“Securing the Blessings of Empire to our Posterity”

Years ago G.K. Chesterton wrote,

[The problem] I mean is [modern] man’s inability to state his opponent’s view, and often his inability even to state his own.  . . . There is everywhere the habit of assuming certain things, in the sense of not even imagining the opposite things.  For instance, as history is taught, nearly everyone always assumes that it was the right side that won in all important past conflicts. . . . Say to him that we should now be better off if Charles Edward and the Jacobites had captured London instead of falling back from Derby, and he will laugh. . . . Yet nothing can be a more sober or solid fact that that, when the issue was still undecided, wise and thoughtful men were to be found on both sides.  . . . I could give many other examples of what I mean by this imaginative bondage.  It is to be found in the strange superstition of making sacred figures out of certain historical characters, who must not be moved from their symbolic attitudes. . . . To a simple rationalist, these prejudices are a little hard to understand.

Our Constitution has proved itself an enduring and effective document.  Some have an admiration for it that verges on veneration, which can obscure the fact that the success of the Constitution was hardly foreordained.  The election of 1800, and of course the Civil War, pushed its limitations to the brink.  We forget too that many reasonable and intelligent men had strong objections to the Constitution.  Some of these objections proved chimerical, but some had remarkable prescience.

I referenced George Mason’s strenuous objections in another post, but to quickly recap, Mason believed that the South should have required a super-majority to pass all trade legislation.  Mason believed that economic differences would eventually tear the North and South apart, and requiring this provision would ensure more unity.  Unfortunately the south kept slavery in exchange for a trade legislation passing like any other law.  Sure enough, states like South Carolina and Georgia cited unfair trade legislation as reason for secession in 1860.

Most expected some form of strengthening of the national government to come out of the convention in Philadelphia.  Many objected, however, not so much because the federal government would be stronger, but because the states would cease to have any importance in the new scheme.  Defenders of the Constitution rushed to quell such fears.  Obviously the states would continue to have their contributions to make, and so on.  Once again, those that objected to the Constitution had it right.  Today states play no vital role in shaping policy or the identity of the country and merely serve as a kind of organizing mechanism for national politics.

The reasons for why some objectors saw the future diminution of states fascinates me the most, however.  Many jumped on the first three words, “We the people,” and saw a totally new basis for governance.   In making the amorphous “people” the basis for authority in the country, some argued that the United States would transform eventually into a kind of democratic empire-state.  It may sound odd for modern sensibilities to equate “the people” with empire.  But the founders thought in the context of Rome’s history.  Rome’s emperors sought to bypass the aristocracy and the Senate and appealed directly to the “people.”*  Tacitus criticizes many emperors not because of their abuses to the people, but perhaps largely because of their abuses to the senatorial class.  If the preamble had said, “We the states,” it would have indicated that ultimately the senate would take the lead in shaping the tenor of American political life.  “We the people,” would shift the focus to the presidency, which meant that the founder’s stated goal of a federated republic would inevitably get superceded by the people/nation.  This shift from states to the “people” also greatly magnified the role of the Supreme Court far beyond the intent of the founders, as some recent and controversial decisions have overridden state laws.

Indeed, something like this happened over the course of the 20th century, and we see it accelerating recently.  Bill Clinton felt our pain and played saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show.  As candidates, Bush and Gore both appeared on Oprah Winfrey.  While in office President Bush worked hard to maintain a “regular guy” image.  President Obama went on Marc Maron’s podcast and Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, using more sophisticated forms of direct appeal to “the people.” If Trump is our next president, he will remind me of some of the practical, irascibly likable, yet for the most part dangerously erratic Roman general-emperors.**  Such direct appeals to “the people” from the president I’m sure would have horrified Washington, Madison, and even Thomas Jefferson.

But they would not have surprised some of the Anti-Federalists.

Because the anti-federalists were right about their objections does not mean that we were wrong to ratify the Constitution.  I still believe that despite its flaws it probably represented the realistic “best we could do” under the circumstances.  But the objections of the so-called “Anti-Federalists” shine great light on where we are now as a nation.




*Caligula was certainly a nut, but the story of him making his horse a senator (if true) may have actually been a calculated swipe at the Senate itself and not necessarily evidence of his insanity.

**Thinking about comparisons for Trump . . . he may not quite fit any one particular emperor.  One colleague offered Marius as a mirror image.  Marius was wealthy, a “new man,” who infuriated the Roman aristocracy, who proved powerless to stop him through normal political means (it took a bloody civil war instead).  Another offered Emperor Theodosius I.  Though not a “general-emperor,” he was gruff and impulsive.  He did terrible things on foolish whims (the massacre in Thessalonica), but proved capable of repentance and subsequent bold and important decisions (as to whether or not Trump can prove capable of repentance . . . we’ll have to wait and see).

His American President counterpart has to be Andrew Jackson.  He was not a founder or the son of a founding father.  He lacked a “European” education.  He introduced the idea of campaigning for office, to the horror of the political elite of the time.  His time on the frontier made him a rough, blunt character.  He made a variety of controversial decisions that definitely divided people — i.e. closing the national bank, South Carolina’s attempts at state nullification, and some horrifying decisions like the Cherokee’s and the “Trail of Tears.”

Historical opinion on Jackson is as varied as his acts in office.  But, however one views him, the U.S. survived a Jackson presidency and we just might survive a Trump presidency.

His likely opponent, Hillary Clinton, lacks the personality to connect with and directly appeal to the people that would put her in unusual company among modern presidents, like George Bush Sr., and perhaps, Nixon?