A Revolution Without Parallel

On February 16, 2010, in Culture, History, Politics, by marc

James Madison, writing in The Federalist #14, answering the objection that the new form of government proposed by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia is likely to fail due to the unprecedented nature of stitching together so large a republic:

James Madison (1751-1836)

Hearken not to the unnatural voice, which tells you that the people of America, knit together as they are by so many chords of affection, can no longer live together as members of the same family; can no longer continue the mutual guardians of their mutual happiness; can no longer be fellow citizens of one great, respectable, and flourishing empire. Hearken not to the voice, which petulantly tells you, that the form of government recommended for your adoption, is a novelty in the political world; that it has never yet had a place in the theories of the wildest projectors; that it rashly attempts what it is impossible to accomplish. No, my countrymen, shut your ears against this unhallowed language. Shut your hearts against the poison which it conveys. The kindred blood which flows in the veins of American citizens, the mingled blood which they have shed in defence of their sacred rights, consecrate their union, and excite horror at the idea of their becoming aliens, rivals, enemies. And if novelties are to be shunned, believe me, the most alarming of all novelties, the most wild of all projects, the most rash of all attempts, is that of rending us in pieces, in order to preserve our liberties, and promote our happiness. But why is the experiment of an extended republic to be rejected, merely because it may comprise what is new? Is it not the glory of the people of America, that whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to over-rule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience? To this manly spirit, posterity will be indebted for the possession, and the world for the example, of the numerous innovations displayed on the American theatre, in favour of private rights and public happiness. Had no important step been taken by the leaders of the revolution, for which a precedent could not be discovered; no government established of which an exact model did not present itself, the people of the United States might, at this moment, have been numbered among the melancholy victims of misguided councils; must at best have been labouring under the weight of some of those forms which have crushed the liberties of the rest of mankind. Happily for America, happily we trust for the whole human race, they pursued a new and more noble course. They accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society. They reared the fabrics of governments which have no model on the face of the globe. They formed the design of a great confederacy, which it is incumbent on their successors to improve and perpetuate. If their works betray imperfections, we wonder at the fewness of them. If they erred most in the structure of the union, this was the work most difficult to be executed; this is the work which has been new modelled by the act of your convention, and it is that act on which you are now to deliberate and to decide.

I submit that it is incumbent upon our generation to see that representative, limited government and real federalism are restored.  Our founders bequeathed unto us a system designed to protect the rights of individuals and the prerogatives of the several states.  For too long, we have lived under the illusion that the national government can solve all of our problems and ease all of our difficulties.  We have ceded too much of our liberty to the political class; it is high time that we stand and say “no more.”

Last week, I purchased my copy of The Federalist, one of those books that I considered essential for my library, and did so in honor of the people of Massachusetts, who, in electing Scott Brown to replace Ted Kennedy in the United States Senate, may have managed to save the Republic from the horrors of socialized health care.  (I should note that the entire Gideon Edition of The Federalist is available for download here if you’re interested.)  I’ve plowed through most of the introductory material, but tonight I decided that it was time to commence reading the actual work of Hamilton, Jay, and Madison.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton, 1755-1804

The Federalist No. 1 was penned by Alexander Hamilton, a Founding Father, Aide-de-camp to General George Washington during the Revolutionary War, and the man who would go on to serve as the first Secretary of the Treasury in Washington’s presidential administration.  I was struck by this passage, which describes the nature of at least some of the debate common at the time over the adoption of the then-proposed US Constitution:

To judge from the conduct of the opposite parties, we shall be led to conclude, that they will mutually hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts, by the loudness of their declamations, and by the bitterness of their invectives. An enlightened zeal for the energy and efficiency of government, will be stigmatized as the offspring of a temper fond of power, and hostile to the principles of liberty. An over scrupulous jealousy of danger to the rights of the people, which is more commonly the fault of the head than of the heart, will be represented as mere pretence and artifice . . . the stale bait for popularity at the expense of public good. It will be forgotten, on the one hand, that jealousy is the usual concomitant of violent love, and that the noble enthusiasm of liberty is too apt to be infected with a spirit of narrow and illiberal distrust. On the other hand, it will be equally forgotten, that the vigour of government is essential to the security of liberty; that, in the contemplation of a sound and well informed judgment, their interests can never be separated; and that a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people, than under the forbidding appearances of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us, that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism, than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career, by paying an obsequious court to the people . . . commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.

It strikes me that the situation is reversed today.  Whereas Hamilton had to fight to overcome the suspicions of a population very concerned about the potential creation of an intrusive and too-powerful federal government, we must now fight against the desire of many to cede their liberty to a federal government that is all too willing to pretend that it can provide everything for everyone.  One wonders what the Founders would think were they able to see what has become of the Republic they worked so hard to build and the citizens whose liberty they strove so mightily to protect.

Books I Really Should Have

On December 1, 2009, in Books I'd Like, General, by marc