Subtitle: Free, not Arbitrary Government. “There is a natural inclination in mankind,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, “to Kingly government.” He wasn’t alone. Convention delegate Hugh Williamson (NC), thought “it was pretty certain . . . that we should at some time or other have a King,” but he wished to postpone the event as long as possible. James Madison and George Washington made similar observations. Even John Adams in his Defense of the Constitutions of the United States of America predicted a future government “nearer (in) resemblance (to) the British constitution,” including a hereditary king and Senate.1
Among the delaying features of our pre-17th Amendment Constitution such as separation of powers and different sources of electors for the House, Senate, President, and Supreme Court, is Article IV § 4 that guarantees the republican form to the states. But what is republican government? In Federalist 43 James Madison simply defined republican government as having the consent of the governed, and no hereditary offices. Article I § 9 and 10 prohibit monarchy and titles of nobility.
Despite these Constitutional safeguards, Madison predicted a new Constitution around 1930, presumably to accommodate one that tended toward the monarchical form.2
In his speech, Alexander Hamilton cut to the chase. Since republics were often scenes of turmoil and violence, and monarchy was likely in our future, why not push republican principles to their limit and consider a higher-toned government to avoid the pitfalls that brought down every previous republic? Wouldn’t this further delay, possibly forever, the seemingly inevitable?
While readers today are aghast at Hamilton’s hostility for the evolving republican Virginia and federal New Jersey plans, opinions in 1780s America had only recently move toward some governing form other than monarchal. George III was sovereign of the freest people on earth and thanks to England’s balanced constitution, Hamilton wasn’t alone in 1775 when he assured readers in his second revolutionary pamphlet that he was a “warm advocate for limited monarchy, and an unfeigned well-wisher to the present Royal Family.” Before 1775, the question of republican v. monarchical government was a non-sequitur.3
Instead, the focus of political discussion was free v. arbitrary government. David Hume, rather than John Locke, was Hamilton’s “go-to” philosopher, and Hume’s idea of free government went like this: “Free government is that which admits of a partition of power among several members whose united authority is no less, or is commonly greater than that of any monarch, but who, in the usual course of administration must act by general and equal laws that are previously known to all members and all their subjects.” 4
It is a modern mistake to blindly associate monarchy with arbitrary oppression and democratic republics with free government. Per Hamilton, “it is not the supreme power being placed in one, instead of many, that discriminates an arbitrary from a free government. Any people ruled by laws in which they have no part are, in the strictest sense, slaves.” Their government is despotic. What can be said to have forced American colonists toward revolution was the substitution of mixed and free government with arbitrary government.
The demonstrated and historically best path to free government was through mixed/limited monarchy and not republics. Limited monarchies, which admitted elements of popular representation were, in comparison, stable and long-lasting. In 1776, the Englishman’s last republican experience was Oliver Cromwell’s short-lived and violent Commonwealth of 1653 – 1659.
Upon independence, thirteen fledgling states, now without a monarch, sought what Hamilton called, “the perfect balance between liberty and power” as they formed governments around constitutions.5 The results were not very promising. For instance, Shays Rebellion rocked confidence in republicanism. Massachusetts’s 1780 constitution, authored by John Adams, was recognized as a model of balance in liberty and power. If not in Massachusetts, then where could people live in peace?
The search for balance was the core of Hamilton’s political thought and practice. Hume’s philosophy and Hamilton’s experience proved the best approach to government is to assume that everyone in it is a rogue, and will serve the public interest only if it serves their personal interest. Passion, and not reason, rule men in large assemblies.6
Reflecting Hume, Hamilton did not regard liberty as an end of government. Instead, liberty was the means to desired political ends. By making political liberty an operating principle of government, liberty would no longer depend on the goodness of people in government. We see in his sketch of government that political liberty, which channels man’s knavish and self-serving nature through prudently framed laws, promotes industry, agriculture, prosperity, commerce, and respect abroad.7
Prudently framed laws need the firmest foundation. To Hamilton, the Virginia Plan was inadequate, and the New Jersey Plan put the means of government ahead of its proper ends. His objective on June 18th was to raise the philosophical tone of the convention and to nudge the convention toward a solid foundation of government.8
Free government, one which set political liberty as an operating principle, tended “to interest the passions of the community in its favor, and that tendency begets “public spirit and public confidence.”9 Rather than limit the people in a straitjacket of Utopian private virtue, Hamilton would harness their industry to encourage ever-growing prosperity and national greatness.
A certain consequence of Hamilton’s free society was an unequal distribution of wealth. Rich and poor are history’s natural antagonists. Instead of controlling the threat posed to republican government by factions, Hamilton thought the safest course to ensure longevity was to go with man’s nature rather than oppose it. As the historian Forrest McDonald described, Hamilton “would institutionalize class struggle, as it were, by vesting each, the few and the many, with a separate branch of government. Neither would dare neglect to participate actively in affairs of the nation, lest its natural enemy gain exclusive control.”10
In his sketch of a free government, the people directly or indirectly elected an Assembly, Senate, and national Governor. Senators and Governors served for life subject to good behavior. No titles and no hereditary offices made this a republican plan. He advocated universal male suffrage to the Assembly. Voting for Senators was limited to property owners who elected electors. All adult males were entitled to vote in a similar, yet doubly refined process to elect a national chief executive.11
Since the states were the source of troubles under the Articles of Confederation, his plan neutered their sovereignty and participation in government. This was necessary to keep the states from destroying the umbrella government once again. Hamilton stressed his proposal was practical and not ideological. Ends first, then means.
Whether or not his intentions could play out is endlessly debatable, but what is certain is that the convention soon dropped the federal New Jersey Plan and ran with an evolving Virginia Plan that ultimately vested the new mixed national/federal government with adequate powers.
1. Stourzh, G. (1970). Alexander Hamilton and the Idea of Republican Government. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 38.
2. Ibid., 39.
3. Ibid., 41.
4. Ibid., 40.
5. Ibid., 5.
6. McDonald, F. (1979). Alexander Hamilton – A Biography. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 98. Liberty is freedom put toward the good. License is freedom put toward the bad.
7. Ibid., 97, 98, and 61.
8. Ibid., 99.
9. Ibid., 100.
10. Ibid., 103-104.
11. Ibid., 104.
General Reference: Madison, J. (1966). Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. Chicago: Ohio University Press.