It seems that whenever I find myself in conversation with friends about US foreign and domestic policy, most of them can discern that a problem exists but few can agree upon any of its possible root causes. When I suggest that perhaps the problem can be traced back to the very founding of our country and some of the dominant priorities motivating the founders at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, this is invariably met with skepticism if not outright derision. I trace this incredulity to the fact that we Americans are not encouraged to think in terms of class. It was class interests that powerfully influenced the formation of our republic and similar elite class interests are what drive American Empire today. To properly explore this phenomenon I think it’s necessary that we first examine the document with which the Bush administration frequently uses to wipe its ass: the Constitution of the United States.
The framers of our Constitution had in mind a lasting document which would formalize a system of government that discouraged the concentration of power and safeguarded certain liberties, while also serving the needs and interests of elites within the society. Of critical importance to an understanding of the Constitution is an examination of the context under which this document was created. It was determined that the original Articles of Confederation provided insufficient support for commerce and trade. Furthermore, to better defend the union from external threats or internal insurrection, the benefits of a centralized system over one of loosely aligned confederates were self-evident. The Founders recognized that the Confederacy was a fragile union and their concerns about possible encroachment and other abuses from European rivals were well founded.
This essay, however, will not address whether consolidation was a more efficient method of governance than a confederation of semi-autonomous states, but rather if the consolidated government that was formed served the powerful at the expense of the masses. Was ideology the primary motivating factor animating the Founders in creating our Constitution, or was ideology merely an expedient rationalization for the hierarchical republican system that it produced? How great an influence did the economic interest of elite sectors of 18th century America have on the Founders, and how were they ultimately reflected in the Constitution? Finally, what are the justifications for republican forms of government and are they inherently destined to become the tools of the powerful?
Charles A. Beard would be among the first to present an "economic interpretation of the Constitution" with his book of the same title and published in 1913. While this work has many weaknesses, they do not in any way detract from the central question he raised: did the Constitution as created by the Founders, serve, defend, and preserve the interests and priorities of the elite class to which they belonged? As Beard made clear, laws and statutes are not created within a vacuum, they reflect the social conditions on the ground not amorphous theories. He writes:
Inasmuch as the primary object of a government, beyond the mere repression of physical violence, is the making of the rules which determine the property relations of members of society, the dominant classes whose rights are thus to be determined must perforce obtain from the government such rules as are consonant with the larger interest necessary to the continuance of their economic processes, or they must themselves control the organs of government (Beard 13).
He further notes that the former occurs in a stable despotism (a perfect monarchy for example), but in a system in which power is to be shared by different groups in the society, the mechanisms and protocols of establishing control are the fundamental concerns of constitutional law. It then follows that, “The social structure by which one type of legislation is secured and another prevented—that is, the Constitution—is a secondary or derivative feature arising from the nature of the economic groups seeking positive action and negative restraint” (Beard 13).
Contrary to many of Beard’s detractors, the genesis for his approach to constitutional history was provided by the polemics of James Madison in Federalist Number 10 of The Federalist Papers. Incredibly, some have accused Beard of “misreading” Madison here, as though this accomplished scholar had somehow lost the facility of comprehension. Madison, a towering intellect, knew well how to make himself understood. In Number 10 he carefully presents his argument in clear, unambiguous terms which do not easily lend themselves to misinterpretation. Madison recognized that any society in which there is an unequal distribution of resources and property will be home to factionalism. This inevitable circumstance, Madison insisted, can be addressed in one of two ways: in the first by eliminating its cause, and in the second by mitigating its effects. While the causes of factionalism can be as varied as humanity itself, Madison identified the following universal truism regarding factionalism, property and the role of government:
The diversity in the faculties of men from which the rights of property originate, is not less than an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of society into different interests and parties…the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property (Fed 10).
Madison and the Founders represented a distinct class of Americans and it is my contention that the document they created to regulate the new republic reflected their priorities and fears. The Constitution thereby insured that republicanism would prevail. A republican form of government is based primarily on two assumptions. The first is that an elite “specialized” class is properly qualified to rule by reasons of intelligence, breeding and “virtue”. These qualities render this class of men immune from the common human frailties that prevent lesser beings from placing the public welfare before their self interests. The second is that the masses are inherently dangerous and cannot be trusted to exercise its will. Invariably, the leaders of a republican system are drawn from its elite sectors and are sensitive and responsive to the priorities of this class. At the same time there is the recognition that the needs of the masses must be addressed (within limits) if society is to profitably function. Thus, republicanism seeks a balance between the prerogatives of the elite and some limited form of liberty for the masses; however, all important decisions are proposed, evaluated, and advanced amongst a small core of elites who then provide the masses with the means with which to ratify those decisions through qualified (and often sympathetic) electors. For example, Beard makes this observation of the Constitutional Convention:
No special popular elections were called to complicate the problem of securing the right kind of Convention and the leaders were confronted with the comparatively simple task of convincing the legislatures of the advisability of sending delegates. Naturally the most strenuous and interested advocates of change came forward as candidates (Beard 64).
It is the ideological underpinnings, the foundation, if you will, upon which republicanism rests that are at variance with democratic principles and go a long way in explaining how the Constitution primarily served the interests of elite sectors of 18th century America and how it was (and is) justified. Joyce Appleby writes of the antecedents to the American republic in her essay The Social Origins of American Revolutionary Ideology. Here she points to England’s mixed constitution as a source of inspiration for the Founders for it provided the necessary protections against the “fatal usurpations of power”. She explains:
According to the theory…the classic forms of government—monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy—were subject to degeneration into their debased alter egos, tyranny, oligarchy, and anarchy. Hope of breaking with this fated corruption lay within combining the known forms into a constitutional arrangement in which the monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements acted as checks upon each other. This checking would only take place, however, if the three elements were independent of one another and if members of the political body possessed the necessary civic virtue to place constitutional duties above private concerns (Appleby 938).
What is perhaps most striking about this passage are its unconsciously elitist assumptions. By what rationale does one legitimize the existence of the monarchy or an aristocracy in society at all? Precisely what makes these institutions so critical to the proper functioning of society that it becomes necessary to check the democratic impulse? Concomitant to these assumptions is the belief, the certainty in fact, that democracy or its “excess” will lead to anarchy. The implication being that the people are incapable of governing themselves outside of hierarchical structures from which they can be managed.
Appleby further notes that the leaders of a republic are expected to be beyond reproach owing not only to their virtuous nature, but due also to the fact that they would be men of substantial wealth, thereby insulating them from the temptations which would fell men of lesser means. She reasons that, “Since the principal means of subverting virtue were bribes and places of profit, it was concluded that virtue could only exist among those who were not dependant upon others for such favors” (Appleby 938).
These assurances aside, once in power there is really nothing to prevent these remarkably virtuous men from defending and promoting the interest of their class at the expense of society’s less fortunate majority. One will search long and likely in vain for perfectly selfless men to lead anything much less an entire society with so much to gain and lose. The virtuous man is a myth, a Superman, conjured by elites to rationalize hierarchical society and little more. Rubbish such as the “divine right of kings” served a similar purpose.
Appleby notes that the emerging merchant class of England recognized these limiting features of classical republicanism which viewed change of any kind as dangerous and destabilizing—including the growing free market economy. Aristocrats feared the corrupting influence of a market economy and vehemently opposed Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole because of his advocacy of it. The classic aristocrats were inexorably being muscled out by this aggressive new breed of men. For the merchant class, private enterprise was as vital as the air they breathed and nothing would dissuade them from grabbing the reins, Appleby writes:
On a scope unheard of before, private enterprise supported by government policies could create wealth in a variety of ways. And the bogeys of the opposition press were precisely the instruments of the new capitalist economy—the Bank of England, the funded debt, the expanding national bureaucracy, and the plethora of investment opportunities that led to stock jobbing. From the view point of classical republicanism these were the engines of corruption. They were also elements of a fairly coherent national policy to promote the productive possibilities of Great Britain in an expanding world trade (Appleby 939).
The merchant class was now in the driver’s seat. Though still a relative minority, this dynamic class was vastly greater in number and in many instances came from far humbler backgrounds than the aristocratic class they were now marginalizing. There can be no question that they were aware of their growing power and influence, as well as the necessity that the government be responsive to their interests—above all others. Appleby describes the changing of the guard in 18th century England this way,
…the case that lay between the men who ran England in the 18th century and their critics was not simply one of being for or against the use of patronage, but rather of being for or against a national engagement that required the support of private enterprise, aggressive national policies, and the elimination of obstacles to increasing the productive power of groups within society (Appleby 940).
The American counterparts to Britain’s merchant class were no doubt paying close attention to these developments and were in an even more advantageous position, not just geographically but politically. There was no established aristocracy in the American colonies per se so, in a sense, there really was no higher class to overcome. The American equivalent to the British merchant class was arguably already a part of 18th century America’s upper strata. Seizing political control was mere child’s play. More critically, these new American elites adopted many of the “positive” features of republicanism, paying particular attention to containing the democratic impulses of the masses. However, no power relationship is complete without an accompanying ideology to justify it. Kings have their divine rights, aristocrats have their virtuous men, and capitalists have the benefit of what Appleby describes as, “The idea of a natural social order embedded in human nature and worked out through the voluntary, but natural, interaction of individuals” (Appleby 941). Lost amid this beautiful imagery is how perfectly such a theory aligns with the interest of those who benefit from the status quo. Quite naturally the function of government should be in assisting this process along with minimal interference, for to do otherwise would run the risk of violating a “natural law”. Governments may of course, “design laws to achieve specific national goals”, but should keep in mind that, “only those statutes that worked within the economic order could be executed successfully” (Appleby 942).
In light of these sentiments, fully embraced by the Founders, it becomes clear why scholars such as Beard argued that economic considerations were foremost in the minds of those who hammered out the Constitution in Philadelphia.
The ideology that accompanied these economic concerns served the purpose of explaining to the masses why so little had changed in their lives since the Revolution and how the new Constitution—about which they were not consulted—would assure “liberty” nonetheless. The people, as Gordon Wood details in his study The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787, were proving to be slow learners. Mistakenly assuming that the soaring rhetoric of the Revolution applied to them, the people began to actively participate in the governing of their society. Wood writes, “Despite the success of the war against Britain the people remained possessed by a ‘general uneasiness…without the least apparent cause’. Instead of a community of placid yeomen, celebrated in Crevecoeur’s Letters From an American Farmer, the society appeared filled with inveterate grumblers” (Wood 399). Oddly, Wood does not attempt to examine the valid grievances which so agitated the populace, but managed to provide a barrage of vitriol from elite sources who were no doubt appalled by the dangerous turn of events.
If the new republic was to survive in its proper hierarchical format then the rabble must first be disciplined and brought to reason. It was imperative that order be established and quickly. A centralized republican form of government was the only way this could realistically be accomplished. The Articles of Confederation proved inadequate to the task and were a disaster for business. The Constitution, however, would change all of that.
How does one adequately explain, from an ideological standpoint, the extraordinary protections written into the Constitution for the institution of slavery and indentured servitude as witnessed by Article I, section 9, first clause (slavery); and Article IV, section 2, third clause (indentured servitude)? If, as many insist, the Constitution was a document of exalted ideals, how does one explain the protections of so profitable an enterprise that stood so completely at variance with the principles upon which it was founded? The merest fraction of the population could profitably afford slaves or, for that matter, indentured servants (itself a form of slavery) yet the concerns—demands in fact—of this powerful class were addressed.
Moving forward through time it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see how the interests of Big Oil has, from the very beginning, been the driving force behind the Team Bush assault on Iraq. I’ll write more on this subject in my next essay.
Beard, Charles A. An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. New York: The Free Press, 1913
Wood, Gordon S. The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969
Madison, James et al. The Federalist Papers. New York: Penguin, 1987
Appleby, Joyce. “The Social Origins of American Revolutionary Ideology”
The Journal of American History. Vol. 64, No 4 (Mar, 1978), 935-958
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