The American Founding

The founding of the United States was something unprecedented, the first attempt to create a new modern state, where failure was more likely than success. Discussion of the founders here is limited to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, and the main focus is on the nature of the constitution rather than the American Revolution. The founders were influenced principally by the 18th century republican thinkers, by Locke and by the events of the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution.

Jefferson & The Declaration of Independence

The founding can be said to start with Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, issued in 1776. Before the Declaration Jefferson wrote his ‘Summary View of the Rights of British America’. This is addressed to George III and informs him that his position as king is a matter of popular appointment, and that he must be an agent of the common good whose task is to secure the welfare of the people. He then argues that home governments have no power over colonists, who having established themselves in a new country setup their own governments. The benefits provided to the colonists by the British government are like the assistance one nation might provide to an ally, which do not confer political authority over the assisted nation. Jefferson wanted the British Empire to be a confederation of equal, self-governing and sovereign communities, presided over by a benign monarch. In reality the land and rights granted to the colonists from the Crown were a lease that could be revoked if the terms were violated. Jefferson likened this to the feudal system of land grants setup after the Norman invasion. His Summary View is a petition of grievances from outraged citizens, not supplicant subjects. The grievances were similar to what English radicals had levied against Stuart kings; (in summary) interfering in the courts, in democracy and in commerce, levying taxes without consent and maintaining standing armies. These grievances were the basis for the Declaration of Independence. It was from the beginning a reminder to readers of what they already believed: governments exist to secure the natural rights of individuals – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that if a government fails badly enough the people must replace it. In the tradition of Locke it assumes that a government can be replaced without political society itself dissolving. The Americans are ‘a people’ and will remain a single entity after severing their ties with Britain.

Madison & the Constitution

The colonies had united in order remove British control of their affairs, but they had no interest in allowing one another to interfere in their own affairs. They fought as a confederation with no common executive. The Continental Congress was composed of delegates whose only concern was for their respective colonies. The Constitution replaced the congress with an upper and lower house of legislators and introduced the office of President and the Supreme Court, though the precise powers of each body and the interactions between them would be finessed over time. The Constitution had to balance its principle aim of creating a more powerful central government with the natural inclination to federalism of a country created by revolution against a heavy-handed centralised state. The result was a novel system of double sovereignty, a principle Hobbes would have considered a recipe for chaos. Citizens are subject to sovereign governments at both national and individual state level. Neither has a veto over the other, although a lot of work is required to avoid contradictory demands and ensure neither oversteps their sphere of influence.

The constitutional machinery of the U.S. owes more to James Madison than to anyone else. He has been called the ‘father of the constitution’, partly for his work to secure its acceptance by often reluctant states. The constitution reflected his inclination to compromise, including the compromise between Jefferson’s radical federalist vision, and Hamilton’s desire for a centralised ‘British state’ model for the United States. Madison was cautious. He had seen examples during the war of independence where states had acted against the collective interest of the American colonies, and from his Calvinist convictions was keenly aware of our vulnerability to be tempted by self-interest. Madison designed the constitution to work despite of human imperfections, and was aware of Montesquieu’s insights into the unrealistic level of citizen virtue required by the classical republics.

Madison’s contributions to the ‘Federalist’ reassured readers that the constitution was both sufficiently popular (in the republican sense of being answerable to the people), while at the same time would be stable and peaceful, unlike the democracies of ancient Greece and Renaissance Italy. This constitution did not create an aristocratic state like previous republics, but could manage without the stabilising effect of aristocrats and not be subject to factionalism. He defined factionalism as the impulse of a group that is counter to the rights of other citizens or the aggregate interests of the whole community, and noted that a faction could be the majority. Government cannot prevent faction but must control the consequences. This is made easier in America by the fact that as an extensive republic with semi-independent states a huge number of interests will arise, so it is less likely that a majority faction will form. The second defence against faction is in the difference between a popular republic and a pure democracy on the Athenian model, i.e. a representative vs. a direct system of democracy. In a direct system little stands between a strong faction and its ability to cause legislative change. A representative is not dictated to by voters but interprets their interests, so acts as a check to factional interests.

The constitution preserves liberty through the separation of powers (which applies at both the national and state level), and Madison explains how. If one part of government can decide law, implement law and determine whether the law is infringed, there is no barrier to error or arbitrary judgement. In practice the separation of powers provides no absolute guarantee against tyranny. Separation must not be so complete that each branch cannot exercise checking power over another. The key concern was that one branch of government might sufficiently restrain another. Behind the defence of the separation of powers is a political sociology which can be traced back to the Roman Republic. The common people must have their legitimate interests represented and a means to hold their representatives to account, but have neither the time nor knowledge to take a large role in the legislative process. The common people have a voice in the House of Representatives which can respond quickly to their needs, but the Senate, being composed of the best and wisest in the country will hold their over-enthusiasm in check. The President provides decisiveness and a veto over the legislature. Indeed, a well-built constitution must provide multiple points of veto without inertia.

Hamilton & Centralisation

While Jefferson wished for a more egalitarian, federal state based on freehold farmers with elements of direct democracy, Hamilton saw that America’s future was in trade and industry. While Jefferson worked to establish an alliance with revolutionary France, Hamilton urged for better relations with Britain. More issues should be nationalised, and a sound centralised financial system and emphasis on commercial law was needed for America to reach its potential. Hamilton’s desire for a monarchical state was anathema to most Americans, and he died before it become apparent that he had won the argument.

If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, I strongly recommend getting a copy of Alan Ryan’s ‘On Politics’, which this blog is predominantly based on. Here are a few links you can use to find it:

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