…yes, if you read the HP you’ve seen that title before. For our third post in the series on the Bill of Rights, we’re reaching back to one of the first posts we put up in the infancy of the site. It was short—we used to be like that! The topic is still unfortunately pertinent today. We will do a little updating as we go along:
Let’s go out on a limb here to state the obvious.
How does it read? “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
A well-regulated Militia. Not a well-armed citizen.
We have to agree with ourselves here. But before we can analyze, we have to really understand. The amendment is written in that cart-before-the-horse way that plagued 18th-century writing in English. If you break it down, it says “Since the militia is necessary to national security in a free state, the government cannot forbid the public to keep and bear arms.”
This is such a time machine window into the state of the early U.S. We had no standing army. We had only volunteer state militia for our national defense. The key words are “free state”: rather than create a standing army, which was only ever used in Europe to oppress the people and defend the monarch’s absolute power, the U.S. wants to continue to rely on volunteer militia.
But what if the federal government tries to get around this protection of the people by forbidding them to own guns? That way, they can’t form militia, and the federal government could create an army after all, arm it itself, and be tyrannical.
The answer is to forbid the federal government from outlawing private gun ownership. As we said back then…
This Amendment is clearly meant to protect the right of the citizen to own a gun to use in military service. You keep your arms so that you can serve in the militia. This was written when the main form of defense was state and local militias, for which you needed your own gun.
Now, we’re not a strict-interpretation-of-the-Constitution people here at the HP. We believe the Constitution is flexible and can be read in new ways. But this Amendment seems so clearly to be about protecting a volunteer military—to be about military service—that to extend it to people who want to be able to carry guns into a bar or a supermarket, or keep them in their glovebox, is clearly untenable.
That is, the Second Amendment has no meaning outside of military service. It’s ironic that most strong supporters of expanding carry laws and gun ownership are often very anti-military (official U.S. military, that is). They want guns to protect them from an attack by the U.S. armed forces that they feel is imminent.
The Second Amendment does NOT encourage or demand that average citizens keep guns in their homes for any reason. It does not mention hunting. It does not mention personal defense. It is strictly about maintaining a national army.
There are times when we wish the Founders had been more specific, but this is not one of them. The Second Amendment is clearly about military service. It cannot be read loosely to apply to anything else—a new constitutional amendment would be necessary to do that. Until that new amendment is ratified, we will continue to honor the Second Amendment as it is written.
Next time: another military amendmentRead Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
Hello and welcome to part 2 of our series on the Bill of Rights. We’re moving into the First Amendment here. It’s the celebrity Amendment in the Bill of Rights. “First Amendment rights”, “my First Amendment rights”—these phrases are like “Washington crossing the Delaware” or “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes”: famous, oft-repeated, but often difficult for the people saying them to really explain. What are our First Amendment rights?
Let’s read the text of the amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
What is “an establishment of religion”? A state religion. The FA says that Congress (the legislative branch of the federal government) cannot make any religion the official state religion of the United States. A state religion is supported financially by the federal government of a nation, which also puts barriers in the way of other religions to prevent them from gaining traction. In the 18th century when this amendment was written, every kingdom in Europe had a state religion. Britain’s was Anglicanism. The Anglican church received tax support and if you were a member of another church it was hard to get a job in the government. Go back a century to the 1600s and it would be illegal to be a member of any other church. “State” religion is endorsed by the government, and so the head of the government—the monarch—is the head of the church. Henry VIII created the Anglican church when he made himself, not the Pope, the head of the Catholic church in England. An English person who rejected Anglicanism was rejecting the authority of the monarch, which is treason, which is a capital offense. The Puritans and Pilgrims left England because they could not accept the Anglican church without major reforms, and refused to worship in it as they were told to. This was political treason and made them criminals.
By rejecting the concept of a state religion, the concept of the head of state (our president) being the head of a church, and the concept of forcing people to either belong to the state-approved religion or stand trial for treason, the Framers were making a bold and revolutionary stand that went directly against everything the great European powers had fought for during the Thirty Years’ War. We tend to think of a state religion as obviously contrary to democracy, but European powers would not reach this conclusion for over a century, and in Europe the old state religions are still powerful. In France, non-Catholics are rare. In Britain, Anglicanism is the norm. Even people who don’t practice their religion are born into its culture, which by now is indistinguishable from the socio-political culture to them.
Finally, this statement is saying the U.S. government will be completely civil. There is complete separation of church and state. The federal government will play no role in the religious life of the country, and no religious beliefs can shape our laws.
Why is “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” tacked on to the first statement? Of course this is all one sentence, and makes more sense as one sentence, but we had to pull it apart to discuss state religion. This phrase is important on its own, though: it doesn’t just reiterate the main message that there is no state church, but also forbids the federal government to outlaw any religion. Again, this was radical for the time. In Europe practicing any religion other than the state religion was heresy and treason. The U.S. is not only saying it won’t impose religious uniformity by adopting a state religion, it’s saying it will not just allow but protect by law the proliferation of religious practices.
This was a big deal in a country that mostly hated and feared Catholics. If Congress had decided to outlaw Catholicism in 1787, most Americans would have been very supportive. But the Framers are making an enormous commitment to true democracy by saying no religion will be outlawed in the U.S.
What does it mean to say Congress will not abridge the freedom of speech, or of the press? This is the most famous part of the celebrity Amendment. Freedom of speech—if you asked Americans to name one phrase that sums up all our freedoms, this might be it. It’s so important that the concept and definition of “speech” has been expanded over the centuries to include clothes, tattoos, parades, art, and other non-mouth-moving activities. In 1919 the Supreme Court decided that some kinds of speech are indeed illegal; any speech that endangers other people is not protected (this was the case that gave us the famous example of shouting Fire! in a crowded theater when there is no fire; someone who does that will be arrested). But that decision was overturned 50 years later because Americans have identified themselves so completely with freedom of speech that we found a way around the problem of endangerment (that ruling said that only speech that creates a dangerous situation faster than the police can arrive to mediate it is illegal).
Again, this amendment is radical. No kingdom in Europe allowed its citizens to criticize the monarch, the government, or the state religion, without punishment. After nearly two centuries of religious war and civil war, Europe cracked down hard on anyone who tried to stir up trouble. But the Framers believed Americans could have freedom of speech without abusing it. Libel laws were maintained, of course; we never said you could lie about someone and not be punished if they choose to prosecute. But expressing an opinion would never be illegal in this country.
Isn’t “the press” synonymous with speech? It’s just speech that is printed rather than spoken aloud. But the Framers specifically included the press so they could protect actual printers. Again, the way to start trouble in Europe for nearly 200 years had been to print pamphlets and broadsides criticizing the government and/or church. And for nearly 200 years European powers had punished rebellion by punishing not just the authors of these documents but their printers—men hired to put paper through a printing press who had nothing to do with what was written. The Framers were protecting printing presses, publishers of books, pamphlets, and broadsides as well as newspapers, as well as the authors of all these items. In an age where a book that displeased the government could get not just its author but its printer arrested, this was an important addition to the amendment.
Why protect the right of the people peaceably to assemble? Once more we think of the time the Constitution was born in. In pre-modern Europe, people did not gather in large groups. It just didn’t happen in the course of normal human events. The vast majority of people lived in small villages, where there weren’t enough people to make up large crowds. The only way a large crowd could gather was if there was trouble: someone stirring up the people and urging them to leave their villages and meet in one place, usually to protest the government. These gatherings quickly turned into mobs, and were usually violent. In the cities, people could gather in large crowds but were prevented by the watchful eye of royal authorities from doing so, for the same reason. There was just no acceptable reason why any large crowd would gather in that period. The Reformation period was characterized by mob after mob after mob being put down violently by government forces, causing almost incalculable losses of human life and capital.
So when the Framers said Americans had the right to gather in large groups, they looked like they were inviting trouble. That’s why this part of the amendment is the only one with a caveat: the people must assemble peaceably. Colonial America had a terrible record of mob violence, often sparked for no good reason (see our post The Boston Tea Party and a tradition of violence for more on this). It seemed like the last place where you would be safe allowing people to gather in large groups. But part of freedom of speech is freedom of assembly—people have to be allowed to talk together. Knowing the fondness for mob violence that Americans had, the Framers offer the one condition in the amendment by saying Americans can gather together but only if they are not violent. They didn’t say speech was free as long as it didn’t criticize; they didn’t say printers could print anything as long as it didn’t call for violence. But they did restrict public gatherings to peaceful purposes.
What is petitioning the Government for a redress of grievances? This means that Americans can criticize the government, and as you understand by now, this was not on the table in Europe. At a time when Europe was trying to end its centuries of strife by cracking down hard on any public expression, America was inviting its citizens to talk to their government and even make complaints. A redress of grievances is making something wrong right. If someone has injured (grieved) you, they must make it right somehow (redress it). If the government does something wrong, if it violates the Constitution, Americans have the right to demand that the government stop that violation and then make up for the damage it has done. This is two rights in one: the right to demand that the government obey the Constitution, and the right to demand repayment for any violations of the Constitution. This keeps the government honest, and sharpens people’s love for and commitment to the Constitution.
That’s a lot! But then this is the star amendment that, for most Americans, completely sums up who we are and how things here should be. You wouldn’t think another amendment could rival the First in importance, and for about two centuries none did. But in the late 20th century, the Second Amendment was wrested out of obscurity and thrust into the spotlight, and we’ll go over that amendment next time.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, has come to the conclusion that the most famous line in the Declaration of Independence, and perhaps in all American documentary history, is not what we think it is.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
That’s the way we learn it. But Allen has convincing evidence that in the original document there was no period after “happiness”, which means that first line should read like this:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
In their regular waves of anti-government passion, which recur throughout our history, Americans often claim that the federal government in Washington interferes with our “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness”, and even that the federal government—or the bare concept of having a federal government—is at odds with Americans being able to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. But if the Declaration’s famous line has no period (as Allen seems to prove), then the only way Americans can pursue those rights given by God to all people is if they institute a government that derives its just powers from the consent of the governed.
This is how we have always seen it at the HP: what makes America great is not, as is so often suggested, “our freedoms”. It is the fair, representative, democratic government that makes those freedoms possible, that makes preserving those freedoms its first priority and understands them as its reason for being. Without a fair and free government, we cannot long maintain any national, political, or individual freedoms we currently possess. In our posts “What are the freedoms we have as Americans?” parts 1 and 2, we put it this way:
“Many Americans have come to see our individual freedoms as the wellspring from which national freedom is born, and thus individual freedoms are the most important. But these individual freedoms come from our government, from the Constitution, and last only as long as we have our national freedom. Without national freedom, there is no individual freedom, and national freedom only lasts as long as we have political freedom. Giving up our right to vote—for refusing or failing to vote is tantamount to giving up that right—is a dangerous step toward losing national and individual freedom. Once we stop demanding that our government really represent us, our democracy is crippled, and then the nation is open to outside threats. If individual freedoms are seen as separate from or at odds with national and political freedom, then we begin to prioritize our liberty to do whatever we want at the expense of national safety.
Individual freedom is really our freedom to live up to the founding principles of our nation. It’s our freedom to speak and worship and serve our country as we each see fit, and not really the freedom to be lazy and uninvolved and prioritizing our own choices over other people’s choices. It is the freedom to live together as one without having to be the same, not the freedom to push our own ways at the expense of everyone else’s.
Political freedom is our freedom to have a democracy, to be represented accurately in the federal government, and to preserve the individual freedoms we enjoy.
National freedom is the end result of the first two freedoms, because we who value our individual and political freedom will not allow our country to be destroyed by outside forces—or by those Americans who don’t believe in the full triad of freedoms.”
The idea that the Founders did not want us to have a strong government is ludicrous. Their whole aim in breaking away from Great Britain was to create a new kind of government—the government was the point, the goal, the prize, the crowning achievement of the United States. They would create a government that was democratic and representative, strong but flexible, responsive yet authoritative enough to enforce its laws (which would be written by popularly elected representatives of the people). Without that kind of government, there could be no guarantees of life, liberty, or happiness. As Jack Rakove of Stanford puts it in the New York Times article on Allen’s quest to remove the inaccurate period from the Declaration puts it, “Are the parts [of the Declaration] about the importance of government part of one cumulative argument, or—as Americans have tended to read the document—subordinate to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’?”
It takes energy to maintain a fair and free government. Energy on the part of citizens. We are so often lacking that kind of energy, particularly in the new millennium. George Washington warned us in his Farewell Address that the greatest threat to American life, liberty, happiness, and the government that provides them all comes from within America itself:
“The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for [the government] is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.”
Washington urges us to love our democracy and our democratic government, and to remember that it is a painfully new kind of government, and there are going to be many people—outside the U.S. and even within it, your fellow citizens—who don’t believe it will really work. They will try to tear it down, and tell you you’re crazy to defend it. You’ve got to remember that being united under your unique government is your greatest treasure. Forget the things that make you different, like religion or customs and focus on what you have in common, what you share that no other people on earth share: a democratic government of the people, for the people, and by the people.
That’s why we are quick to believe there was no period after “happiness” in the original Declaration of Independence. The Founders knew that good, tireless government was the only safeguard of life, liberty, and happiness. As the Fourth of July approaches, we would do well to remind ourselves of that fact.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
The HP was delighted to hear basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar skillfully counter Bill Maher’s leading negative question about President Lincoln on Maher’s show Real Time last week.
The two were having a discussion about Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who had just been heavily censured by the NBA commissioner for his racist screed on the phone a week or two earlier. They ventured into many different issues of racism in America society and history, including the question of, as Maher put it, whether to cut the Founders slack for their slaveholding because they were “of their era”—i.e., they grew up with slavery and didn’t know any better. Kareem said no, no slack is allowable, because there was never a time when people did not know that racially based slavery was a tool for destroying the enslaved race (our paraphrasing). Kareem mentioned Alexander Hamilton’s abolitionist views, and Bill Maher proffered Ben Franklin as well, but then fell into the usual trap about Lincoln: that he was an unrepentant racist and proslavery president with an unjust reputation for ending black slavery in the U.S.:
Maher: But you know Lincoln had some harsh words about the black people…
Kareem: Yes he did, but you have to say that Lincoln evolved. In 1858 he had some harsh things to say, [but] by the time the middle of the war had come around he realized what needed to be done, so you have to give him his credit for evolving quickly and understanding what really was at stake.
Kareem must be reading the HP! For this is the point we make in the first post of our series on Lincoln, Slavery, and Racism. Everyone is of their time in that they imbibe certain attitudes, beliefs, and social/political systems as children, but when they grow up, they inevitably re-evaluate those attitudes, beliefs, and systems. Most people decide to uphold them, for various reasons (tradition, the desire to avoid trouble, real support, no new ideas to offer). But some, like Lincoln, decide to reject them. They decide to be better than their society, and to forge a new attitude, belief, or system to bring more justice to the world.
We appreciate Kareem’s easy yet firm rebuff of the anti-Lincoln myth, and hope it does a lot of Americans and others a lot of good.
(P.S.: The tags for this post group together what are surely the strangest bedfellows in the world: “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Maher, Abraham Lincoln, Donald Sterling”.)Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
In our conclusion to our series on the Federalist debates that gave us our constitution, we try to wrap up their overall impact on the U.S., in their own time, and over the centuries since 1787.
We haven’t hit all the topics of debate in this series; for example, we haven’t looked at the worthy Anti-Federalists criticisms of the Supreme Court (they balked at the idea of having an unelected, lifetime-term body that could overturn the laws of Congress as it pleased; as usual, the Federalists replied that any body in service of the just Constitution would never become tyrannical). We have also left out the demand for a Bill of Rights, which was general on both sides, Federalist and Anti-Federalist (more on that in a later series).But we have gotten a sense of the categories of debate in general: the Anti-Federalists wanted to keep government as small and, crucially, as local as possible to avoid its corruption; and the Federalists wanted to give the federal government elastic powers to meet unforeseen dilemmas in the future, as well as to control the all-too-real and familiar dilemmas the young nation was already facing.
But in a larger sense, the Federalist debates were important not for their content, but for their happening at all. After popularly elected delegates met to create a new body of national laws, the entire nation was invited to participate in the debate over their ratification as our Constitution. Every aspect of the proposed Constitution was dissected and put under the microscope, and dissenters were free to publish their dissent, their criticisms and fears, in the free press. 85 Federalist Papers were published between October 1787 and August 1788. This is a far cry from the usual press treatment of big issues today, which usually feature a flurry of intense coverage for a week or so, then a near-complete dropping off of interest. For nearly a year the nation weighed the pros and cons of the proposed Constitution and the government it would create in a public forum where no holds were barred. Then the states elected delegates to participate in ratification conventions, and in most states people thronged outside the building where the conventions met, waiting to hear what they had chosen—to accept the new Constitution or not. Over 10 months, the required 9 states voted to ratify, which the caveat that a Bill of Rights be written and added to the Constitution as the first order of business of the new government.
This democratic process must have inspired some Americans to believe in the Federalist promise that republican virtue could be relied on even in a large population. No one had been censored, no one arrested or imprisoned, no one lost their property or their livelihood as a result of the position they took on the Constitution. Americans must also have been inspired by the near-blinding modernity of the ideas in the Constitution, and the futuristic nation they at once created and imagined.
We have seen over the centuries since 1788 that the Anti-Federalists got a lot right; their questions about state power to counter federal power, the danger of giving any government body unlimited power to act in the name of national security, and the tendency of power to corrupt have been proven pertinent many times over. Yet we see that the Federalists’ main precept was correct: any government, even a small, local, state government, can become corrupt if people lose faith in the principles of democracy. Keeping things local is no guaranty against corruption. And we can’t rely on one segment of the population—the small farmer or, to add today’s like category, the blue-collar worker—to provide all the republican virtue. Everyone has to be raised up in the tradition and discipline of democracy. Every citizen has to be committed to upholding the Constitution. And the most committed citizens should serve in our government—not the richest or celebrity citizens. If we believe in the principles the Constitution offers, we will send people to Washington who also believe in them, and will actively uphold them in the face of temptation to corruption.
And so we leave the U.S. in 1788, with its newly ratified Constitution, and centuries ahead of it to work out the million problems old and new, expected and completely unanticipated, that would challenge the strength of that document and the commitment of those citizens. We should take with us as we go a bit of their republican virtue to solve the problems we face in our own time.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 2 so far )
Here in the second to last post in our colossal series on the Federalist debates that gave us our Constitution we look at the final large-scale thorny issue dividing Federalists and Anti-Federalists: representation to Congress.
We talked last time about the division of the Legislature into two bodies, the House and Senate, and how contentious this internal division in an already divided, three-branch federal government was for Anti-Federalists. After it was adopted, the question of how to people this Congress arose, and the debate fell out along now-familiar lines: whether members of Congress should be elected by the people directly, or indirectly, by some carefully considered elite.
Before this issue could be addressed, however, the question of how many members would be elected had to be solved. The larger states believed they should have more representation than the smaller states, and would have established a majority-rule system where might made right. Smaller states, of course, did not want to be marginalized in this way, and accused the large states of promoting tyranny of the majority. Smaller states also did not want to get locked into a small number of representatives in Congress when most of them planned on expanding west in the near-term. If they did this, and were much bigger in 1817 than they were in 1787 when their representation was set in stone, they would be large states with small representation. The large states in 1787 had the same plans to expand—when Virginia’s western border was the Pacific (as was that state’s plan), it would need even more representatives than it had been allotted in 1787.
On this issue, Anti-Federalists and Federalists were able to work together more, as the question of how many representatives each state could send was not really about the power of the federal government, and with relatively minimal debate the Connecticut Compromise was adopted. This created a system in which each state, regardless of its size now or in the future, would send 2 members to the Senate and one Representative to the House for every 30,000 people.
The idea of equal numbers of Senators for all states, and proportional representation in the House did not pit Federalists and Anti-Federalists against each other. But the reality of defining “proportional representation” did. Anti-Federalists pointed out the impossibility of one person capably and honestly representing the wants and needs of 30,000 people. The Federalists replied that lowering the number (1 Rep for every 1,000 people, for example) would not solve the problem of one person representing multiple constituents—any time one person represents a group there is no way that person can fully represent their wants and needs unless that group is fully united. Since it is very rare for any group to be fully united, no representative can ever do justice to that group. But as usual, the Federalists used this flaw of human nature as a strength: the one thing that can give a Representative some authority to say that he accurately represents his many constituents is elections themselves. In elections, the people are forced to choose someone they think will do the best possible job representing their basic wants and needs. Not everyone will be happy, but the majority of the people will be satisfied, and if too many people are not satisfied, then they elect someone new. Elections will also force the people to focus their wants and needs into a few main issues, on which candidates will campaign. What the people really want most will come out during election campaigns, and the person who best represents what the people think is most important will go to the House.
The Federalists also pointed out, yet again, that the growing nation would soon have so many millions of citizens that it would be impossible to have 1:1 or even 1:1,000 or 1:100,000 representation in the House. The House had to be a figurative representation of the nation; it could not be a literal one.
This argument, of course, is based on the premise that the people would vote directly for their House Representatives. Some Federalists were against this, but they knew that there was no way the Anti-Federalists, or the majority of the American people, who had just fought a war to ensure their political representation, would accept a Congress made up entirely of indirectly elected members. So the Federalists went along fairly easily with the proposal that the House would be directly elected and the Senate would not. Senators would be chosen by the state legislatures, which meant the people had an indirect voice in the process, as they directly elected those state legislators. But in reality, the legislators could choose whomever they liked, and they would ideally choose someone who seemed the most capable, and the most likely to bring honor to the state, not simply someone who was the most popular. This solution made it possible to test the Federalists’ theory that if a small elite of educated, passionately sincere and devoted republican patriots controlled the federal government, that government could never become corrupted.
The big compromise on representation at the Constitutional Convention, of course, was on slavery, not the Senate. Southern states wanted their entire population counted when it came to apportioning House Representatives, and that included enslaved people. The northern states, of course, rejected this as the sham it was—no Representative from the south was going to represent the wants and needs of enslaved people. Enslaved Americans were not considered citizens, and had none of the rights of citizens. They were governed by black codes and slave laws and the whims and whips of individual slaveholders. To pretend that the south needed Representatives for these people was to turn the whole idea of representative government into a cruel parody. The whole issue of counting the enslaved in state populations was originally about taxation, and is a different topic than we are pursuing here—though we will come back to it in the future. For now, we note this compromise, see that it is really outside the scope of arguments about the size and strength of the federal government, and close.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Hello and welcome to part 7 of what is becoming a monumental series on the Federalist debates that gave us our present Constitution. Rest assured that we’re closing in on the resolution of those debates, but for now, here we take a brief detour on the way to talking about how representation in the House and Senate was hammered out to discuss the three branches of government. (Again we are indebted to the powerhouse lectures on the Federalist debates of Dr. Thomas Pangle, UT Austin, for the flow of our series.)
The “three branches of government” is a phrase we all learn and know as Americans, and may be the one thing we all feel sure we understand about how our federal government works. There are three branches so that each can check and balance each other’s power. Ah, “checks and balances”—the companion to the three branches. No one part of the government can become too strong with this system.
But this is not really very intuitive. Why would one part of the government become too strong in the first place, and if all three branches are able to interfere with each other, why don’t you just get chaos? How can one branch operate if the other branches can check its power?
The Anti-Federalists were aware of this conundrum: checks on power is actually a kind of sharing of power. Why do the powers of the three branches overlap, Anti-Federalists asked? Why can the Executive (President) legislate with veto power, and act judicially with the power to pardon criminals? Why is the Legislature (Congress) given judicial power to impeach the Executive? Why can the Legislature take on Executive power by giving the president “advice and consent” on treaties and other foreign policy, and by approving presidential cabinet appointees? And why does the Judiciary (particularly the Supreme Court) have the legislative power to write new laws?
Why not just have each branch do its own work, the Anti-Federalists proposed, and if we parcel out the powers between the branches correctly, there will be no problem with one branch becoming too powerful.
The Federalist reply was, again, as it so often was, based on an understanding of human nature. Human beings, they said, are combative and competitive. You can’t group humans into three branches of government and expect them to remain separate but equal. Inevitably, one branch will want to be the most powerful. Balance is very hard to achieve; that’s why you need checks. And the way to create real checks is to allow the branches to share some powers, to overlap in some ways, so that they must cooperate with each other sometimes. Knowing they have to cooperate with each other will be a counterbalance—or check—on the competition between the branches. To keep one branch from becoming all-powerful, the other branches have to have an inside track on it, some way to check its power. If the President didn’t have veto power, the Executive would inevitably become subordinate to the Legislature, as Congress would be able to ignore what the President wanted and duke it out with the Judiciary alone, because only the Judiciary would have the power to overturn laws. If Congress didn’t have the power to impeach the President, and the Judiciary had no way to check presidential power, then the Executive would begin to be dominant, and the president would become a tyrant/king.
As Madison puts it in Federalist Paper 51:
But the great security against a gradual concentration of [power] in [one branch of government], consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other — that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights. These inventions of prudence cannot be less requisite in the distribution of the supreme powers of the State.
In short, one of the ways in which the new American republic was new and innovative was that it did not rely on having a perfect citizenry or government filled with republican virtue. The new American republic would work with human nature to better it. Instead of constantly trying to avoid conflict, our government would welcome it. If the very structure of our government includes, even depends on, conflict and competition between its branches, then the whole question of checking federal power is turned upside down: instead of having people outside the federal government (the states) constantly monitoring the federal government to make sure it’s not too powerful, and trying to reform the federal government from the outside to end its tyranny, the federal government will check itself. The federal government checks its own power by competing with itself, by having the three branches constantly making sure no one branch is too powerful. And as long as the three branches are functioning the way the Constitution says they should, they will not become corrupted and they will carry out the laws of the Constitution and we won’t have a problem with tyranny.
The key is that the Constitution as the Federalists proposed and wrote it laid out powers for the three branches that were fair and democratic. The only way the federal government could become tyrannical would be if its branches did not obey the Constitution. That would not happen, the Federalists said, with each branch being forced to obey the Constitution by the overlap of powers with other branches that would come down hard on each other if one started to get too powerful. No one branch’s members would sit back while another branch got more powerful. Thus constant competition means constant checking of power which means constant obedience to a just Constitution.
Dividing the Legislature into two bodies, the House of Representatives and the Senate, was an example of this. The biggest worry for both Federalists and Anti-Federalists (though Federalists worried about it more) was that Congress was most likely to become tyrannical because a) it was the only branch that could make laws, and b) it was the branch that the people had direct control over (remember that the Electoral College takes precedence over the popular vote in a presidential election, so electors chosen by the few, and not the common people, ultimately decide, to this day, who becomes president). The House was particularly troubling: the Constitution proposed that each state have two Senators, but the number of Representatives would be based on population, and was bound to soar past the number of Senators. Even in 1787 it was very clear that one day the U.S. House would have hundreds and hundreds of members. The House, therefore, was most vulnerable to becoming tyrannical. It would be the largest branch of government, and it would be directly elected by the people, who would never agree to its power being checked because that would be their power being checked.
So the Congress was divided in a way that satisfied the people’s demand for direct representatives (House) but also allowed a smaller body (Senate) the power to overturn House rulings. Bills generally originate in the House and then go to the Senate. The entire House might approve a bill, all 435 Representatives might vote yes, but if just two-thirds of the 50 Senators vote against it, the bill is dead. The people’s voice is heard in the House, but the voice of that educated elite, the most virtuous republican citizens who devote themselves to public service, ultimately calls the shots.
The only way for the House to get its way is to—you guessed it—cooperate with the Senate, to check its own power and work out a compromise the Senate will accept. What keeps the Senate, then, from becoming the tyrannical branch? Bills don’t aways originate in the House, so when the Senate passes a motion that goes to the House and is rejected, then the Senate has to compromise. But since most bills do originate in the House, the more common way of checking Senate power is that Senators don’t want to be seen as always contradicting the people’s voice (as represented by the House), and so will find ways to compromise with the House rather than constantly shoot it down.
With the Legislature divided and set in competition with itself, the fear that the Congress, especially the House, would become tyrannical was allayed. With its basic structure out of the way, now we can address the question of how the House and Senate would be composed so that they would fairly represent the American people… and what the definition of “the American people” should be.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
In part 6 of our series on the Federalist debates that gave us our Constitution, we rebound off the Federalists’ weak attempts to claim that the federal government they envisioned could indeed have its power checked by the states (which was not really true) to their more powerhouse vision of what a modern, American republic would really mean.
We, like the Federalists, have looked at the traditional republics of antiquity and seen that they were all very small geographically, very dependent for their success on the civic virtue of their citizens, and, perhaps consequently, very short-lived. The Anti-Federalists worried that the United States was already far larger geographically and population-wise than any previous republic, and that any central, federal government would necessarily be far removed, physically and spiritually, from the heart of the people—the farmer. Anti-Federalists said that the honest, virtuous yeoman farmer was and should be the backbone of the nation, because he could be counted on to do the right thing (the merits—or lack thereof—of this dubious argument can be set aside for now). The whole point of government should be to educate the people in civic virtue by giving them local government they could be actively involved in. That could not happen in a federal state, especially one where the states had no right to check the power of the federal government. What you want in a republic, the Anti-Federalists said, is all the people involved in all the government all the time, united in their virtue and commitment. And in this argument, they were backed by historical opinion.
The Federalists rejected this. Instead, they offered the world a radical new definition of a republic. Direct popular rule, they said, is exactly what you don’t want in a republic. Why? Because whenever human beings gather together, they fight. It’s just human nature. People break into factions. They group together, united by some common interest they discover or invent, and then they want to push their own agenda, gaining more rights for themselves at the expense of the common good in general, and the “them” they see as threatening them in specific. This “us against them” mindset is unavoidable in human society. And it leads to one thing: tyranny of the majority.
We’ve discussed this concept in several places on the HP; here, the thing to focus on is that the classical republican ideal of a populace united in virtue is a complete fantasy, according to the Federalists. No population is ever going to be united, for a good or a bad goal. It will break into factions and each faction will attempt to impose its way on the others (tyranny). And even if the majority of the population is in one faction, it’s still wrong, the Federalists insist, for that majority to impose its will on others (tyranny of the majority). As we put it elsewhere, this tyranny of the majority:
…ends up perverting democracy by forcing injustice on the minority of the public. Slavery is a good example. Most Americans in the slave era were white and free. White and free people were the majority, and they used their majority power to keep slavery from being abolished by the minority of Americans who wanted to abolish it. The rights of black Americans and white abolitionists were trampled by the tyranny of the majority.
Before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the majority of Americans were fine with segregated schools, for various reasons. They used their majority power to oppress the minority of Americans who were black, or who were white and wanted desegregation. In each of these examples, the majority is imposing and enforcing injustice, which is incompatible with democracy. They are tyrannizing rather than governing.
Faction, the Federalists say, will always trump the goal of a united populace. So what do you do to get real democracy? You avoid direct rule and embrace faction.
Here’s the argument: work with factions, don’t try to suppress them with an education program to create virtuous citizens, because that will never work. Instead, embrace all the problems the Anti-Federalists see with creating an American republic—the large size of the nation, representatives working far away from their constituents, farmers not having time to travel to a far away central government. All of these things will make a new kind of republic possible. First, the large size of the nation means that many diverse people will populate the country and it will be hard for them to join together to make large factions that threaten tyranny of the majority. The large size of the nation also means that if a faction does gain traction in one region, it will likely remain in that region—it won’t spread, because the factors in its region that promoted its growth won’t be found in other regions. And in a large nation, representatives will be physically far away from the people, and that’s good because it keeps them away from the pressure of the mob, from factions banging down their doors.
And in our large nation, members of Congress will have such diverse constituencies that they will have to compromise in order to try to satisfy as many people as possible (something that gerrymandering was quickly invented to remedy). But even with gerrymandering, this did work for many decades: one great example is slavery. The two main American political parties of the first half of the 19th century, the Whigs and the Democrats, were evenly and equally represented North and South. There were no red or blue states—each region had Whigs and Democrats. Because of this, few politicians could take a bold stance on the divisive issue of slavery, because politicians North and South knew that they had pro- and anti-slavery constituents. And so there was compromise on slavery, from the big compromises we all know, like the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850, to many smaller ones. Only a few people, like John C. Calhoun of South Carolina or Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania had unified enough constituencies to take hard-line stances on slavery (Calhoun for, Stevens against).
Now, we regret today that slavery was ever an issue of compromise, but those compromises did prevent a civil war from breaking out in, say, 1820, when it would have been even more devastating to the young, unstable nation than it was in the 1860s. And we see that as the sections (North and South) became more polarized throughout the 1850s, the Whig party disintegrated, its Northern members unwilling to compromise over slavery and leaving to join the antislavery Free Soil or Republican parties, and the Democratic party became a South-only party, completely devoted to promoting and protecting slavery and nothing else. The Democratic party was able to exercise tyranny of the majority over the other parties for many years because of its unity, its factional devotion to one “us against them” issue. And so the civil war came.
So the Federalists argued that faction could be controlled by sheer size, on the one hand, but also by virtue, on the other. Yes, Anti-Federalists, there is still need for citizen virtue, said the Federalists, but instead of all the citizens needing to be ideal people who rise far above human nature’s need for tyranny and faction, only a few citizens need to do that. First of all, only a few citizens really can do that, said the Federalists, people who are well-educated and devoted to justice. If we urge our best people to go into government, then not only will our government be good, but the average person will respect their leaders and their government, and will give up some of their factional mob nature and support both instead.
In a way, the federal government in this vision of a republic is like a Play-doh fun factory: the misshapen mass of factional mob demands are fed into Congress, where members of Congress shape them into good laws by focusing on what is best for the people. In go irrational, factional demands, and out come good laws. And those good laws will inspire and educate the people, and make them less factional. So public virtue does not rise from the ground up, but moves from the top down.
This was indeed a vision of the republic that was completely new. It turned classical republicanism on its head. It said that allowing the people direct rule was just a way to make sure that their destructive factional demands destroyed their government. The Federalists said that removing the government from the destructive impulses of the people was the best way to improve the people over time.
It seems clear today that the Federalists were right to dismiss the Anti-Federalists’ devotion to the classical ideal, which was based on a fantasy version of heroic farmer politicians who would never do wrong, all citizens having direct control over government, local governments that would never become corrupted, government devoted to educating its citizens rather than governing them, and sovereign states united by ties so weak that any conflict could dissolve them.
Next time we’ll look at the arguments over representation to Congress. If that one body was going to house the powerful federal government, and somehow represent all citizens fairly, it was going to have to be composed fairly, out of a huge population. This would be no easy task. In fact, before representation could even be discussed, the structure of Congress would have to be argued out.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
Part 5 of our series on the Federalist debates that gave us our Constitution takes us up to the wrangle over whether that proposed document gave the states any real power to check the power of the federal government. As we saw in part 3, the federal government was given unlimited power to tax the states by the draft Constitution, in the name of national security. Anti-Federalists, and even some Federalists, were uncomfortable with this power. The Federalist idea was that the federal government would only tax the states heavily during times of war, and even then it would be forced to put any tax measure up for renewal every two years, so that Congress would have a chance to remove an unfair tax.
But Anti-Federalists argued that relying on a branch of the federal government (Congress) to check the power of the federal government was illogical. Congress would have to vote to check its own power to tax, and why would it? Who gives up their power like that? It would be unlikely that Congress would be that self-disciplined and have that kind of integrity.
The Federalist shot back that Congress was made up of representatives of the states. So if “Congress” was committing a crime, it was really the states committing it, because the people voted for their Representatives, who then voted (at that time) for their Senators. Elect good members of Congress and you won’t have to worry about Congress hurting the states. What happened to your faith in “republican virtue”, Anti-Federalists? The common people you see as so virtuous and protective of liberty will elect their own people to Congress, so there won’t be a problem.
The Anti-Federalists repeated their argument that any representatives who had to travel to a faraway federal government would eventually, inevitably, become corrupt, and put their own power and glory ahead of the people’s liberties. And when that happens, the states are left with no way to check federal power with the Constitution we currently have.
The Federalists tried to swagger through this argument, saying that the state legislatures had many ways to check federal power. Now, this was and is not true—the Constitution does not give the states any power to block federal legislation. It was just another version of the “republican virtue” argument, and the Federalists knew it. When the Anti-Federalists pointed this out, the Federalists responded with a shocking argument, in Paper 46.
First, they said, members of Congress will always put the states first:
“It has been already proved that the members of the federal will be more dependent on the members of the State governments, than the latter will be on the former. It has appeared also, that the [interests] of the people, on whom both will depend, will be more on the side of the State governments, than of the federal government… whilst it will rarely happen, that the members of the State governments will carry into the public councils a bias in favor of the general government. A local spirit will infallibly prevail much more in the members of Congress, than a national spirit will prevail in the legislatures of the particular States. Every one knows that a great proportion of the errors committed by the State legislatures proceeds from the disposition of the members to sacrifice the comprehensive and permanent interest of the State, to the particular and separate views of the counties or districts in which they reside. …For the same reason, [the] members of the federal legislature will be likely to attach themselves too much to local objects. …Measures will too often be decided according to their probable effect, not on the national prosperity and happiness, but on the prejudices, interests, and pursuits of the governments and people of the individual States.”
That is, just as members of state governments care more about getting benefits for their districts than they care about doing things for the good of the whole state, so members of the federal government will always be pushing their individual states’ wants and needs rather than trying to do good for the nation as a whole.
This is an odd argument for a Federalist to make: the Paper is saying that the federal government will never really benefit “national prosperity and happiness, but the prejudices, interests, and pursuits” of the states. So why have a federal government at all?
This question is begged as the Paper goes on:
“…should an [unfair] measure of the federal government be unpopular in particular States, which would seldom fail to be the case, or even a [fair] measure be so, which may sometimes be the case, the means of opposition to it are powerful and at hand. The disquietude of the people; their repugnance and, perhaps, refusal to co-operate with the officers of the Union; the frowns of the executive magistracy of the State; the embarrassments created by legislative devices, which would often be added on such occasions, would oppose, in any State, difficulties not to be despised; would form, in a large State, very serious impediments; and where the sentiments of several adjoining States happened to be in unison, would present obstructions which the federal government would hardly be willing to encounter.”
In other words, if the federal government passes a law the states don’t like, they can just refuse to obey it, and embarrass the government. This is hardly an argument that will convince the American people to vote Federalist. Again, why have the federal government if it cannot–even should not–control the states and make them obey federal law?
It only gets worse:
“But ambitious encroachments of the federal government, on the authority of the State governments, would not excite the opposition of a single State, or of a few States only. They would be signals of general alarm. Every government would espouse the common cause. A correspondence would be opened. Plans of resistance would be concerted. One spirit would animate and conduct the whole. The same combinations, in short, would result from an apprehension of the federal, as was produced by the dread of a foreign, yoke; and unless the projected innovations should be voluntarily renounced, the same appeal to a trial of force would be made in the one case as was made in the other. But what degree of madness could ever drive the federal government to such an extremity?”
Yes, the Federalist Paper is saying that if the federal government passed enough laws considered to be assaults on states’ rights and individual liberties, the states can just revolt. There can be a civil war, and the United States government can be overthrown as if it were a “foreign yoke”. (This argument, by the way, would be dredged up in 1860-1 by Southern states to justify secession, saying that it was legalized by the Constitution.)
So the power given to the states by the Constitution to check the federal government is resistance to and war on the federal government. This is hardly a system of checks and balances; it is a system of obedience or war. The Paper wraps up thus:
“The argument… may be put into a very concise form, which appears altogether conclusive. Either the mode in which the federal government is to be constructed will render it sufficiently dependent on the people, or it will not. On the first supposition, it will be restrained by that dependence from forming schemes obnoxious to their constituents. On the other supposition, it will not possess the confidence of the people, and its schemes of usurpation will be easily defeated by the State governments, who will be supported by the people.
On summing up the considerations stated in this and the last paper, they seem to amount to the most convincing evidence, that the powers proposed to be lodged in the federal government are as little formidable to those reserved to the individual States, as they are indispensably necessary to accomplish the purposes of the Union; and that all those alarms which have been sounded, of a meditated and consequential annihilation of the State governments, must, on the most favorable interpretation, be ascribed to the chimerical fears of the authors of them.” [emphasis added]
So the Anti-Federalists’ fears that the federal government will crush the state government is wrong—state governments will actually crush the federal government. How the federal government can be strong enough to hold the states together in a union, and represent them as a nation to the world, while being at the same time too weak to impose its own laws on the states for fear of civil war and disunion is a riddle.
The Federalists knew this. They tried in several Papers to address the problem that the states cannot check the federal government, but the truth was that in our Constitution they cannot, and secession and civil war are not sanctioned by the Constitution, while state obedience to federal law is sanctioned, and despite the protests to the contrary in Paper 46, if the states did try to secede the federal government would use military force to bring them back, as it did in 1861.
The Federalists wanted a strong central government, and they did not believe that it would inevitably become corrupted. They backed the radical experiment of federalism over the morass of confederation, and really did not have any way to prove to the American people that the federal experiment would work and the confederate experiment would not. They asked the American people to take it on faith that they could trust their federal government, and moved on, as we will, to their own vision of republican virtue.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Hello and welcome to part 4 of our series on the Federalist debates that gave us our Constitution. Last time, we looked at the Federalists’ conception of national security and how it demanded a strong centralized government with unlimited power of taxation. Here, we look at the Anti-Federalist reaction to this vision, and how it led, oddly, to accusations on both sides that the other side did not really want a United States.
The Federalists had the obvious position: the Anti-Federalists’ insistence on sovereign states wielding state militia to defend themselves was, the Federalists insisted, a clear sign that the Anti-Federalists did not really want a union. They weren’t really committed to joining together with other states to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts. What the Anti-Federalists really wanted, said the Federalists, was for each state to eventually go its own way and exist as an independent republic.
The Anti-Federalists’ accusation of disunion was more subtle: in their insistence on a national security state, the Federalists themselves undermined the idea of a union by taking away citizens’ rights in the name of defense. The Federalists would tax indiscriminately, and likely impose other burdens impossible to even think of at the present time, and take away all the freedoms and all the political participation of citizens that define a republic. The Federalists would create an oligarchy in all but name.
In their argument, the Anti-Federalists were touching on an issue that actually worried the Federalists, too: republics in history had always been very small. They had to be small, reasoning went, because everyone had to be able to participate, and if you had a huge population that would be impossible (what building could hold them all in a Congress?) and if you had a large geographic footprint that would also be impossible (you would be forced to impose a random central point where the government would exist that would necessarily be far away from most of the people). The United States already had the huge footprint—just the 13 states together were much larger than any previous republic, or any previous kingdom, for that matter—and the population was bound to grow to match it. Even the individual states, as Federalist Alexander Hamilton pointed out, were already each much larger than any previous republic. Only Rhode Island was close to the small size necessary for republican government. Every other state in the Union would have to be broken up into smaller states to be true republics.
This endless splintering would spell the end of trying to create a Union. The component pieces would be so small they would feel no need to give up their government to someone else, and would only create treaties with neighboring states, for trade or for mutual protection. And if there were 39 states in the geographic area that had been occupied by just 13 states, what would happen as the U.S. expanded across the continent? You would end up with hundreds, even thousands of states, and no federal government could hold all their delegates.
While this argument made the Anti-Federalists doubt whether Union could or should be attempted, it galvanized the Federalists to argue for something that has become familiar to us today, but was new then: American exceptionalism. The United States was not like a republic of the distant past, they said. The U.S. is not ancient Greece. The U.S. is a modern republic, and it can make its own rules—it can update the definition of republic, or even redefine it. Look at those past republics, Hamilton and Madison said: they all failed. They didn’t even last very long. So why are we supposed to follow their rules? America is all about new ideas, new ways of doing things. Look at our Declaration of Independence, they said; it is the first of its kind. We are creating a new government from scratch to meet new conditions and new possibilities, in a new world of modern Enlightenment ideas. Why should we be bound by Iron Age thinking?
The Federalists acknowledged that there would be trial and error in this approach, but they made the case that the rewards were worth the risk. Let’s bind a huge landmass into a republic, they said, and find a way to represent all the people and give them an active political role nationally and locally. Let’s expand to fill this North American continent and still remain a republic. Let’s become a republic of millions. Let’s redefine what it means to be a republic, and make a new government for a new time and place.
This was an exciting argument for many Americans, but it smacked of recklessness to others. It also failed to satisfy the questions about national security—what was so new and exceptional about a government with unlimited power to tax its subjects? Isn’t that the definition of a monarchy, or a dictatorship? And what are our guarantees that a central government with that kind of power won’t unilaterally change the Constitution that gives the citizens their rights? In the end, are we re-defining republicanism, or abandoning it?Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
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