Saturday, April 11, 2020

Constitutions Matter

Constitutions Matter
Peter Schultz

            Oligarchies differ from republics in that oligarchs claim the right to rule/govern based on their superiority while republicans claim the right to rule/govern based on sameness.

            At the constitutional convention in Philadelphia in 1787, Ben Franklin tried to warn the convention that it was creating a government that would be oligarchic by creating an office, the presidency, that would attract people who thought they should rule/govern because they were superior to, not the same as, the “common people,” or “we the people.” In a speech on the presidency, Franklin proposed that presidents not be paid because to do so would make that office attractive to men characterized by avarice and ambition; that is, attractive to acquisitive men who thought they were capable of and deserving of much wealth and power because they were superior people. As a result, Franklin argued, peaceful men would not seek the office, while those tending toward “violence” would. And Franklin predicted that even after presidential elections, the victors would be set upon by their rivals and subjected to vicious personal attacks.

            Of course, taking into account the presidencies of JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Bush Jr., Obama, and Trump, it may be said that Franklin’s warnings have proven correct. Each of these presidents and their presidencies have been subjected to vicious personal attacks, and two of these presidents, Clinton and Trump, have been impeached by the House of Representatives, although acquitted by the Senate. And the “violence” of our politics is attested to by the degree of security required to keep presidents alive. JFK was assassinated, while Ford and Reagan were attacked, with the latter being wounded by gunfire.  We are not privy to how many other attacks may have been planned but we do know that George Wallace was attacked and crippled while seeking the presidency.

            I believe what Franklin was on to was the fact that when rule is based on, legitimated by claims of superiority, those who claim to be superior must deny the claims of superiority made by their rivals, while of course asserting their own superiority. This necessarily leads to vicious personal attacks, as well apparently as physical attacks. These attacks may be said to be political phenomena facilitated by our governmental arrangements, including of course the office of the presidency. Want to change or moderate the violence, both rhetorical and physical, of our politics, then we should change the characteristics of our governmental arrangements. Perhaps it would be worthwhile to limit presidents to one, four-year term in office, as well as limiting the tenure of congresspersons and Supreme Court Justices.

            In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton wrote that “The love of fame [is] the ruling passion of the noblest minds,” thereby indicating that he was desirous of drawing such men into the new government, men like George Washington and, of course, himself. The office of the president would, Hamilton hoped, draw into the government men who desired, perhaps above all else, fame, which is a kind of immortality. But this was precisely Franklin’s concern, because such offices and such men would make the new government oligarchic rather than republican, with the attendant violence accompanying such oligarchies. “Great men” seek to create “great empires,” thereby demonstrating their own “greatness,” while earning a measure of immortality. But such men and such empires are encumbered by violence and a violent politics, both at home and abroad.

            Others saw and were concerned with this possibility, mainly among those labeled “Anti-Federalists.” Patrick Henry argued in the Virginia ratifying convention that the Constitution had “an awful squinting,” it “squinted in the direction of monarchy” and toward a government characterized by great armies and war. By implication, Henry saw the roots of what is today called “American exceptionalism,” that is, the claim that because America and Americans are superior, it and they have the right to rule/govern the world. Those roots lay in the newly proposed constitution. As Henry said, and I am paraphrasing, in its youth the American nation was not about greatness, political, economic, or military greatness, but about individual liberty. And that youthful nation aspired not to a “splendid government” like those embraced by the monarchies of the world, but to a republican government and a republican society. It might do us well to recall what Franklin and Henry were about.

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