Empire of Reason Commentary No. 14

To:  The People of the United States, July 16, 2022

. . . Capable of Nothing but Despotism. . . 

By Mark Albertson

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          May 2022 marked the 235th anniversary of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia; which resulted in the arrangement of a Republic, not a Democracy.  However it has been particularly irksome to observe, that many publications, news organs, politicians and the voting public have expressed so little desire to even reference this truly decisive aspect of the Founding of this Nation.  Emblematic, too, of the distressing lack of regard for a functioning system of Representative Government that presently exists between both voters and office holders.  In a word, America is a Failed State, that expression of the Nature of Man, to which James Madison warned about with Federalist No. 51:

          But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?  If men were angels, no government would be necessary.  If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.  In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this:  You must first enable the government to control itself.  A dependence on the people is no doubt the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions. . . [1]

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          235 years ago, commencing on May 14, a collection of delegates began to gather in Philadelphia to forge a new Nation.  Some sixty-five emissaries had been chosen by state legislatures to represent the interests of said states.  Fifty-five delegates, representing twelve of the thirteen states participated, Rhode Island being the sole unrepresented state.

          The average age of this “bastion of wisdom” was 42.  Benjamin Franklin was the elder at 81, with Jonathan Drayton only 27.  Of the 55 delegates, 31 were college graduates, products of institutions either domestic or foreign.  George Mason and Benjamin Franklin had been tutored privately and were voracious readers, with the former as the principle author of the Virginia Bill of Rights.  Roger Sherman from Connecticut, once a shoemaker was now a judge.  The president of Columbia, W.S. Johnson had been, at one point, a Loyalist.  George Wythe had tutored both Jefferson and John Marshall at William and Mary College.  Virginians such as, Gouverneur Morris, debater par excellence and skilled at discerning weakness in opponents and Robert Morris, born British and financier of the Revolution, were on hand; as was 36-year old James Madison, probably the political theorist of this esteemed collection, with a voluminous knowledge of previous societies and empires, both ancient and recent.  As was Scottish-born James Wilson, a standout theorist in Philadelphia.  Conspicuously absent were John Jay, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, all on foreign duty; though Jefferson traded missives with Madison and made his presence felt.

          This group of Enlightened Authoritarians not only sought to marginalize the Common Man, but at the same time permit his entry into the ruling class; the overriding conundrum at the Convention.  Issues such as Slavery were seen as significant from the perspective that true, the cash crops of the South—Cotton, Tobacco, Rice and Sugar, were necessary for the economy, but at the same time when words such as States Rights, Liberty, Consent of the Governed are being bandied about, that keeping people in bondage made a mockery of the essence of the Republic and the Rights of the Individual.  Yet slavery was viewed as a sectional issue.  Slavery would die fairly quickly in the North, what with industrialization, finance, development of ports and shipping and a fledgling Middle Class, as the Industrial Revolution snowballed. . . Not that northerners actually cared for the plight of the Black Man.  The sordid nature of slavery should have been enough to send the most “human” of men into action to alleviate the plight of those of his species consigned to such a horrid existence.  No, the overriding concern was to maintain union in the wake of the Revolution.  The issue of slavery would be addressed by a united Republic.  After all, there were other issues to broach.  To which . . . 

          . . . Strong central government?  Limited government?  How many chambers in the legislative branch?  Public credit?  Large or small professional army?  Who would actually vote and how many?  And, of course, the decisive issue of Republican government, Economic Liberty . . . that is, Land.  Land was the determinant of power . . . still is . . . indeed, when control of land is in too few hands, a functioning system of representative government is no longer possible, as warned by Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu.

          America’s wordsmith, Noah Webster, who was teaching in Philadelphia at the time of the Convention, described the origins of the Republic with a most marvelous use of the English language:  But the origin of the American Republic is distinguished by peculiar circumstances.  Other nations have been driven together by fear and necessity—their governments have generally been the result of a single man’s observations; or the offspring of particular interests.  In the formation of our Constitution, the wisdom of the ages is collected, the legislators of antiquity are consulted—as well as opinions and interests of the millions, who are concerned.  In short, it is an Empire of Reason.[2]

          Yet the Republic will have a shelf life, being the product of the fallibility of the Human Condition; to the extent that today, it exists in form only and not in substance.  Indeed today, America does not conduct elections but plebiscites.  And when reviewing such trips to the polls as in 2016 and 2020, vindication of Benjamin Franklin’s prognostication on September 17, 1787 is assured.  For when questioned by his fellow delegates as to the results of the Convention, Philadelphia’s favorite son observed:  In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution, with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general government necessary for us, and there is no form of government but what may be blessing to the people if well administered; and I believe father that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.[3]


[1]  See page 349, The Federalist No. 51, by James Madison, The Federalist, Edited by Jacob E. Cooke, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Connecticut, 1961.

[2]  See page 129, “A Citizen of America,” [Noah Webster], Debate on the Constitution, Part One, The Library of America, Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., New York, NY., 1991.

[3]  See page 682, “Last Speech,” Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiographical Writings, Edited and Selected by Carl Van Doren, The Viking Press, New York, 1945.

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