Tag Archives: Constitution



The electoral college is in the news again, thanks to the outcome of the recent presidential race.  The latest count–now that the final tally is in from Michigan–shows Trump winning the electoral college handily, 306-232, while losing the popular vote by more than two million ballots, or about 1.7 percentage points.  President-elect Trump thus joins a short list of individuals to win the presidency while losing the popular vote–the others being John Quincy Adams (1824), Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), and George W. Bush (2000).

Predictably, Republicans have rediscovered a deep appreciation of the Founding Fathers for instituting such a wise mechanism for selecting the chief executive.  Most notably, Donald Trump–who as late as 2012 declared the electoral college a “disaster for democracy–now thinks it a “genius” system.  Democrats, for their part, are incensed that the popular will has been thwarted and respond in one of two ways.  Some, like Nancy Pelosi, are calling for a constitutional amendment to abolish the institution entirely.  Others are encouraging electors to disregard the vote of their states and cast their ballots for the candidate who actually won the popular vote.

Clearly, partisan self-interest is driving supposed principles on both sides, and most Americans will recognize that and respond in kind, i.e., according to their partisan leanings.  This is unfortunate, because the problems with the electoral college are real, and need to addressed.  Partisan convictions will insure that this never happens, however.  According to the Constitution, the electoral college cannot be eliminated without a constitutional amendment, and that would require, not only that two-thirds of both houses of Congress agree to a proposed amendment, but also that three-quarters of the states then go on to ratify the proposed change.  In sum, there is absolutely no way to eliminate the electoral college without sustained and extensive bipartisan support, which is another way of saying that it ain’t happening any time soon.

So for now, all we can do is point out that the electoral college doesn’t remotely function as it was intended to by the Framers of the Constitution, and that neither the defenders or the critics of the institution are interested in seeing that happen.

Precious few of the delegates to the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention of 1787 were eager to see the executive of the new government chosen by the direct election of the people.  There were a few lone voices for this alternative, but most deemed it either unwise or unfeasible.  Whatever they thought about the intellectual faculties of the common man, few believed that the rank and file of Americans would have enough knowledge of national affairs and distant statesmen to choose wisely.

Most of the delegates favored one of two alternatives to direct election.  One camp advocated that the president be chosen by the state legislatures.  The other proposed that he be elected by Congress, much like the prime minister in the British parliamentary system.  The electoral college was a compromise between these options in that the state legislatures were to chose electors who would vote for president, and then when no candidate received a majority of the electoral votes–as the Framers fully expected to be the norm once George Washington had left the scene–the House of Representatives would make the final decision in a run-off.  The result was that, in a “normal” election year, both the state legislatures and the Congress would play a role in the election of the president.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

But what role would the people play?  The best explanation of how the Framers would have answered this question comes from the pen of Alexander Hamilton.  During the debate over ratification in 1787-1788, Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay penned a series of eighty-five essays in support of the Constitution that became known as the Federalist Papers.  In Federalist no. 68, Hamilton offered the fullest discussion of the way that the electoral college would function and the part that popular opinion would play in regard to it.

In explaining the structure of the electoral college, Hamilton began by observing that the Framers thought it desirable “that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided.”  He then went on immediately to describe the electoral college as a body of individuals who were to apply “a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice.”

In an editorial in this morning’s Washington Post, Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig quotes Hamilton’s statements as grounds for three conclusions: 1) Barring extraordinary circumstances, the Framers intended that the popular preference should determine the choice of the president.  2) They intended the electoral college to serve as a “safety valve on the people’s choice” that would either affirm or (on rare occasions) overturn the decision of the voters.  3) Given that Hillary Clinton is clearly qualified to serve as president, there is no good reason for electors to overturn the people’s choice.  Ergo (I imagine that’s what they say at Harvard), the electoral college would be acting consistently with the intentions of the Constitution’s Framers by electing Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.

Needless to say, Lessig is a Democrat.  (He actually briefly sought the Democratic nomination for president last fall.)  I don’t take issue with his editorial on partisan grounds, however, but on historical ones.  Lessig’s training is in economics and philosophy, not history, and so he may actually believe that his interpretation of Federalist no. 68 is accurate.  It’s not.  Whether intentionally or accidentally, he grossly misrepresents what Hamilton was arguing.

When Hamilton observed that the Framers believed that “the sense of the people should operate in the choice” of the president, he did not have a direct election in mind.  Read in context, it is clear that, to Hamilton’s mind, the public’s role was to have a voice in the selection of electors.  That role might be very indirect.  The Constitution does not specify how the states are to choose electors, and in the early years of the republic the vast majority were simply appointed by the state legislatures.  This means that, to the degree that the average voter had a voice in the selection of electors, it was by voting for candidates to the state legislature, who would at a later time appoint electors.

It is hardly the case that the Framers then charged the electoral college with the job of quality control, overturning the people’s choice when the masses had chosen poorly.  Rather, there was no expectation that the electors would pay any attention to the popular vote for the presidency, or even that there would be a popular vote for president.  Although states gradually began to institute popular elections for the president, this was not immediately the norm, and we do not even have a recorded popular vote for president for the first nine presidential elections in American history.

It is important to remember that the Framers of the Constitution did not anticipate the rise of formal political parties (and would have been distressed by the prospect).  The “sense of the people” was not to be registered by voters supporting state legislators of one political party over its rival, nor were electors to be chosen because of their public identification with one party or its opposite.  The people’s role was simply to choose electors (or state legislators, who would choose electors) who were known for wisdom and integrity.  The electoral college that resulted would not refer to the popular vote at all.  Instead, Hamilton explained, it was hoped that they would “possess the information and discernment requisite” to selecting the next president.

Lessig’s contention that the Framers would have wanted the electoral college to be guided in any way by the people’s choice shows a basic misunderstanding of the historical context.  He is right, however, that the Framers wanted members of the electoral college to be “citizens exercising judgment, not cogs turning a wheel.”  On those grounds, it would be entirely in keeping with the values of the Framers of the Constitution if electors from red states cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton on the grounds that Donald Trump lacks the experience, the temperament, the discernment, and the integrity that the office of president demands.

The majority of Americans, would see Clinton’s election by this means as illegitimate, however.  Americans in 2016 share few values in common with the Framers of the Constitution we claim to revere.  Generally, the Framers held to a world view that scholars term “republican” (no relation to the Republican Party): they held a skeptical view of human nature and maintained that the proper function of government office holders was to rule virtuously on behalf of the people’s welfare but not necessarily constrained by the people’s preferences in every matter.  For nearly two centuries, Americans have ascribed to a democratic worldview that rests on a positive view of humans as morally good and insists that the role of elected officials is to serve as a mouthpiece for majority preferences.

Not all of us will celebrate this repudiation of the values of the Framers.  I certainly don’t.  But this doesn’t change the fundamental reality: the electoral college doesn’t belong in our world.  It originated from a set of assumptions that the majority of Americans no longer affirm, and many would now roundly denounce.  It survives because of the difficulty of convincing both major parties, simultaneously, that neither stands to gain from its anachronistic presence.




It is understandable for American Christians to be curious about Christianity’s influence on the founding of the United States and its framework of government, but all kinds of historical snares await us when we explore the question.  Even with the best of intentions, we will be tempted, subconsciously at least, to distort what we see in order to find what we are looking for.  Like human beings generally, we naturally want to harmonize the various facets of our identity, in this case, to think of our loyalty to Christ as reconcilable with the other attachments that are important to us.  For many American Christians, to be specific, this has translated into the insistence that the United States be viewed as a Christian nation built on Christian principles embodied in fundamentally Christian founding documents.

When it comes to the Constitution, a common strategy has been to insist that the overwhelming preponderance of the Framers were Bible-believing Christians and that they actively sought divine guidance as they deliberated about the form that the new government should take.  With this end in mind, numerous well-meaning Christian writers have been quick to re-tell the story of Benjamin Franklin’s plea for prayer in the midst of the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention of 1787.

MetaxasIn his just-released book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, Eric Metaxas becomes the latest in a long line of amateur Christian historians unable to resist its allure.  In a chapter titled “The Almost Chosen People,” Metaxas makes the story the centerpiece of his argument that the United States has a unique, divinely ordained mission to the world.  The anecdote, Metaxas tells us, reflects the belief among “many of our founders . . . that they were being guided by an unseen hand” and that their success at Philadelphia was nothing less than a divine miracle.

If you don’t know the story, here is the gist of it:

It was the summer of 1787, and 55 men had gathered behind closed doors in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to try to create a new framework of government that might deliver the infant United States from a morass of difficulties: governmental impotence, contemptible military weakness, commercial anarchy, and financial disarray.  Their quest “to form a more perfect union” was in jeopardy, however, as the clashing interests of northern and southern states and of large and small states were repeatedly thwarting efforts at compromise.

On June 28th, according to the detailed notes of the convention kept by Virginia delegate James Madison, Philadelphia’s own Benjamin Franklin rose late in the afternoon to address the contentious gathering.  The 81-year-old scientist, statesman, writer, printer, inventor, and businessman acknowledged that the convention had reached an impasse, “groping as it were in the dark to find political truth.”

Benjamin Franklin circa 1778

Benjamin Franklin circa 1778

“How has it happened,” Franklin asked, “that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings? . . . I have lived a long time,” the convention’s oldest delegate shared, “and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth–that God governs in the affairs of men.  And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can fall without his aid?”  Franklin went on to make a motion that, from that point forward, each day’s proceedings begin with prayer led by some local clergyman.

Let me interrupt the story a moment for a comment: There is incontrovertible evidence that this happened.  It is not the invention of Tim LaHaye or Gary LeMar or David Barton or any other “Christian America” propagandist.  We not only have Madison’s meticulous notes to corroborate it, but also evidence from Franklin himself.  The aged patriot spoke rarely during the convention’s four long months, and knowing that he wanted to address the assembly on June 28th, he apparently wrote out the substance of what he wanted to say in advance, and the text, in Franklin’s own hand, survives to this day.  This was an extraordinary moment that is also extraordinarily well documented.

But the story didn’t end with Franklin’s brief speech, and this is where we start getting into trouble.  In the mid-1820s—nearly four decades later—a legend began to form that Franklin’s proposal was met with near universal approval.  Soon Americans were reading that, with but one dissenting vote, the delegates immediately embraced Franklin’s proposal and voted to take a three-day recess.  For seventy-two hours they devoted themselves to prayer and fasting, and when they returned to their labors they discovered that all wrangling had ceased.  Thanks to a new spirit of compromise and selflessness, the logjam was broken and the delegates readily crafted the remarkable document that forms the foundation of our political system to this day.

Historians who have meticulously traced the origins of this part of the story attribute it to a man named William Steele, who in 1825 claimed in a newspaper article that he had heard the story ten years earlier in conversation with one of the lesser-known delegates to the convention, a politician from New Jersey named Jonathan Drayton.  In other words, the story comes indirectly from a supposed eyewitness who waited nearly three decades to relate his experience to someone who waited another decade to write down what he was told.

By the time Steele got around to circulating the story, Drayton had died, along with almost all of the other delegates to the Constitutional Convention–but not James Madison.  When approached by a Methodist minister who was writing a history of the convention, Madison categorically denied that the delegates had adopted Franklin’s recommendation.  Madison’s notes of the convention (not published until after his death), make clear that the proposal was rejected.  After several delegates raised objections on a variety of grounds (they didn’t want to appear desperate, they lacked the funds to pay a clergyman), the convention tabled the measure and adjourned for the day.  On the 29th they didn’t pray and fast but resumed their deliberations as usual.  They never subsequently hired a chaplain.  They never subsequently began any of their proceedings with prayer.  And Franklin, who had written out his recommendation in advance, tersely acknowledged the defeat of his proposal on the manuscript before setting it aside.  At the bottom of the document, you can still read Franklin’s summary: “The Convention, except three or four persons, thought Prayers unnecessary.”

You wouldn’t know this from reading If You Can Keep It, however.  Metaxas reprints Franklin’s speech in its entirety, and then without sharing anything about the delegates’ actual response, he breezily notes that, “As we know, in the end all impasses were broken, compromises on all issues struck, and solutions found.”  (What is the reader supposed to infer except that Franklin’s proposal was both adopted and decisive?)  Citing no evidence, he then adds that “there was what all felt to be a truly remarkable—almost odd—willingness for each side to set aside its concerns for the good of the whole.”

What are we to make of this?  Regarding If You Can Keep It specifically, it’s hard to say.  If Eric Metaxas knows the whole story, then his truncated retelling of it must go down as intentionally deceptive, and I don’t want to think that is true.  Alternatively, he may have no idea of what actually happened and is simply relying on secondary works by other amateur historians who tell the story in the same misleading way.  (He offers neither footnotes nor a bibliography, so it is almost impossible to say.)

If the latter is true–that is, if he’s simply repeatedly a good story that he has come across without verifying it–then Metaxas is simply guilty of an offense that we’re all prone to.  The most common temptation that we face when investigating America’s Christian past is not to dishonesty but to what I would call willful gullibility–the readiness to accept uncritically what we want to be true.

All too often, popular Christian writers exploring the role of faith in the American founding write as if only secularists are susceptible to bias.  Authors like Tim LaHaye, Gary DeMar, and above all, David Barton (who reprinted the Drayton/Steele account as fact in his book The Myth of Separation) present themselves as uniquely zealous in the search for truth.  (To his credit, Metaxas does not do this.)   Perhaps the most important moral of the story is that Christians can be “revisionist historians” just like secularists can.


(To see my fuller review of If You Can Keep It, click here.  To read my analysis of the book’s faulty use of the metaphor of a “City on a Hill,” click here.)


Independence Day is almost here, so I thought I would share a few thoughts about the latest book from Eric Metaxas, just out this month: If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.  If you’re not familiar with him, Metaxas is a “cultural commentator” or public intellectual, a best-selling author, and the host of a daily radio program, “The Eric Metaxas Show.”  The book’s title comes from a (possibly apocryphal) observation from Benjamin Franklin at the conclusion of the 1787 Constitutional convention in Philadelphia.  As the story goes, an interested citizen approached the aged Franklin and inquired, “Well, doctor, what have we got?  A republic or a monarchy?”  Franklin is supposed to have answered, “A republic, madam–if you can keep it.”  Metexas builds on Franklin’s words to underscore the fragility of liberty and to make a case for how Americans might best nurture it today.  The book offers some timely reminders, but its grasp of American history is weak, and the theological implications of its argument are frightening.  Read on, if you want to learn more.


The inside flap of the book jacket of If You Can Keep It describes the work as “an extraordinary book that is part history and part rousing call to arms, steeped in a critical analysis of our founding fathers’ original intentions for America.”   This is partially true.  It certainly makes a semi-historically-informed argument about what America should be in 2016 and how that might be accomplished.  And so yes, it is “part history and part rousing” exhortation to its readers.  (The “call to arms” phrase is misleading, as Metaxas consistently, and appropriately, avoids appeals to “take back America” and similar phrases borrowed from the culture wars.)  But the claim that the book offers “critical analysis” of the values and worldview of the Founders overstates the case, and by more than a little.  The book is sprinkled with valuable food for thought and more than a few important historical truths, but these are offset by egregious flaws, including both serious misunderstandings of colonial and Revolutionary America and a dangerous conflation of the nation and the Church.  In the end, I cannot recommend If You Can Keep It, although it contains elements that are worthy of our attention.

Let’s start with what is good.  Metaxas asks undeniably important questions.  (What did “America” mean at the founding?  What did the Founders believe in and hope for?  How might the promise of America be furthered by our own generation?)  He writes for a broad audience, rather than for other cultural elites.  He dares to bring a faith perspective to bear, not hesitating to acknowledge his own Christian commitments.  He values the insights of history and wants to bring the present into conversation with the past.  None of this is surprising given his previous books, most notably his popular biographies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Wilberforce.

Boiled down, Metaxas has two main points to make, and each is worth making.  First, liberty is fragile, and we must perpetually dedicate and rededicate ourselves to nurture and preserve it.  This was essentially Abraham Lincoln’s 1838 message to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, an address that I blogged about extensively at the beginning of the summer.  (See, in particular, here and here.)  The survival of American democracy is not inevitable.  We cannot take it for granted.  And should it ever collapse, we Americans will be far more responsible for that tragedy than any external foe.

Second, the Founding Fathers knew exactly what was necessary for government of the people, by the people, and for the people to survive and flourish.  (For some unknown reason, Metaxas repeatedly refers to the Founders’ “secret formula,” although the Founders were not remotely coy about what their experiment in liberty would require to succeed.)  Here Metaxas basically reiterates what Os Guinness calls the “golden triangle of freedom.”  Like a three-legged stool, it has three equally essential components.  The Founders believed that (1) freedom requires virtue, (2) virtue requires religious faith, and (3) religious faith requires freedom.  We could complicate these generalizations greatly, but the basic pattern is historically sound.  Guinness made the case well in A Free People’s Suicide (which I reviewed here) and although Metaxas does little more than restate it, I suppose you could say that we can’t hear such a crucial reminder too often.

Beyond these two important truths, Metaxas makes several suggestions that 21st-century Americans need to consider.  In one chapter, for example, he argues that societies need heroes in order to promote virtue, and he offers some interesting speculation as to why contemporary Americans tend to sneer not only at heroes but at the very idea of the heroic.  Another entire chapter focuses on the critical importance of moral leaders to any society laboring to preserve the fragile blessings of liberty.  (The relevance for the current presidential campaign goes without saying.)

Metaxas also makes a compelling case for the importance of civic ceremonies, especially at the local community level.  Perhaps reflecting his background as an English major at Yale, Metaxas also offers some intriguing suggestions about the importance of literature for building civic-mindedness, and he remembers fondly the old days when schoolchildren memorized historical odes like Longfellow’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.”  (There are echoes here of William Bennett’s Book of Virtues.)  Tying all these suggestions together is Metaxas’ belief that Americans need to fall in love again with America.  As I said, there is much food for thought here, and there would be worse ways to celebrate American independence than pondering Metaxas’ exhortations.

And yet the book’s flaws are huge.  I could go on at some length, but instead I’ll zero in on the two most glaring problems: (1) Metaxas repeatedly misrepresents the values of colonial and Revolutionary Americans which he looks to for wisdom, and (2) he consistently blurs the line between sacred and secular, conflating Christianity and democracy and confusing the role of the Church with the purported “mission” of the United States.

Let’s start with Metaxas’ understanding of colonial and Revolutionary America.  Metaxas repeatedly imputes to key figures of the 17th and 18th centuries values that were foreign to that era.  Here are two key examples:

* Metaxas insists that a commitment to religious liberty was not only nearly universal by the time of the creation of the Constitution, but that it had prevailed since the first arrival of European settlers.  “Since the Pilgrims came to our shores in 1620,” he writes, “religious freedom and religious tolerance [not the same thing, by the way] have been the single most important principle of American life.”

This is astoundingly incorrect.  The Pilgrims did not come to America “because they were being persecuted for their faith,” nor were they remotely committed to religious freedom in the colony that they established.  The laws of Plymouth Colony prescribed fines or corporal punishment for neglecting public worship, for swearing or cursing by the name of God, for “vilifying” any church ministry or ordinance, for denying “the Scriptures to be a rule of life,” and for hosting or entertaining Quakers, whose heterodox beliefs would get them banished.

Although the trend over the next century and a half would be toward ever greater religious toleration, as late as 1776 most of the thirteen colonies still had government-recognized, legally established denominations, and long after the creation of the Constitution most states barred atheists (and sometimes Jews) from holding office.  This was not hypocrisy or inconsistency on their part, but rather reflects the reality that they understood religious liberty very differently than we do.

* Second, the author also exaggerates the Founders’ commitment to democracy and faith in popular virtue.  He is right that the Founders believed that “in the wrong hands [freedom] can be positively dangerous,” but it is misleading to claim simply that “the founders knew and trusted that the citizens . . . were prepared for what they had been given.”  As James Madison noted in Federalist no. 55, republican government (i.e., government grounded in the consent of the governed) intrinsically presupposes a greater confidence in the people than monarchy does, but the Founders’ understanding of human nature is best described as skeptical: hoping for the best, but keenly aware of humans’ fallenness and foibles.  The Constitution’s framers went to great lengths to limit the popular influence of the governed, and then they instituted elaborate checks and balances to mitigate the abuse of power by the government itself.

In addition to misrepresenting the world of colonial and Revolutionary America, Metaxas also dangerously conflates the role of the church and the mission of the state, effectively describing the United States in near messianic terms.  The pattern emerges in the book’s earliest pages, when Metaxas badly misreads Massachusetts Bay governor John Winthrop’s famous exhortation in his 1630 sermon “A Model of Christian Charity.”

I have noted before that Winthrop’s statement to his congregation that “we shall be as a city on a hill” is one of the most misunderstood phrases in American literature, and Metaxas, like so many before him, gets it wrong.  To begin with, he alters the quote, repeatedly suggesting that Winthrop referred to his colony as “a shining city on a hill.” The adjective was added by Ronald Reagan three and a half centuries later, and it wholly changed Winthrop’s meaning.  The Massachusetts Bay governor was not declaring that the colony would be a model to the world, but rather that however it behaved—whether nobly or meanly—its success or failure could not be hidden.  What is worse, Metaxas entirely passes over the reality that Winthrop was not remotely talking about the mission of a future nation-state but about the particular Christian community that he led.

This conflation of the church and the nation characterizes the rest of the book.  In defining (and I would say, exaggerating) the cultural influence of evangelist George Whitefield, Metaxas says that Whitefield’s preaching had the effect of turning colonists into Americans.  To be an American (not a Christian, but an American), was to accept certain religious truths about one’s status in God’s eyes.  As Metaxas concludes in summing up Whitefield’s significance, “the Gospel of Christ . . . created an American people.”  Strange, I somehow thought that Jesus promised to build his Church on that foundation, but I guess he meant the United States.

Although Metaxas focuses on the colonial and Revolutionary eras, he does allow Abraham Lincoln to join the conversation as well.  As it turns out, Lincoln agreed with John Winthrop that the United States has a “holy calling” to be an example to the world.  Minimally encumbered by evidence, Metaxas notes that Lincoln understood that “America had been called by God,” and that “to be chosen by God—as the Jews had been chosen by God, . . . and as the messiah had been chosen by God,” was a “profound and sacred and even terrifying obligation.”  I’m not sure which is scarier: the analogy of the United States to Israel—God’s new chosen people—or the analogy of the United States to Christ.

The latter reminds me of a trenchant observation in Hugh Heclo’s fine book Christianity and American Democracy:  “If America is the redeemer of nations and time, then America is the Christ of history,” Heclo writes.  “This notion may be inadvertent, but it is blasphemy all the same.”


“Think of your forefathers!  Think of your posterity!”–John Quincy Adams


One of my goals for this summer is to work through the eight volumes of the papers of Abraham Lincoln.  I recently finished the first volume, which covers Lincoln’s life to 1848, and I’m taking vol. 2 with me when I head out momentarily on a road trip to see my dad down in Tennessee.

Volume 1 was a bit tedious.  A fair amount reflects Lincoln’s early law practice, so much of it involves correspondence with clients over small-potatoes legal cases–suits for unpaid debts and disputed property boundaries, etc.  But you can already see glimpses of Lincoln’s political values and his political world, and this part is fascinating.

Sam Wineburg (author of one of my favorite books of all time, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts), says that our forays into the past always involve encounters with both the familiar and the strange, and that certainly applies here.  Two of the themes of these early papers are partisanship and patronage.  Lincoln was fiercely loyal to the Whig Party during the 1830s and 1840s, and he repeatedly criticized those who would claim to support the party without submitting to party decisions.  The latter part of the volume covers most of Lincoln’s lone term to the U. S. House of Representatives, and much of his writing during that period pertains to political appointments–responses to office-seekers appealing for his aid or letters of recommendation on their behalf.  This sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

The earliest known picture of Lincoln, taken around the time of his election to Congress in 1846.

The earliest known picture of Lincoln, taken around the time of his election to Congress in 1846.

But there is also much that feels strange–passages that remind us that we wouldn’t feel at home in Lincoln’s world, nor would he be entirely comfortable in ours.  His speeches were far longer, far more complicated, and far more substantive than the sound bites and slogans we take for granted today.  His arguments for transportation projects and protective tariffs were more than appeals to self-interest, but rather detailed rationales designed for thinking audiences.

General Zachary Taylor

General Zachary Taylor

I was also struck by Lincoln’s defense of the Whig presidential candidate in 1848, General Zachary Taylor.  Taylor had emerged from the Mexican War as a national hero, but he had no political experience to speak of, and during the campaign he had written a widely circulated letter in which he basically agreed to support any legislative measures that both houses of Congress might approve during his administration.  When Democrats cried that Taylor had no principles, Lincoln rose to defend him in a speech before the House.  Hear what Lincoln had to say:

Now this is the whole matter.  In substance, it is this: The people say to Gen. Taylor: “If you are elected, shall we have a national bank?”  He answers, “Your will gentlemen, not mine.”  “What about the Tariff?”  “Say yourselves.”  “Shall our rivers and harbors be improved?”  “Just as you please.”  “If you desire a bank, an alteration of the tariff, internal improvements, any, or all, I will not hinder you; if you do not desire them, I will not attempt to force them on you.  Send up your members of congress from the various districts, with opinions according to your own; and if they are for these measures, or any of them, I shall have nothing to oppose; if they are not for them, I shall not, by any appliances whatever, attempt to dragoon them into their adoption.”

How would we respond to a presidential candidate today who took such a position?  My guess is that we would be suspicious, if not appalled.  But why is that?  What does this say about us and the political system we take for granted?  The framers of the Constitution did not expect the president of the United States to be, by definition, the leader of a political party (they opposed political parties generally), and in the system of checks and balances that they constructed, they envisioned that the role of the president would be not to make law but to execute it.

In sum, while the founders hoped that the electoral college would select individuals of wisdom and integrity to fill the president’s chair, they never dreamed that the nation would someday expect candidates to fashion elaborate policy proposals or make innumerable pledges of what they (seemingly alone) will accomplish immediately upon taking office. We look to the president to be our political savior.  The founders’ understanding of the office was rather more modest.


“Think of your forefathers!  Think of your posterity!”–John Quincy Adams


” To judge from the conduct of the opposite parties, we shall be led to conclude that they will mutually hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations and by the bitterness of their invectives.”

I’ve been thinking about these words from Alexander Hamilton quite a lot this election season.  He was referring to the angry debate over the newly proposed Constitution, but in many ways his description of the political climate in 1787 sounds a lot  like 2016.  Indeed, the quote above, originally published in a New York newspaper over the pseudonym “Publius,” could come straight out of the op-ed section of one of today’s newspapers, except for the fact that columnists can’t use words like “declamation” and “invective” any more and hope to be understood.

In the same essay (which we now remember as Federalist #1), Hamilton went on to sound a word of warning that I also keep thinking about during this bizarre presidential campaign:

. . . a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government.  History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.”

Your thoughts?


“Think of your forefathers!  Think of your posterity!”—John Quincy Adams


I have a hard time taking seriously Democratic appeals to the Constitution as they insist that Senate Republicans act promptly on President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.  Most Democrats long ago embraced a role for the Court that the Framers of the Constitution could have scarcely imagined.  It seems more than a little opportunistic to rediscover the authority of original intent now that it suits their purposes.  As I noted in a previous post, the Founders described the judicial branch in terms of its essential “feebleness.”  The Court could never be a threat to the rights of the people, Alexander Hamilton insisted in Federalist no. 78, because under the Constitution the Court possessed “neither FORCE nor WILL but merely judgment.”  The Framers would be stunned to see the power that the Court wields today.

And yet they would be equally mystified by Republicans who insist that public opinion should play an important role in shaping the composition of the Court.  In arguing to postpone consideration of Obama nominee Merrick Garland, for example, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell observes that “of course the American people should have a say in the Court’s direction.”  That subterranean rumbling you may have noticed afterward came from the Founders collectively turning over in their graves.

The Framers’ vision for the proper place of public opinion in a free government is easy to caricature because it is complicated.  In their reading of human nature, it was just as fallacious to assume “universal venality” (i.e., moral corruption) as to assume “universal rectitude,” to use Hamilton’s terminology.  They believed that there was enough “honor and virtue among mankind” to justify an experiment in republican government grounded in the consent of the governed.  But they also knew that there was enough “folly and wickedness” in human nature to make such a government perpetually susceptible to tyranny and injustice.  And so they sought to ensure a degree of popular involvement in the new government while protecting it from undue popular pressure.

Remember how federal officeholders were originally to be selected: Only members of the House of Representatives would owe their appointment to the direct election of the people.  According to James Madison in Federalist no. 52, this meant that the House, unique among the components of the new government, would have “an immediate dependence on, and an intimate sympathy with, the people.”  But even then, “the people” who would so influence the Representatives comprised a severely truncated shell of today’s electorate.  The Framers did not specify who should be eligible to vote, except to stipulate that the states should apply the same criteria for federal elections as they did for the houses of representatives in their own state legislatures.  Based on state voting laws as they currently existed, the Framers could expect that members of the U. S. House of Representatives would be chosen by the votes of adult white male landowners.  (Depending on the state, the property requirement for voting regularly disqualified from one-third to two-thirds of adult white males.)

So much for the government’s “popular branch.”  The members of the more august Senate would be selected, not by the people directly, but by the state legislatures. To buffer the Senate further against popular pressures, only one-third of Senate seats would be open in any given election year.  These features would make the Senate less susceptible to “the impulse of sudden and violent passions,” as Madison put it.  More removed from “the people,” the upper chamber would function as an “anchor against popular fluctuations.”  “I shall not scruple to add,” Madison further noted, that the Senate “may be sometimes necessary as a defense to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions.”

Less “popular” still would be the executive under the new Constitution.  We sometimes forget that the Articles of Confederation didn’t include an executive branch at all, and so the Constitution’s framers were in uncharted territory as they sought to define the role of a “president” of the United States.  Andrew Jackson would later redefine the office of president as the most uniquely democratic element of the federal government.  This was true, he contended, because the president alone among all federal officeholders was chosen by the entire country.

But Jackson, keep in mind, made a practice of inverting the vision of the Framers while claiming to uphold it.  In reality, the Framers went to great lengths to isolate the executive from popular pressure.  They anticipated that, in most election years, the president would actually be chosen in a run-off in the House of Representatives where each state delegation would cast one vote.  The congressmen would be choosing from among the five individuals who had received the most votes by “electors” from each state.  (These are the members of our so-called electoral college.  The Constitution does nothing to tie the selection of electors to the vote of the people, but leaves the manner of choosing them to each state legislature.  For the next generation, at least, upwards of two-thirds were appointed by the state legislatures, not elected by “the people.”)

By protecting the executive from direct popular pressures, the Framers hoped that the executive would be able to perform his duties more effectively, always sensitive to the public welfare but never captive to the passions of the people.  Alexander Hamilton developed the point at length in Federalist no. 71:

There are some who would be inclined to regard the servile pliancy of the executive to a prevailing current, either in the community or in the legislature, as its best recommendation.  But such men entertain very crude notions, as well of the purposes for which government was instituted, as of the true means by which the public happiness may be promoted.  The republican principle demands that the deliberate sense of the community should govern the conduct of those to whom they entrust the management of their affairs; but it does not require an unqualified complaisance to every sudden breeze of passion, or to every transient impulse which the people may receive.

Which brings us to the judicial branch.  According to Mitch McConnell, it’s self-evident that “the American people should have a say in the Court’s direction.”  He may be right.  Given the inordinate power that the Court wields today, he probably is right.  I would just like to hear this prominent conservative leader tell his constituents that none of the Framers whom he claims to venerate would agree with him.

Just think for a minute about how the Framers of the Constitution expected the members of the Supreme Court to be chosen: Supreme Court justices were to be appointed for life by the president of the United States, who in turn was to be elected by the House of Representatives, who would choose the president from a group of finalists identified by electors, who in turn were appointed by the state legislatures, who for their part were elected by adult, white, male, property-holding voters.  Whatever you or I or Mitch McConnell may think, the Framers certainly didn’t believe that “the people” should “have a say in the Court’s direction.”

So what do we do with this information? I’m far from suggesting that we simply ask WWFD—What Would the Founders Do?—and then go and do likewise.  Figures from the past have no authority over us, and figuring out what the Founders would think about contemporary politics settles nothing.  But following John Quincy Adams, I think there’s more than a little wisdom in situating our contemporary debates within the larger conversations across time of which they are but a part.  While we shouldn’t be slavishly submissive to the values of the Framers, neither should we be cavalierly dismissive.  In Christian terms, the former is idolatry, the latter is arrogance.  We avoid both these extremes when we assess their views critically but respectfully, grappling with them as we seek to clarify and justify our own positions.

The Framers’ determination to shield federal officeholders from undue popular pressure stemmed logically from a skeptical view of human nature that few twenty-first century Americans share.  Nearly two centuries have passed since Alexis de Tocqueville noted wryly that the American people “live in the perpetual utterance of self-applause.”  Most Americans—including most American Christians—now reflexively view human nature as essentially good and the wishes of the majority as essentially just.  It might not be a bad thing if we reevaluated that popular prejudice in the light of Scripture.

But whatever your view of human nature, we might at least concede that there is a consistency and symmetry in the Framers’ efforts to shield the judiciary from popular opinion.  In Federalist no. 52, James Madison explained the overall structure of the proposed government with reference to the maxim that “the greater the power is, the shorter ought to be its duration.”  Because the House of Representatives would be Constitutionally charged with the responsibility of initiating all revenue measures, it was right and proper that representatives have the shortest terms of office and be most immediately responsive to “the people.”  Terms of office would increase in length as the power of the office declined.  Congressmen would serve for two years, presidents for four, senators for six . . . and Supreme Court justices for life.

That the Framers would allow such dramatically longer terms for Supreme Court justices makes sense only in light of their belief that the Court would exercise dramatically less influence on the life of the nation than it now does.  If Mitch McConnell is right, and we now need to disregard the Framers’ goal of protecting the Court from public opinion, he is right because we have long since abandoned the Framers’ vision of a “feeble” judiciary with “neither FORCE nor WILL but merely judgment.”


There were two department stores in the small southern town where I grew up.  My grandmother preferred Woolworth’s, on the town square across from the courthouse, while my mom always shopped at K-Mart, right next to the A&P on the highway heading out of town.  This time of year I despised them both equally.  You couldn’t enter either without being accosted by signs announcing “Back to School” sales, usually accompanied by cardboard cut-outs of yellow school buses or of school-age children inexplicably delighted by new no. 2 pencils and a spiral notebook.  Such signs always made me angry.  Like death-row convicts, we kids already knew that our time was running short, and it just seemed cruel to rub our noses in it.

It’s forty-five years later and I still feel that way when the 1st of August comes around.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love teaching at Wheaton and feel unbelievably privileged and blessed to work here.  And yet . . .  I just spent the morning on my favorite bench out at Lake Ellyn Park reading about American history.  The temperature was in the mid-70s, there was an occasional breeze through the trees, the sun felt good on my back, and I didn’t want it to end, ever.

I still hope to squeeze in a few more books before the summer ends, and thinking that you might be looking for something to read as well, I thought I would make a few recommendations.  Last month I shared my suggestions on works related to faith and the American founding, and because I have been blogging recently on Christianity and the Constitution, I thought I would suggest a few books that I have found helpful in thinking about the creation of the Constitution.  Not all of the authors mentioned below are Christian or especially concerned with the relation of Christianity to the Constitution, but each has valuable insight to offer.

If you’re game for some eighteenth-century prose, I would recommend that you start with the Federalist Papers, a source that I alluded to in my last post.  These originated as a series of essays written primarily by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in 1787-1788.  Published serially in New York newspapers, they were written intentionally to sway public opinion in favor of ratification.  They are hardly unbiased, but the authors appealed to the reason of their readers more than their emotions and produced a body of reasoned commentary that today still stands among the most important political writings in American history.  (Supreme Court justices have cited the papers over three hundred times in their rulings.)  If this is a bit ambitious, consider at least reading essay no. 10 (“arguably the most famous writing in the field of American political science”), or no. 51, my personal favorite.  It is no. 51 that contains Madison’s haunting rhetorical question–“What is human nature itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?”–followed by his trenchant observation, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

Having recommended the Federalist Papers, I would recommend also a modern work about those essays: Liberty’s Blueprint: How Madison and Hamilton Wrote the Federalist Papers, Defined the Constitution, and Made Democracy Safe for the World (2008), by Michael Meyerson.  Meyerson is Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore.  The author provides much of the back story of the Federalist, exploring the relationship between Hamilton and Madison (allies in 1788, they would soon become bitter enemies), the ideas that shaped their thinking, and the arguments that they articulated with such effect.

Countless books have been written on the Constitutional Convention itself, but I think my favorite is Richard Beeman’s Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution (2009).  Beeman is a distinguished historian of early America at the University of Pennsylvania.  Although it is a skill too lightly valued by historians these days, one of Beeman’s strengths is bringing the historical moment to life through a compelling narrative.  He is masterful at recreating the physical setting (you will learn much about the sights, sounds, and smells of late-eighteenth-Philadelphia) and adept at crafting engaging sketches of the leading characters.

As I tried to convey in my last post, nailing down the personal religious beliefs of the Framers is far more difficult than is commonly supposed, and many well-meaning popular Christian writers make dogmatic arguments on the slenderest of foundations.  The titles that I have found to be most helpful do not focus exclusively on the Constitution but speak more broadly to the religious beliefs and objectives of leading Americans from the Revolutionary Era through the end of the eighteenth century.  Two such works I have already recommended in previous posts: John Fea’s Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (2011) and Thomas Kidd’s God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (2010) both have chapters on the Constitution.  Both Fea and Kidd are wonderfully able Christian scholars.  Although its author is not a historian, I also like Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America (2008), by Steven Waldman.  A former editor at U.S. News and World Report, Waldman went on to serve for a decade as editor-in-chief of the online news service Beliefnet.

Check one of these out if you have the time.  Better yet, turn off your phone, log out of Facebook, and make the time.  Summer’s almost over.