When my older sister was a sophomore in high school she took a course in modern history which, not surprisingly, covered communism. One of her homework assignments was to review the newspaper each day and cut out clippings of any stories related to communism to create a dossier of present day activity in communist regimes. She cheerfully got started on the project, clipping out little bits every few days. It was 1989. The world was still ringing from the protests in Tiananmen square, and a mere two months into her project the Berlin Wall came down. She stopped cutting out newspaper clippings and just stacked each day’s newspaper in the box for her dossier, as communism rapidly collapsed all over Eastern Europe.
At the time it seemed like a remarkable coincidence. What were the odds! And then two years later, in 1991, my older brother took the same course—right as the August coup unleashed the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In all fairness, what were the odds?! Among other things it brought home to me, a mere middle school student, that history was not just about the past, but very much pertinent to the present.
Almost a decade later, in college, when I read Herodotus, the Father of History, I was struck by the concept that history was not the mere relation of past events, but, rather, the consideration of past events specifically with regard to cause and effect. so that one could see the great moments of history in relation to their causes, and, knowing that, either seek to avoid them or attempt to reproduce them. This was intriguing. We were not mere passive elements within the great ocean of world activity, but were very much responsible for working actively and intelligently toward certain positive goals and away from certain destruction.
A few years ago my own little family toured Montpelier, the home of James Madison, a few weeks after Obergefell vs Hodges. It was a truly excellent tour in its own right, highlighting Madison’s role in first crafting and then defending the fledging Constitution of our nation, that gave me an even greater appreciation for a man I already admired. In the final room, Madison’s library, where, over the course of three years, he carefully studied hundreds of books, brought from Europe for this very purpose, and then wrote the preliminary drafts of our Constitution, the tour guide referenced his role in the Bill of Rights. After a thinly veiled reference to the so-called rights promulgated in the recent ruling, she gave an impassioned plea, first to the room to protect the true freedom and rights of our country, and then directly to my five year old son, who represented our future leaders, to fight for the truth. She looked him in the eye and said, “our very lives depend upon you”. It was yet another striking moment. History is not merely the past, but very much the present.
And as I prepared for my Advanced American Government & Economics classes this past summer and fall I was struck yet again at the timeliness of what we study. At the height of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, in the space of a mere week, I read headlines on major news publications calling for the abolition of the electoral college in presidential elections, a revision of the senate to better reflect popular sentiment, and the expansion of the Supreme Court to better reflect the mood of the people. Of course, anyone old enough to remember and reflect on any of these governmental bodies held by the previous party can also remember the exact opposite sentiments expressed. But that does not mean that these positions, loudly and resoundingly stated, do not gain traction or sympathy. And in fact, these bodies, due to popular demand, have all been altered in some fashion since our country’s founding.
The fickleness of both popular opinion and media bias are important to note. Both look only to what they want right now. But what the people want “right now” is often very dangerous. When I was in high school I remember being outraged and angry at the slow moving senate. They were an undeniably corrupt body, deeply entrenched to protect themselves and their power, with no desire to reflect the will of the American people. For my entire life, fully encompassed by Roe vs Wade, and underscored by Planned Parenthood vs Casey, the Supreme Court had clearly overstepped its bounds and was legislating from the bench. As a high schooler I thought that these were flawed institutions poorly constructed at the outset and in desperate need of reform now. These more emotional positions were resoundingly checked when I read, studied, and then taught the Federalist/Anti-Federalist debates.
At first glance, especially to a high school student, the Anti-Federalist arguments are appealing. They are terrified of excessive and tyrannical power in the federal government, which they see as a direct threat to the more moderate and proper powers of the state. They constantly caution against the fact that those in power desire more and are on the watch for any way that leaders can abuse their power. In the face of so much recent government overreach, who wouldn’t cheer on this position as wise and farseeing and wish we had heeded them. But that overlooks both the historical implosion of the very weak Articles of Confederation championed by the Anti-Federalists and, more importantly, the ability to mask the inactivity and cowardice of one body as the corruption and overreach of the other.
When one cuts through the emotion of the moment and reflects on what is actually laid out within the Constitution, the incredible foresight of James Madison, and those, like George Washington, who supported him, is made clear. Madison crafted a government that truly corresponds with St. Thomas’ ideal government, blending the swift efficiency of the “kingship” found in the executive branch, the checks and wise deliberation of an aristocratic branch, and the voice of the people who both select and from whom the leaders are selected. But Madison goes further than a mere “blended” republic, to provide a remarkable balance of both federal and national elements, and also federal, state and local authority that, if properly respected, allows the happy success of a country far greater and far freer than ever known in the history of the world. Rome, the historic hallmark of republican success, governed a mere tenth of the American population, and at least a third of Rome’s inhabitants were slaves. We rightly marvel at Rome’s millennium of world domination, despite the fact that much of that time was spent under the tyranny of kings and emperors. But America has, under the same constitution, successfully navigated both the expansion from a mere slip of thirteen small states huddled on the Atlantic, to a full continental fifty states, and also the progression of the industrial and technological ages, coupled with surviving multiple global conflicts. That we hold this achievement so cheaply as to not even notice is its own testament to our Constitution.
Take a moment and reflect upon what has transpired. In four short centuries, handfuls of political and religious exiles crossed an ocean—far more terrifying than modern man traveling to the moon—risking death at sea, starvation, illness, or violent death in order to establish themselves in an incredibly inhospitable spot. With attrition rates often approaching fifty percent, they slowly built up little colonies that were not immune to bitter infighting and massive political upheaval, if not outright war, amongst themselves. And yet, in less than two centuries, these political outcasts had established a thriving colonial society that, despite radically disparate points of origin and religion, found themselves united in a few key principles. These were a people who shared a common biblical moral code; an educated, literate, principled population who were willing to risk life and limb for both their religious and political freedom. At this point, in a historical narrative, one could focus on the ugly underbelly of such a messy disparate community—brutal discord is both undeniable and easy to document. Or one could consider the fragile, perhaps miraculous, unity of purpose and principle that emerged. Alexis de Tocqueville, Thomas Paine, and Milton Meltzer make clear the coincidence, perhaps better recognized as God’s grace, that brought together such a population, at such a time, in such a place, across an ocean not easily crossed, with such intellectually gifted and practically tested military and political leaders that they could first revolt against the current world super power and then establish—without foreign interference—a truly unique form of government. A government which draws upon the best of the past, drawing upon both the classical and medieval Catholic models, while adding in a new great experiment.
To the naïve, the American experiment is checks and balances, or republican ideals. But the student well read in history knows that the Roman republic, the British Parliament, the Spanish Cortes, among others, provide clear examples of blended government with various forms of checks and balances. This form of blended government is not new to America. What is new to America, seen subtly in the shock and misunderstanding of the Anti-Federalists and more overtly in the clear language of de Tocqueville, is the blending of a truly limited federal government, capable of acting directly upon the people in certain clearly delineated elements, alongside broad and fully functional state governments. The brilliance and far-seeing wisdom of this carefully crafted government is best seen by studying the Federalist and Anti-Federalist debates. The Anti-Federalists are patriots who loved their country deeply and wanted nothing more than to protect the freedom for which they and their friends had fought and suffered to attain. These are not ill-intentioned, self-aggrandizing men seeking to expand their own power. Rather the Anti-Federalists care passionately for freedom; but therein lies their fault. They are moved more by their passion for freedom than reasoning from careful principles to fully drawn and considered conclusions. By contrast, the Federalists also care deeply for freedom, but, because they are attentive to the causes that will bring about freedom as an effect, they are focused on the full practical ramifications of each proposal; nothing is hastily drawn or unconsidered.
Each time I re-read these debates I am struck by the contrast between the emotional rhetoric of one side and the more careful logical argument of the other. When the Anti-Federalists attack the federal judiciary as unnecessary and dangerous, it is easy to quickly agree reflecting upon several recent decades of bad judicial precedent, or even a few egregious cases such as Dred Scott vs Sandford and Griswold vs Connecticut. But when one reads Federalist 80, it becomes clear that the federal judicial branch is necessary. There are six distinct types of cases that can only be fairly heard by an impartial branch above the states, a court that speaks for the nation as a whole, rather than an individual and possibly biased state. But more importantly, in Federalist 78, one sees that the federal judicial branch stands as a vital protector of the constitution against legislative overreach. The Constitution speaks for the will of the people and the Constitution stands over the legislative, judicial, and executive branches. Without a judicial branch to uphold the Constitution in the face of bad laws passed by Congress, the people’s voice is effectively silenced.
Similarly, the slow-moving Senate, so often decried in popular journalism on both sides of the aisle, plays an incredibly valuable role. In Federalist 62 Madison makes a remarkable case for the “salutary check” played by the senate. Madison famously states that, “A good government implies two things: first, fidelity to the object of government, which is the happiness of the people; secondly, a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained.” The second half of this clause, as Madison himself notes, is often overlooked, but he makes clear that the newly proposed American government “provides for the last in a mode which increases the security for the first.” How? He turns to the often overlooked virtue of stability that will be found in the American senate and makes a case, first for how this senate will achieve that stability, and second for the merits of said stability. These are compelling arguments that are made clear when one reads the actual debates.
Students in high school are ready to consider these topics. Typically they care deeply about their country and their freedom. These are also approachable, accessible topics. But students in high school also need to be called away from merely emotionally resonant arguments to consider what is actually objectively true. They are mature enough to consider what the words actually say, what is the power actually given and retained, what are the logical consequences of such language or such a division of power. How will such a government practically bear out? What limitations are in place to protect the people from government overreach? Who would have to collude in order for corruption and tyranny to result? A careful reading and deliberation of these debates allows a student to see how and why our government was crafted as it is. A good student should come to see through the more emotional positions of the Anti-Federalists, appealing as they are, to the principles that did and ought to underlie our government.
Now, this carefully crafted, persuasively presented Constitution does not mean that our country is immune to evil or difficulty. She bears horrific scars, first in slavery and now in abortion, euthanasia and a plethora of sexual perversions. And these violations of life showcase the inevitable weakness of any human institution—that it can always be brought down by the vice of its own people. One of Madison’s most brilliant documents, Federalist 10, showcases that America’s size, albeit the thirteen original colonies, was a strength, rather than a failing. He argues that the size and diversity of America is an asset that can prevent the dangers of faction and the attendant “tyranny of the majority”, and, thus, truly preserve the rational government of our country. Typically faction can not take root in a large area. But once a country succumbs to a grievous and widespread vice, faction can indeed rear its ugly head and dominate, to the utter annihilation of the opposition, as is clear in the present moment.
The present moment is the moment in which we act. We study the past not just in idle curiosity, but to see the relation between cause and effect. We reflect and deliberate to a particular end. In practical matters, such as government, this reflection leads us to consider what we should do next. And so the study of the foundations of our government in the past, and its import upon the future, even when that future seems to lie hypothetically in the past, still do determine what we do now. This is a noble occupation for ourselves and for our children. Our actions and the reflections that may determine our children’s actions matter. These are the acts upon which, as that tour guide reflected, our very lives may depend.