The roots of the United States Constitution can be traced back to the glittering salons of Paris and the buzzing intellectual circles of England. The era, called the Age of Enlightenment, bloomed with treatises and essays that would shape the political principles of American law.
The core question concerned the character of humanity. By virtue of simply breathing was man guaranteed political rights? In that same vein, was every individual by nature good? If left alone could societies peacefully honor the rights of others, and in so doing, protect their own?
Locke and Montesquieu promoted this notion that the rights of every individual would make for a natural order. Citizens, through mutual agreement, would give authority to a central government, that in turn protected their rights. People are the source of power, government protects rights.
In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson nearly plagiarized Locke, justifying the causes for the break with Great Britain. The Sage of Monticello explained that Parliament had failed to protect colonial rights, and the colonists had a duty to establish a system that would.
Jefferson’s vision of American growth pointed toward a rural future. This interpretation meant free landholders dotting the continent, where no coercion was necessary. Government, in this scenario, dealt with foreign powers and general lawmaking.
James Madison, a protege of Jefferson, also made use of Locke, when he began the Constitution with “We The People.”
Jefferson’s political opponent, Alexander Hamilton held a starkly different view. Having come into the world without any standing, Hamilton rose in society through his own wit, and smarts. For America to gain stability Hamilton championed a strong central government with enough power to control the unruly.
In practice, by 1781, each state functioned as independent fiefdoms, loosely held together by the Articles of Confederation. Chaos thrived. The various states battled over waterways, currency, and trade. Worse, failure to levy taxes crippled the nation’s ability to function.
From Hamilton’s perspective the nation would collapse if nothing changed. In Massachusetts, for instance, western farmers stormed foreclosure hearings, demanding justice through the barrel of their guns. State tax collectors found themselves risking life and limb at the hands of angry mobs. And these violent acts were erupting everywhere, not just in New England, but throughout the fledgling nation.
What good was victory at Yorktown if America failed to get its footing? The British could bide their time and reoccupy when the country collapsed. In fact, war heroes like Ethan Allen were reaching out to the British in Canada, to protect settlers in Vermont, and land promoters in the south opened similar talks with Spanish.
A worried Hamilton, along with Madison designed a plan that became the Constitution.Their combined work essentially mounted to a rescue operation for the flailing country. With real alarm Hamilton declared to another statesman “your people, sir–your people is a great beast.”
Young Hamilton too, borrowed liberally from Enlightened philosophers.The theories of Englishman, Thomas Hobbes convinced the New Yorker that people required a strong central authority to maintain order: excesses from individuals and states a far greater threat than the British. A strong central government, with the power to tax would harness control and curb lawless behavior, because to Hamilton, the nature of man meant selfishness, and mindless brutality.
Mr Hamilton focused his energy on economic growth, encouraging industry, invention, and commerce. From credit to taxation, Hamilton understood, without a healthy foundation philosophical differences were moot.
When the Constitutional Convention finally adjourned in September, 1787, the product of their work, the US Constitution became an amalgam of both Hobbes, Locke, and other philosophers of the Enlightenment.
Upon returning from France, Jefferson flipped out a bit reading the new framework. He argued that the document was limited in scope, strictly interpreted with narrow authority. Hamilton argued for a much broader reading, insisting that ‘implied powers’ made the Constitution flexible. This difference established the first political parties: The Democratic-Republicans under Jefferson, and the Federalists under Hamilton.
Americans still find a home somewhere in the beliefs of Mr Jefferson and Mr Hamilton. *Except for Mr Trump who has no political beliefs, only a lust for power and money.
Are people in fact, good? Or are we a beast? We all find a political home somewhere between.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are on Kindle.