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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

Great Debate: Advocates and Opponents of the American Constitution

Great Debate: Advocates and Opponents of the American Constitution - Thomas L. Pangle I was a member of a book group that decided to read and discuss the book "The Federalist Papers" for our December 2011 meeting. The Federalist Papers are a series of 85 essays written in 1787 and 1788 to promote the ratification of the United States Constitution. It's the equivalent of reading a 600 paged legal brief written by an 18th century lawyer. Actually, that's exactly what it is. Therefore, it's not an easy read for a 21st century reader, or at least I didn't experience it as an easy read.

Therefore I was very appreciative of this collection of twelve lectures that provide an easy to follow explanation of the debate between the anti-federalists and the the federalists. I grew up being taught that the U.S.Constitution was next to the Bible (almost) as being sacred. It's surprising to learn that its adoption was a close vote in many of the states, and that many of the leading politicians of the day opposed it. There are many examples of prophetic warnings made by the anti-federalists that subsequently came true. However, if the Constitution had not been approved surely many of the warning prophecies of the Federalist would have come true.

Frankly, it's miraculous they came up with a system that worked as well as it did. One has to remember that they didn't have any proven examples to follow. Of course they had the British parliamentary system as one model, but it was a monarchy and they knew for sure they didn't want that! Then there was the Dutch Republic and the Swiss Confederation but they had their deficiencies that were clearly pointed out by the Federalist Papers. Beyond that there were the examples of the ancient Greek and Roman republics. Anybody who has read "Plutarch's Lives" or "The Peloponnesian War" knows that those repulics were short lived and filled with intrigue.

French social commentator, Montesquieu, in 1748 had written a book titled "De l'esprit des lois (The Spirt of the Laws) in which he articulated the possible merits of republics and the means by which they could avoid many of the problems experienced by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Montesquieu had many good ideas such as separation of powers. However, he envisioned small republics populated by people of similar religion and culture and with minimal diversity of wealth. That model simply didn't fit the United States, and the anti-federalists feared that centralization of power in a federal government was moving in the wrong direction away from the model envisioned by Montesquieu.

It was the genius of James Madison (supported by Alexander Hamilton) to envision his concept of the Madisonian republic where a centralized government could be designed in such a way that the larger and more diverse the population, and the greater extent of the land within the country, the more stable and safe the country would be from the influence of mobs and despots. His point was that democracy was too prone to be self destructive at the local level and that the distancing of the central government from the local government increased the likelihood that the better types of representatives would be selected to represent the states at the federal level. The larger the population the less likely an unruly minority (or religion) could improperly influence the central government.

It has occurred to me that perhaps the development of instantaneous communications through the advent of the internet has diminished the effectiveness of the Madisonian republic model by creating virtual mobs and despots. This could perhaps explain the apparent increased polarization of modern societies. We need the wisdom of James Madison to suggest tweaks to the system to keep it functioning as intended.

This ends the review in my words. The rest of the text contained below are partial transcriptions of parts of Lectures 7 and 8. I include it here to provide an example of the nature and quality of the lectures. However, it is quite long so you the reader have my permission to stop reading at this point.

(this is an introductory paragraph is lifted from Lecture 8)
The anti-federalist following the classical republicanism are concerned to prevent or repress the spirit of faction from becoming prevalent in the citizenry. The anti-federalists are still guided by the ideal of a homogeneous and harmonious fraternal citizenry while the new Madisonian vision not only accepts faction but makes the spirit of faction an animating spirit of the republic.

(the following is from lecture 7)
Madison’s definition of faction in the 10th paper. “By a faction I understand a number of citizen’s, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse, passion or of interests adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent or aggregate interests of the community.”

Faction for Madison implies the predominance of passions and interest that moves groups of citizens in ways that threaten injury to the rights of others citizens or to the good of the whole community. It is crucial that we keep this precise and pejorative definition of faction firmly in mind as we follow Madison’s argument through the 10th Federalist Paper, or otherwise we won’t recognize how radical or shocking his argument is.

Madison proposes that this new constitution frames the first kind of republic in all of human history which has an “effective tendency” to break and control the violence of faction. And the new unclassical spirit of the Constitution becomes clearer when we follow Madison’s argument when we follow his argument how this breaking and controlling of the violence of faction is to be accomplished.

Madison begins by submitting that there are only two methods of curing the “mischiefs of faction.” The one by removing its causes. The other by controlling its effects.

The first method, removing its causes, means somehow preventing factions from becoming major factors in civic life. And there are only two ways of accomplishing this. The first is despotically doing away with liberty, and thus preventing citizens from being able to form politically effective interest groups which would attempt to dominate or exploit one another. And this suppression of groups is out of the question for Americans.

The second way is to that the path of the classical republican tradition, that is to try to make the population homogeneous in its outlook, a fraternal community. ... An this is what Madison makes clear is what the Constitution rejects as impracticable.

The proposed constitution is based upon the deep premise that any attempt to build a fraternal community of public spirited citizens, sharing the same outlook, is simply against human nature. As Madison put is, “The latent causes of faction are thus sewn in the nature of man, and we see them everywhere.” ... “The first object of government is the protection of these faculties from which the rights of property originate.”

And then Madison observes that when government succeeds in this prime purpose of protecting the acquisitive selfish faculties the necessary result is the emergence of different degrees and kinds of property and thereby great economic diversity and great economic inequality among the citizens. ....

This faculty for acquiring property are themselves unequal or unequal distributed and this necessarily divides society into mutually opposed parties or factions from the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.

But it is not only the competing economic interests that necessarily split human society into warring factions. Madison also stresses a zeal for differing opinions concerning religion as the first in a list of differences of opinions that always have this effect of creating factions of mutually hostile groups. The list also includes zealotry for conflicting political opinions. But also zealotry for all sorts of other opinions in theory and in practice. And in addition attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for preeminence in power. ....

... Madison’s conception is complex. He does not rule out the role of enlightened statesmen. But He insists that such statesmen rarely prevail over the immediate interests of which one party over another. ... He also recognizes strong bonds of friendship among Americans but he contends that such natural bonds are by no means strong enough to prevent the more natural emergence of fierce and mutually hurtful factional competition. Economic competition is the most powerful source of the natural hatred and animosity that overwhelms kinship and public spirit. ...

.. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and “involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of government.” This last phrase is pregnant and a most important phrase in the entire Federalist Papers. ... In their new solution to the problem of faction, the spirit of faction, what he call mutual animosity, is going to be accepted as a routine intrinsic and even necessary part of American republican government. Faction is going to be used as the primary tool to combat and control faction. The new American government will fight fire with fire. ...

The new American republic is to be the first republic in history that is going to tolerate and foster and in some measure depend on promoting faction. Mutually antagonistic competition among selfish groups seeking to exploit one another throughout society and inside the government itself. ...

Madison’s next step is to argue that once we have admitted this basic and rather grim truth we have to realize that in a republican society where the majority has the preponderant power, where the majority is the legitimate authority, the most serious danger is not from any minority faction but rather from the majority if and when it becomes united as a faction. For since the majority has the greater power and the greatest legitimacy, it can defeat in the long run and over all a check on a regular basis all minority factions. But who or what can check the majority if an when it becomes a united single faction?

The experience of the failure of classical republicanism shows that most likely and most pernicious single faction is most likely to be the poorer factions uniting against the wealthy who are always the fewer. The poorer faction often proceed under the leadership of demagogs to place the rights of property under such threats that either the economy is ruined or the property classes are compelled to fight back in ruinous civil conflict.

It’s this problem of majority faction that is the great problem of all past republics that has never before been solved. And this is why the cause of republicanism has fallen into disrepute. So its the solution of this problem, the problem of majoritarian faction which is then the great object of which our inquires are directed. ... By what means is this object obtainable? ...

Either the existence of the same faction or interest in the majority must be prevented or the majority having having such a passion or interest must be rendered by their number and local situation unable to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression. In order for either of these effects to happen we must avoid setting up a pure democracy. What Madison means by democracy is “a society consisting of a small number of citizens who assemble and administer the government in person.” For is such a pure democratic society the assembled assembly has direct political power, and will easily coalesce into a unified faction. Some degree of mob rule guided by demagogues is the all too common fate of direct democracies.

Madison is here contradicting a basic premise of the Anti-Federalists. ...

What we must set up instead of democracies in the classic sense is a republic by which he means, “a government in which the scheme of representation takes place.” ... The two great differences between a democracy and a republic are: First, the delegation of the government to a small number of citizens elected by the rest. Second, the greater number of citizens and the great sphere of country over which [the republic] may be extended.

Here we see the heart of the new Madisonian republican vision. The new American constitution aims not a confederacies of small democratic participatory republics. But instead at one large extended mass republic where the people never can assemble to govern directly. And hence the majority can never unite and become directly oppressive of minorities and individuals.

But the most important consideration in this regard is not simply that the country’s territory and numbers will be too big for the majority to ever physically assemble in one place. More important is the fact that the majority will be so diverse, and so riven by conflicting factional interests trying to oppress one another, especially economic, that it will rarely share the same interests. Or when it does it will have great difficulty in becoming aware of that sharing.

As Madison puts it in his most important single statement explaining what, as he puts it, “what principally is to render factious combinations less to be dreaded” is to extend the sphere and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests. You make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens. Or if such a common mode exists it will be more difficult for all to feel it and discover their own strength and to act in unison with each other.

Hence it clearly appears that the same advantage that the republic has over a democracy in controlling the effects of faction is enjoyed by a large [republic] over a small republic, is enjoyed by the union over the states composing it.

The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular states but it will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other states. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the confederacy, but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. ...

Madison places the Anti-Federalist argument on its head in two major respects. Where the Anti-Federalists follow classical republican theory in seeking homogeneity of the populous to avoid clashing of interests, Madison is saying that such clashing is the key to maintaining liberty in a republic.

(the following is from lecture 8)
The anti-federalist following the classical principles want to keep the reigns of government more directly in the hands of the people. And so they worry about the distancing of the representatives from the people and from the people’s control. But for Madison it just such removal of the representatives from their constituents that is one key to safe as well as effective government.

And Madison states even more emphatically and explicitly that the new constitution aims at the unclassical goal of excluding the people as a whole from any direct role in their government. In Paper 63 he says that while the classical republics were not totally unfamiliar some version of representation the true distinction between the classical democracy and the new American republic lies in the total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity from any share in the government. Unlike the citizens of any classical democracies and republics, the American citizenry will be only indirectly engaged in the politics and governance of their society to a much greater degree than in the classical republic. The American people will be absorbed in their private factional pursuits and they will become politically engaged chiefly in order to protect those factional pursuits and the private liberties they express.

It appears that Madison’s republican vision is based upon the assumption that virtue can be dispensed with, or mostly replaced by the checking and balancing of the competitive struggle of economic selfish interest groups. But this impression is very incomplete. It’s too simple, and one sided. And we must look now at the higher ingredient in Madison’s republican vision. For Madison has in Paper 10 additional argument for the new conception of representative government removed from the populous.

He praises such representative government not only for its ability to channel the selfish interest group struggle, but it can have a crucial elevating effect by putting the levers of power in the hands of a tiny minority of representatives elected by the rest. It has the effect of refining and enlarging the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens whose wisdom may best discern the true interests of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it [the true interests of the country] to temporary or partial consideration.

Under such a regulation it may well happen that the public voice pronounced by the representatives of the people will be more consonate to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves convened for the purpose. For this we see that Madison does continue to count on virtue, on wisdom, on patriotism, on love of justice, as he says, but as found in the few of a tiny minority elected by the rest.

Madison reveals here that his new republicanism does not all together break with the classical republican tradition in its original aristocratic dimension, as opposed to its Montesquieuien more democratic dimension. Madison even indicates here that his new republican vision hopes to succeed better at achieving some measure of that original aristocratic aspiration, than the classical republics themselves ever did in practice.

But we must immediately note that Hamilton in the subsequent Papers 35 and 36 explains more concretely that the character of the representative elite expected in this new American system is rather unclassical. The new elite that the American system expects will be dominated by what Hamilton calls “the members of the learned professions,” which is a flattering term for what he means, namely lawyers. Who he expects to feel a neutrality to the rivalships among the different branches of industry. And be likely to be an impartial arbiter between them.

So the virtuous are not so much expected, as they were in the classical republican vision to be found among the farmers great and small. The virtuous in this new republican vision are expected to be much more sympathetic to commerce and to commercialism, to money making, to material acquisitiveness than were the elite as envisage in the classical republicanism.