by Tim Baldwin
Some political commentators, like David Brooks, are proposing that our Federal Republic take the form of a Monarchy. Brooks identifies logical reasons for instituting a Monarchy—reasons that were articulated hundreds of years ago by philosophers like Charles Montesquieu and John Locke. Still, this transition from a Republic to a Monarchy is a political destination Americans have tried to avoid. Moreover, the Founders provided a constitutional way to redirect what is perhaps an inevitable destiny for all Republics. But are the people willing to use that remedy?
Republicans today should not be surprised at the proposal of becoming a Monarchy. There have always been Americans who preferred Monarchism over Republicanism, just as some prefer Anarchy. Notable founders like Alexander Hamilton and John Adams leaned towards Monarchism (and were still considered statesmen by contemporaries and historians alike). Adams even predicted that “the time could come when America, by necessity, might have to resort to something of the kind.” McCullough, David, John Adams, (New York, NY, Simon & Schuster, 2001), 410. Naturally, Republicanism versus Monarchism was a common theme in the 1787 Constitutional Convention Debates.
During the Convention Debates on June 4, 1787, George Mason recognized the natural tendency of all Republics to become a Monarchy. He said, “The Executive will be always increasing here, as elsewhere, till it ends in a Monarchy.” Madison, James, Debates in the Federal Convention (hereinafter “Debates”), (Buffalo, NY, Prometheus Books, reprinted, 1987), 55. Pierce Butler stated it similarly when he said, “the Executive power is in a constant course of increase.” (Ibid., 53). Knowing their history, the Founders discussed ways of preventing that tendency.
The institutional check on this Monarchical tendency was Congress’ power to pass bills and override the Executive’s veto of their bills by a supermajority of Congress. The other institutional check was the Judiciary’s power to rule unconstitutional any laws contrary to the Constitution. These were not the only checks, however. Namely, the Founders considered amending the Constitution the best and most fundamental way to preventing Monarchism.
Unlike what some claim should be Congress’ method of dealing with a Monarchical-leaning President, to “fight, fight, fight!”; the Founders did not anticipate that strategy being Congress’ institutional role and strategy. The Founders knew that there were many more practical considerations based on human nature, circumstances, and the constitutional system itself that would require them to act more pragmatically than that. Congress had to deal with political changes, not necessarily political direction.
For example, during the Convention Debates, James Wilson told the other delegates that Congress would NEVER try to pass a law they KNEW had no chance of survival.
Mr. Wilson believed as others did that [an absolute veto power in the President] would seldom be used. The Legislature would know that such a power existed, and would refrain from such laws, as it would be sure to defeat. Its silent operation would therefore preserve harmony and prevent mischief. (Debates, 53).
Wilson demonstrates that Congress is limited by circumstances and the makeup of the federal government, and all of these things are made of ongoing political changes. To Wilson, Congress acting in this manner “preserve[s] harmony and prevent[s] mischief.” And no other delegates refuted Wilson’s assessment.
So while it may appear noble for Congressmen to propose bills that have no chance of getting congressional support and the President’s signature, this does little or nothing to accomplish good in what may be less-than-good situations. Additionally, such isolated acts cannot accomplish political direction—regardless of how good it feels.
From these scenarios, some people express that they are “sick and tired” of political compromises and think that these compromises are the source of our political problems. But they are wrong. The source of our problems rests in the people’s unwillingness to distinguish political change from political destination.
A nation as large, diverse, and complex as the United States is destined to change—lots of change! The magnitude of this change was foreseeable given the political contests between the Revolutionaries and Tories and then the Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Look at the myopic point of the Constitutional Debates of 1787 alone: some described the Constitution as a document of tyranny; others called it a necessary evil; and others praised it as the best Constitution the world had ever seen.
Some Americans were strict constructionists, others were loose constructions; and from those opposing constitutional views arose our first two political parties: the Democrat-Republicans and Federalists. Couple this with the fact that the Constitution’s wording and nature allowed for these political contests and changes through synthesis and construction. Few parts of the Constitution were drafted to disallow any movement or room for judicial interpretation, despite the rants of constitutional purists.
The result has been ongoing changes in our political system. Although some people may be discontent with particular or contemporary political or social waves or movements, no candid observer of our laws and lives could conclude that the people are on the verge of rebellion—all the hype notwithstanding. Therefore, our constitutional and political experience proves that there is a big difference between political change and destination.
Political change is a natural process of human and political existence; its influences are innumerable and fluid; and its causes and effects are incalculable. What causes political change is beyond certainty and is obscure.
In contrast, political destination is a deliberate choice in time, place and manner, by those who have the source of political power—the people. Its influence is precise and direct. Its expression is concentrated and measurable. The causes and effects are quantifiable and reasonably known. In short, if the people do not like the political change, they must choose a political destination.
Elbridge Gerry expressed how the people choose political destination. He said with certainty about the Constitution,
The novelty and difficulty of the [Constitution’s] experiment requires periodical revision. The prospect of such a revision would also give intermediate stability to the government. Nothing had yet happened in the States where this provision existed to prove its impropriety.” (Ibid. 58, emphasis added).
Despite the characterization of the Constitution as immutable, the Founders new better and stated that experience would prove otherwise. During the Debates, Alexander Hamilton said this as well, “It was equally desirable now that an easy mode [of amending the Constitution] should be established for supplying defects [of the Constitution] which will probably appear in the [Constitution].” (Ibid. 539, emphasis added).
How can one determine when political direction must be made? For the Founding generation, they determined that in 1805 political destination was necessary when they corrected a United States Supreme Court interpretation relative to State sovereignty (in Chisholm v. Georgia, 2 U.S. 419 (1793)) by ratifying the Eleventh Amendment. They did not hold the ideas that “all you have to do is enforce the Constitution,” or “all you have to do is nullify,” or “all you have to do is disobey.”
People who refuse to implement the main fundamental remedy for the States to correct federal abuses reject the tools the Founders gave to the States. Logic not having a bearing on their philosophy, however, they refuse to amend on the grounds that “they don’t follow the Constitution anyway, so amending it is futile.” Yet, the remedies they propose are even less substantial and are subject to more abuse than an Amendment would be.
Article V opponents propose that we should implement remedies that have less force and duration than a constitutional amendment. They claim that the greater remedy (i.e. amending the Constitution) will have no effect, but the lesser remedy (i.e. statutes, nullification, etc.) will. This logic is flawed and should be rejected.
Clearly, if the federal government will not stop at an Amendment clearly limiting its power, it will not stop at a statute, nullification or anything else. Of course, some would have the people use force as a remedy, but what sane person would prefer such a remedy? The Founders clearly expressed that our society and government were instituted for the expressed reason of providing peaceful remedies.
Given America’s own experience, the remedies that Article V opponents propose prove fruitless to implement political destination. That they insist on prioritizing these remedies shows they are more interested in their own agenda than accomplishing political destination. The situation we face today is the very reason the Founders inserted Article V. They clearly believed in the States’ method of amending the Constitution to control the tendency of the federal government to centralize all political power to itself—to become a Monarchy.
Moreover, despite today’s claims that early Americans were of such virtuous and informed character that they did not have to worry about amending the Constitution for fear of losing liberty, that theory is utterly erroneous. The Debates reveal that the Founders did not trust the mass of Americans. For example, Elbridge Gerry said,
The people do not want virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots… [They are] daily misled into the most baneful measures and opinions by the false reports circulated by designing men, and which no one on the spot can refute.
Roger Sherman similarly said,
The people…immediately should have as little to do as may be about the Government. [They] are constantly liable to be misled.
The other delegates did not challenge these assessments of 1787 Americans. Even after the ratification, statesmen such as Thomas Jefferson expressed the difficulty of getting Americans to agree on ideas of liberty and the Constitution.
To the framers, natural or individual rights were vague and highly abstract...[T]heories of natural rights were not only so ambiguous and imprecise as to prevent broad consensus, but in fact were the subject of “substantial differences” among eighteenth-century Americans. (Gary, Patrick, "The Constitution’s Structural Limitations On Power Should Be the Focus of the Bill of Rights," January 2, 2014, source.)
Yet, they insisted Article V was a necessary component of limiting the federal government. Jefferson moreover admitted in 1819 that amending the Constitution was the preferred remedy to limit the federal government, not state nullification.
In summary, if the people do not exercise political destination, they should not complain about the results of political change; it is simply the nature of things.