Constitutional Oversights

I have blogged in the past about the failures of the authors of the U.S. Constitution to anticipate the immense power of great wealth in this country which has resulted in the present shut-down in government — following directly from the obedience of our elected officials to those who have provided the bulk of the immense amounts of money required to place them in office. This, of course, results in allegiance to those to whom much is owed and to the Party they support, making cooperation with those across the aisle nearly impossible.  These things were not, indeed they could not have been, anticipated by the authors of our Constitution writing in the eighteenth century.

At a time when the U.S. Senate was not elected but appointed by state legislatures, often at the beck and call of vested interests, Henry Adams hoped that President Grant would initiate steps to remedy at least one shortcoming of the Constitution; namely, the extraordinary power vested in a Senate that was not responsive to the electorate. This resulted in a corrupt Senate with considerable power coupled with the inability of the executive to get much of anything done, a problem that persists to this day. Adams was disappointed, and the improvements he hoped for in the Constitution never came to fruition. Indeed, despite the addition of a few amendments from time to time, the possibility of opening serious discussion about the revisions necessary in what has become a sacred, albeit dated, document have never been seriously considered. In fact, the mention of even minor changes to that document strikes many as heresy.

Now, when one goes back and reads the statements of those closely connected with the writing of our Constitution one realizes that they themselves thought that the document would be updated and improved from time to time as a matter of course. It was never regarded as written in stone. One merely has to read the Federalist Papers written by Madison, Hamilton, and John Jay to persuade New York to ratify the document, to realize how open to suggestion and change were those who first conjured up the document which was, at the time, designed to keep the colonies together (by allowing such things as slavery, for example) and mitigate against the separatism that was beginning to tear them apart soon after the revolution. One especially concerned spectator who worried that Europe would get the last laugh, and who was determined to prove that the Republic would hold together despite this factionalism, was George Washington who presided over the Constitutional Convention for the four months during which the Constitution was written. He penned a most interesting document to his friend Lafayette, lauding the document and pointing out its merits.

“First, that the general government is not invested with more powers than are indispensably necessary to perform the functions of a good government, and consequently, that no objection ought to be made against the quantity of power delegated to it.

“Secondly, that these powers, as the appointment of all rulers will for ever arise from and, at short, stated intervals recur, to the free suffrages of the people, are so distributed among the legislative, judicial, and executive branches into which the general government is arranged, that it can never be in danger of degenerating into a monarchy, an oligarchy, an aristocracy, or any other despotic or oppressive form so long as there shall remain any virtue in the body of the people.”

Fascinating! What jumps out, of course, is his preoccupation with the limits of governmental power coupled with the presumption, which Washington shared with most of those who helped put the document together, that citizens would act “virtuously” — which was an Enlightenment notion that focused on what was regarded as the natural desire of civilized people to live together, to put the common good above their own private good.  This strikes us today as incredibly naive. But, as Washington saw it, along with brief terms in political office, civic virtue was a necessary condition if the country was to avoid “despotism.”

And it is precisely despotism that has replaced the Republic that the founders had in mind. Whether it was because of the disappearance of civic virtue or the rise of incredible wealth in the hands of a few unscrupulous, greedy men and giant corporations is a moot point. I suspect it is a combination of the two. After all, what is the citizen supposed to do about choosing enlightened leadership when those with great wealth hand-pick politicians who will carry out their own private agendas?

Clearly, as I have noted in previous posts, what we now have in an oligarchy, and it is precisely the type of thing the founders were convinced they had guarded against. A radical alteration of the Constitution curtailing the influence on the wealthy on elections might restore this country to a Republic, but this will never happen as long as those who might engineer those changes see them as threatening their own power and prestige. Washington’s supposition, shared with the authors of the Federalist Papers, that politicians would serve short terms has also given way to career politicians who hold their offices interminably (literally) and, in order to assure themselves of a continuance in office, simply carry out the programs set out for them by those wealthy few who have had them elected and will keep them in office. Thus, while the time is long overdue for radically rethinking the Constitution, it will not happen. Even a necessary first step, such as the adoption of an amendment reversing the Supreme Court’s abortive decision in the Citizen’s United case giving corporations unlimited access to the reins of government, is extremely unlikely. It’s a Catch 22.


Political Parties

Did you ever wonder why the founders of this nation wrote a federal constitution? In this day of political paralysis it might be well if we consider that question, because the answer is that it was written in order to avoid political paralysis that was thought to inevitably follow the formation of political parties — or factions as they were called in the eighteenth century. To a man, people as diverse in their leanings as the Federalist from New York, Alexander Hamilton, and the Republican from Virginia, James Madison, agreed with Thomas Paine when he insisted that political parties were “evil” and would eventually bring about the dissolution of the Republic and of individual liberty as well. The example these men had in mind was England which had no written constitution and which was in their day being torn apart by the Whigs and the Tories who were ever at odds with one another. The only way to avoid the disaster that was England was to have a written constitution that would embrace the principles of Republican government and rally men of various political persuasions to the cause of the Common Good and instill in their hearts the spirit of public virtue. Paine insisted that “. . .it is the nature and intention of a constitution to prevent governing by party, by establishing a common principle that shall limit and control the power and the impulse of party, and that says to all parties, thus far thou shalt go and no further. But in the absence of a constitution, men look entirely to party; and instead of principle governing party, party governs principle.” Indeed, George Washington’s Farewell Address echoes Paine’s fears of parties: “However [parties and factions] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things to become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people, and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”

But Washington’s hatred of parties merely anticipates that of John Adams who said in 1780, “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other.” And John’s wife Abigail went even further, if that’s possible, in saying, “Party spirit is blind, malevolent, uncandid, ungenerous, unjust, and unforgiving. . . Party hatred by its deadly poison blinds the Eyes and envenoms the heart. It is fatal to the integrity of moral character. It sees not that wisdom dwells in moderation and that firmness of conduct is seldom united with outrageous violence of sentiment.” And, of course, there’s Thomas Jefferson’s famous comment that “If I could not go to heaven but with a party I would not go there at all.”

The Federalist Papers, which were written to help persuade New York to ratify the newly written federal constitution, are rife with references to political parties, or factions; phrases such as “the cloven foot of faction,” “faction acting in disguise,” and “the dupes of faction,” together with literally hundreds of such references that can be found on nearly every page. One might say that the single thing the founders feared above all else  — even more than the return of the English King to power over the colonies — was the rise of political parties. As noted above, Thomas Paine, whom many historians regard as the major figure behind the American revolution, regarded the constitution as the essential barrier between the violence of party and the principles of republican government. Paine, along with virtually every other intellectual of his time was convinced that if political parties were allowed to develop they would inevitably destroy the constitution, the principles of republican government, and the republic itself. And with the republic would go individual liberty.

So when we look back from the perspective of the 21st century and ask what went wrong we need to look no further than the ascendency of political parties and the inordinate power and wealth they have been able to amass, together with the loyalties that men and women who feed at the public trough feel toward their party and those who fund their party rather than to the nation and its people they are pledged to serve.