On The Federalist Papers

I’ve been giving my copy of The Federalist Papers a workout in the last couple of days, which is an exercise I recommend for all right-thinking people, especially in these crooked times. And I’m not alone–in the broader psychosystem, Federalist No. 69 (tee hee) has been getting a good bit of attention (it’s the one about Presidential pardoning powers, so if you happen to be someone looking into what you can and can’t get away with, and you also happen to be President, take a look). But I’m playing my old hits, so I’ve been looking into Federalist Nos. 10 and 52, which deal with the danger of factions and the process of electing House members, respectively.

It’s no secret the Founders feared direct democracy. We can’t forget that these were wealthy men, Establishment men. They were Suits, and they had a Suit’s natural disinclination to surrender any power. They also had a Suit’s natural arrogance and self-righteousness; during the Constitutional Convention, Gouverneur Morris said [emphasis added]:

Give the vote to the people who have no property, and they will sell them to the rich who will be able to buy them. We should not confine our attention to the present moment. The time is not distant when this Country will abound with mechanics and manufacturers who will receive their bread from their employers. Will such men be secure and faithful Guardians of liberty? Will they be the impregnable barrier against aristocracy…Children do not vote. Why? Because they want prudence, because they have no will of their own. The ignorant and the dependent can be as little trusted with the public interest.

In Federalist No. 10, Madison isn’t a whole lot more tactful:

A pure democracy…can admit no cure for the mischiefs [sic] of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert results from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.

The Founding Fathers almost certainly Knew Better than us about What Was Best. And I have no doubt that they wouldn’t have hesitated to tell us. But they weren’t dumb.

One note: I don’t think the Founders are the final inviolate word on The Nature Of Democracy; I don’t necessarily defer to them on matters of political philosophy. They crafted a model of a nation, and I’m not prepared to say that their model is the one we should be trying to adhere to (because we’re certainly not adhering to it now).

But some days I even let myself think they really did have good intentions. When it’s sunny out, and when I’m in a good mood, I allow myself to entertain the possibility that they meant what they said, and that if they didn’t live their convictions, at least they wished they could. I like to imagine–just sometimes, not too often–that they recognized the contradictions they were building into this nation, the sick gulf between “All men are created equal” and the Three-Fifths Compromise. On rare occasions, I pretend, for a flashing instant, that they meant everything they said.

The Truckers put it best: “We’re all standing in the shadows of our noblest intentions of something more.”

That’s why my eye gets drawn to lines like this, from Federalist No52, when Madison writes that “the right of suffrage is very justly regarded as a fundamental article of republican government.” During the same day of the Convention as that earlier quote, Pierce Butler said “There is no right of which the people are more jealous than that of suffrage.”

Not as jealous as they should be, I’d argue, but that’s not a fight I’m interested in having right now. The point is, the Founders understood, maybe even intuitively, that voting was a vital element of representative government, beyond the practical necessity of needing somebody to pick the poor, dumb bastard to head up to the Swamp every two years.

But I digress. The reason I get so twisted up around issues of disenfranchisement is tied to my conceptions of justice and fairness, which I’ve addressed at length here before. Briefly, I defer to a Rawlsian “original position” argument, which leads me to take the stance that no one should impose on another person conditions which, if the situation were reversed, they wouldn’t want imposed on themselves.

Madison touches on this in Federalist No. 57, where he writes that, “If this spirit [of liberty] shall ever be so far debased as to tolerate a law not obligatory on the legislature, as well as on the people, the people will be prepared to tolerate anything but liberty.” Madison is making a practical argument, I think, rather than a philosophical one, but my point stands: forcing someone to live under a set of rules that you wouldn’t want to live under is unjust. There’s no rational actor who would voluntarily enter into an arrangement where unelected representatives entered into binding agreements on the citizen’s behalf. And one of the worst agreements would have to be “I get to change the rules whenever I want, with no input from you.”

Because that’s what voting is, right? An opportunity to change the rules. The Founders were Suits, and like all Suits, they feared the People (the Sweats?), but they went as far as they could. They gave us, as they say, enough rope to hang ourselves.

I like rope, though. There’s a lot you can do with rope. Maybe its not the only thing you need if you’re trying to build a better country, but you certainly can’t do much without it.

Categories: Commentary

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