No one can know for sure how the country’s Founders would advise the delegates to this week’s Republican National Convention, but it seems likely that they would have little patience with the common claim that it would be unethical to disregard the wishes of primary voters if the delegates were convinced that the people’s preference was ill advised. In general, the framers of the Constitution expected that occasions would arise when it was necessary for elected officials to stand against their constituents; indeed, the willingness to do so was a litmus test of genuine virtue. Here are just a couple of example of such belief, drawn from the contemporary commentary on the Constitution called the Federalist Papers, a series of 85 essays penned in 1787-1788 by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay:
From James Madison, Federalist no. 63:
” As the cool and deliberate sense of the community ought, in all governments, and actually will, in all free governments, ultimately prevail over the views of its rulers; so there are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn. In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career and to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind?”
From Alexander Hamilton, Federalist no. 71:
“It is a just observation that the people commonly intend the PUBLIC GOOD. This often applies to their very errors. But their good sense would despise the adulator who should pretend that they always reason right about the means of promoting it. . . . When occasions present themselves in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations, it is the duty of the persons whom they have appointed to be the guardians of those interests to withstand the temporary delusion in order to give them time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection.”
Neither Madison nor Hamilton was writing with a party nominating convention in mind, of course, but the underlying principle that animated their observations seems pertinent to this week’s doings in Cleveland. When a public official is convinced that a popular preference would be disastrous for the nation, there is nothing noble or admirable about yielding to that preference in the name of “duty,” and the GOP shouldn’t have to invent a “conscience clause” to make that apparent.