Saturday, November 24, 2012

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Our Lost Founders

by John Willson


This handsome man is not one of the better known faces of the era that some people, for reasons that vary, like to call our “Founding” as a “Nation.” He died on February 14, 1808, and since then has inspired two (!) biographies--one by Charles Stille in 1891, the other by Milton Flower in 1983. At this rate, the next one is due sometime early in the next century. If you are interested in the life and times of John Dickinson of Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, you should read one of them pretty soon.

Had John Dickinson not been ill for most of the summer of 1787 (“I was much indisposed during the whole Term of the Convention.”), our Constitution would look more like the Articles of Confederation than it now does, and The Center for the American Republic may well be discussing different things. Dickinson wrote the first draft of the Articles, after he had refused to sign the Declaration of Independence, and later wrote a defense of the Constitution (The Letters of Fabius) that was much more intelligent and much more to the point of republican government than the celebrated and overrated Federalist Papers. He also freed his slaves, which no other public man of his age did, and ended his life as a republican who was skeptical even of the supposed decentralist Jefferson.

Helen and I lived for a week in Center City, Philadelphia, in 1993, researching John Dickinson’s thoughts about secession and nation-building. Most Americans don’t know that he refused to sign the Declaration of Independence for better reasons than Jefferson had to write it, or that he had made most of Jefferson’s arguments before the sage of Monticello had made them, or that he was celebrated by Sam Adams who published his “Liberty Song” in Boston even before Paul Revere’s ride, or that the King of England knew who he was long before he heard the name Washington. I had already written a little book, John Dickinson: The Letters of Fabius, but was convinced that there was more to tell.

Center City was, and is, the home of Philadelphia’s arts. It’s a beautiful place, and filled with what we must call, “alternate lifestyles.” I had never before seen gay restaurants or men wasting away in their suits as they tried to carry briefcases from a taxi to their apartments. Our hostess, the owner of the bread and breakfast that was our home for the week, was at first somewhat afraid of us (Christian mid-western middle aged married once, and darn, “conservatives”) but she warmed up, and did she ever know restaurants and plays! She was a dancer who had grown up in New York City and lived in the same building as Toscanini. The Library Company of Philadelphia, founded by Ben Franklin and his partners in the Junto in 1731, is at 1314 Locust St., just around the corner from our temporary home. It’s a little surreal: history, artsy....

On our third day in the library Helen nudged me and said, “Is this what I think it is?” She was holding in her hand the original handwritten copy of the Articles of Confederation. Dickinson’s handwriting was about as good as most physicians, who write prescriptions so that nobody will understand what they say. Despite being one of the richest men in the colonies, Dickinson had very limited access to paper, so he wrote on both sides of the page, and up and around the edges. I thought the holograph should have been protected somewhere in the National Archives, but there it was, and the librarian allowed me to copy it. For ten years I had teams of students translating it. I believe that I have the only authentic and original copy of the Articles in existence.

Later that week we found a letter from Dickinson to his daughter Maria, explaining why he freed his slaves. He wrote it in 1794, just about the time that the ultra-nationalist Hamilton was enthusiastically putting down the Whiskey Rebellion in the western part of the state that Dickinson had helped save from its original democratical constitution. Dickinson formally freed his bondsmen on May 12, 1777, almost a year after he had written the Articles, and fully four years before they were adopted as our first constitution. He said, simply, that the principles of self government and the rights of Englishmen under the Common Law that caused our secession had to be applied to all of us. In 1794 he told Maria that had he been feeling better in the summer of 1787 he would have prevailed upon his colleagues to face the problem of slavery, and not put it off in a Franklinian compromise because southerners like Charles Pinckney threatened to prevent a union from continuing to exist. We should have been courageous, he said; we will have to face the consequences of our lack of courage, he said.

Dickinson’s first draft of the Articles included provisions for an impost, which would have given the government an income, and subtle powers for the executive functions of the legislature that together would have made the convention of 1787 unnecessary. He signed off on the Constitution because he was convinced that a combination of the equality of the states (the Senate was his contribution to that frightful summer) and the “power of the people” would restrain what Hamilton and others hoped would become an English-style government. He also uttered the wisest and most prudent statement of the entire constitutional debate. On August 13, 1787, he said, “Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us.”

John Dickinson lived long enough to know how right he had been. We need to learn which of our fathers to honor. Dickinson stands for the right combination of limited government, local loyalties, principled freedom, and the rule of law that republican government requires to survive. We write biographies of nationalists, and pay too little attention to the men who gave us our liberty

Monday, September 26, 2011

TAKE IT TO THE LIMITS: Milton Friedman

Law of the land. Milton Friedman makes the case for private property.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Federalists and Anti-Federalists

by Dr. Bradley J. Birzer

Considering the rather vigorous debate regarding the goodness of the constitution, I thought it might be good post a few of the best quotes from the Federalists and Anti-Federalists. I think it's critically important to remember that each side of the debate in the late 1780s was populated by Americans, each striving to define the common good as inherited from their fathers, needing to be made palatable for the current generation, and ready to be presented as viable to future generations.


As Dr. Kirk put it so beautifully in his RIGHTS AND DUTIES, all good political decisions come from a compromise of the varying interests in society. Any attempt to create perfection on this earth, Kirk reminded us time and time again, results in dreary conformity and vast genocide.

[Thanks to Bruce for his wonderfully edited work on the Anti-Federalists]


The Federalists

“We may define a republic to be, or at least may bestow that name on, a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people; and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behaviour. It is
essential to such a government, that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion, or a favoured class of it; otherwise a handful of tyrannical nobles, exercising their oppressions by a delegation of their powers, might aspire to the rank of republicans, and claim for their government the honourable title of republic.”[1]

“A handful of tyrannical nobles” controlled the states, and the federal government could intervene to protect the rights of the citizens of those states. And yet, Madison continued in Federalist 39, “federal” did not mean the same thing as “national,” for the ratification demanded the “assent and ratification of the several states, derived from the supreme authority in each state,” the citizens of the respective state.[2] In deciding whether or not to ratify the Constitution, each state “is considered as a sovereign body, independent of all others, and only to be bound by its own voluntary act.”[3]

“Justice is the end of government,” Madison stated bluntly in Federalist 51, following Plato and Aristotle. “It is the end of civil society.”[4]

In discussing the need for a strong executive branch in Federalist 70, Hamilton explained: “A feeble executive implies a feeble execution of the government. A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution: and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.”[5] Arguments for energy applied to more than just the executive branch.

“Energy in government is essential to that security against external and internal danger, and to that prompt and salutary execution of the laws, which enter into the very definition of good government. Stability in government is essential to national character, and to the advantages annexed to it, as well as to that repose and confidence in the minds of the people, which are among the chief blessings of civil society.”[6]


The Anti-Federalists

Though never the cohesive force the Federalists proved to be, the Anti-Federalists feared what they considered to be the objective of the Constitution: a consolidated, national government. Such a desire, the Federal Farmer, a leading Anti-Federalist, argued, mostly likely came from “those who expect employments under the new constitution; as to those weak and ardent men who always expected to be gainers by revolutions, and whose lot it generally is to get out of one difficulty into another.”
[7] Federalists merely played on the fears of the people, promoting the notion that the current government is fully in a crisis. The result, the Federal Farmer claimed, is predictable. “Instead of being thirteen republics under a federal head, it is clearly designed to make us one consolidated government,” he wrote. “This consolidation of the states has been the object of several men in this country for some time past.”[8]

Another Anti-Federalist, Brutus, claimed the constitution would render the states obsolete through the “necessary and proper clause” of Article I, Section 8.[9] Though the Federalists might write in placating tones regarding the status of states prior to the ratification of the Constitution, the tone would necessarily change once the Constitution was implemented. “It will be found that the power retained by individual states, small as it is, will be a clog upon the wheels of the government of the United States,” Brutus wrote. This will follow the law of nature, as “every body of men, invested with power, are ever disposed to increase it, and to acquire a superiority over every thing that stands in their way.”[10]


[1] James Madison, Federalist Papers, no. 39, pg. 194.
[2] James Madison, Federalist Papers, no. 39, pg. 196.
[3] James Madison, Federalist Papers, no. 39, pg. 197.
[4] James Madison, Federalist Papers, no. 51, pg. 271.
[5] Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Papers, no. 70, pg. 362-63.
[6] James Madison, Federalist Papers, no. 37, pg. 181.
[7] Letters from a Federal Farmer, Letter 1, 8 October 1787, in Bruce Frohnen, ed., The Anti-Federalists: Selected Writings and Speeches (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1999), pg. 144.
[8] Letters from a Federal Farmer, Letter 1, 8 October 1787, in Bruce Frohnen, ed., The Anti-Federalists: Selected Writings and Speeches (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1999), pg. 145.
[9] Essays of Brutus, Essay I, 10 October 1787, in Bruce Frohnen, ed., The Anti-Federalists: Selected Writings and Speeches (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1999), pg. 377.
[10] Essays of Brutus, Essay I, 10 October 1787, in Bruce Frohnen, ed., The Anti-Federalists: Selected Writings and Speeches (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1999), pg. 378.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Commonwealth Men and the American Revolution

By Bradley J. Birzer

In the very first history of the American Revolution [the book had this as its title], published in 1789, David Ramsey wrote:
In establishing American independence, the pen and the press had merit equal to that of the sword. As the war was the people’s war, and was carried on without funds, the exertions of the army would have been insufficient to effect the revolution, unless the great body of the people had been prepared for it, and also kept in a constant disposition to oppose Great Britain. To rouse and unite the inhabitants, and to persuade them to patience for several years, under present sufferings, with the hope of obtaining remote advantages for their posterity, was a work of difficulty: This was effected in a great measure by the tongues and pens of the well informed citizens, and on it depended the success of military operations.
That this should be disputed--especially given the mass of extant pamphlets, speeches, lectures, sermons, and books defending the American cause--seems somewhat absurd. And, yet, for nearly a century, historians and political scientists have searched relentlessly for deep economic and structural causes of the war for independence.

In the end, it came down to two very simple things. 1) Ideas matter. 2) Real men defend their most cherished beliefs, even if it meant (or means; this is a timeless truth) to the death.
The great Calvinist pastor and patriarch of Lexington, Massachusetts, Jonas Clarke, said as early as 1765:
And it is a truth, which the history of the ages and the common experiences of mankind have fully confirmed, that a people can never be divested of those invaluable rights and liberties which are necessary to the happiness of individuals, to the well-being of communities or to a well regulated state, but by their own negligence, imprudence, timidity or rashness. They are seldom lost, but when foolishly or tamely resigned.
John Dickinson made a similar call to arms in his Letters of a Pennsylvania Farmer, 1768:
Some states have lost their liberty by particular accidents: But this calamity is generally owing to the decay of virtue. A people is travelling fast to destruction, when individuals consider their interests as distinct from those of the public. Such notions are fatal to their country, and to themselves. . . . Let us consider ourselves as MEN—FREEMEN—CHRISTIAN FREEMEN—separated from the rest of the world, and firmly bound together by the same rights, interests and dangers. Let these keep our attention inflexibly fixed on the GREAT OBJECTS, which we must CONTINUALLY REGARD, in order to preserve those rights, to promote those interests, and to avert those dangers. Let these truths be indelibly impressed on our minds—that we cannot be HAPPY, without being FREE—that we cannot be free, without being secure in our property.
Prior to Tom Paine’s Common Sense, no words by a contemporary influenced average American colonists more. The letters spread widely and wildly throughout the English North American colonies.

As historian Bernard Knollenberg explained, it would be hard if not nearly impossible to exaggerate the importance of these letters for unifying the colonies around a common theme. As one royal governor wrote: the letters are “artfully wrote and. . . Universally circulated should receive no Refutation. . . It will become a Bill of Rights of the Opinion of the Americans.”

The Untold Story of the Constitutional Convention - Gleaves Whitney

by Gleaves Whitney