Two hundred and thirty years: From ‘revolutionary’ hope to institutional backwardness

I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions… But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the same coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.

–Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, July 12, 1810

The above quotation, carved literally in stone on the fourth panel of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, District of Columbia, conveys a sentiment that is virtually forgotten in America today. In fact, Jefferson warned against what he referred to as “sanctimonious reverence” for the Constitution and its founders. Yet today–and especially literally today, on the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence–American culture practices an idolatry with respect to the Founding that has become an excuse for tolerating a form of democracy that is increasingly behind the times.

The quotation with which this planting begins is quoted, in part, in the conclusion of an excellent piece in today’s Los Angeles Times by Mark Kurlansky. It begins:

SOMEONE HAS TO SAY IT or we are never going to get out of this rut: I am sick and tired of the founding fathers and all their intents.

The real American question of our times is how our country in a little over 200 years sank from the great hope to the most backward democracy in the West.

Indeed. And I very highly recommend the entire piece.

The institutional backwardness of my country’s increasingly eroding democracy is a major and regular theme here at F&V, and I won’t elaborate on it much in this planting. (If you are new here, please go to the “Mission of F&V” above, or to any of the various links on the upper part of the left sidebar.) What I will do instead is elaborate a personal (and familial) view on Independence and the institutional development to which it led, but which has barely evolved with the times and “the progress of the human mind” since.

It may seem contradictory that I have an image of James Madison’s home as the banner for a blog in which I so frequently (and, yes, harshly) criticize the Constitution of which Madison is the supposed father. However, it really is not a contradiction at all.1 I have great admiration for Madison as the founding father of the science of comparative political institutions and as the first great political engineer,2 but disdain for the ongoing reverence for a series of expedient political compromises made over two centuries ago as the price for obtaining approval of a constitution to replace the dysfunctional Articles of Confederation.

We should never elevate pragmatic compromises to idol status, but that is exactly what the prevailing American ideology does. As Kurlansky further notes,

The reason that there is always more disullusionment with Democrats than Republicans is that Democrats raise the expectation of being anti-establishment when, in reality, both parties are committed to maintaining the status quo and the “intent of the founding fathers.”

(Gramsci was right about the hegemony of ruling-class culture,3 as some of the most loyal foot-soldiers of the Party of Power themselves realize.)

As I discuss in “The Mission of F&V,” I have some ambivalence being a descendant of Goerge Read. On the one hand, that an ancestor knew and worked and argued with great men like Madison and Jefferson is a source of pride. On the other hand, Read, perhaps more than any other founding father, is responsible for the abomination that is the Great Compromise, which gave us (and by emulation, Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil, though few federations elsewhere in the world) the concept of equal representation of highly unequal states.

Read’s victory, on behalf of a revolt of the small states, forced Madison to rethink entirely his whole model–the Virginia Plan, which likely would have evolved into a parliamentary and hence far more democratic federalism. The expediency of trying to sell this compromise (which was better, for its time, than the then-status quo) led Madison to write Federalist 51, in which he largely contradicts his pre-compromise theory in Federalist 10. Both papers are beautiful works of political science, but the normative models they advance (checking factionalism through the representative assembly of an “extended republic” in 10, vs. checking the representative assembly itself through a separate executive and an independent and unrepresentative Senate in 51) can’t both be valid simultaneously.

Read himself was somewhat ambivalent about the cause of independence. In fact, he led a faction of the Continental Congress that initially opposed the declaration and believed reconciliation with England was still possible. He went along with the majority and and more than reconciled himself to the decision: He signed the Declaration, aided the War of Independence, and later signed the Constitution that he helped re-draft from Madison’s proposal, and served under it as one of Delaware’s first Senators (among numerous positions within the state). Nonetheless, as I reflect in this Independence Day, I wonder, along with Matthew Yglesias, if Read’s first instincts were not the right ones.4 With a bit more time, a good relationship between England and the American states would have developed. So perhaps might we, instead of Australia and Canada, have developed the model of parliamentary federation, a model that would have evolved with society with far greater facility than the rigid institutions crafted at the end of the 18th century.

1. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with contradictions. In fact, I often like to say that the very definition of being an intellectual is having the ability to hold contradictory thoughts in one’s head.

2. And, along with Jefferson, a great fruit experimenter (as also discussed in the F&V “Mission” statement).

3. Which is not to say that I share Gramsci’s puzzlement that Marx’s expected communist revolution did not materialize in the advanced Western countries, or his wish that it would. Please refer to the previous note about intellectuals and contradictory ideas.

4. While I quite like the first part of Yglesias’s post (and its parallels to my ancestor Read’s initial position), the second gets a bit ridiculous. I tend to think that the thoughtful response posted at 7:44 (3 July) by frogmar is a much better piece of alternative (counter-factual) history.

0 thoughts on “Two hundred and thirty years: From ‘revolutionary’ hope to institutional backwardness

  1. I doubt the British would have moved so calmly and quickly to concede responsible government to their remaining colonies if the the US had not proved that Britain had no choice. In Ireland, where the population ratio and short distance made it possible, the British held on hard as long as they could.


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