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9: “Principal Progress Towards Perfection…”

January 7, 2013

9: “Principal Progress Towards Perfection…”[1]

The Federalist 9: The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection. First published November 21, 1787. Author Alexander Hamilton. Please see Introducing the American Bible for an introduction to this project.

Any student of American politics—or, indeed, of this blog—is aware of America’s reverence for the Founding Fathers. Even the name conjures up a strong image: Good-hearted, wise, and paternal figures setting out a straight path for the idle generations that would follow them. American life may change quickly; but our devotion to the Founders seems to have only deepened in recent years.

This increase has been lopsided, however. While both the left and the right are careful to give their respects, there can be little doubt that the Republican party is the Founding Fathers’ more loyal child. At the very least, they are more vocal about it. Examples abound: Wikipedia links to five websites selling pocket Constitutions. Two of the five are nonpartisan; the rest are all conservative.

Then too, liberal judges traditionally base their decisions on a “living” Constitution. As the times change, so must the law. The Founding Fathers would not have objected to executing a murderer, even if the criminal had been 17 when they committed the crime. Yet in Roper v. Simmons, liberal justices led the Supreme Court to write that “evolving standards of decency” meant executing minors now violated the 8th Amendment.

Conservatives gave us originalism. Originalism looks to the “plain meaning” of the text first, and to its authors’ intent next. The authors in this case are, of course, the Founding Fathers. As Justice Scalia—originalism’s most eloquent fan—put it:

I don’t think it’s a living document, I think it’s dead. More precisely, I think it’s enduring. It doesn’t change. I think that needs to be orthodoxy.

America’s most right-wing party, the Constitution Party, also draws heavily on the myth of the Founders. Its 2012 platform is based on “the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill Of Rights according to the original intent of the Founding Fathers”. Similar references to the Founders’ are scattered throughout its publications.

This is not merely respect for the Founders’ as men. Rather, it is a demand to adhere to their specific ideas and intent, not just their principles. This idea has become so ingrained that even liberals like Justice Kagan, nominated by President Obama, pay lip service to it. In her confirmation hearing she famously declared that “we are all originalists”.

But if our own era worships the Founders, who were they devoted to?

The looming giant in today’s Federalist is Montesquieu. Though little-read today (I confess I have not read him), he is remembered for his great contribution to American political theory: The separation of powers. America’s government is divided into three branches (led by the President, Congress, and the Courts), and two layers (the nation and the states). This careful balancing act originates in Montesquieu.

Today, Hamilton feels obliged to defend the Constitution against charges that it is, well, not very Montesquieuean. Hamilton’s critics said that Montesquieu favored small, confederate governments; the new Constitution, of course, created a large federal state. Interestingly, Hamilton does not respond by downplaying Montesquieu’s importance (as any oped columnist would today). Instead, his argument simply assumes that Montesquieu’s accuracy should be taken for granted.

The actual arguments Hamilton uses to navigate around Montesquieu are unimportant. What matters is what we have done with Montesquieu since Hamilton’s time. For we have not forgotten him, not exactly. Rather, we have ingested him. Montesquieu’s ideas are now found in every high school government class (generally repackaged as the Founders’ ideas). We have so internalized the spirit of Montesquieu that most of us no longer need to be devoted to his works (let alone to his person).

It is this process that originalists neglect. America is not in danger of forgetting the Founders. Rather, Americans have internalized their values; this is what liberals mean by a “living” Constitution. To be sure, this is not always straightforward. But as I have argued before, originalism is not always so straightforward either.

Montesquieu was not the only giant Hamilton credited. Many of the Papers, including today’s, honor the Greek and Roman republics so beloved of Enlightenment thinkers. Hamilton admires these republics, and admires their leaders still more. But he is not afraid to argue that

It is impossible to read the history of the petty Republics of Greece and Italy, without feeling sensations of horror and disgust, at the distractions with which they were continually agitated[2]

Hamilton wrote since the ancient republics “the science of politics… has received great improvement”. Montesquieu had made his contribution. Hamilton was beginning to make his own. The history of democracy is one of ever-increasing understanding, and ever-improving values.

Why should this “progress towards perfection” have ceased with the Founders?


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  1. Choosing this week’s title was exceptionally difficult. In addition to the crunchily alliterative gem above, Hamilton also offered “Jealous, Clashing, Tumultuous Commonwealths” and the exceptional “Wretched Nurseries of Unceasing Discord”. I had a very hard time turning down this second title, except that I could not force it to connect with my content.  ↩

  2. An unkind observer might note that the same may be true of today’s Republics of Greece and Italy.  ↩

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