01 July 2009

A point on republics skirted by argument

The following was first presented at The Jacksonian Party.

The following is a personal position paper of The Jacksonian Party.

Our modern times and governmental direction are not unknown in history, indeed they are well known as societies shift during the civilization process from new found government with very little to do and a quickly prospering society to one that encroaches ever more on human liberty and freedom until such government becomes tyrannical and vests power in the few over the many. We need not go to de Tocqueville for such understanding of America, but to Americans of the Founding Era, especially the discussions over the Constitution of 1787-89.  This part of our history gives us one of the keenest group of people who had a vested interest in securing liberty and freedom for generations: they had paid for it in dear blood during the Revolution.  We tend to think of this short time, when we think of it at all, as the absolute, hands-down winning of the Federalists over the Anti-Federalists.  Yet that is only a late period characterization of those discussions and those discussions were seen as a process that was ongoing as these same individuals had already witnessed the collapse of the Confederal system of 1776-86.  Born of the Revolution the Articles of Confederation demonstrated that too loose a system would lead to unequal support of liberty across the States as many were impoverished by taxes and even put into jail to pay for the debt the Nation owed to France.  The Constitution was not thought of as an end-point, but one that may have to be revisited at a later date if it failed.

The method of failure was one that was examined at the time as the problems of a Constitutional Monarchy, Confederal State system and the proposed federal system or republican system were none of them unknown in the history of man at the Founding.  The writer Agrippa on 22 JAN 1788 in Agrippa XV would look at this, and I edit his work for a bit more readability to the modern eye but only in paragraph breaks:


Can any man, in the free exercise of his reason, suppose that he is perfectly represented in the legislature, when that legislature may at pleasure alter the time, manner, and place of election. By altering the time they may continue a representative during his whole life; by altering the manner, they may fill up the vacancies by their own votes without the consent of the people; and by altering the place, all the elections maybe made at the seat of the federal government. Of all the powers of government perhaps this is the most improper to be surrendered. Such an article at once destroys the whole check which the constituents have upon their rulers. I should be less zealous upon this subject, if the power had not been often abused.

The senate of Venice, the regencies of Holland, and the British parliament have all abused it. The last have not yet perpetuated themselves; but they have availed themselves repeatedly of popular commotions to continue in power. Even at this day we find attempts to vindicate the usurpation by which they continued themselves from three to seven years. All the attempts, and many have been made, to return to triennial elections, have proved abortive. These instances are abundantly sufficient to shew with what jealousy this right ought to be guarded. No sovereign on earth need be afraid to declare his crown elective, while the possessor has the right to regulate the time, manner, and place of election. It is vain to tell us, that the proposed government guarantees to each state a republican form.

Republics are divided into democratics, and aristocratics. The establishment of an order of nobles, in whom should reside all the power of the state, would be an aristocratic republic. Such has been for five centuries the government of Venice, in which all the energies of government, as well as of individuals, have been cramped by a distressing jealousy that the rulers have of each other. There is nothing of that generous, manly confidence that we see in the democratic republics of our own country. It is a government of force. attended with perpetual fear of that force. In Great-Britain, since the lengthening of parliaments, all our accounts agree, that their elections are a continued scene of bribery, riot and tumult; often a scene of murder.

These are the consequences of choosing seldom, and for extensive districts. When the term is short, nobody will give an high price for a seat. It is an insufficient answer to these objections to say, that there is no power of government but may sometimes be applied to bad purposes. Such a power is of no value unless it is applied to a bad purpose. It ought always to remain with the people.


In the ideas presented on 27 JUN 1787 in Luther Martin's Objections (transcribed, edited, amended and generally softened  by Robert Yates) we the following:

On this latter ground, the state legislatures and their constituents will have no interests to pursue different from the general government, and both will be interested to support each other. Under these ideas can it be expected that the people can approve the Virginia Plan? But it is said, that people, not the state legislatures, will be called upon for approbation, with an evident design to separate the interest of the governors from the governed. What must be the consequence? Anarchy and confusion. We lose the idea of the powers with which we are entrusted. The legislatures must approve. By them it must, on your own plan, be laid before the people. How will such a government, over so many great states, operate? Wherever new settlements have been formed in large states, they immediately want to shake off their independency. Why? Because the government is too remote for their good. The people want it nearer home.

The basis of all ancient and modern confederacies is the freedom and the independency of the states composing it. The states forming the Amphictionic council were equal, though Lacedemon, one of the greatest states, attempted the exclusion of three of the lesser states from this right. The plan reported, it is true, only intends to diminish those rights, not to annihilate them. It was the ambition and power of the great Grecian states which at last ruined this respectable council. The states as societies are ever respectful. Has Holland or Switzerland ever complained of the equality of the states which compose their respective confederacies? Bern and Zurich are larger than the remaining eleven cantos (so are many of the states of Germany); and yet their governments are not complained of. Bern alone might usurp the whole power of the Helvetic confederacy, but she is contented still with being equal.

Thus begins an examination of how other sorts of governments that were considered Republics at the time (Venice, Swiss, Dutch) contrast with a Constitutional Monarchy: democratic and aristocratic based systems.  Part of the tradition of what we would call the Executive is that it only becomes a 'choice' for limited time in democratic systems, but even in those there are variations as Republics are representative of the society that brings them about or otherwise forms offices to better suit the situation of a Nation.  Thus the Venetian form of Executive is a singular person (the Doge) which is elected by a system that has a form of democratic outlook but one that is not direct election but process oriented (as I examined in another article) while something like the Swiss Executive is actually a council not an individual.  While both have Executive powers to deal with other Nations, both are circumscribed by other mechanisms: the Doge by the oligarchy of merchants which have the legislative power and the Swiss by the Canton based legislature.  The Doge is a lifetime position and the Council decides the fate of the Doge's estate after death based on his ruling ability and fairness, thus a Doge is encouraged to be impartial if he wishes to pass anything on to his descendents.  The Swiss have the shorter term and distribution in a small body to ensure that no power is concentrated for too long a period of time.  Both have accountability mechanisms built-in to meet the particular needs of that State.

Beyond that Agrippa examines the problem of length of term and district size for legislative seats and finds that there are two major sources of corruption for those legislative positions: 1) Length of time in service and 2) number of people to be represented.  Long terms reduce accountability between elections and that affords opportunity for corruption outside of the public oversight process of elections.  Large districts are very hard to represent and by reducing the say of each person via their fraction in the district, the voices of individuals gets watered down and the district cannot speak with a clear voice.  Either of these are major problems in any legislature representing a cross-section of a population in a Republic, and the corruption they engender tend to move those seats from being temporary per representative to one of being corrupt and difficult to remove such an individual by the corruption they spread.  That is seen as the problem in the oligarchical republic of Venice and the somewhat more distributed legislature in the Dutch republic.  Luther Martin looks at the differences between Dutch and Swiss which have a different distribution of power set-up requiring more local and regional based input into National affairs. 

Between two authors we get an historical examination of three Republics: Venetian, Dutch and Swiss. Together we can then look at the pluses and minuses of differing systems and then compare and contrast those with the proposed federal republic in the Constitution.  Further the ruling Parliament of Great Britain is likewise compared and contrasted to the Venetian and Dutch forms and the tendency of nobility to accrue to the legislative branch, not executive, as well as the attempts to undermine the Greek confederation by a single, large member.  Thus not only were the tyrants, despots, warlords and emperors of old worried about by the Anti-Federalists, but the accruing of power to a legislative body that would tend to gain power over a Republic through infrequent changes in the personnel line-up of such bodies. 

This is not the simplistic examination of government, power, democracy, republics, and elections that I was taught to expect when reading the Anti-Federalists.  Quite the contrary, Hamilton, Madison and John Jay writing under the Publius pseudonym would have hard problems actually addressing such arguments being presented as the federal system, itself, had the basis for power to accrue to central government that the Anti-Federalists worried about.  Already they had the Swiss confederation as a clear demonstration of how to keep such power from shifting in a republican form of government that existed as a stable set-up as compared to past attempts at such things.  Indeed we can, to this day, marvel that the Swiss system has remained inviolate of many interior threats to accrue more power to central government, and its weakening is only seen as part of the overall shift of Western standards from those of individual freedoms residing and respected to be at the individual level.  Yet Switzerland is one of the most heavily armed Nations on the planet, per capita, as each citizen is part of the armed forces: that is the old militia system still in-place, at work and keeping citizens aware that they need to defend themselves and their Nation to get the protections of the former for the latter.  That was very close to the type of system the US started with coming from Great Britain, and the erosion of it cannot be seen as a positive good for society or the Nation as it distances the population from the necessity of defending themselves both individually and at the Nation State level.

It is, in fact, this which Alexander Hamilton argues against in Federalist No. 25 on 21 DEC 1787, and offers one valid reason for having a standing army that ought to be kept up by Congress but is not required to do so on a biennial arrangement:

IT MAY perhaps be urged that the objects enumerated in the preceding number ought to be provided for by the State governments, under the direction of the Union. But this would be in reality an inversion of the primary principle of our political association, as it would in practice transfer the care of the common defense from the federal head to the individual members: a project oppressive to some States, dangerous to all, and baneful to the Confederacy.

The territories of Britain, Spain, and of the Indian nations in our neighborhood do not border on particular States, but encircle the Union from Maine to Georgia. The danger, though in different degrees, is therefore common. And the means of guarding against it ought in like manner to be the objects of common councils, and of a common treasury. It happens that some States, from local situation, are more directly exposed. New York is of this class. Upon the plan of separate provisions, New York would have to sustain the whole weight of the establishments requisite to her immediate safety, and to the mediate or ultimate protection of her neighbors. This would neither be equitable as it respected New York, nor safe as it respected the other States. Various inconveniences would attend such a system. The States, to whose lot it might fall to support the necessary establishments, would be as little able as willing for a considerable time to come to bear the burden of competent provisions. The security of all would thus be subjected to the parsimony, improvidence, or inability of a part. If the resources of such part becoming more abundant and extensive, its provisions should be proportionally enlarged, the other States would quickly take the alarm at seeing the whole military force of the Union in the hands of two or three of its members, and those probably amongst the most powerful. They would each choose to have some counterpoise, and pretenses could easily be contrived. In this situation, military establishments, nourished by mutual jealousy, would be apt to swell beyond their natural or proper size; and being at the separate disposal of the members, they would be engines for the abridgment or demolition of the national authority.


Here I expect we shall be told that the militia of the country is its natural bulwark, and would be at all times equal to the national defense. This doctrine, in substance, had like to have lost us our independence. It cost millions to the United States that might have been saved. The facts which from our own experience forbid a reliance of this kind are too recent to permit us to be the dupes of such a suggestion. The steady operations of war against a regular and disciplined army can only be successfully conducted by a force of the same kind. Considerations of economy, not less than of stability and vigor, confirm this position. The American militia, in the course of the late war, have, by their valor on numerous occasions, erected eternal monuments to their fame; but the bravest of them feel and know that the liberty of their country could not have been established by their efforts alone, however great and valuable they were. War, like most other things, is a science to be acquired and perfected by diligence, by perserverance, by time, and by practice.

All violent policy, contrary to the natural and experienced course of human affairs, defeats itself. Pennsylvania at this instant affords an example of the truth of this remark. The Bill of Rights of that State declares that standing armies are dangerous to liberty, and ought not to be kept up in time of peace. Pennsylvania, nevertheless, in a time of profound peace from the existence of partial disorders in one or two of her counties, has resolved to raise a body of troops; and in all probability will keep them up as long as there is any appearance of danger to the public peace. The conduct of Massachusetts affords a lesson on the same subject, though on different ground. That State (without waiting for the sanction of Congress, as the articles of the Confederation require) was compelled to raise troops to quell a domestic insurrection, and still keeps a corps in pay to prevent a revival of the spirit of revolt. The particular constitution of Massachusetts opposed no obstacle to the measure; but the instance is still of use to instruct us that cases are likely to occur under our government, as well as under those of other nations, which will sometimes render a military force in time of peace essential to the security of the society, and that it is therefore improper in this respect to control the legislative discretion. It also teaches us, in its application to the United States, how little the rights of a feeble government are likely to be respected, even by its own constituents. And it teaches us, in addition to the rest, how unequal parchment provisions are to a struggle with public necessity.

It was a fundamental maxim of the Lacedaemonian commonwealth that the post of admiral should not be conferred twice on the same person. The Peloponnesian confederates, having suffered a severe defeat at sea from the Athenians, demanded Lysander, who had before served with success in that capacity, to command the combined fleets. The Lacedaemonians, to gratify their allies and yet preserve the semblance of an adherence to their ancient institutions, had recourse to the flimsy subterfuge of investing Lysander with the real power of admiral under the nominal title of vice-admiral. This instance is selected from among a multitude that might be cited to confirm the truth already advanced and illustrated by domestic examples; which is, that nations pay little regard to rules and maxims calculated in their very nature to run counter to the necessities of society. Wise politicians will be cautious about fettering the government with restrictions that cannot be observed, because they know that every breach of the fundamental laws, though dictated by necessity, impairs that sacred reverence which ought to be maintained in the breast of rulers towards the constitution of a country, and forms a precedent for other breaches where the same plea of necessity does not exist at all, or is less urgent and palpable.

Written between Luther Martin and Agrippa, Alexander Hamilton decides to miss the point of the Swiss confederation: it has all the faults of being surrounded by hostile neighbors, is aided greatly by geography (as some Anti-Federalists argued for the US of that era) and had a greatly unequal and constantly shifting of burden around its borders between large and small Cantons.  The difference between the Revolution and normal defense of a Nation are stark: a Revolution has no pre-existing government, no tax base, no standardized way of addressing armed forces, no centralized system for currency exchange and has to build all of that simultaneously, while an existing government suffers NONE of those problems.  The objects that Hamilton cites as positive to putting such power into the federal government are those of economy of scale, equitability between different sized States with differing threats, continuity of tradition, threat to National security and that common protection is provided top-down, not bottom-up.

By not citing a universal liberty of man to defend himself as an individual and society, the basis of having a Nation, itself, is not spoken of.  Further the attempt to respond to Luther Martin, and others who had brought up the Greek confederation, puts Hamilton in his very own cross-hairs in the last paragraph as it is HE who is looking to expediency for the formation of a national service and putting on fetters that have not restrained the federal investment in the common defense but have so eroded the concept of common defense in society that we no longer recognize the necessity of liberty that is self-evident: the basis for the protection of society starts with the individual, not the State. 

The necessity of a new military service can and should have been reconciled with the universal nature of the protection of liberty and our duty to society in creating it, and yet that is exactly the opposite of what Hamilton does.  Instead of seeking to put strong fetters to be cast off, Hamilton expediently casts off the fetters at the very start.  All of that while still not addressing the unequal sizing of Swiss Cantons, how they provide for their defense and yet retain a militia system that is universal.  That there are differences in neighbors to Switzerland then (France, Germanic Principalities, Austro-Hungarian Empire, Italy) and those having had unequal threats to the Swiss and yet they retained a highly distributed form of government able to deal with these threats at a Nation State scale.  While later events would take both the Venetian and Swiss systems down under Napoleon, other Principalities in the north of Italy, the Germanies, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and even Russia would find that mass system of warfare nearly impossible to deal with.

At the fulcrum point of Hamilton's analysis is Congress, which he cites as having to rethink the proposition of a national army and navy every two years, and his own counterpoint that such bodies become objects of expediency.  Which is the exact point that the Anti-Federalists make about the dangers of concentrating power so that it can be expediently wielded by those who seek not only power during times of danger but afterwards.

Perhaps even more troublesome is that many of the Anti-Federalists have cited the historical basis of successful republics as having certain attributes: small, compact, and generally easy to defend due to the first two concerns.  The reasoning is that government that uses a divided basis for determining the course of a Nation must be accountable and seek direct input of society or otherwise act in such a manner as not to dictate to society from the National level.  For all the problems of Venice its government afforded relative equality under the law to not only the families in the oligarchy, but to common citizens as well, as the function of that republic had the necessity of equality of administration of the laws under the Doge.  When a republic gets large, as in the case of the Roman Republic, the point of government changes from administering laws equitably to that of sustaining the infrastructure necessary to run a large and growing republic as it becomes stressed with foreign societies and ideas.

By citing this thing that is an ill foundation for a republic as creating the necessity of having a strong central government puts Alexander Hamilton at odds with the known hallmarks of republics as cited by the Anti-Federalists.  The Dutch, Swiss and Venetian Republics all have those as primary factors for their being, and the Venetians would only change on 12 MAY 1797 when Napoleon conquered the city.  That is over 1,000 years of that republic only ended by conquest and later seek to become its own form of republic outside of the dogal type when the Austrian Empire would threaten it as a free city.  That was still a decade in the future and no one could foresee the fall of the Venetian state as then instituted.  Switzerland, properly considered, started with the Reformation in Zurich in 1523 and became an independent Nation in 1648 by the Treaty of Westphalia, and only be over-run by Napoleon and French rule for 50 years before becoming a more confederalized Nation State in 1848 along the lines of its 1523 system under the Reformation of Switzerland.  Only the sea, distance and climate stopped Napoleon from over-running all of Europe after Austerlitz.  No single Nation successfully countered Napoleon until the retreat from Moscow, and it required multiple nations to achieve that:  Austria, Russia, Prussia, Great Britain, Sweden, Spain and Portugal.  It is to be noted that many of these HAD military schools and a centralized system to administer them and that NONE of those successfully countered a new style of warfare until Napoleon had to rest to solidify gains.

History after Hamilton points to the problems of his arguments: they didn't work in Nations that had Parliamentary systems of government, nor in Empires, nor in Republics.  Indeed the point of the Anti-Federalists about republican government would be demonstrated in France which went from decadent Monarchy and the Storming of the Bastille to decadent Republic to Empire in a time span better measured in months, not years.  France, it could be argued, was too large to be a republic and the debased form of republicanism that came about would be its own, very bloody, demise.  It is sobering to think that within the lives of those who signed the Constitution the Nation would see how an ill-founded republic falls.

The recitation of necessity for a strong central government having powers that have previously endangered other republics is not a good one, although very forcefully made.  He commits errors of misconstruing the needs of a Revolution with that of governing a Republic, puts forward the idea that since the Constitution already has the problems cited by others as part of its basis that is a good thing, and does not address multiple respondents who have brought up other systems of government to compare and contrast with the proposed system in the Constitution.  What is also demonstrated by the passage:

The facts which from our own experience forbid a reliance of this kind are too recent to permit us to be the dupes of such a suggestion.

This suggests that there is a duplicitous nature in the suggestion that a centralized authority to run military operations as not being a threat to all members of such a Nation is being given so as to dupe those reading such works.  By mistaking the Revolution for the orderly administration of a Nation and assigning duplicity to those pointing out the differences, Alexander Hamilton is performing a neat sleight of hand in which he demeans those bringing forth such arguments, assigns them duplicitous nature and then goes on to miss their points about the nature of republics, democracies and the size of same.  In talking up the subtle sensibility of how such problems are incorporated into the Constitution, he does not address that they are problems in, and of, themselves as demonstrated by prior history.  Here Hamilton is relying on the inward systemic logic of the system to be his bulwark while his critics are pointing out the flaws of such governments having such things in them.  By keeping such power out of the hands of a singular entity and making it a cooperative effort, the ability to veto ill-founded ideas is held by the States, not the National government, and Alexander Hamilton is disposed to say that such a veto will endanger all in the Nation while forgetting that individual States that see a threat can contribute to the common defense on their own by helping other parts of the Nation without federal oversight.  Not all the Greek States would support war, yet they would all support the common defense.  The Venetian, Dutch and Swiss republican forms of government would likewise rarely venture into external war while erecting a common defense which would be no worse than the Empires of Austro-Hungary, Great Britain, Spain and Russia would mount in a military venue.  If the basis for the argument is suspect, and it is just by examining the critics who in many voices raise the same problems, Hamilton's addressing them in a series of the Federalist Papers (approx. Nos. 23-26) is not strong enough to silence them, as Agrippa demonstrates as do many other Anti-Federalists.

While reading through these works the modern reader is often set back by the density of the writing, that does not utilize modern punctuation or even the breaking of ideas into concise paragraphs.  That being said, the nature of the process to publish was that of economizing space which required the economizing of ideas to pack a lot into a small space.  We take the structure to be one that is ill-thought out, and thusly, put the ideas therein into the same mental bin.  Yet the writers did not have the modern conveniences of mass production or publication to work with, both of which would create the early 20th century problem of writers being paid by word to fill up space and get paid, which has its own problems of not being concise and comprehensible.  Learning to read through the style differences the ideas of the late 18th century can be read far more easily, if with more disturbing impact, as they demonstrate individuals who had a high command of their topics, thought through them in rational ways and presented cogent analysis even with the restrictions in publication length.  That so many of these topics remain outside of our educational systems is not a high point to be proud about as these are the hard reviews of republics, democracies and parliamentary systems as known at the founding, and the nature of those systems have changed little as their formulation was already set by then.  The examination of these works allows one to put a modern overlay to them and ask if the reasoning given, along with the rationale and historical precedents, are accurate and that the lessons drawn from them still in force.

I am personally saddened that those who highly tout the Federalist Papers do not present the full account of the give and take that took place and the problems that were addressed and left unaddressed at the Founding.  It is not that the Federalists won the argument by reason and logic alone, but also by having forceful personalities and well known people attached to them who would support them.  Would a Constitution not backed by Washington or Franklin have come about?  Undoubtedly something would have been put in its place, yes, and would lack the cogency of Franklin to keep it short and direct, thus making it a poorer document and structure for that lack.  The Anti-Federalists did feel that this was a cabal, of sorts, that existed from the Revolution through to the Constitution and that this grouping of individuals so necessary to creating the Revolution were now leaving out their fellow countrymen after the Articles of Confederation, written by that same group that wrote the Declaration of Independence, had fallen on hard times.  George Mason would be one of the few highlighted names to go against the Constitution, be critical in drafting the Bill of Rights, and then go against the Constitution with that same set of ideas he helped to draft.

The depth of knowledge did not sit on just one side, that of the Founders who attended the Declaration, Articles and Constitution: the Anti-Federalist works demonstrate that.  What the Anti-Federalists lacked was a cohesive and common object of problems for all to address, and yet many would cross the same ideas so that a body of work examining the issues of forming a government was done.  For every Federalist work an Anti-Federalist such as Brutus, Cato, Federal Farmer, Centinal, Agrippa, Luther Martin or A Gentleman from Georgia can also be cited, often in great depth.  It is not that every argument is persuasive, on either side of the fence, but that the modern assumption that 'the winner writes the history books' should not take place in the civil debate inside a republic supporting a free society that protects the rights of the individual from government.  That is only a semi-valid argument in warfare and wholly invalid one in civil society and its discourse.  If I do not like how the modern Left ignores history, I also have no great like for how the modern Right mis-represents the Founding era to suit modern tastes.  Neither is a good nor socially viable way to address our fellow citizens of the Founding era, and both demean them by putting modern assumptions to have somehow either fallen all on one side or to actually not read or examine such materials.

If we are to build a better Republic, then it behooves us to examine the discourse of the Founding era as it does not pre-suppose history as 'progressing' but, instead, as a process.  It is that conception that we have lost in the modern age, by assuming all that changes is 'progress' and that all 'progress' is to the good, while those at the Founding, particularly on the Anti-Federalist side, present how a process that becomes biased is not 'progress' and leads to worse government, not better.  That is an examination of the human condition, not of human government, and how close the Anti-Federalists hit that mark is enough to make any reader of them uncomfortable as we see the modern path of 'argument' is not that of reason, but vitriol and partisanship to the extent of disdaining the arguments by impugning the character of those presenting the argument.

That is not 'progress'.

And yet that, too, has been seen before in history.

If we would but listen to our late fellow countrymen who warned us of it.

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