quarterly, 6 (1954), 147-63.

This theory of nations and people presented “a variable organic cycle of birth, maturity, and death, in which states, like the human body, carried within themselves the seeds of their own dissolution,” with the speed of dissolution “depending on the changing spirit of the society.” Gordon Wood, Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 29 quoting Stow Persons, “The Cyclical Theory of History in Eighteenth-Century America,” American Quarterly, 6 (1954), 147-63.

In contemporary America, these beliefs regarding the cyclical nature of nations would resonate with many. Even if most modern Americans do not think in terms of analogizing nations with men, the rise and fall of nations is still a popular subject.

Notably, Americans, and their immediate predecessors, have always been painfully aware of the seemingly temporary nature of prosperity in the strongest of nations. Optimistically, Americans have always hoped to devise a system of government and a culture that was capable of avoiding what seems to be inevitable decline.

Whether that is possible or not, this American hope fuels an insecurity of decline and a desire to study history so as not to repeat it. Perhaps this insecurity can prevent or mitigate the most common causes of decline and even significantly delay decline, but can it stop decline from happening altogether? It is doubtful.