Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Ambition and the Founders

Ambition, The Founders, and American Politics

            In one sense, the whole difference between the Federalists’ and the Anti-Federalists’ approach to republican government revolves around the ambitious. “Ambition” at the time of the founding was an important word and one with more than one meaning. But it is certain that it was seen as one part of the human psyche which had significant implications for politics and for government. It was recognized that men of ambition were men who sought power, that is, eagerly sought power, even perhaps at the outer reaches “lusted” after power. These men were also thought to have along with their ambition “talents” that would allow them to accomplish much. One issue was, however, how to deal with “the ambitious” when it came to government and politics and here is where the Federalists and Anti-Federalists differed in rather basic ways.

            It would not be too much to say that for the Federalists the goal was two fold: First, how to get these men into government and, second, how to control them once they were there. For the Anti-Federalists, on the other hand, the goal was, first and foremost, to keep these types out of government and then, if or insofar as that failed, how to shackle them if they did get into the government. Let me say a bit about the Federalists first.

            How do you get the ambitious government? Well, by creating offices that would appeal to them. That is, it is necessary to create offices of significant, if not great power, enough power that these offices would convey upon their occupants considerable social status. Moreover, the ambitious should be able to hold these offices for long periods of time, meaning that the offices should have relatively long terms and no term limits. The ambitious have “plans,” we might say, and the most ambitious have the most ambitious plans. Therefore, it is necessary to provide them with “the room,” as it were, to undertake “arduous enterprises “ for the public benefit, as Hamilton said in one of his papers on presidency in the Federalist. As Hamilton noted there, men, especially ambitious men, will not be drawn to offices where it would be impossible for them to complete their projects, preferring not to undertake ambitious projects if they would have to let others complete them. Not much or not enough glory in that.

            The Anti-Federalists, on the other hand, while agreeing with the Federalists about the character of the ambitious and about the appeal of powerful offices to those men disagreed as to the desirability of creating such offices and of drawing such men into government.  These types of men are dangerous in that they are seeking glory most of all, meaning glory for themselves as well as for the nation. This pursuit of glory or of “fame,” to use Hamilton’s concept, leads nations to reject “simple government” for complex government, to reject a responsive government for the sake of a powerful, that is, self-moving, government. Such a pursuit also leads nations to involve themselves in the affairs of other nations in order to create an “empire,” leading these nations into wars more often than not.

            Hence, the Anti-Federalists sought to create offices that would not appeal to the most ambitious of men, offices with short terms and with severe term limits. The most ambitious men would, therefore, not find such offices attractive and they would, as a result, not enter into government. Of course, it is necessary to emphasize that the Anti-Federalists realized that such limited offices only make sense when the scope of government is limited as well. If the goal is to create a government capable of undertaking great projects, like waging a war on terror, then the idea of offices with severely limited power(s) makes little sense. Hence, for the Anti-Federalists government would be limited to maintaining or, let us say, “conserving” society rather than remaking it according to some grand project, say like a “New Deal” or a “Great Society” or a “New Frontier.”

            But once the ambitious are attracted into the government, even the Federalists saw the need to control them. That is, they like the Anti-Federalists saw the ambiguity of the ambitious, that the most ambitious could be dangerous to the well-being of a community. This is evident given what we call “the impeachment process” that is embedded in the Constitution, because it provides a way to remove officials from their offices against their will and even against the will of their supporters, however many these supporters might be. But there is more to the Federalists’ attempts at control than such an extreme step as impeachment, trial, conviction, and removal from office.

            It has recently occurred to me that another way the Federalists were hopeful of controlling the ambitious was by turning them into “professionals,” that is, “professional politicians.” As professional politicians, these men would be wedded to “the system” because their status as “professionals” would be intertwined with the status of that system. Hence, they would be committed to maintaining “the system,” to ensuring that there would be continuity in the government and that “the system” would be immune to fundamental change. A “professional” class of officials, legislative, executive, and judicial, would render “revolution” extremely unlikely, if not impossible.

            Here it is possible to contrast the Federalists with the Anti-Federalists as well insofar as the Anti-Federalists may be said to have wanted to preserve the idea of “citizen politicians” rather than “professional politicians.” That is, if terms in office are short and term limits severe, those who enter the government will not be, because they cannot be, “professional politicians,” that is, those who have made a career out of politics or government. Of course, citizen legislators, for example, are not invested in “the system” in any way like professional legislators are invested in it. Their “status” does not depend on their “official existence.” Hence, they would be more open to systemic change, even fundamental systemic change, than would professional legislators.

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