The Magazine

The Founders' Honor

There's more to American politics than self-interest or principle.

Sep 3, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 47 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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The title of Read's book, Power versus Liberty, is actually the target at which he takes aim, and he is a liberal to whom conservatives should pay attention. He mainly objects to the notion that so much power added to government is that much liberty subtracted from the people--the idea Jefferson expressed when he said, "I own I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive." Jefferson, away in France at the time, was not a framer of the Constitution, which for the sake of liberty does provide an energetic government. Though surely a Founder, and later reconciled to the Constitution, he cannot be considered a friend to its basic intent. Read joins with historian Jack Rakove's book Original Meanings in questioning the notion made current today by conservatives that there is a single "original intent" that can be said to inspire the Founders and the Constitution.

In particular, Read attempts to pry apart the convergence of Madison and Hamilton in the Federalist Papers, the classic source of any original intent, and to show that their agreement was limited and temporary. He addresses the difficult problem of Madison's consistency, for in the Federalist Papers Madison was together with Hamilton in promoting energetic government, yet four years later he was an outraged opponent of Hamilton's national bank proposal, an instance of energetic government. Historians have speculated over accidental reasons why Madison might have been drawn to the side of his friend and fellow Virginian Jefferson to found a party against Hamilton, the man with whom he apparently agreed more. Madison, however, insisted in later life on his own consistency, and Read, by carefully following Madison's arguments, saves his honor as statesman and thinker. He finds Madison to be free of the arbitrary and petty loyalties and enmities that make up the politics of honor discussed by Freeman. Perhaps there are two levels of honor, a higher one of reason that directs and redeems the lower one of personal or party loyalty.

In opposing Hamilton, Madison did not put as the critical point his belief in a weak national government or in states' rights or in strict construction of the Constitution's text; it was that the people had to have agreed beforehand when ratifying the Constitution to powers claimed under it. This the people had refused to do in the case of the federal government's power to charter corporations like the national bank. Liberty is endangered by too little as well as by too much power--
that is the message of the Federalist Papers in which Madison concurred.
But in addition, and on his own, Madison believed that powers publicly exercised should be publicly granted beforehand.

Hamilton, according to Read, was concerned that there be enough power in total quantity, and so he worried less about the permitted boundaries of power. The right amount of power is what the people need, not the amount they have conferred. Liberty is not prior to power but balanced with power. Hamilton feared not the people but the states, which he thought were too jealous of power. He was neither a monarchist nor an aristocrat but a republican who believed that effective sovereignty must reside in the government, not the people. When well administered, government will, over time, attract and deserve the consent of the people, from whom Hamilton asked for "faith but not blind faith."

The reasoning of Madison and Hamilton was more intricate and more impressive than the simplifications of Jefferson and Wilson, but Read gives the latter two their due as well. With calm and persistence he follows the motion of principle as far as it will go, or as far as he can. At some point, however, we encounter the angry passions and factions that Freeman wrote about. It's not possible to remove principle from politics, but it's also not possible to enjoy a politics of pure principle.

Beyond principle lie both self-interest and honor, not merely self-interest as we Americans tend to believe. We need to reflect on honor, and on the relationship between honor and principle. Joanne Freeman's Affairs of Honor and James Read's Power versus Liberty are a help--and a little reading in Plato, too, would not hurt.

Harvey Mansfield is professor of government at Harvard University. His new edition of Tocqueville's Democracy in America, translated with Delba Winthrop, has recently been issued by the University of Chicago Press.