Sunday, August 21, 2011

When the social contract was new

One perhaps obvious point about the United States' formative period is brought home vividly in Pauline Maier's Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788.  It's this: the framers, and many of those debating ratification, were quite consciously trying form a new social contract -- that is, implement some version of the social contract theory developed over the prior century-and-a-half. In fact, worries about the chaos that might ensue if the inert federal government was not replaced with a functioning one made some fear the return of a state of nature, which must have added to the sense of being in at the birth.  The sense of consciously forming something new, yet doing it deliberately and in accordance with the norms of representative government already developed, is really quite astonishing. It was an almost scientific experiment and a lived creation myth rolled into one.  Here is James Wilson making the opening bid for ratification in the Pennsylvania ratification convention (as paraphrase/quoted by Maier):
"Government...taken as a science may yet be considered in its infancy," Wilson said, and it had in the past been the product of "force, fraud, or accident." America, he said, offered the first instance "since the Creation of the world...of a people assembled to weigh deliberately and calmly, and to decide leisurely and peaceably, upon the form of government by which they will bind themselves and their posterity."
That's true, isn't it? Remarkable...

Wilson also put forward a creative theory to alleviate the widespread anxiety that the states were giving up their sovereignty, and hence potentially the freedom of their citizens, should the central government turn despotic:

The problem of allocating power within a federal republic, Wilson said, was easier to address in theory than in fact. The good of the whole had to be its object, not that of every individual or section in the union. Wilson argued that states, like individuals in a state of nature who contracted together to form governments, would gain more than the liberties lost in forming the new federal government, a concept he labeled "federal liberty."
There was however, Maier notes tartly, a small catch:

Finally, he emphasized that the authority of the proposed Constitution would come from the sovereign people, whose power remained "paramount to every constitution, inalienable in its nature, and indefinite in its extent"; the people could change constitutions "whenever and however they please"--but not, it seemed, before the Constitution was ratified (p. 104).
Striking a balance between freedom and order, between according sovereignty to the people in their thousands of towns and scattered farms in states spread over a vast expanse while still getting a functioning central government going, was a remarkably complex tax. Hence the drama of Maier's book.


Wilson's consciousness of doing something unique made me think about a peculiarity in the Declaration of Independence.  Jefferson casually generalized the unique condition of the United States, as if former colonies declared independence and formed new social contracts every day:
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. 

That is as audacious in its way, and of a piece with, holding essentially new 'truths,' agreed upon by very few, as axiomatic:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
In Ratification, here were are a dozen years later, watching the people -- or was it an arrogant subset of self-appointed 'persons of influence'? -- laying their foundation.

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