by Jeff Polet
This series concerns itself with our American heritage, and in particular to make contemporary readers more appreciative of the “blessings of liberty” that have been vouchsafed to us. America is in many ways a dress rehearsal, a constant effort to improve our performance for a final curtain that will, hopefully, never happen. Certainly, there are flat performances, but in many ways it would be foolish not recognize the gains and improvements where they’ve happened.
Thinking of America this way raises, I think, an important question: if we are performing on the stage that is world history, but performing our own story, who is the author of that story, and when did it start? In the most general sense, we are all authors of the story, and we are inclined to view our starting date at July 4th, 1776. We typically refer to the period of the American Revolution through the ratification of the Constitution as our “founding.”
It’s a useful enough term, but one I generally avoid. I go into my reasons for doing so in this essay that was published a couple of years ago, but I think holds up pretty well. It arose out of a simple question I had as to whether the persons we regard as our “founders” thought of themselves as being engaged in a founding. There’s not much evidence that they saw themselves that way; in fact, if you asked a good number of them when America was “founded” they would have replied with the year 1688 (The Glorious Revolution), or they would have referred us to Magna Carta, which was written in 1215.
What difference does it make? From my essay:
In this sense, America’s roots grow not into a founding but into a constituting. The term founding carries within it not only the idea of establishing but of manufacturing something, in the sense of casting metal: that is, something bound to endure, a metal that doesn’t rust. The great “founders” of political society “founded” in both senses: they laid social life on new and solid foundations, and they also mixed the unformed elements available to them to recast political life into something new and enduring. It was Machiavelli who saw the Prince as operating on the raw materials of political life and forming them, through an act of creative will, into something new.
A political “founding” is artisanship, and the artists are typically tyrants, for violence is the means of such fashioning. Many of history’s great “founders” have the reputation of being tyrants. One of the central problems for political thinking, therefore, is whether a just regime can ever result from unjust origins—namely, the application of violence in accordance with the vision of one person. This problem forms a central concern of Cicero, who postulated the idea of a Golden Age as its solution. We see it as well in Augustine’s City of God, where he resolves the problem by distinguishing sacred history from secular history, the former linear and the latter a cycle of rises and falls.
Along those lines:
Is there an American founding in this sense? Some would have us believe so. America, the thinking goes, is a propositional nation, based on universal and ahistorical principles that are instances of divine command and favor. The Founders were men wise and just, who somehow transcended the petty interests of the day. One might even think them demigods. But this is not how Russell Kirk saw it. Regimes, he argued, are not created out of “abstract principles” but develop “out of the circumstances of the times of trouble” within which a people find themselves. Under the most fractious circumstances, leaders will articulate a vision of common life and the common good without which a people will perish. The leader’s charisma makes order possible, and his sin makes constitutional limits necessary.
I then turn my attention to the Constitutional period:
In Federalist No. 38, Madison expresses some sense that the convention engaged in a founding. Every prior effort to establish a government, he begins, had been undertaken not by an assembly but by a single person. Madison reviews the actions of Draco, Solon, Lycurgus, Tullus Hostilius, and Lucius Junius Brutus as “new-modeling” and the laying of a “foundation.” (This is one of the very few uses of the word founding during the constitutional period, almost all of which appear in this sense.) He prudently expresses concern over such an act. “If these lessons,” Madison wrote, “teach us, on one hand, to admire the improvement made by America on the ancient mode of preparing and establishing regular plans of government, they serve not less, on the other, to admonish us of the hazards and difficulties incident to such experiments, and of the great imprudence of unnecessarily multiplying them.”
Clearly, America was not “founded” in the ancient sense. Still, Madison believed the defects of the regime under the Articles of Confederation were sufficiently grievous to justify a recasting of the system, and those who opposed the Constitution as the solution to the problem had to come up with something better. Yet in any case, such recasting, he believed, had to result from popular will and not from the actions of a tyrant.
I go on to argue that the key to understanding the debates that formed our Constitutional system involved our understandings of human nature, the significance of virtue, the importance of popular will, and the essential importance of avoiding tyranny. Readers are encouraged to view the whole essay for themselves.
- What difference does it make whether we regard America as having had a “founding”? How might that relate to current political disagreements?
- Why did the Founders regard tyranny as the greatest of political evils, and why does it seem not to be a view we share today?
- What possible dates could you come up with for America’s “birthday”? Why do we focus so much on July 4th, and did Lincoln have anything to do with that?