That’s Not How the Constitution Works, Mr. President

Hey guys, do you recall the “if Congress isn’t being reasonable, the President gets to do what he wants” clause of the U.S. Constitution? I don’t, but evidently President Trump has access to the secret Constitution.

President Trump on Wednesday resumed his threat to bypass Congress and fund the construction of a border wall by declaring a national emergency if Democrats maintain their opposition to his funding demands.

“I have the absolute right to do national emergency if I want,” Trump told reporters during a White House pool spray. “My threshold will be if I can’t make a deal with people that are unreasonable.”

As AP reminds us earlier in his post, this is the same exact rationale President Obama employed with DACA. It was outrageous then, and it is outrageous now for President Trump to consider using executive action here.

President Obama threw quite a few presidential tantrums – the equivalent of Veruca Salt saying “But Daddy I want it” – whenever Congress didn’t give him what he wanted, so he acted unilaterally and without constitutional sanction, and fortunately he was slapped down quite a few times, and unanimously so, by the Supreme Court. Sadly, President Obama is not the only president to think that “urgent” matters give him unprecedented authority. Blame Congress both in its dithering and in its unwillingness to slap down presidents if you want – I certainly do – but it takes one to do the unconstitutional tango.

It doesn’t matter how important a given president thinks the issue is. There are clear mechanisms for pursuing a given action, and the president does not just get to act unilaterally in most cases just because Congress can’t agree on a given course. Sometimes executive orders are given under rightful circumstances. No one in their right mind should think we’ve reached such a crisis point of national security that the president should be able to go all Samantha on Bewitched, blink his eyes, and get what he wants.

And if you do think the president would be acting justly in this matter, I hope you take the same position when a future Democrat president declares that climate change is the moral equivalent of war and he can thus shut down all coal and natural gas plants on his say-so.

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Populism and Conspiracy Thinking

Last week Tucker Carlson blew up the right side of the internet when he delivered this 15 minute monologue on his nightly show. It was ostensibly a response to Senator Mitt Romney’s op-ed in the Washington Post, blasting President Trump for his rhetoric and character. But in reality it was so much more, and represents a sharp divide between “populist” and traditional conservative/libertarian economic thought. It has spurred a number of critical responses as well as defenses. David French had one here, and Ben Shapiro has now written a pair of pieces as well.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Frankly, I find this debate a refreshing change of pace because the focus is on fundamental principles. Most of Carlson’s critics concede the truth of much of what he says, though they are critical both of his solutions (or lack thereof) and the level of blame he places on elites.

There is a lot here to discuss, and indeed it touches on some of the topics I had been hoping to cover. Here I am just going to focus on one very narrow issue, and it’s one David French touched upon. Listening to – or reading – Carlson’s talk, I heard a lot of familiar notes. Whenever I read through populist screeds in various social media settings, a common refrain is that some external force is the reason for all that ails either the individual or society as a whole. By external force I mean some force outside the person himself. Some kind of nefarious group – politicians, Democrats, Republicans, masons, etc. – is pulling the strings and are the cause of our woes.

Carlson’s monologue was full of these indictments. Here’s French quoting Carlson:

And he talks about wealthier Americans as if they’re indifferent to the plight of their fellow Americans. Here’s Carlson: “Those very same affluent married people, the ones making virtually all the decisions in our society, are doing pretty much nothing to help the people below them get and stay married. Rich people are happy to fight malaria in Congo. But working to raise men’s wages in Dayton or Detroit? That’s crazy.”

As French notes, this just isn’t true.

In 2017, Americans gave more than $410 billion in charity, and the idea that this charity flows principally overseas is ludicrous. Gifts to international charities represented only 6 percent of total giving, and foreign aid represents roughly 1.2 percent of the federal budget, an inconsequential sum compared with the immense sums we spend in the United States on economic development and social welfare. America is consistently one of the most charitable countries in the world, whether measured by volunteerism or money.

The more subjective aspect of this claim is that the rich just don’t care about the plight of poor people or the folks in Appalachia. While it’s easy to pin bad policy choices on a lack of concern, this is not necessarily accurate. Or as French puts it, it’s less about rich Americans not caring as them just making poor policy decisions.

What struck me about all this is that there’s a common subtext with conspiracy thinking. For conspiracy theorists, there’s always some cabal working behind the scenes to destroy everything. The World Trade Center didn’t get taken out by a pair of planes flown by Islamic terrorists – oh no, it was Bush and Cheney and a neocon plot to eventually invade the Middle East and take all their oil. No, those kids in Connecticut weren’t gun down by a madmen, it was a plot by the US government to force gun control upon us.

The thing about conspiracy theorizing is that in some ways it serves as a comfort to those who espouse these ideas. Here’s why. It is unfathomable to think that terrible events could be random. Or, better yet, it’s difficult to accept that these truly events could have happened in the United States without some sort of sign off by the deep state. Because if some random mad man can just shoot up a school, or if 19 well-funded terrorists could take out the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and kill thousands, the world becomes a much less ordered place. I mean just look at the paranoid discussion centering around the new world order – and I don’t mean that one, brother. The key word there is “order.” Because if the world isn’t being run by such cabals, then there’s decidedly less order in the world.

In many ways I think this is what motivates populist thinking. If there is an opioid crisis in Appalachia, then the remote cause can’t be the choices those individual living there made. The crisis must have been precipitated by men of evil intent. Because the flip side of conspiracy and populist thinking is that if we get rid of the bad men and replace them with well-intentioned people, then there is a solution to the world’s ills.

The chaos and tragedy of the world is not just that – it’s not the natural state of a fallen world, but a predetermined outcome. It’s unthinkable that bad things could just happen in the United States or the citizens of the country. Ultimately, if we just adjust the gears, then things will be okay.

I recognize that this this is not an entirely fair comparison, and there’s a little bit more complexity to Carlson’s and others thinking. Yet I can’t help but see this underlying connection. It’s an outlook that is both fatalistic and yet naively optimistic, because the subtext is that a fix is just a flick of the light-switch away. It is a shared worldview that is uncomfortable with disorder. Ultimately both modes of thinking are dangerous in their own ways, but more on that to follow.

A Civics Lesson for Our Speaker

So Nancy Pelosi recently had this to say:

When Pelosi was asked whether she considers herself equal to Trump, she said, “The Constitution does,” The New York Times reported.

Pelosi’s position as Speaker makes her the second in line for the presidency should something happen to Trump, after Vice President Pence, according to the Constitution.

There are two ways to intepret Pelosi’s comment, and neither one is flattering regarding her understanding of the constitution. The more charitable interpretation is that she means the legislative branch is co-equal to the executive. In this case, she would be underestimating her own branch’s standing. Jay Cost and Luke Thompson have a done a fantastic job on their Constitutionally Speaking podcast to debunk this long-held cliche about “co-equal” branches. If you have spent any time examining the political thought of the Framers, you’d immediately be disabused of the notion that they thought the three branches were equal. The legislative branch, as the branch representing the people, was held to be the superior branch. One can look at the powers delegated to each branch and recognize the implicit belief in legislative superiority. What the constitution expounded was not “separate but equal,” but rather the idea that each branch had defined roles, with some amount of intermingling powers as a “check” on those powers. But the idea they were equal in weight is not supported by a reading of the constitution or an understanding of the history.

If Pelosi is instead asserting that her position is equal to the presidency itself, well that’s just absurd on its face. That the Speaker comes second in the line of succession is proof not of its equality, but of its inferiority to the presidency. The Speakership is barely mentioned in the constitution other than to define how the Speaker is chosen. The Speaker of the House’s powers are largely a creation of House rules, not of the constitution itself. The Speaker cannot issue executive orders, appoint constitutional officers, make war, or any of the other myriad constitutionally defined powers of the executive. While Congress as a whole may be superior to the Executive, the Speaker of the House alone is not even remotely within the president’s orbit in terms of actual power.

We’re already off to a wonderful start in Nancy Part II.

 

 

What’s a Little Article V Among Friends?

 .  . . and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate. – Article V, U.S. Constitution

The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. – 17th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

Even a curmudgeon like me will concede that not all debates over constitutional meaning are crystal clear. Interpreting original meaning (or intent, if you prefer) can be difficult. Trying to determine whether the freedom of speech clause of the first amendment really applies to political donations, or whether the first amendment even applies to the federal government at all, is not necessarily black and white.

But then there are certain clauses which are really not open to interpretation. There’s no creative way to argue that a 31-year old man born and naturalized in France is eligible for the presidency. Similarly, the equal composition of the Senate is laid out in black and white throughout the constitutional text. More importantly, this is one element of the constitution that cannot simply be amended by the traditional process. As laid out in Article V of the U.S. Constitution, no state can be deprived of equal suffrage in the Senate without its consent. This means that for all practical purposes equal suffrage in the Senate cannot be altered unless every single state assents to this change, which really means that equal suffrage in the Senate cannot be altered. This would seem pretty straightforward.

Not if you’re a writer for the Atlantic with a day job teaching Legal Studies at Business Ethics at Wharton, because Eric Orts has a proposition for you: we’ll just legislate this pesky hindrance away. No, seriously:

There’s a better, more elegant, constitutional way out. Let’s allocate one seat to each state automatically to preserve federalism, but apportion the rest based on population. Here’s how.

Start with the total U.S. population, then divide by 100, since that’s the size of the current, more deliberative upper chamber. Next, allocate senators to each state according to their share of the total; 2/100 equals two senators, 3/100 equals three, etc. Update the apportionment every decade according to the official census.

In the new allocation, the total number of senators would be 110. The total is more than 100 because 10 of the smallest states have much less than 0.5/100 of the U.S. population but are still entitled to one senator each.

So how do you get out of the clear constitutional prohibition against this change? Legislation, of course:

First, consider that Article V applies only to amendments. Congress would adopt the Rule of One Hundred scheme as a statute; let’s call it the Senate Reform Act. Because it’s legislation rather than an amendment, Article V would—arguably—not apply.

Second, the states, through the various voting-rights amendments—the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, Nineteenth, Twenty-Fourth, and Twenty-Sixth—have already given their “consent” by directing Congress to adopt legislation to protect equal voting rights, and this delegated power explicitly applies to “the United States” as well as the states. The Senate Reform Act would simply shift seats according to population. No state or its citizens would lose the franchise.

Note that even states that did not ratify the voting-rights amendments have, functionally, consented to them, and thus also to the constitutional logic supporting a Senate Reform Act. As Justice Clarence Thomas explained in 1995, “The people of each State obviously did trust their fate to the people of the several States when they consented to the Constitution; not only did they empower the governmental institutions of the United States, but they also agreed to be bound by constitutional amendments that they themselves refused to ratify.”

There are so many logical problems with this that you can drive a truck through them, and fortunately Charles Cooke has done the job natural-born Americans won’t do:

Never in the history of the English language has the word “arguably” done as much work to support the sentences around it. And never, ever has it been so cruelly exposed to ridicule. On Orts’s rationale, Congress could amend any part of the Constitution by legislation. Want to abolish the First Amendment? Just pass the repeal through Congress on a simple majority vote. Easy! That the various branches of government are formed by the Constitution itself — and, by extension, that they cannot amend their own structure without that Constitution being amended — is the most elementary rule in all of American law. It cannot be undone by wishful thinking. Indeed, if anything, the Senate’s structure is the most permanent variable in the entire U.S. Constitution, given that it not only enjoys the same protection as everything else, but has an extra layer on top that ensures that any alteration be made with the consent of those directly affected. For Orts to treat the most heavily guarded item within the document as if it were the most easily circumvented is nothing less than extraordinary, and suggests to me that he believes his audience is stupid.

As to point two:

Even for those of us who are accustomed to learning in awe about the many innovative policies the architects of the Reconstruction Amendments intended secretly to mandate in the future, this one is a doozy. Insofar as it can be followed, Orts’s case here is that (a) the Constitution protects equal voting rights, (b) that, in his view, the Senate does not protect equal voting rights, so (c) the Constitution mandates that the Senate be altered — presumably via the “arguable” legislative method outlined above. Historically, legally, and linguistically, this approach is bizarre: If the framers of the “Fourteenth, Fifteenth, Nineteenth, Twenty-Fourth, and Twenty-Sixth” amendments had wanted to abolish or amend the Senate, they would have done so — or, rather, they wouldn’t have done so, because their amendments would have failed spectacularly at the first hurdle. Worse still, it is extremely dangerous, for if Orts’s approach were to be indulged, we would quickly move so far beyond both the security of both stare decisis and plain language as to invite endless, untrammeled chaos. Why? Well, because one can play his game with anything. First, you find a part of the Constitution that guarantees a favored end — say, “establish justice,” “promote general welfare,” or guarantee “freedom of the press”; then you contend that this end is incompatible with any other provision you happen not to like; and, finally, you explain that the provision you dislike is itself unconstitutional. At best, this method represents cheap sophistry. At worst, it represents anarchy. Again: “Our Constitution is more malleable than many imagine” is a euphemism for “We must ignore the law as it is written.”

Now take it home Charles:

But we must not, of course. Rather, we must ignore Orts, and we must push back against people who believe their job is to rewrite history and to misinform on a grand scale. I can see why certain professors feel the need to do this: Absurd as his cases always are, my proverbial Grunton Rabitini of Soiled Woods College has his words repeated widely by the unprincipled and the uninformed. But I cannot see why The Atlantic needs to publish it. We have a civics problem already in this country. Professor Orts and his editors just made it that little bit worse.

Unbelievably, Orts tried to fight back on Twitter, spending most of the time (incorrectly) complaining that Cooke failed to substantively address any of his points, relying instead on personal attacks, even as Orts accuses Cooke of taking his position because of “white privilege.” Even by the usual dumb standards of Twitter it was pretty horrific.

It’s sad to recall that Orts is an actual professor who teaches college students, because his understanding of constitutional law couldn’t be much dimmer than his average student.

2018 Finis

I created this blog at the tail end of the Kavenaugh hearings. At no point in the last three years had I felt as inflamed and passionate about politics as I was during this time, and so I decided to start blogging yet again.

These past three years have been rough politically, and this is especially reinforced every time I hop on Twitter. All of social media has been bad, but everything is magnified on Twitter. This past weekend I flipped back and forth between certain MAGA-nation grifters expressing their lack of #caring about dead immigrants, backed by their legion of cult followers, and the #Resistance crowd – who frequently bellyache about Donald Trump’s callous tone – celebrating the death of a young staffer for the Federalist.

It is at times amusing, and at other times distressing, to note the similarities between MAGA Nation and La Resistance. The former mocks the latter for their snowflake tendencies, even as the former viciously turn on anyone who dares even utter a peep of criticism of President Trump. The former’s cultlike reverence for the current president, meanwhile, is eclipsed only by the latter’s undying devotion to his immediate predecessor, which is itself being eclipsed by their deification of the white Irish skateboarding guy who lost to Ted Cruz. And of course neither side can see the irony of mocking/lauding Donald Trump’s ignorance one moment while lauding/mocking Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for the idiocy that comes out of her mouth the next.

All this means my passion for writing about politics has waxed and waned. (It should be noted that the time I have to devote to extended writing has almost entirely waned.) Who wants to write about politics when it seems less than ten percent of the population is anywhere near where you are at the moment?

In the end, my lifelong interest in politics cannot simply be snuffed out. So my hope is that in the coming year I can get around to posting more frequently. This blog was never intended to be yet another one dedicated to current events. There are plenty of people who have dedicated their careers to either complaining about Donald Trump or complaining about the people complaining about Donald Trump, and I don’t need to add my voice to this chorus.

With that in mind, to the extent I do write about current events, it will be in the light of constitutional and general political philosophy (this blog should really be hopping around June, then). I will also hope to expand into other areas that tickle my fancy.

And with that, I hope you all have a healthy and happy New Year.

Cato and the Limits of Democracy

As has been established, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon were passionate defenders of liberty, and prefigured the American revolutionaries in many ways. Another way they would prefigure the revolutionaries is the manner in which they tempered their libertarian ardor with expressed reservations about the limits of human reason. Like the Framers, they did not embrace the sort of full-throated democracy that would seemingly flow from their liberalism. Writing as Cato, they discussed the problem with “passion,” employing language that would be echoed six decades later by Madison and Hamilton.

Cato writes early on about how the passions can dupe men into acting against their better interests. In the sixth letter, Cato talks about the causes of the South Sea bubble:

Self-love beguiles men into false hopes, and they will venture to incur a hundred probable evils, to catch one possible good; nay, they run frequently into distracting pains and expences, to gain advantages which are purely imaginary, and utterly impossible.

Were the passions properly balanced, men would act rationally; but by suffering one passion to get the better of all the rest, they act madly or ridiculously.

This idea that the passions lead men to act irrationally would become a recurring theme throughout the letters. In the 22nd letter, Cato writes:

From the present spirit of this nation, it is still further evident to me, what I have always thought, that the people would constantly be in the interests of truth and liberty, were it not for external delusion and external force. Take away terror, and men never would have been slaves: Take away imposture, and men will never be dupes nor bigots. The people, when they are in the wrong, are generally in the wrong through mistake; and when they come to know it, are apt frankly to correct their own faults.

This is a common sentiment, and another one which would be echoed to some degree by the Framers. The average man is essentially good, but is apt to being gullibly deceived and to act against their better interests. In this way he is unlike powerful men, who are driven by baser motives. This is an idea that Cato repeats in the 24th letter:

The people have no bias to be knaves; the security of their persons and property is their highest aim. No ambition prompts them; they cannot come to be great lords, and to possess great titles, and therefore desire none. No aspiring or unsociable passions incite them; they have no rivals for place, no competitor to pull down; they have no darling child, pimp, or relation, to raise: they have no occasion for dissimulation or intrigue; they can serve no end by faction; they have no interest, but the general interest.

The same can rarely be said of great men, who, to gratify private passion, often bring down publick ruin; who, to fill their private purses with many thousands, frequently load the people with many millions; who oppress for a mistress, and, to save a favourite, destroy a nation; who too often make the publick sink and give way to their private fortune; and, for a private pleasure, create a general calamity. Besides, being educated in debauchery, and pampered in riot and luxury, they have no sense of the misfortunes of other men, nor tenderness for those who suffer them: They have no notion of miseries which they do not feel. There is a nation in Europe, which, within the space of an hundred years last past, has been blessed with patriots, who, void of every talent and inclination to do good, and even stinted in their ability for roguery, were forced to be beholden, for most of the mischief which they did, to the superior arts and abilities of humble rogues and brokers.

Cato pits the common man against their rulers, judging the former to be basically good at heart and the latter to be true knaves.

This does read as though Cato is trying to have it both ways. Man is basically good and wise, but is also prone to being led into error. But if man is so easily deceived, then that doesn’t necessarily speak well of his innate judgment. It also seems a bit like flattery. The readers of these letters would assume they are among the good folk Cato is describing here. It’s those others who are rascals. We see this down to our age, where it’s always someone else who is a bad person – not the intended audience.

Nonetheless, if Cato writes glowingly of mankind here, he takes a turn to the pessimistic side in the 31st letter. For what it’s worth, Gordon wrote (or principally wrote) these particular letters. In the 31st letter, he would definitively take the “men are not angels” line of argument. He begins the letter thusly:

The study of human nature has, ever since I could study any thing, been a principal pleasure and employment of mine; a study as useful, as the discoveries made by it are for the most part melancholy. It cannot but be irksome to a good-natured man, to find that there is nothing so terrible or mischievous, but human nature is capable of it; and yet he who knows little of human nature, will never know much of the affairs of the world, which every where derive their motion and situation from the humours and passions of men.

It shews the violent bent of human nature to evil, that even the Christian religion has not been able to tame the restless appetites of men, always pushing them into enormities and violences, in direct opposition to the spirit and declarations of the gospel, which commands us to do unto all men what we would have all men do unto us. The general practice of the world is an open contradiction and contempt of this excellent, this divine rule; which alone, were it observed, would restore honesty and happiness to mankind, who, in their present state of corruption, are for ever dealing treacherously or outrageously with one another, out of an ill-judging fondness for themselves.

In the course of seven letters we’ve gone from “man is basically good” to human nature is generally wicked. And it is this very wickedness that necessitates the creation of human laws.

The truth is, and it is a melancholy truth, that where human laws do not tie men’s hands from wickedness, religion too seldom does; and the most certain security which we have against violence, is the security of the laws. Hence it is, that the making of laws supposes all men naturally wicked; and the surest mark of virtue is, the observation of laws that are virtuous: If therefore we would look for virtue in a nation, we must look for it in the nature of government; the name and model of their religion being no certain symptom nor cause of their virtue. The Italians profess the Christian religion, and the Turks are all infidels; are the Italians therefore more virtuous than the Turks? I believe no body will say that they are; at least those of them that live under absolute princes: On the contrary, it is certain, that as the subjects of the Great Turk are not more miserable than those of the Pope, so neither are they more wicked.

Religion can’t even tame man’s base passions, so laws become necessary. Note the language here: “the making of laws supposes all men naturally wicked.” David Hume would expresses almost the exact same sentiment years later in writing that all men should be supposed to be knaves (though it’s important to remember that David Hume never says that all men are knaves, a distinction often forgotten when writing about Hume). Hume, of course, would have a tremendous influence on Madison and Hamilton in their respective views of human nature, and all of these writers in turn sound very much like Cato.

Cato continues in this vein:

Of all the passions which belong to human nature, self-love is the strongest, and the root of all the rest; or, rather, all the different passions are only several names for the several operations of self-love. Self-love, says the Duke of Rochefoucauld, is the love of one’s self, and of every thing else for one’s own sake: It makes a man the idolater of himself, and the tyrant of others. He observes, that man is a mixture of contrarieties; imperious and supple, sincere and false, fearful and bold, merciful and cruel: He can sacrifice every pleasure to the getting of riches, and all his riches to a pleasure: He is fond of his preservation, and yet sometimes eager after his own destruction: He can flatter those whom he hates, destroy those whom he loves.

Man is driven by self-love into a lack of compassion and empathy for others. In turn, men will treat each other basely based on this lack of other-regard.

It fills me with concern, when I consider how men use one another; and how wretchedly their passions are employed: They scarce ever have proper objects for their passions; they will hate a man for what he cannot help, and what does them no harm; yet bless and pray for villains, that kill and oppress them.

In the 44th letter, Cato (still Gordon) would return to this theme, arguing that men are ruled by passions and not reason. It isn’t reason that drives men to do good, he writes, but self-interest and fear.

The good that they do to another, they do not because it is just or commanded; nor do they forbear mutual evil because it is unjust or forbid: But those things they do out of choice or fear, and both these center in themselves; for choice is pleasure, and fear is the apprehension of pain. So that the best things that men do, as well as the worst, are selfish; and self-love is the parent of moral good and evil.

Cato continues in this letter to outline the ways men act out of self-interest and fear rather than reason. This is why so many seem to act against principle: they are motivated by things other than human reason. If men were actuated by reason, we would not witness so many seemingly contradictory actions and behavios.

Cato here represents the tensions which have always existed in liberal philosophy. Like John Locke before them and the Framers after them, Gordon and Trenchard believe just enough in the innate goodness of man to argue for a liberal social order wherein the people are afforded wide latitude to live life free of coercion. Yet they dial back this laudatory rhetoric, citing self-love and irrationality as for why men behave foolishly and wickedly. Because of this basic irrationality, pure democracy is just as non-viable alternative as absolute monarchy.

This seeming contradiction – man is basically good but also wholly irrational – is one of the guiding philosophies of the Framers. It could be summed up thusly: man is generally good, but is an imperfect animal often guided less by reason than their passions. Left to his own devices, man is usually a force for good. But because of this tendency towards irrationality, he should not be given absolute power, either as a member of the demos or as an autocratic ruler. Society should allow for humans to flourish as they will, but there should be enough safeguards in the constitutional order to mitigate the ill-effects of human irrationality.

Whether or not one agrees with this approach, it is impossible not to see Gordon and Trenchard as clear influences on the thought of the framers of the American constitiution.

Fighting Back Against Civil War Myths

Jesse Kelly tweeted this out the other day:*

1. Slavery is a repulsive thing and a stain on the history of our country. 2. Did you know in the beginning Lincoln would have stopped the war and let the South keep their slaves? See? Complicated.

*This was either before or after he was suspended, which is another matter in and of itself.

This is a fairly standard talking point about the civil war. The longer form of it goes something like this: “The civil war wasn’t really about slavery, and as proof, look at Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln was perfectly willing to go back to the status quo ante had the confederates laid down their arms early on in the war. So see – the civil war wasn’t really about slavery because Lincoln himself was willing to allow slavery to continue.”

This is one of several arguments about the war that I come across with some regularity, so I’ve decided to post about it and a few of the other common myths I’ve heard repeated.

Before I begin, let me note that I use “myth” with some reservation, because many of these arguments have a grain of truth. Therefore they are not complete myths or fabrications. Rather, they are arguments that either distort the context or leave off important bits of information. For simplicity’s sake, though, that’s the title I’ve gone with.

Myth #1: Lincoln’s aim was to preserve the union, not to end slavery.

I’ll start with the above-stated one first. As I said, there is a grain of truth to it. Lincoln’s primary aim truly was to restore the union, and he was willing at first to retain slavery if it meant an early end to the war. What’s more, Lincoln was anti-slavery, but he was not an abolitionist, meaning he desired the eventual eradication of slavery, but did not advocate immediate measures for its end. (Of course this is a point against another myth, which I’ll get to later.)

That being said, there are several reasons this argument is misleading. First of all, it leaves the impression that Lincoln wasn’t concerned about slavery at all, or that his passion for emancipation was lacking. While he may not have favored immediate abolition, he nonetheless spent almost the entirety of his public career forcefully and unequivocally condemning slavery, expressing a desire for its eventual abolition.

Also, one has to consider his House Divided speech. Only in the context of a united country could we arrive at a nation that was totally free. If the slave states removed themselves from the union, then abolition no longer is a possibility. So whole Lincoln was primarily interested in maintaining the union at all costs, it was to preserve a union which would eventually pave the way for the total eradication of slavery.

What’s more, as the war progressed, it became a war for emancipation. The Emancipation Proclamation is often dismissed as a cynical prop for perpetuating the war, but the proclamation changed the moral arc of the war. That most of Lincoln’s cabinet urged Lincoln not to issue the proclamation would seem to be a point of proof in how passionately Lincoln felt about this measure.

Myth #2: Lincoln wanted to send all freed slaves to an African colony.

This is another half-truth that is spread with the intent of harming Lincoln’s reputation. Again, there is an element of truth to it, but it’s not the whole truth. Lincoln did initially advocate and develop colonization plans – both before he was president, and then during the early days of his presidency. He did not have much hope that freed slaves would be treated well by their former captors, so thought it would be best for them to remove them to another location.

However, Lincoln’s views changed as the war progressed. He had regular audiences with Frederick Douglass and other freed slaves. During these conversations they made him aware of how much they desired to be part of the American experience. When he realized they didn’t want to be shipped off to a colony and instead wanted to make a life in this country, he shifted course. In his final public address, he specifically addressed reconstruction efforts and his hope that the franchise would be given to freed slaves (if tempered by the qualifications that they be deemed to be intelligent and/or to have fought in the war). These very words only fueled the fire in the heart of one audience member: John Wilkes Booth. So Lincoln may have initially favored colonization, but had clearly and definitively abandoned those plans by the close of the war.

Myth 3: The war had other major causes than slavery, especially tariffs.

This would have had more merit had the civil was been fought thirty years earlier (or maybe now), but there’s very little to support the notion that what drove southern voters to declare their independence was fury over tariff rates. One could spend several posts (or an entire book) just discussing this one point, so I will have to simplify this tremendously.

Kansas didn’t bleed over tariffs. John Brown didn’t raid Harper’s Ferry to protect federal agents collecting tariffs. Dred Scott wasn’t a Supreme Court case declaring tariffs unconstitutional. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas didn’t travel around the state of Illinois in 1858 participating in a series of debates about tariffs.

I’m fairly confident that northern politicians, newspapermen, record keepers, etc. did not go through pre-war records, deleting all references to tariffs. Read history books. Read primary sources. They can tell you more than some “yankee” behind a computer screen in 2018 what animated decision makers in 1860 and 1861. And they’ll tell you that there was one primary animating issue, and it sure as hell wasn’t freaking tariffs.

Myth #4: Regardless of the specific cause, the confederate states had a right to secede.

Now we’re getting into trickier and more subjective territory. As a blogger who is using the pseudonym also used by two writers who had very liberal views on revolution, I couldn’t possibly argue that the confederate states didn’t have a right to secede, could I? I could, and I do.

The Declaration of Independence talks about a “long train of abuses” suffered by the colonists before they rebelled against the king. No one has ever adequately explained the long train of abuses suffered by the confederate states which justified their rebellion. If anything, as Lincoln alluded to in the House Divided speech, the abuses were in the other direction. The repeal of the Missouri Compromise, the Lecompton constitution, the Dred Scott decision – all these major events were decided in favor of  slave-holder interests. One could even go back to the Mexican-American war as an event where the outcome favored the slave states. Every major American political decision and event for the better part of the decade showed southern, not northern domination of American politics. The election of 1860 merely promised to halt this trend.

Besides, the argument laid out in myth #1 would seem to contradict this point. Conceding that Lincoln had no plans to immediately abolish slavery or even fight for legislation in that direction, what justification was there for secession? You basically have an administration and Congress that was no longer willing to lay down and play dead for the slave interest, and you consider that sufficient justification for revolution?

Myth #5: Lincoln proved himself a tyrant, particularly with regards to his suspension of habeas corpus.

Let’s look at Article I, section 9, of the Constitution:

The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.

I honestly don’t know how much more black and white the text could be. In cases of rebellion – and this was a pretty clear-cut case of rebellion – the writ of habeas corpus can be suspended. The only case that can be made against Lincoln is that this language is placed in Article 1, and thus is implicitly a legislative act. While there’s some merit to that argument, Congress did retroactively approve Lincoln’s decision once they came into session.

Lincoln himself justified his actions more succinctly than I ever could in this letter to Erastus Corning. Lincoln gets to the heart of the matter:

Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wiley agitator who induces him to desert?

Anyone trying to compare Lincoln’s actions with, say, Woodrow Wilson during World War I, would be conflating two drastically different situations. A war being fought on one’s own soil presents a much different challenge, and the constitution very clearly provides for an exception in the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus.

It should be noted that Lincoln’s treatment of individuals like Vallindingham was much softer than would have been expected in almost any other time in history up until that point. Vallandingham didn’t exactly have to survive the Tower of London.

That’s it for now. If you have other oft-repeated civil war myths, please share.

 

The Libertarian Cato

In the previous posts I explored Gordon and Trenchard’s writings regarding the origins of government and the justifications for revolution. In this post I’ll examine what I would describe as their more libertarian writings. Cato’s musings on freedom of speech and freedom of conscience are perhaps the most important in reference to the American founding.

Cato consistent advocates a broad grant of freedom to speak one’s mind. Freedom of speech, Cato would write in the 15th letter, is essential to free government:

Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as publick liberty, without freedom of speech: Which is the right of every man, as far as by it he does not hurt and control the right of another; and this is the only check which it ought to suffer, the only bounds which it ought to know.

This sacred privilege is so essential to free government, that the security of property; and the freedom of speech, always go together; and in those wretched countries where a man cannot call his tongue his own, he can scarce call any thing else his own. Whoever would overthrow the liberty of the nation, must begin by subduing the freedom of speech; a thing terrible to publick traitors.

Later on in the same letter, Cato would write that “freedom of speech is the great bulwark of liberty.” A free society would die if it did not grant citizens the ability to speak without fear of censorship or imprisonment. Tyrants feared the pens of great thinkers, and tyranny flourished where these great minds were shut up.

Rulers have stifled this essential liberty by contending that they are often libeled. Cato argues that a good ruler need not fear libel, writing at the conclusion of his 32nd letter:

The best way to escape the virulence of libels, is not to deserve them; but as innocence itself is not secure against the malignity of evil tongues, it is also necessary to punish them. However, it does not follow that the press is to be sunk, for the errors of the press. No body was ever yet so ridiculous to propose a law for restraining people from travelling upon the highway, because some who used the highway committed robberies.

It is commonly said, that no nation in the world would allow such papers to come abroad as England suffers; which is only saying, that no nation in the world enjoys the liberty which England enjoys. In countries where there is no liberty, there can be no ill effects of it. No body is punished at Constantinople for libelling: Nor is there any distinction there between the liberty of the press, and the licentiousness of the press; a distinction ever to be observed by honest men and freemen.

Honest rulers don’t have to fear a malignant press, and should suffer the slings and arrows lest they suppress a fundamental right. Well at least the Framers understood the truth of this concept. 

In the 81st and 82nd letters, Cato would employ similar logic in arguing for the rights of religious dissenters. First of all, many of the religious dissenters, especially the Quakers, have no desire to hold ecclesial power – after all, they don’t even have any priests. The Episcopal Establishment would therefore have nothing to fear in granting such groups liberty to worship. Others, like the Presbyterians, are too small in number to threaten the Established Church. These dissenting sects merely want to govern themselves, and pose no threat to the established order.

While this may not seem like a very principled argument for religious freedom, Cato consistently pushes back against the Episcopal Establishment. I’ll cover more about Cato and religion in another post, but both Gordon and Trenchard themselves were not members of the established church, and would certainly oppose efforts to force conformity.

If freedom of speech and religion are vital natural rights, what mechanisms can ensure a liberty-loving government protective of those rights? In the 61st letter, Cato would lay out a few essential principles which should sound familiar to American ears: frequent elections and rotation in office.

So that I can see no means in human policy to preserve the publick liberty and a monarchical form of government together, but by the frequent fresh elections of the people’s deputies: This is what the writers in politicks call rotation of magistracy. Men, when they first enter into magistracy, have often their former condition before their eyes: They remember what they themselves suffered, with their fellow-subjects, from the abuse of power, and how much they blamed it; and so their first purposes are to be humble, modest, and just; and probably, for some time, they continue so. But the possession of power soon alters and vitiates their hearts, which are at the same time sure to be leavened, and puffed up to an unnatural size, by the deceitful incense of false friends, and by the prostrate submission of parasites. First, they grow indifferent to all their good designs, then drop them: Next, they lose their moderation; afterwards, they renounce all measures with their old acquaintance and old principles; and seeing themselves in magnifying glasses, grow, in conceit, a different species from their fellowsubjects; and so by too sudden degrees become insolent, rapacious and tyrannical, ready to catch at all means, often the vilest and most oppressive, to raise their fortunes as high as their imaginary greatness. So that the only way to put them in mind of their former condition, and consequently of the condition of other people, is often to reduce them to it; and to let others of equal capacities share of power in their turn: This also is the only way to qualify men, and make them equally fit for dominion and subjection.

A rotation therefore, in power and magistracy, is essentially necessary to a free government: It is indeed the thing itself; and constitutes, animates, and informs it, as much as the soul constitutes the man. It is a thing sacred and inviolable, where-ever liberty is thought sacred; nor can it ever be committed to the disposal of those who are trusted with the preservation of national constitutions: For though they may have the power to model it for the publick advantage, and for the more effectual security of that right; yet they can have none to give it up, or, which is the same thing, to make it useless.

These two concepts thus go hand-in-hand. Frequent elections and rotation in office will mitigate the potentially negative consequences of office-holders being stuck in the same position for years and years. These ideas would be echoed years later, perhaps more so by anti-Federalists, who felt the terms of Congressmen were far too long.

In letter number 70, Cato would turn to the notion of mixed forms of government, and would contend that mixed forms of government were essential to preserve liberty.

All men desire naturally riches and power; almost all men will take every method, just or unjust, to attain them. Hence the difficulty of governing men, and of instituting a government equally proper to restrain them and protect them; and hence the insufficiency of simple forms of government, to provide for the happiness and security of societies. An arbitrary prince will quickly grow into a tyrant; the uncontrolled dominions of the nobles will as certainly produce oligarchy, or the tyranny of a few; that is, pride, combination, and rapine in the sovereigns, and misery and dejection in the many; and the unrestrained licentiousness of the multitude will beget confusion and anarchy. To provide against these certain and eternal evils, mixed forms of government were invented; where dominion and liberty are so equally tempered, and so mutually checked one by another, that neither of them can have interest and force enough to oppress the other.

In language that would be echoed in another famous, pseudonymous letter, Cato lays out the advantages of this mixed form of government:

The nature and reason of this sort of government, is to make the several parts of it control and counterpoise one another; and so keep all within their proper bounds. The interest of the magistracy, which is the lot and portion of the great, is to prevent confusion, which levels all things: The interest of the body of the people, is to keep people from oppression, and their magistrates from changing into plunderers and murderers; the interest of the standing senate, which is, or ought to be, composed of men distinguishable for their fortunes and abilities, is to avoid ruin and dissolution from either of these extremes: So that, to preserve liberty, all these coordinate powers must be kept up in their whole strength and independency.

One might say ambition is to counteract ambition.

It is clear from the letters I’ve discussed thus far that the themes Cato touches upon would resonate for our liberty loving founders. In the next post, I’ll look at some letters which temporize this libertarian streak to some degree, and also in a way which would resonate years later in America.

So You Say You Want a Revolution

Getting back to my series on Cato’s Letters, written by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, we’re going to take a deeper dive into the subject matter which may have had the most influence on America’s revolutionary generation.

In the previous post, I discussed Cato’s writings about the origin of government. These writings had clear Lockean overtones. Cato’s views on revolution also had a very Lockean tone to them, though Gordon and Trenchard develop and build upon Locke’s theories and present a wide-ranging justification for revolution.

In the 25th letter, Cato writes about arbitrary power: “There is something so wanton and monstrous in lawless power, that there scarce ever was a human spirit that could bear it; and the mind of man, which is weak and limited, ought never to be trusted with a power that is boundless.” Cato adds, “The state of tyranny is a state of war.” For Cato, tyranny is a description of lawless governance where the ruler governs not for the good of his subjects, but for personal advancement. Even good men can become tyrants if they set themselves above the law. In other words, tyranny describes governance based on the arbitrary whims of the ruler rather than in observance of the laws.

Following the Lockean model, if men only enter into political society to guarantee their safety, arbitrary and tyrannical governance does not not merit obedience. While lawful rulers do merit loyalty, tyrants are assured of no such loyalty. From Letter 36:

To obey a prince, who does himself obey the laws, is confessed on all hands to be loyalty: Now, from hence, one would naturally think, that, by every rule of reason, it might be inferred, that to obey one who obeys no law, is a departure from all loyalty, and an outrage committed upon it; and that both he who commands, and he who obeys, are outlaws and disloyalists: And yet these same ungodly pedants shall maintain it to your face, that though loyalty consist in obeying a good prince, it also consists in the very contrary, and in obeying a wicked prince; who, though he be an enemy to God, is the vicegerent of God; and though he commit all wickedness, yet does it by divine right; and though it be a sin to obey him, yet it is a damnable sin to resist him: In short, that all the instruments and partners of his crying crimes are loyalists; and all who defend law, virtue, and mankind, against such monsters, are rebels, and assuredly damned, for preventing or resisting actions which deserve damnation: And thus men become rebels, by acting virtuously against the worst of all rebels, who are restrained by no consideration, human or divine.

In the 42nd letter, Cato would add there is no duty to obey unjust laws.

The violation therefore of law does not constitute a crime where the law is bad; but the violation of what ought to be law, is a crime even where there is no law. The essence of right and wrong does not depend upon words and clauses inserted in a code or a statute-book, much less upon the conclusions and explications of lawyers; but upon reason and the nature of things, antecedent to all laws.

This is language that would be echoed by our Framers, and all the way through the civil rights movement. Bad law, or law which violates natural rights, is no law at all.

He expands on this later in the letter:

But every man, who consents to the necessary terms of society, will also consent to this proposition, that every man should do all the good, and prevent all the evil, that he can. This is the voice of the law of nature; and all men would be happy by it, if all men would practice it. This law leads us to see, that the establishment of falsehood and tyranny (by which I mean the privilege of one or a few to mislead and oppress all) cannot be justly called law, which is the impartial rule of good and evil, and can never be the sanction of evil alone.

Then he writes:

The two great laws of human society, from whence all the rest derive their course and obligation, are those of equity and self- preservation: By the first all men are bound alike not to hurt one another; by the second all men have a right alike to defend themselves: Nam jure hoc evenit, ut quod quisque ob tutelam corporis suifecerit, jure fecisse existimetur [“For this comes from the law: that which someone does for the safety of his body, let it be regarded as having been done legally.”], says the civil law; that is, “It is a maxim of the law, that whatever we do in the way and for the ends of self defence, we lawfully do.” All the laws of society are entirely reciprocal, and no man ought to be exempt from their force; and whoever violates this primary law of nature, ought by the law of nature to be destroyed. He who observes no law, forfeits all title to the protection of law. It is wickedness not to destroy a destroyer; and all the ill consequences of self-defence are chargeable upon him who occasioned them.

This is, dare I say, revolutionary stuff. Cato (specifically in this case, Gordon) ties the first principles of government and argues that man is not obligated to follow laws which would do harm to his natural rights. Moreover, man has an affirmative obligation to overthrown an unjust ruler. Here he lays out, in clear language, that we have a natural right to revolution.

Many mischiefs are prevented, by destroying one who shews a certain disposition to commit many. To allow a licence to any man to do evil with impunity, is to make vice triumph over virtue, and innocence the prey of the guilty. If men be obliged to bear great and publick evils, when they can upon better terms oppose and remove them; they are obliged, by the same logick, to bear the total destruction of mankind. If any man may destroy whom he pleases without resistance, he may extinguish the human race without resistance. For, if you settle the bounds of resistance, you allow it; and if you do not fix its bounds, you leave property at the mercy of rapine, and life in the hands of cruelty.

In a sense, not only do we possess the right to rebel against unlawful authority, we have an obligation to do so lest further injustices are committed. He writes:

The law of nature does not only allow us, but oblige us, to defend ourselves. It is our duty, not only to ourselves, but to the society; Vitam tibi ipsi si negas, multis negas, says Seneca:[“If one denies life to oneself, one denies it to many.”] If we suffer tamely a lawless attack upon our property and fortunes, we encourage it, and involve others in our doom. And Cicero says, “He who does not resist mischief when he may, is guilty of the same crime, as if he had deserted his parents, his friends, and his country.”

The idea that revolution is a duty, not just a right, is a step beyond anything written by Locke. Locke justified the right of revolution, but only within very narrow parameters. Cato broadens Locke’s conception of the right of revolution to intimate that subjects are duty bound to resist unlawful tyrants. This would certainly have great reverberations fifty years later in the colonies. Indeed, if one considers what was at issue in the American Revolution, Gordon and Trenchard would seem to be of greater applicability than Locke. It is certainly a broader justification for the right of revolution than what is expressed even in the Second Treatise of Government.

Later on, in his 55th letter, Cato looks back on history to justify the overthrow of tyrants. Specifically, he lauds those who assassinated Julius Caesar. “Every body, I believe, will own, that when he first made war upon his country, his country had a right to make war upon him; and to destroy him, who fought to destroy them.” Not only were Caesar’s assassins meritorious, the greatest men in history have been those who slayed tyrants, and in doing so saved millions from abject servitude.

If we read the stories of the most celebrated heroes of antiquity (men of whom the present world is not worthy) and consider the actions that gained them their highest reverence and renown, and recommended their names to posterity with the most advantage; we shall find those in the first rank of glory, who have resisted, destroyed, or expelled tyrants and usurpers, the pests, the burdens, and the butchers of mankind. What can be more meritorious, what more beneficent to the world, than the saving of millions of men at the expense of one grand murderer, one merciless and universal plunderer? And can there be any better or other reason given for the killing of any guilty man, but the preserving of the innocent?

These ideas could certainly prove dangerous. Who gets to decide when a ruler is governing arbitrarily? Isn’t this an open invitation to anarchy?

In his 59th letter (already discussed in some detail in the previous post), Cato addresses this concern directly:

But here arises a grand question, which has perplexed and puzzled the greatest part of mankind: Yet, I think, the answer to it easy and obvious. The question is, who shall be judge whether the magistrate acts justly, and pursues his trust? To this it is justly said, that if those who complain of him are to judge him, then there is a settled authority above the chief magistrate, which authority must be itself the chief magistrate; which is contrary to the supposition; and the same question and difficulty will recur again upon this new magistracy. All this I own to be absurd; and I aver it to be at least as absurd to affirm, that the person accused is to be the decisive judge of his own actions, when it is certain that he will always judge and determine in his own favour; and thus the whole race of mankind will be left helpless under the heaviest injustice, oppression, and misery, that can afflict human nature.

But if neither magistrates, nor they who complain of magistrates, and are aggrieved by them, have a right to determine decisively, the one for the other; and if there be no common established power, to which both are subject; then every man interested in the success of the contest, must act according to the light and dictates of his own conscience, and inform it as well as he can. Where no judge is nor can be appointed, every man must be his own; that is, when there is no stated judge upon earth, we must have recourse to heaven, and obey the will of heaven, by declaring ourselves on that which we think the juster side.

These words have a certain resonance in our age. Rulers themselves cannot be the arbiters of the merits of their own actions. It thus comes down to the informed reason of subjects to judge for themselves. Their actions, in turn, will be judged by the Ultimate Judge: God Himself.

Cato (in this case, now Trenchard) thus argues that the governed have the right and duty to judge their rulers.

In truth, I think it is as much the business and right of the people to judge whether their prince be good or bad, whether a father or an enemy, as to judge whether he be dead or alive; unless it be said (as many such wise things have been said) that they may judge whether he can govern them, but not whether he does; and that it behoves them to put the administration in wiser hands, if he be a harmless fool, but it is impious to do it, if he be only a destructive tyrant; that want of speech is a disqualification, but want of humanity, none.

It’s instructive to note that in subsequent letters Cato writes forcefully against the idea of the “divine right of kings.” Kings were not appointed by God to rule over men. Instead, rulers were appointed by men to rule over men. If that is the case, then it is only right and natural that these same men can judge their rulers to be tyrants and lawfully overthrow them.

Cato further outlines what he deems to be arbitrary rule in the 63rd letter:

Such are arbitrary princes, whose laws are nothing but sudden fury, or lasting folly and wickedness in uncertain shapes. Hopeful rules these, for the governing of mankind, and making them happy! Rules which are none, since they cannot be depended upon for a moment; and generally change for the worse, if that can be. A subject worth twenty thousand pounds today, may, by a sudden edict issued by the dark counsel of a traitor, be a beggar tomorrow, and lose his life without forfeiting the same. The property of the whole kingdom shall be great, or little, or none, just at the mercy of a secretary’s pen, guided by a child, or a dotard, or a foolish woman, or a favourite buffoon, or a gamester, or whoever is uppermost for the day; the next day shall alter entirely the yesterday’s scheme, though not for the better; and the same men, in different humours, shall be the authors of both. Thus in arbitrary countries, a law aged two days is an old law; and no law is suffered to be a standing law, but such as are found by long experience to be so very bad, and so thoroughly destructive, that human malice, and all the arts of a tyrant’s court, cannot make them worse. A court which never ceaseth to squeeze, kill, and oppress, till it has wound up human misery so high, that it will go no further. This is so much fact, that I appeal to all history and travels, and to those that read them, whether in arbitrary countries, both in Europe and out of it, the people do not grow daily thinner, and their misery greater; and whether countries are not peopled and rich, in proportion to the liberty which they enjoy and allow.

Arbitrary rule is, in a sense, no rule at all. It is governance by the arbitrary whims of the king or prince rather than by the rule of law. Arbitrary rule being no just rule at all, once again, men are simply under no obligation to obey such a rule.

All men own, that it is the duty of a prince to protect his people; And some have said, that it is their duty to obey him, when he butchers them. An admirable consequence, and full of sweet consolation! His whole business and office is to defend them, and to do them good; therefore they are bound to let him destroy them. Was ever such impudence in an enlightened country? It is perfectly agreeable to the doctrines and followers of Mahomet: But shall Englishmen, who make their own laws, be told, that they have no right to the common air, to the life and fortune which God has given them, but by the permission of an officer of their own making; who is what he is only for their sakes and security, and has no more right to these blessings, nor to do evil, than one of themselves? And shall we be told this by men, who are eternally the first to violate their own doctrines? Or shall they after this have the front to teach us any doctrine, or to recommend to us any one virtue, when they have thus given up all virtue and truth, and every blessing that life affords? For there is no evil, misery, and wickedness, which arbitrary monarchies do not produce, and must produce; nor do they, nor can they, produce any certain, general, or diffusive good.

TL:DR version: Men do not have to obey the ruler who is harming them.

Having said all this, it would seem Gordon and Trenchard have delivered an open invitation to perpetual strife. As witnessed in our modern age, it is easy enough for individuals to claim they are being unjustly ruled. This would make all defiance of the law permissible so long as the individual claimed conscience protection.

Not quite. Gordon and Trenchard expect people to reach reasonable conclusions, and therefore they must be guided by right reason before deciding to rebel. More than a year after the letters outlined above were written, there was a period of turmoil as certain clergy and other disaffected religious minorities began clamoring for change within the Established Church. In his 129th letter, Cato firmly slams the door on the idea that any of their murmurings for revolution were in any way justified.

For God’s sake, Gentlemen, think what you are doing: Your lives, your estates, your religion, your conscience, your trade, your country, your honour, are all at stake, and you are wantonly throwing them all away; you are pursuing a false and miserable shadow; and it would be happy for you, were it only a shadow: In reality, you are going to catch in your embraces, superstition, beggary, and servitude. I approve your love and pursuit of liberty, which ever was, and ever will be, a grateful and charming sound in my ears; and I will be always ready to lead you, or to follow you, in that virtuous and noble pursuit. This is wisdom! This is honour! But honour is to be acquired by honourable means, and not by rapine, perjury, and murder.

In this particular case revolution would subject the people of Great Britain to worse rule. He urges the audience to recognize how blessed they are to be citizens of a free and prosperous country.

You are born, Gentlemen, to liberty; and from it you derive all the blessings which you possess. Pray, what affection have these your leaders ever shewn to the cause of liberty? It is plain that they have never taken the sacred sound into their mouths, but to profane it; nor pretended to cherish it, but in order to destroy it, and make it an unnatural ladder to tyranny. As often as dominion has been in their own hands, liberty became a crime, and a sign of sedition; and as often as they wanted to destroy power, that is, as often as they were out of it, they prostituted the spirit of liberty to the service of treason. Hence their late cries for liberty, to animate you against a government that protected it; and under the pretence of affecting liberty, to introduce a tyranny that would destroy the soul, body and property. They could, however, have made no dangerous progress in this mischief and hypocrisy, if those who have always professed, and whose interest it would have been always to have supported and practised, free and beneficent principles, had not deserted those principles, and armed by that desertion the enemies to all that is good and virtuous, with an opportunity of turning liberty upon herself. Let the real friends to the government support the maxims upon which it stands, and upon which only it can stand, and they have nothing to fear from the well or ill-grounded popularity of its enemies.

Though addressing a specific situation, Cato tempers the revolutionary spirit. It is not enough to merely feel downtrodden. One must soberly reflect upon his current situation. Then, and only then, can an individual or a people make a reasoned decision about revolution. Given the context of Great Britain at the time, any calls for revolution were thus unreasonable.

It can certainly be objected that Gordon and Trenchard have not adequately addressed concerns about the abuse of this right of revolution. They are leaving too much up to the arbitrary whims of subjects themselves. I would suspect that they would respond that a consequence of liberty is for people to get it wrong, but that the alternative would be far worse as it would be an invitation to continued tyrannical rule with no opportunity for redress.

Having said all that, I would argue that these words, more than any except those written by Thomas Paine, are the most important inspiration for the American revolutionaries.

The Misunderstood Genius of the Revolutionary Era

At some point I will write extensively about Hamilton. For now, please read this excellent profile by Don McClarey. It’s a magnificent summary of his life. It also has a picture perfect conclusion:

Poor Alexander Hamilton, the most misunderstood of the Founding Fathers. He was defamed by both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in life, and had his life cut short before he could correct the record. The popular play about him gives a totally false representation of the man. None of this is too surprising. He was always a man ill suited for his time. He could see the industrialization of the US and the growth of the Federal government decades before almost any one else. He derived from his experiences in the Revolution, as did Washington, the evils of a too weak Federal government. His was a voice for the long term, and short term exigencies were always his downfall. Not half the politician that Jefferson was, he had a knack for making needless enemies. His personal scandal helped ensure that his enemies would ever have potent ammunition against him. A Greek tragedy, no, an American tragedy, of a life in many ways.

Go here to read the rest.