Subtitle: On Factions III.
In 1787, the future of free government was dim. The spectacle of insurrection in Massachusetts, the state with the unquestionably best constitution, did not bode well for the Federal Convention.
Where other state senates of the day featured senators chosen by either the lower house or popular election from large districts, the Massachusetts senate purposely represented the wealth of the state. If set side-by-side, the 1780 Massachusetts constitution and our federal Constitution of 1787 are strikingly similar. Both have three branches and a bicameral legislature. The senates of each sought to quell rash measures expected from the people’s representatives. In this, the Massachusetts constitution served its purpose; it stood athwart paper money, debt cancellation, and other levelling schemes. The structure of government predetermined a draw in the eternal contest between rich and poor factions.
While the division of power between rich and poor neutralized the effect of faction in government, it ground government to a halt. It not only prevented bad laws, but also good laws essential to the general welfare. Shays Rebellion was in part the price for the absence of good laws.
If factional turmoil wracked the society of republican Massachusetts, what sorts of improvements to the Articles of Confederation could possibly prevent similar life-threatening nationwide disturbances?
This was the great gamble of our Constitution. If the Framers got it wrong, if government simply prevented rich or poor factions from overwhelming one another, civil war and dissolution were a near-certainty as the pressure of unresolved social pressures built without peaceful release.
The hoped-for solution was a high-toned government built on a wide foundation of the people, yet not too close to the people. What the Framers sought was republican government with an aristocratic air, and in America, that meant government served by the natural aristocracy. In the absence of hereditary wealth and power, the Framers’ structure of government encouraged the best men of the community to step up and serve.
Through this, they did not expect a government neutered into inactivity by an equilibrium of opposing forces. The peculiar advantage of the expanding republic crewed by the natural aristocracy was, according to James Madison, “the substitution of representatives whose enlightened views and sentiments rendered them superior to local prejudices and schemes of injustice,” who pursue the true interests of the country free from the turbulence and clamors of “men of factious tempers, of local prejudices or sinister designs.”1
The American system filtered talent; it encouraged a certain social character among those who served. In the House of Representatives, at a 1:30,000 ratio, elective office did not go to the average farmer or grocer. Only men of some substance could afford to campaign and serve in Washington DC while they left their businesses in the hands of others. Similarly, state-appointed senators, who were usually chosen from among their fellows in state legislatures, were only loosely connected to the people.2
Anti-Federalists in the 1787-1788 ratification period pounced on the aristocratic nature of the proposed government. Among them was Virginia’s George Mason, the chief promoter of a Bill of Rights, and Article V. Throughout the federal convention, and along with James Wilson of Pennsylvania, Mason favored less aristocratic and more popular institutions. To them, the new government was “dangerously adapted to the purposes of an immediate aristocratic tyranny, that “raised the fortunes and respectability of the well-born few and oppress the plebeians.”3
Subsequent history proved the success of the Framers’ gamble. While the government indeed squinted toward an aristocracy, it was an American natural aristocracy competent to democracy, republicanism, and the needs of the nation. Having learned from the experience of the first state governments, our Framers boldly solved the twin problems of overly democratic republicanism, as well as legislative institutions so intrinsically opposed as to stop all legislation both good and bad. The governing structure of the Constitution tamped down on the wild democratic element and simultaneously encouraged society’s natural aristocracy to put national needs ahead of narrow, local concerns.
The 17th Amendment made real the fears of the Anti-Federalists; it destroyed the careful balance of society’s natural factions, the wealthy and the less-well-off. Like most early state constitutions which proved unable to balance the interests of factions or promote the general welfare, what passes for constitutional government today is little more than a series of cage-fights in which the stronger party faction overwhelms opponents with no regard for the national interest. The 17th Amendment opened the door to corruption of the Framers’ natural aristocracy and left in its wake a horrid oligarchy of purely self-serving individuals joined together in factional political parties.
Free government and the 17th Amendment cannot coexist. We are the many; our oppressors are the few. Government is the playground of politicians, but the Constitution is ours. Be proactive. Restore the American Tradition. Join Convention of States.
1. Wood, G. S. (1969). The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 505.
2. Today’s 720,000 constituents per congressional district is but a faint echo of representation.
3. Wood 513-514.