Saturday, May 22, 2010

Federalist 14: Something old, something new

The entire live-blog of "The Federalist Papers" can be found here.

My friend Ben is fond of distinguishing American conservatism from its European forebears; American conservatives, he has told me on several occasions, are conserving a revolutionary heritage. I thought about his statement quite a bit while reading James Madison in Federalist 14.

This chapter is, ostensibly, about whether the United States is too big to be governed effectively. (Madison's answer: If we were a pure democracy, with every man given a direct voice in governing, sure. But since we're a republic -- with representatives sent from the 13 states to the heart of the union -- we'll do fine. And hey, we managed to pull off a revolution together!)

But as we near the end of 14, it's apparent that Madison has another topic on his mind: Whether the type of government embodied in the proposed Constitution is so new, so radical, so unfamiliar that its very novelty increases the risks of failure. Madison's answer, of course, is "no." The Constitution might look like a new animal, he suggests, but it's really a hybrid of the best parts of governments found elsewhere in the world, and throughout history. At the same time, though, Madison offers a defense of the spirit of experimentation:
Is it not the glory of the people of America, that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?

(Snip)

Had no important step been taken by the leaders of the Revolution for which a precedent could not be discovered, no government established of which an exact model did not present itself, the people of the United States might, at this moment have been numbered among the melancholy victims of misguided councils, must at best have been laboring under the weight of some of those forms which have crushed the liberties of the rest of mankind. Happily for America, happily, we trust, for the whole human race, they pursued a new and more noble course. They accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society. They reared the fabrics of governments which have no model on the face of the globe.

I noted at the outset that conservatives tend to cite "The Federalist Papers" more often than liberals and progressives, and I still think that's true. But it's here that I start to see signs that progressives can also claim a heritage from the Founding Fathers. Today's conservatives, I think, want to bind us to the vision of the Founders in a way that, perhaps, the Founders would've found alien. A reason I hear for that, often, is that human nature hasn't changed so much in 200 years. And that's right. But I don't imagine it had changed all that much, frankly, in the 200 years before the Constitution was written, either. The Founders, in other words, were not the last wise men to walk this earth.

Still, the Founders might've been experimenters and progressives, but they were rationalists and empiricists as well. They didn't build the Constitution out of a sense of pure novelty, but sought foundations in history and experience for what they were trying. And they expected, as Madison notes, that their successors would both "improve and perpetuate" what they built. If we are to conserve a revolutionary heritage, then, perhaps it was intended from the beginning that we preserve both the revolution and the heritage.

1 comment:

Ben said...

This is one of your best posts on The Federalist yet, Joel, because I think it will force you to confront a question similar to the one American conservatives often struggle to answer. What are conservatives conserving? You know my answer -- and you summarized it fairly at the top of the post. In my experience, many conservatives haven't grappled with these questions very much or very well (which may explain the affection for TR in some circles).

The question for you is, what are progressives trying to progress from? And to what end exactly?

If I had to hazard a guess about the latter, there is no end. It's simply where ever History takes us. You may have a different take, of course. As for the "from," that's at the heart of what we're arguing about right now.

Without question, many of the Founders believed in and relished the idea of progress. Once, several years ago, I sent around a Jefferson quotation that was particularly over-the-top in its enthusiasm for the New. I sent it without attribution and asked my recipients to ID its originator. One of my Claremont colleagues was sure it had come from Herbert Croly. But although a Jefferson and an Adams may have found themselves at odds on many of the most pressing political questions of the day, they shared a certain understanding about the fundamentals. I'm not sure that's true today.

The original Progressives -- Croly, John Dewey, Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, et. al. -- embraced the historicist philosophy of Hegel and exciting new theories advanced by Darwin and explicitly rejected the natural rights constitutionalism of the Founding. Wilson once wrote: "Government does now whatever experience permits or the times demand." In his book, Constitutional Government, Wilson argued America had to reject the Founders' "Newtonian" understanding of politics and embrace a more "Darwinian" view. Americans, Wilson said, should reject the old, limited constitution for a living constitution better suited for modern times.

Frank Goodnow, another one of the most influential political scientists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, argued "The rights which he possesses are...conferred upon [the individual], not by his Creator, but rather by the society to which he belongs. What they are is to be determined by the legislative authority in view of the needs of that society. Social expediency, rather than natural right, is thus to determine the sphere of individual freedom of action."

You are surely correct, then, when you say that the Founders were "not the last wise men." But, then again, I think Calvin Coolidge had the right response to that. I argue -- and I hope I may one day persuade you -- that the Progressive project of the past century-plus was not about "improv(ing) and perpetuating" what Madison and the boys started, but rather replacing it with something else altogether.