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. Read more

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 Read more

Constitution Sunday: Reply to Elbridge Gerry: “A Landholder” [Oliver Ellsworth] IV

Reply to Elbridge Gerry: “A Landholder” [Oliver Ellsworth] IV

Connecticut Courant (Hartford), November 26, 1787

Following are excerpts from Oliver Ellsworth’s article:

“Such a body of men might be an army to defend the country in case of foreign invasion, but not a legislature, and the expence to support them would equal the whole national revenue. Read more

The Heir to the Founders

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John Quincy Adams.

On July 4, 1826, during America’s Golden Jubilee, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 243. The two political rivals were two of the last three surviving signers of the Declaration of Independence, leaving only Charles Carroll of Maryland alive. Id. President John Quincy Adams, learning of his father’s death and Jefferson’s death, remarked that it was a “‘visible and palpable mark of Divine favor,’ to the nation, and most of his countrymen agreed.” Id. quoting James Morton Smith, The Republic of Letters (New York, 1995), II, 1973-74.

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The Pivot of American Government

james_sullivan
James Sullivan. By: Gilbert Stuart.

In the earliest years of the American Republic, individuals like James Madison, Samuel Williams, Charles Pinckney, and Samuel Langdon concluded that no country had created a better model for representative government than America’s. See Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 596.

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A Tradition of Extra-Legislative Action

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Samuel Adams. By: John Singleton Copley.

As touched on in Unalterable Constitutions, Americans began resorting to conventions for amending their state constitutions, and this was only one example of Americans looking to advance their causes outside of the bounds of government. See Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 310. This was not a novel approach, however, and it was not the only approach that Americans were increasingly taking to advance their interests.

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The Essence of Representation

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View of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., circa 1800.

While revolution was necessary to reinvent the American system of government to best meet the needs of Americans, another key element was necessary. The early Americans realized that “[p]eace is seldom made, and never kept, unless the subject retain such a power in his hands as may oblige the prince to stand to what is agreed.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 24 quoting Foster, Short Essay on Civil Government, 29-30.

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The Somewhat Representative Democracy

Federal Hall, New York City. The seat of the federal government in 1790.

William Findley, a man of Irish descent who came to play a powerful role in Pennsylvanian politics, had an idea about what a politician should be. He said that politicians should be able to advocate for their own cause when they take the floor, that politicians should openly support their interests. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 221. As Gordon Wood explained in Empire of Liberty, this idea challenged “the entire classical tradition of disinterested public leadership and set[] forth a rationale for a competitive interest-laden politics . . . .” id.

James Madison, in Federalist No. 10, feared such a thing: that politicians may be deciding issues that directly affect their interests.

Nonetheless, the American system has undoubtedly embraced such a principle. Politicians, perhaps now more than ever, are influenced by their own interests, which are shaped by various donations, gifts, and promises of future favors.

There is a significant question underlying all of this: Did the Founding Fathers contemplate that a representative democracy could transform itself into a system where the politicians are only representative of their constituencies to the extent those constituencies benefit from the donations, gifts, and promises of future favors?

Some may argue that the representative nature of the republic was and still is affected by this system. Politicians are elected based on their promises of what they will do for others, but when in office, perhaps their self-interests are the only ones that matter. Then, to the extent those self-interests align with their constituency, their record serves as a platform for re-elections.

Perhaps it is simply too idealistic to expect politicians to put their self-interests aside and govern with an even hand, representing the best interests of their constituents, not themselves. Regardless, there appears to be no question that Findley’s ideal politician has become the norm for politicians.

Had Madison known what would happen to politicians, he may not have been surprised, but he would have been disappointed.