Tag Archives: U. S. Constitution



So let’s talk some more about the Electoral College.

This is one of those rare, heady moments in the life of a U. S. historian when a decent number of Americans seem interested in the American past–in this case, the question of what the heck the Framers of the Constitution were thinking when they devised such an complicated mechanism for electing our president.

In a post week before last, I shared my opinion that “the Electoral College has no place in modern democracy.”  In making that claim, I was thinking primarily with regard to the Framers’ underlying world view.  My point was not that the Electoral College could not serve some salutary purpose in twenty-first-century America–it is possible that it has had some positive, if unintended, consequences.  Rather, my hope was to underscore that our method of electing our highest officer originated in a set of assumptions about human nature, the natural order of society, and the role of government that a large majority of Americans would now heartily reject.

As a rule, the Framers were skeptical of human nature and suspicious of democracy, which is a major reason why precious few of them supported a direct popular election of the president when the matter came up at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.  This is also why the Framers tended to think of all national office-holders–including members of the Electoral College–as “free agents” who should make decisions for the good of the people without necessarily being restrained in all cases by the will of the people.

James Madison put it this way in 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?

So, no, it would not be unconstitutional if any or all of the 538 members of the Electoral College decided to cast their ballots on December 19th for someone other than the candidate who received the most popular votes in their home states.  It would, however, be illegal for them to do so in the thirty states that currently mandate by law that electors cast their ballots for the candidate who won the state race.  (The penalties for violating such laws are minimal–typically a fine of $1,000 or less–and it should be noted further that the Constitutionality of such laws has never been tested.)  More than illegal, though, if the outcome of the election was altered thanks to “rogue” electors voting their conscience, tens of millions of Americans would view the process as fundamentally illegitimate.  It would be absolutely constitutional, arguably exactly what the Framers of the Constitution had in mind when they created the Electoral College, but illegitimate nonetheless.  That was my point.

Since I last wrote on this topic nearly two weeks ago, countless commentators have weighed in the Electoral College.  Some have called for its abolition–although as I noted last time, that is simply not going to happen any time soon.  Others have lamented the occasional instances of the Electoral College electing candidates who lost the popular vote but suggest that the danger of abolishing the Electoral College outweighs the potential benefits.  One of the weaker arguments I have seen to this effect came from William M. Daley, former Secretary of Commerce under Bill Clinton and White House Chief-of-Staff under Barack Obama (see here).   (A considerably stronger argument along these lines that came out within a week of the election was by attorney James Hulme and historian Allen Guelzo.  I don’t agree with their reasoning in several respects, but still find their argument worth considering.)

Just this week there have also been pieces highlighting creative efforts to use the Electoral College itself to change the election’s outcome.  In a piece in Tuesday’s Washington Post (“The Electoral College Should be Unfaithful“), columnist Kathleen Parker applauded efforts of the so-called “Hamilton Electors” to persuade Republican electors to join with Democratic electors in support of a Republican moderate.  More creatively, in an editorial on Monday, Michael F. Cannon of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, has floated the idea of Hillary Clinton “releasing” her 232 electors and encouraging them to support a moderate Republican such as Mitt Romney or John Kasich, in which case if as few as 38 Republican electors would join them, the Electoral College might still deny Donald Trump the presidency in lieu of a more qualified, less divisive Republican alternative.  Cannon knows that this is a long-shot, not least of which is that Donald Trump would call his supporters to the barricades, there would be legal challenges beyond imagining, and any moderate Republican willing to accept the presidency by such a process would deemed an imposter by millions of voters.

Only yesterday, John Kasich made clear that he would refuse to play such a role on the grounds that the “election is over.”  He’s almost certainly right.  But think about what he has said.  “The election is over.”  The Framers of the Constitution would have said that the election hasn’t been held yet.  It’s scheduled for December 19th.


As a historian, I thought the defining moment in last night’s third and final presidential debate came when moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News asked Donald Trump if he was prepared to accept the outcome of next month’s election should he be defeated.  “I will look at it at the time,” Trump equivocated.  “I will keep you in suspense.”  In that one brief exchange the Republican nominee turned his back on centuries of American history and proved beyond doubt his utter unfitness for the nation’s highest office.

The thirty-nine men who signed the final draft of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 did not foresee the development of permanent political parties and would have been distressed by the prospect.  In Federalist #10, James Madison famously descried the tendency to divide into factions as a “dangerous vice” that threatened free government.  Factionalism produced “instability, injustice, and confusion,” i.e., “the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.”

George Washington similarly deplored political parties and warned the nation against them before stepping down as the country’s first president.  Washington condemned “the baneful effects of the spirit of party” and described them at length for his fellow countrymen.  He warned that partisan spirit “serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, [and] kindles the animosity of one part against another.”

Yet political parties developed, nonetheless, and when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson squared off in the presidential election of 1796, the country understood that they represented two distinct political factions that had morphed into formal political parties–Adams’ Federalists and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans.  (Due to a Constitutional quirk, the victorious Adams and his defeated rival would serve as president and vice-president, respectively.)  The election of 1796 did not involve a “campaign” as we would recognize it today, however.  It mostly consisted of elite statesmen writing letters to other elite statesmen on behalf of their chosen nominee, and neither candidate openly sought support for his election, as that was then considered unseemly.

All this changed in the election of 1800.  By this time the country was badly roiled by external dangers and internal dissension.  Britain and France had been at war since 1793, and the parties differed sharply as to how the infant United States might preserve both its neutrality and its dignity in a world at war.  The pro-British Federalists had signed a humiliating treaty with the British just before Washington left office, and then the Federalist majority in Congress had begun to mobilize for a possible war with France.  Convinced that the Federalists were bent on war, the pro-French Democratic-Republicans cried foul.  Viewing their opposition on the brink of war as a threat to national security, Congressional Federalists responded by passing the Sedition Act of 1798, which effectively made criticism of the government a crime.  Refusing to back down, Democratic-Republican leaders Jefferson and James Madison declared the law illegal and urged state legislatures to “nullify” it.  At no time other than the Civil War have Americans been so bitterly and so deeply divided.


In 1800, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were opponents in one of the most bitter presidential elections in U. S. history.

The genteel, decorous, largely behind the scenes campaign of 1796 devolved into an acrimonious, ugly, public war in 1800 when Adams and Jefferson squared off a second time.  This time both parties mobilized a print campaign, enlisting partisan authors to abuse the other party in newspapers, pamphlets, circulars, and broadsides.  Democratic-Republican writers castigated the Federalists as closet monarchists and Tories in league with Britain to subvert American liberties.  They were the puppets of international financiers whose goal was to reduce the people of the United States to “rags, hunger, and wretchedness.”  At best, their economic policies were products of “imbecility and impudence.”

Federalists gave as good as they got.  Federalist writers accused Jefferson of being an atheist (false), of fathering “mulatto” children (probable), and of being an unabashed supporter of the French Revolution (undeniable).  If Jefferson was elected, they prophesied that America would suffer the “just vengeance of Heaven.”  The worst excesses of French radicalism would come to America: “dwellings in flames, hoary heads bathed in blood, female chastity violated . . . children on the pike and halberd.”  (Translation: if the other side wins, cities will burn to the ground, the aged will be murdered, women will be raped, and children will be speared.  This was hardly a golden age of civil discourse.)

In the end, the Democratic-Republicans won the election by a hair, with Jefferson claiming the victory in the electoral college by a vote of 71-68.  (Technically, Jefferson tied with running mate, Aaron Burr, but that’s another story.)  John Adams had every reason to view the outcome as illegitimate.  Schemers in his own party, most notably Alexander Hamilton, had failed to support him.  What was worse, Thomas Jefferson owed his slender electoral margin to the fact that his support came disproportionately from states with large slave populations; thanks to the Constitution’s “three-fifths” clause, those states were entitled to extra electoral votes.  Had the Founders not made this compromise with the owners of human property, Adams, not Jefferson, would have gained the victory.

Yet Adams did not contest the election formally, nor openly condemn the outcome.  And Jefferson, for his part, used his inaugural address not to castigate his opponents but to seek common ground with them.   “Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind,” he exhorted.  “Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. . . . Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”

So transpired the first transfer of power from one political party to the other in U. S. history.  It was, despite the acrimony on both sides, remarkably peaceful.  Both parties submitted to it.  Both sides respected the outcome, despite the depth of their differences and the magnitude of what was at stake.  This was not something the Framers of the Constitution in 1787 could  have predicted.  It is not something Americans in 2016 should take for granted.  It is, in fact, one of the most precious legacies we have inherited from our forebears.

Either Donald Trump doesn’t know this, or he doesn’t care.


Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

For the past three weeks I’ve been writing about the best remembered lines from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and I’d like to wrap up the series with a recommendation: I propose an immediate moratorium on the aphorism “America is great because she is good.”  Let’s banish it to the place where tired clichés go to die.  At best it’s a meaningless platitude; at worst, it muddles our thinking about democracy and makes self-righteousness sound profound.  We’re better off without it, and here are five reasons why:

(1) Let’s start with the simplest—Alexis de Tocqueville never wrote these words. (You know this by now if you’ve been following along.)  That doesn’t make the statement itself false, but it does make the quotation spurious.  That won’t stop speechwriters from using it, but the rest of us can at least cry out “Check your sources!” the next time we hear it a political rally.

(2) “America is great because she is good” isn’t only misattributed; it’s also misquoted. The problem isn’t just that somewhere along the line we mistakenly put someone else’s words into Tocqueville’s mouth. We’ve also garbled the lines that we’ve incorrectly ascribed to him.  It seems likely that the quote originated with two English Congregational ministers who visited the U.S. three years after Tocqueville did and also published their impressions.  But the reverends Andrew Reed and James Matheson predicted that “America will be great if America is good,” an assertion that’s much less congratulatory than the one we’ve grown fond of.

I can imagine what some of you are thinking about now: “Relax already!  Stop making mountains out of molehills!   So no one wrote the exact words that we remember.  Big deal.  If the gist is correct—if the underlying observation is true—isn’t that what really matters?”

Perhaps.  But what exactly does the statement “America is great because she is good” mean?  Eric Metaxas, who knows that the quote can’t be found in Democracy in America but still pronounces it “a brilliant summation” of Tocqueville’s analysis, equates it with the belief that “it was the ‘goodness’ of America’s people that made America work.”  But Tocqueville didn’t argue that at all and, with apologies to Metaxas, it is hard to see how anyone who has read Democracy in America carefully and in its entirety could think that he did.  Tocqueville certainly concluded that popular beliefs contributed significantly to the survival of American liberty, but he explicitly denied that Americans were any more virtuous than the masses in France, where liberty was languishing.  He even went so far as to doubt that virtue would ever be common in a democratic society—“self-interest properly understood,” hopefully, but not virtue.  So we’re back to square one: what does it mean to insist that “America is great because she is good”?  This bring me to reason #3:

(3) Taken at face value, the assertion is so vague as to be meaningless. It contains two critical terms that cry out for definition. What does it mean to say that “America is great?”  Do we mean that America is powerful?  Does it have something to do with the unemployment rate or the material standard of living, the nature of our trade agreements or the quality of our airports?  Does it have anything to do with justice, mercy, dignity, or respect?  Is it dependent in any way on the extent of equality or of freedom?

In like manner, what in the world do we mean when we say that “America is good”?  When the rich young ruler addressed Jesus as “good teacher,” Christ corrected him: “No one is good—except God alone” (Mark 10:18).  What exactly are we claiming when we insist that America is “good”?  Obviously, the standard of measurement is not what Jesus had in mind, but what is the standard of measurement, and who gets to decide?

These are questions that every free society should grapple with regularly—in our homes, in our schools, in our churches, and yes, in our endless presidential campaigns.  The claim that “America is great because she is good” could be a useful starting point for that national conversation, but only if we wrestle with it and push back against it.  As it commonly functions, however, “America is great because she is good” doesn’t inspire deeper thought or provoke productive conversation.  It becomes a substitute for thought that ends conversation.  We hear it, cheer, and move on.

That’s the best-case scenario.  What is far scarier is the possibility that we might take the adage seriously and come to believe it.

(4) From the perspective of orthodox Christianity, “America is great because she is good” badly muddles our thinking about democracy. For all their emphasis on the importance of virtue to the survival of the republic, the Framers of the Constitution proceeded from a skeptical view of human nature in erecting the framework of government for the new nation. “What is government itself but the greatest of all commentaries on human nature?” James Madison famously asked in Federalist #51.  “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”  Although the Framers hoped that virtuous leaders would often hold office, they by no means took that for granted.  On the contrary, they assumed that humans were predominantly self-interested (as did Tocqueville).  This meant that unlimited power was always a threat to liberty—whether it was wielded by a king, by elected representatives, or by the people directly—and they instituted a series of checks and balances into the constitutional system to curb that possibility.

The Framers’ skeptical view of human nature was a casualty of the democratic revolution that unfolded during the first half-century of American independence.  The democratic ethos that dominated the American mentality by the 1830s took for granted the unassailable moral authority of the majority.  The conviction that majority rule invariably promotes moral outcomes is nonsensical unless it rests on a positive view of human nature, an unstated assumption that men and women are, at bottom, basically good.

I fear that “America is great because she is good” reinforces this view, a view that flies in the face of orthodox Christian teaching and undermines the very foundation of the gospel and the glory of the Cross.  As Christians, we are free to give our qualified support to democracy, but we must do so for the right reasons.  In his little-remembered essay “Membership,” C. S. Lewis reminds us that the best argument for democracy is not human goodness, but human fallenness.  “There are two opposite reasons” for endorsing democracy, Lewis wrote:

You may think all men so good that they deserve a share in the government of the commonwealth, and so wise that the commonwealth needs their advice.  That is, in my opinion, the false, romantic doctrine of democracy.  On the other hand, you may believe fallen men to be so wicked that not one of them can be trusted with any irresponsible power over his fellows.  That I believe to be the true ground of democracy.

“America is great because she is good” perpetuates a false doctrine of democracy.

(5) It follows that “America is great because she is good” promotes self-congratulation rather than gratitude. As more than one commentator on this blog has observed, a close reading of Tocqueville’s analysis points more to divine grace than human virtue. In explaining the flourishing of American liberty in the 1830s, Tocqueville credited “a thousand circumstances independent of man’s will,” laws and legal practices inherited from earlier generations, and a range of moral and intellectual habits, including a hefty dose of self-interest.  In place of such complexity, the quote that we so love substitutes a simplistic formula with little room for God’s unmerited favor.  A works-based righteousness is lurking here.  For the Christian, “Lord, I thank you that I am not as other men are” is as unbecoming in politics as in any other arena of discipleship.

Thanks for reading.


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:

James Madison

James Madison

” 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:

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

“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.



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


As if things weren’t bad enough in this interminable election cycle, the recent death of Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia has added to the partisan posturing plaguing the nation.  With righteous indignation, Senate Republican leaders avow never to consider a replacement until after the coming election on the grounds that, to quote majority leader Mitch McConnell, “the American people should have a say in the Court’s direction.”  With righteous indignation, White House spokesmen present President Obama as a strict constitutionalist who is bound by his sworn oath to the law of the land to act immediately to fill the vacancy.

Let me be honest: I’m skeptical of both claims.  They strike me as equally self-interested and disingenuous.  But I’ve never wanted to make this blog overtly political, and the point of this series on the 2016 election is not to take sides but to put it in historical perspective.  Americans in 2016 are engaged in an ongoing debate about the role of government in a free society that began long before any of us arrived on the scene.  Why wouldn’t we want to learn from that conversation?  With John Quincy Adams, I think that listening to our ancestors is one of the best things we can do to serve our posterity.

Let’s start with Democratic appeals to the Constitution to arguing that President Obama was obligated to nominate a successor immediately.  It’s worth pointing out that the Constitution says almost nothing about the nomination process.  The Framers devoted a total of twenty words to the subject, and nearly half of them are and, of, by, or the.  Buried in a portion of a single sentence in Art. II, sect. 2, we read that the president “shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint . . . judges of the Supreme Court.”  Not a lot to go on there.

Imagine for a moment the following scenario: President Obama holds a press conference and announces, “Given that my party has lost control of both houses of Congress, and that Constitutionally any nomination that I might make requires the Senate’s approval, it makes sense to forego a nomination at this time and allow my successor to act.”  Would that be unconstitutional?  I don’t think so.  It might be politically irresponsible—not to mention utterly inconceivable—but it would be hard to twist it into a palpable violation of the Constitution, even if it meant postponing Scalia’s replacement an entire year.  The Constitution only requires that the legislative branch meet once a year, for goodness sake, and through the end of the nineteenth century Congress was in adjournment for nine months in every odd-numbered year, so the possibility that a seat could remain vacant for an extended period was ever present.

But my objection runs deeper than this.  Democratic appeals to the Constitution on the issue ring hollow because most Democrats long ago embraced a role for the Supreme Court that the Framers of the Constitution could have scarcely imagined.  In their essays promoting ratification, both James Madison and Alexander Hamilton insisted that the proposed Supreme Court would have the right and the responsibility to rule on the constitutionality of federal and state laws.  At the same time, however, they went out of their way to assure critics that the Court’s powers, though important, were limited.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

Of the eighty-five essays in the Federalist Papers, only six focus on the judiciary (nos. 78-83), all of them written by Hamilton.  The New Yorker wrote to refute Anti-Federalist charges that the Framers at Philadelphia had created a monster that would run rough-shod over the prerogatives of the states and the liberties of the people.  In Federalist no. 78, for example, Hamilton led with the reminder that “the judiciary is beyond comparison the weakest of the three departments of power.”  Hear how he explains “the natural feebleness of the judiciary”:

 . . . the judiciary, from the nature of its functions, will always be the least dangerous to the political rights of the Constitution; because it will be least in a capacity to annoy or injure them.  The executive not only dispenses the honors but holds the sword of the community.  The legislature not only commands the purse but prescribes the rules by which the duties and rights of every citizen are to be regulated.  The judiciary, on the contrary, has no influence over either the sword or the purse; no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society, and can take no active resolution whatever.  It may truly be said to have neither FORCE nor WILL but merely judgment.

In Federalist no. 81 Hamilton again sought to reassure his readers.  He acknowledged the popular fear that the Court would abuse its prerogatives to usurp the power of the legislature.  According to critics, the justices would be free to evaluate laws according to “the spirit of the Constitution,” rather than the strict letter of the document.  This in turn would enable the Court to mold the laws “into whatever shape it may think proper; especially as its decision will not be in any manner subject to the revision or correction of the legislative body.”

This “supposed danger . . . is in reality a phantom,” Hamilton insisted.  And why was this?  Because “there is not a syllable in the plan under consideration which directly empowers the national courts to construe the laws according to the spirit of the Constitution.”

Bottom line: In 1787 the Framers of the Constitution believed that the Supreme Court would have “neither force nor will” and that “the general liberty of the people can never be endangered from that quarter.”  Does anyone believe this in 2016?

In my next post I’ll share what the Founders would have thought of the Republican claim that “the people” should influence the make-up of the Court.


At its best, historian David Harlan tells us, history can be “a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.” The bad news is that most of us live our lives “stranded in the present,” to quote historian Margaret Bendroth.  What is worse, we like it that way.

I’ve been thinking of this a lot as our already interminable presidential campaign season proceeds.  A lot of politically active Americans claim to venerate our nation’s past, but I see almost no evidence that anyone’s listening to our ancestors.

At the end of an impassioned speech against the expansion of slavery, former president John Quincy Adams punctuated his appeal to the nation’s conscience with a fervent cry:

“Think of your forefathers! Think of your posterity!”

I love Adams’s exhortation on multiple levels.  It exposes our relentless present-mindedness and individualism and calls us to a new kind of connectedness that transcends generations as well as geography.  Adams reminds us that we live in the flow of time, part of a larger story that began before we were born and will continue long after we die.

Adams’s exhortation is also a call to humility.  There is an arrogance to present-mindedness that C. S. Lewis rightly labeled “chronological snobbery.”  By challenging us to recognize an obligation to our forefathers as well as our posterity, Adams is telling us (among other things) to open our eyes and get over ourselves.  Stop patting the past on the head and be open to the possibility that we need to learn from it instead.

Finally, I find that Adams’s words perfectly capture my understanding of the value of history: we study the past to live more wisely in the future.  And this means that we cannot begin to honor our obligation to our descendants until we learn to listen more closely to our ancestors.

In the spirit of Adams’s plea, from time to time between now and election day, I think I’ll share quotes from our past worth chewing on during this contentious political season. My goal is not to be overtly partisan, and you can make of them what you will.

Let’s start with a quote from the Federalist Papers, a series of eighty-five essays penned primarily by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in 1787 and 1788 to rally support for the newly proposed Constitution.   The Federalist Papers are not an infallible source of wisdom, but they’re one of the best windows that we have into the values of the original framers of our Constitutional system.

Alexander Hamilton sat for this portrait by John Trumbull in 1792.

Alexander Hamilton sat for this portrait by John Trumbull in 1792.

The quote below appeared in the very first number of the Federalist.  Knowing that the supporters of the Constitution faced an uphill battle, Alexander Hamilton hit the ground running.  He dashed off Federalist no. 1 within a couple of weeks of the adjournment of the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia.  The debate would be fierce, Hamilton knew,  and the stakes would be high.  The future–even the very existence–of the infant United States hung in the balance.  And precisely because the stakes were high, Hamilton knew full well that “a torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose.”  Hear then, how he cautioned his audience:

We, upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society. This circumstance, if duly attended to, would furnish a lesson of moderation to those who are ever so much persuaded of their being in the right in any controversy. And a further reason for caution, in this respect, might be drawn from the reflection that we are not always sure that those who advocate the truth are influenced by purer principles than their antagonists. Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives not more laudable than these, are apt to operate as well upon those who support as those who oppose the right side of a question.

In sum, Hamilton was conceding at the outset that there would be intelligent and honorable individuals on both sides of the coming debate.  And what is more, some on the “right side” would have dishonorable motives.  This is a far cry from business as usual in 2016, isn’t it, where presidential candidates  denounce one another as “liars” and “con artists” and train their followers to see the opposition as either malevolent or stupid.

Hamilton went on to predict that partisan firebrands would strive to prove “the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives.”  Sound familiar to anyone?

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  Over the next seven months, Hamilton and Madison wrote some 175,000 words about the proposed Constitution.  Together, they crafted a reasoned argument aimed at a reasonable audience about how to perpetuate liberty and justice under a representative form of government.  In concluding the opening essay, Hamilton laid out the approach that the authors would follow throughout:

My arguments will be open to all and may be judged of by all.  They shall at least be offered in a spirit which will not disgrace the cause of truth.

Sounds like an approach worth recapturing.


One of the reasons to study the past is to see the present more clearly.  By figuratively visiting other times and places, we become more aware of aspects of our place and time that we would otherwise take for granted.  Last night’s State of the Union address is a case in point.


When the framers of the Constitution crafted our blueprint of government in 1787, they stipulated that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the Union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient” (Art. II, sect. 3).  From this requirement the custom evolved that the executive would formally address the Congress at least once annually (perhaps in keeping with the Constitutional requirement in Art. I that the Congress “assemble at least once” annually).  For decades this address was typically called the president’s “annual message,” and now it is more commonly known as the “State of the Union Address.”

The president’s State of the Union Address (or SOTU by POTUS for those who think acronyms are cool) is now an enormously significant media event with huge political ramifications for both parties. As the nation watches (to the degree that we watch), the president and his party enjoy millions of dollars’ worth of national publicity.  The party’s leader pitches his policy proposals, while the camera pans to congressmen looking variously engaged or bored, gleeful or glum, enthusiastic or resentful.

From first to last, this is a media-driven event.  In advance of the spectacle you could tune in to any number of pre-game shows, not the least of which was sponsored by the president himself.  Virtual visitors to the White House website were first reminded that “Together, we can make change happen.”  You could then watch the SOTU “pre-show,” view video of everyday Americans as they received phone calls inviting them to sit with the First Lady in her box during the speech, and even read synopses of what the president planned to share regarding the economy, climate, health care, foreign policy and social progress.  After the hour-plus speech, a smorgasbord of talking heads told us what the president said, why he said it, and what they thought of it, while pollsters scurried to ask us (or at least a few hundred of us) if we thought what the talking heads thought we should think.

It has not always been this way.  The Constitution doesn’t require the president to give a speech to the Congress, only to give it information and make recommendations.  And for most of American history, U. S. presidents have opted to send a formal written report via messenger and skip the personal oration.  Overall, since 1789 that’s been the case for nearly two thirds of these messages–only 82 out of 226 (about 36%) have come as speeches.

Our first two presidents, Federalists George Washington and John Adams, appeared personally before Congress to satisfy their Constitutional duty.  But between 1801 and 1913, not a single U. S. president followed their example.  In 1801, Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson decided to send his message in writing to Congress on the grounds that the practice of lecturing Congress in person was undemocratic.  In England it was customary for the king to speak periodically “from on high” to the Parliament, and Jefferson–who hated public speaking anyway–insisted that a truly republican government should not be perpetuating the trappings of monarchy.

The precedent held for a long time.  Each of the next twenty presidents followed Jefferson’s lead.  Even Abraham Lincoln’s eloquent 1862 message in the midst of the Civil War–calling the North to preserve the United States as the “last best hope of earth”– was sent by a courier and read by a congressional clerk.  It was not until 1913 that Woodrow Wilson would defy what was by then a hallowed tradition and appear before Congress in person.  And when he did so, headlines in the New York Times declared “SENATORS FROWN ON WILSON’S VISIT: Reading is Compared to Speech from Throne.”

From this point, the pattern began to shift slowly but surely toward personal appearances.  In the process, what had once been a rather perfunctory summary of the work of the various executive departments gradually became a major political statement on behalf of the president and his party.  More important, the originally intended audience of the address–the U. S. Congress–was replaced by the American public.

The growing importance of radio and television was central to the latter transformation.  The first president to deliver his address to a national radio audience was, ironically, “Silent” Cal Coolidge, who belied his nickname with a 22-page long speech in 1923.  In 1947 television got into the act, broadcasting Harry Truman’s address to the fraction of American households who had invested in that dubious technology.  The TV audience grew steadily thereafter, so that by the mid-1960s Lyndon Johnson decided to shift his speech from the traditional afternoon setting to the early evening in order to garner a much larger “prime-time” audience.

Which brings us, more or less, to the highly choreographed, vacuous public spectacle that the State of the Union address has long since become.  True to form, last night’s was a relentless rhythm of presidential statement and partisan response: Democratic ovations, Republican groans, Joe Biden repeatedly rising to his feet, Paul Ryan glued to his chair.  If the Washington Post transcript of the event is accurate, President Obama was interrupted by applause seventy-one times during his fifty-nine-minute speech.

In sum, the event is now much like our quadrennial party conventions.  Photo-ops, posturing, and platitudes abound, but almost no real work gets accomplished–at least not the kind of work that the framers of the Constitution envisioned.  The only real suspense in the event came when, for a moment, it looked as if a drowsy Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was going to fall from her chair.  I could sympathize.

Does anyone else find this tedious?