Does it matter what America's Founders wanted?
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Thanksgiving Day elicited several calls for “unity” and “healing,” following a divisive and bitterly fought presidential election. Several pundits referenced Abraham Lincoln’s wish “to heal the wounds of the nation,” which he articulated in the speech instituting Thanksgiving Day in 1863. Donald Trump said in his Thanksgiving address, “It’s my prayer that on this Thanksgiving, we begin to heal our divisions and move forward as one country, strengthened by shared purpose and very, very common resolve.”
Nice sentiments all, and one hopes they are merely feel-good rhetoric typical of holidays. For as comforting as they are for some, they reflect a misunderstanding of our political order and the foundational ideas behind the Constitution. Except in times of war or other national crises, “national unity” and “healing divisions” frightened the Founders, for “unity” historically has been the precondition of tyranny.
The Founders knew that the thirteen Colonies were diverse in their interests, religions, regions, folkways, and cultures. Modern diversicrats have long peddled the notion that Revolutionary era Americans were all “white males” unified and defined by the same interests and beliefs. Such superficial racial categories were politically important mainly when the issue was race-based slavery. But the peoples who created the United States were otherwise not so shallow and simplistic. They realized that confessional, regional, economic, and class divisions were more significant and potentially dangerous, for they are often zero-sum in their pursuit and practice, and can lead to fragmentation and violence. The Civil War was the gruesome proof that this fear was justified.
Moreover, the diversity of “interests and passions” could never be eradicated, for it reflected a flawed human nature vulnerable to ambition, greed, and the desire for power. James Madison called the political instruments of this diversity “factions,” which were “sown in the nature of man.” Hence the “checks and balances” and “divided powers” of the Constitution were the solution to the danger of a faction becoming too powerful and inciting political disorder and threats to freedom. In addition to the mixed federal government, federalism, which acknowledged the sovereign powers of the states that created the federal government, would be another check on factionalism. Clashing interests and concerns would be adjudicated by state governments, which would be more familiar with local conditions and interests, and thus better placed to create policies more suited to them.
Most important, the thirteen sovereign state governments would be a check on the aggrandizement of power by any combination of factions whether elite or populist. Given the variety of state interests, Madison writes, this diversity would grant a “greater security afforded by a greater variety of parties, against the event of any party being able to outnumber and oppress the rest.” This diversity would also impose “greater obstacles opposed to the concert and accomplishment of the secret wishes of an unjust and interested majority.” Hence such attempts to acquire a critical mass of power “will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other states” because of “the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of [the nation].” Thus liberty will be preserved, and diversity protected by creating in the states numerous diverse alternatives for citizens who find any particular state hostile to their interests or beliefs.
In the late 19th century, the progressives began to dismantle this brilliant solution to the problem of managing factional diversity so that these differences were respected, but no one faction could dominate the rest and endanger the freedom and rights of both individuals and the states. Contrary to the Founders, progressives believed that human nature was not constant, but could be improved by new “sciences” like sociology, economics, and psychology. Government technocrats in possession of this knowledge could better manage the nation than the fragmented state governments and a diverse people.
Such a national government requires a more powerful president and more numerous executive agencies and bureaus. As Woodrow Wilson said with his usual Darwinian false analogies, government “is a living, organic thing, and must, like every other government, work out the close synthesis of active parts, which exists only when leadership is lodged in some one man or group of men.” The president then must be the “unifying force in our complex system, the leader both of his party and of the nation.”
So much for the Constitution’s separation and balance of powers founded on a distrust of concentrated power vulnerable to the destructive flaws of human nature.
Two other developments were necessary for the progressive dismantling of the Constitutional order. The first was to diminish the competing sovereign powers of the states, codified in the Tenth Amendment, that could check an overweening executive and its agencies. The first assault, as Justice Antonin Scalia said in one of his last public speeches, was the Seventeenth Amendment, which allowed voters rather than state legislatures to select Senators. Given the powers of the Senate to try impeached government officials, confirm executive appointments, and approve international treaties, this shift was a great blow to the power and influence of state governments over the executive branch.
Next, progressives redefined the “people.” The Founders confronted flesh-and-blood peoples extremely various in their interests, mores, and religious beliefs. They acted as a whole only when they ratified the Constitution or Constitutional amendments, or when the nation was attacked by an enemy. Otherwise, individuals and communities work politically through their local and state governments, which understand local conditions and so can create policies respecting that diversity.
The progressives, on the other hand, created an abstract, collective “people,” one homogenized and unified according to interests and aims as defined by the new techno-political elites. In 1912 Woodrow Wilson imagined future political “architects” and “engineers” who would create a political order “where men can live as a single community, co-operative as in a perfected, coordinated beehive.” Like tyrants and kings throughout history, progressives seek to minimize, co-opt, or eliminate mediating institutions like the states, businesses, civil society, churches, and the family, the sites of America’s diverse interests and beliefs. They prefer to deal directly with the homogenized masses. Thus many progressives today believe that the states, our most powerful check on centralized power, are “relics of the past” and “artificially constructed geographic entities,” as the Washington Post’s Lawrence Samuel wrote recently.
Of course, a unified people needs a more expansive and powerful federal government to shepherd it. The interests of such a people, as first progressive president Theodore Roosevelt put it in 1912, “can be guarded effectively only by the national government. The betterment which we seek must be accomplished, I believe, through the national government.” But in a nation of such complex diversity, who gets to define these unified “interests” and to judge which policies lead to “betterment”? And on what evidence are the local and state governments or civil society––closer to the great variety of the American people, and more accountable to them than are distant, anonymous executive bureaucrats––unable to define and manage these interests?
The Founders saw America’s remarkable diversity as both a threat and a strength. The threat was reduced by the new federal government and its limited powers that federalism and mixed government checked and balanced. The diversity was honored by devolving decisions that most affected people’s lives to the most local level possible. In this way the Founders’ assuaged their greatest fear––concentrated power, whether in a majority or a minority, that inevitably becomes tyrannical.
Unfortunately, the progressive vision of “unity” has become a reflex even among many conservatives. But we don’t need to be “unified,” or have our divisions “healed” in order to “solve our problems.” The peoples and regions of our nation are still too various and diverse to achieve those goals, and 325 million people are not all going to have a “common purpose” outside of defending ourselves from an enemy.
What we do need is to reduce the bloated power of the federal government by renewing federalism, making the states again the “laboratories of democracy,” returning power to the level closest to the people, and recommitting ourselves to the Constitution, the most important “unum” for all us “pluribus.” That’s how we can regain the one thing we all share and should always be most grateful for––our political freedom and autonomy.