?The Founding Fathers: The Age Of Realism? Essay, Research Paper
Hofstadter Summary: “The Founding Fathers: The Age of Realism”
Summary of Section:
The reasoning behind the Constitution of the United States is presented as “based upon the philosophy of Hobbes and the religion of Calvin. It assumes the natural state of mankind in a state of war, and that the carnal mind is at enmity with God.” Throughout, the struggle between democracy and tyranny is discussed as the Founding Fathers who envisioned the Constitution in Philadelphia in 1787 believed not in total democracy, but instead saw common man as selfish and contemptuous, and therefore in need of a “a good political constitution to control him.” Being a largely propertied body, with the exception of William Few, who was the only one who could honestly be said to represent the majority yeoman farmer class, the highly privileged classes were fearful of granting man his due rights, as the belief that “man was an unregenerate rebel who has to be controlled” reverberated.
However, the Fathers were indeed “intellectual heirs” of the seventeenth-century England republicanism with its opposition to arbitrary rule and faith in popular sovereignty. Thus, the paradoxical fears of the advance in democracy, and of a return to the extreme right emerged. The awareness that both military dictatorship and a return to monarchy were being seriously discussed in some quarters propelled the Constitutional framers such as John Jay to bring to attention.
Consistent to eighteenth-century ethos left the Constitution-makers with great faith in universals. They believed in an inexorable view of a self-interested man. Feeling that all me were naturally inclined to be bad they sought a compromising system of checks and balances for government. This was bolstered by the scientific work by Newton, “in which metaphors sprang as naturally to mens minds as did biological metaphors in the Darwinian atmosphere of the late nineteenth century.” Therefore Madison and others thought to squelch the possibly dangerous majority by setting up a large number and variety of local interests, so that the people will “be unable to concert and carry into effect their scheme of oppression.” And thus, chief powers went to the propertied.
Constitutional format was a series of ironical statements, as it stands in “direct antithesis to American democratic faith.” Modern America views liberty and freedom as one of the same, but the Founding Fathers thought that the liberty with which they were most concerned was menaced by democracy. In their mind liberty was linked to democracy and not property. To have political influence based on amount of property was “politic as well as just, that the interests and rights of every class should ve duly represented and understood in the public councils.” — James Madison
The Convention decided that freedom for property would result in the liberty for all men. Such that the Declaration of Independence was agreed upon by the Fathers as “all men are created equal,” but only as a legal, not as a political or psychological proposition. The main emphasis was the equality between American and the Britons back home.
Finally it was decided that democracy unchecked ruled by the masses, “is sure to bring arbitrary redistribution of property, destroying the very essence of liberty.” John Jay believed “The people who own the country ought to govern it.”
The result was that “while they thought self-interest the most dangerous and unbrookable quality of man, they necessarily underwrote it in trying to control it.” They generally succeed as seen with competitive capitalist nineteenth century America, with the federal government continuing to provide a stable and acceptable medium with which they could contend.
Hofstadter: “The Founding Fathers: The Age of Realism”
The style in which Hofstadter writes I find to be very appealing. The fact that I understood what he was referring to when he mentioned that the Founding Fathers approach to trade was more “mercantilistic than Adam Smith”, indicating less of a capitalistic free economy, surprised me to the point where I felt I had actually learned something beforehand. In his approach Hofstadter refers to the framing of the Constitution in a much more cynical view then what is commonly taught. He presents both sides of the search for “democracy,” that for the masses, and that for the wealthy, and emphasizes the seeming aggrandizement in store for the Founding Fathers in the final settlement.
Thus far, I seem to comprehend what I am reading, feeling it to be very much in an oratorical style. However, the depth in which the material is presented is something I am not familiar with. To site examples on the emotions that the Fathers were experiencing gives the matter a much more personal element. Madison’s sentiments toward government were revealed in the Federalist number 51: “You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” As it was then echoed by a dogmatic John Adams who stated, “democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.” Such reflection was something I was unaware of.
My conception of the shaping of the Constitution was much more optimistic than it actually was. An over generalization of liberty had shaped my perception of the process of republicanism, the presented evidence heralds an advantage to the upper classes, counteracting my long held belief that the Constitution was shaped with the people in mind. It is now more correct to say that it was not so much as having the people in mind, but more so, property. “Men who have no property lack the necessary stake in an orderly society to make stable or reliable citizens.”
Finally, I was left with the notion that the Fathers were moderate republicans. Somewhat, reminding me of modern political figures who are in the middle grounds of extremes such as Democratic California Gov. Gray Davis, caught between battles for health care and gun control; and Republican Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who heralds himself as a “compassionate conservative”. Ultimately though, it reveled to me the success that was achieved with the Constitution, as the system of political checks and balances prevailed. And as Hofstadter asserts it “is one of the world’s masterpieces of practical statecraft.”
Hofstadter: “The Founding Fathers: The Age of Realism”
“Wherever the real power in a government lies, there is the danger of oppression. In our Government the real power lies in the majority of the community.…”
— James Madison
“Power naturally grows… because human passions are insatiable. But that power alone can grow which is already too great; that which is unchecked; that which has no equal power to control it.” — John Adams
Addressing the aura around the framing of the Constitution, the two quotes at the beginning of the chapter “The Founding Fathers: An Age of Realism” serve to promote the overall attitude of those who made the body of the Constitution. A predominant fear that the masses which gain power with straight democracy would usurp the control of the central authorities, and therefore leave the privileged classes, the Founding Fathers among them, without ultimate power was the impetus behind Constitutional dogma.
As seen with the first quote, Madison acknowledges the majority in the people. In order to create the Constitution, Madison was drawing to attention the need for an effective centralized government if the people were to be governed effectively. This focus was bolstered further by the beliefs of other Constitutional makers, like John Jay whose favorite maxim was “The people who own the country ought to govern it.” With such an emphasis on propertied interests, made it such that the Constitutional makers thought it most beneficial, to leave it to those who would fund the new government to be most involved. Roger Sherman thought that “the people *should* have as little to do as may be about the government.”
Noting that they were too democratic with the Articles of Confederation, but refusing to go back to tyrannical, arbitrary rule the Fathers were unwilling to turn their backs on republicanism. As seen with the second quote, John Adams outlines the ramifications of having uncontrolled powers. Washington had even repudiated a suggestion that he become a military dictator, thought “we are apt to run from one extreme to another.” It was this belief, if not fear that made the framers set up a government that was to be balanced. Governeur Morris understood that, “Wealth tends to corrupt the mind and to nourish its love of power, and to stimulate it to oppression. History proves this to be the spirit of the opulent.” Therefore as seen with the second quote, Hofstadter is emphasizing the compromise in leaving a form of representative government as well as having a strong federal government in that “its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper places.” Therefore they saw it as in their form of a small direct democracy the unstable passions of the people would dominate law making; but a representative government, as Madison stated, would “refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens.” John Adams finally pointed out in Defence of the Constitution of Government of the United States that the split in assembly would stop the rich from “plundering the poor, and vice versa,” with an impartial executive armed with the veto power. Thus, what radiates from such actions was the achievement of neutralization.
Hofstadter, Richard. The American Political Tradition.