In my old car, I have an audiobook version of The Original Argument: The Federalists’ Case for the Constitution, Adapted for the 21st Century. Conceived by Joshua Charles and actuated by Charles and Glenn Beck, the book recasts the Federalist Papers into modern language—much easier to wrap one’s mind around than the more florid late 18th-century style in which they were written. Driving around running errands in the old car—stuff I wouldn’t do in our newer car, like picking up bails of hay—I get to absorb the Framers’ vision by listening, rewinding occasionally, and really thinking about each argument.
The brilliance of the Framers cannot be easily overstated. Michael Medved points out in one of his history tapes (yes, I have them on cassette; I am a Gen X elder!) how incredibly lucky we are that so many incredible minds were born together into the same generation. Listening to the arguments made by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay drives that point home with crystal clarity.
Here they were in a world of monarchies, developing the first modern republic. Yes, the power of monarchy was already on the decline—thanks in part to brilliant men just like them in previous generations, Nonetheless, templates upon which to base their work were few and far between. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the republics of classical antiquity, and the revolutionary ideas of the Enlightenment and its predecessor movements certainly helped give them a foundation . . . as did their deep reverence for liberty from their patrimony as Englishmen. And yet their task was a brobdingnagian one—to build a republic, essentially from scratch, on a continent of disparate people and multiple states with divergent interests. And then to convince everyone that the particular system they’d come up with was the best choice.
The arguments in the Federalist Papers are inspired. Some of them actually give me goosebumps—the way they’d worked out so many details; balanced this concern against that; and even used split-the-difference compromises as a feature rather than a flaw. It’s truly stunning. Madison, Hamilton, and Jay repeatedly promise that the Constitution creates a structure that will prevent certain undesirable circumstances from arising, and thus far, it really has done an amazing job of doing what they promised.
But I did notice a few cracks forming in the venerated bulwarks they established . . .
Madison rightly observes that the days of hereditary oligarchy were coming to an end, and that the American system would put a nail in that coffin. That has largely come true. But isn’t a new oligarchy forming anyway? One of money, elite connections, and political influence?
Look at our “leaders” in Washington today. They graduate from the same set of universities and send their children to the same elite schools. They move from the government sector to the financial sector and back again. Not all, obviously, but enough for it to be a pattern. And then there’s this:
A Washington Post analysis of the latest census data shows that more than a third of Zip codes in the D.C. metro area rank in the top 5 percent nationally for income and education. But what makes the region truly unusual is that so many of the high-end Zip codes are contiguous. They form a vast land mass that bounds across 717 square miles. It stretches 60 miles from its northern tip in Woodstock, Md., to the southern end in Fairfax Station, and runs 30 miles wide from Haymarket in Prince William County to the heart of the District up to Rock Creek Parkway.
Hereditary oligarchy was easy to spot, and its inequity was obvious. But have we merely traded one oligarchy for another—one that can largely conceal itself behind the skirts of “democracy”?
Madison promises that term limits and free elections would create rapid turnover in elected officials. With an incumbency reelection rate that regularly tops 95 percent, I would say that Madison’s hope on that front has been pretty well crushed.
Madison assures us that the system will help prevent the formation of factions, or at very least prevent them from exercising undue power. That is working, certainly, but is it still working as well as he imagined it would?
He also insists that the system will prevent the few from dominating the many, and that it won’t allow the privileged and wealthy to dominate the poor and powerless. Again, that has worked reasonably well, but as well as he would have hoped?
To help protect small states from being dominated by large states, the architects of the Constitution gave us the stunningly brilliant Great Compromise. As counter-intuitive as it may seem to some, the balance between proportional and regional representation, and institutions like the Electoral College, are actually more “democratic” than a simple one-man, one-vote system. People’s interests are not the same from state to state and region to region, and they certainly differ between urban and rural. Half of the U.S. population lives in just 4.64 percent of our counties (146 out of 3,142). Without the Great Compromise and the Electoral College, it would not just be a few states dominating the rest, it would be a tiny number of counties doing so.
The system the Founders gave us has worked reasonably well, and yet they may not have realized the degree to which cities would grow. In their day, 90 percent of people made their primary living through agriculture. Today, that is less than two percent, and a lot more of our population live in cities. Ask the citizens in the bulk of the land area of states like Washington, Oregon, and New York how well represented they feel by their state or federal representatives. There are rural state-level secession movements in California and the Pacific northwest, Maryland, New York, and others. Even once-reliably conservative Colorado has seen rural secession efforts over the last decade. Without the system given to us by the Framers, would we eventually end up looking like the Hunger Games’ Panem, with rural districts overawed and ruled by Capitol City? Even with the system the Framers put in place, it seems we’ve edged a little bit closer to that ugly fate.
Of course, it’s a lot harder for that system to function in the face of decisions such as Reynolds V Sims, which undid the Great Compromise at the state level. Or the 17th Amendment, which undid some of the balance that the Framers had sought to create between the states and the federal government.
Part of the problem is that the Founders had no experience of modern leftism. Though arguably an outgrowth of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution was the fork in the road that would eventually lead to the modern left, and it hadn’t even happened when the Founders were creating our Constitution. It would be more than a half century before leftism really got rolling, and another half century before it began its slow takeover of the West. The Founders had no idea how aggressive leftists would be in seeking to undo the system they’d given us. The decisions and amendments above . . . the utter warping of the Commerce Clause . . . the twisting of the phrase “General Welfare” . . . completely ignoring the fact that the Framers had chosen to enumerate specific powers to Congress (rather than given them plenary power) in the first place.
Madison also made some interesting assumptions about the benefits of a smaller number of representatives, suggesting that a much larger number would allow a small set of representatives to dominate the rest of the legislature through convincing oratory and salesmanship. But is that really true? Or would a larger number of representatives—in other words, a smaller number of constituents per representative—actually improve our levels of representation by government? It’s hard to say without trying.
And there, I suppose, is the rub. As brilliant as the constitutional system they gave us was, they could not actually see it in action. They were planning, hypothesizing, and guessing. They did an amazing job! But now that we’ve actually seen it in operation, are there things we wish they’d been able to foresee? Extra bulwarks we wish they’d put in even better to protect our liberty?
The answer we give must be stated with as much humility as we can muster. They are the architects. They have given us a castle, to which we would merely be adding buttresses. But with that having been said, I think the answer must be yes.
I just remembered another one: Madison assures the reader that members of congress will be careful about what the legislation they pass because they’ll have to live by it too. But as we have seen, they have exempted themselves from the consequences of some of their legislation (e.g., the Affordable Care Act). And they’re clearly not careful—passing 1,000-page bills that they’ve never read and won’t know the full scope of until after they’ve passed and been implemented.
Thank you, Chris. I started to realize that some of the Anti-Federalists’ concerns may have been justified. I am not sure exactly where the right balance would be found. I wish I knew!