Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

April 26, 2007

Were the Federalists Really Lying?

by tarran

Lew Rockwell has an interesting essay in the American Conservative:

Maybe the authors of the Federalist Papers were liars. Maybe they were just engaged in political propaganda in order to shove through the Constitution. In secret, perhaps, they were plotting a Leviathan state with a president who can do all that the Bush administration claims he can, which pretty much amounts to whatever Bush wants to do.

If that was the case, they knew better than to advertise it. The Constitution would never have passed. Fear of a powerful president was one of the main reasons that people were fearful of abandoning the Articles of Confederation, which had no executive to speak of.

In any case, this book by Yoo dismisses the whole of what Hamilton says in Federalist 69 as “rhetorical excess.” And an article in the Boston Globe quotes him as saying that “Fed 69 should not be read for more than what it is worth.” Why? Because all presidents since FDR have used the imaginary war power to do their dirty tricks.

This is an interesting argument. It says that because some tyrants have violated the Constitution, all presidents should presume the right to be tyrants in the manner in which the Constitution’s framers tried to guard against. Now if some intellectuals set out to say that the Constitution is really just a myth, that our past doesn’t matter, that the founders’ intentions are irrelevant, that the rule of law is and should be a dead letter, that would be one thing. We would be back to the fundamental debate of liberty versus despotism.

what if the authors of the Federalist Papers were liars? This is not as crazy a theory as it might sound. Patrick Henry believed that they were, which is why he opposed the Constitution to begin with. It was too much of a risk, he said, to create any sort of president: “If your American chief be a man of ambition and abilities, how easy is it for him to render himself absolute!”

Patrick Henry lost the debate because enough people believed that Hamilton was sincere in his promises and that the president would be restrained. So let us be clear about what the advocates of executive rule are really saying. They are saying things that if they had been said to that founding generation of Americans would have prevented the Constitution from ever being passed. But it did pass. So until we can restore the Articles, let’s live up to the Constitution, and stop the dissembling, especially in the name of “conservatism.”

Worth reading in its entirety.

This matter goes to the heart of a fundamental debate that I really wish would become the centerpiece of the next election cycle. The Bush administration’s doctrine seems to be based on the old Roman model of the Dictator. In times of crisis, the senate would appoint a dictator who would run the state until the crisis was passed. he could seize goods, order armies about, issue or suspend laws, etc. The dictator was expected to relinquish power once the crisis was past, and his term was initially limited to a mere 6 months.

Practically speaking, this system did not work out so well. As the Roman Republic politically disintegrated the office was increasingly abused. After repeatedly appointing Julius Caesar as dictator, eventually the Senate appointed him dictator for life. This marked the last breath of the Roman Republic, and the birth of the Roman Empire.

It is tempting in times of crisis to embrace a strongman, a man who will have the vision and power to right wrongs and defend the community for internal or external attack. Given the power to violently expropriate goods with impunity, to force the members of the community to labor according to his will, only the strong-man’s conscience and wisdom restrain him from harming those in his power. If he is both wise and has a strong aversion to hurting people, the community can survive such a man. If, on the other hand he is unwise, or bloodthirsty, or simply uncaring he can destroy not only the society but kill thousands or millions of people.

Today, the dominant political arguments seem focused on what decrees a strong leader should make to solve the crises of the world. All to often the necessary debates to whether a strong leader is even necessary are so muted, that most people are not even aware of their existence.

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  • http://unrepentantindividual.com/ Brad Warbiany

    I would note that the Roman model appears to be exactly what Venezuela has been doing.

  • http://www.thelibertypapers.org Stephen Littau

    I doubt the Federalists were lying when setting up this system of government. Jefferson once said that the natural course is for freedom to yield over time. No matter how good or well intentioned the system of government, liberty always yeilds to tyranny eventually.

  • http://thedailyburkeman1.blogspot.com/ Charles Bowen

    Maybe they were just engaged in political propaganda in order to shove through the Constitution.

    I happen to side with Nock’s theme of “the Constitution as Coup d’etat against the Articles of Confederation”, but I also realize Mr.Rockwell knows that this is a hot topic of debate in ancap-libertarian and other circles.

    They planned and executed a coup d’etat, simply tossing the Articles of Confederation into the wastebasket, and drafting a constitution de novo.. Nock

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