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As I write this, our nation is consumed with the latest scandal involving a Presidential administration.  In this case it is questions over IRS scrutiny of Tea Party and other Conservative groups seeking 501(c)4 Tax Exempt status; Justice Department scrutiny of reporters for the Associate Press phone records, and finally lingering questions over whether the Obama administration spun the events in Benghazi for political purposes.

Since the end of Watergate it would seem that every Presidential administration has been faced with a crisis of some magnitude.  For Gerald Ford, it was his pardon of Nixon which in historical hindsight has proven to have been the right and proper thing to do; for Jimmy Carter it was Iran Hostage Crisis, for Ronald Reagan and George Bush it was Iran Contra; for Bill Clinton take your pick, Vince Foster suicide, Whitewater, or Monica Lewinsky; and for George W. Bush it was the manufactured intelligence that justified the invasion of Iraq.  All had in common was the moral outrage of the fourth estate, and the use of the scandals by political opponents to proclaim their moral outrage whilst at the same time emulating the scandalous behavior of those they decry.

It is easy to express moral outrage.  The fourth estate, whether it is the partisan bellowing of those on Fox or MSNBC, the bemused expression of Jon Stewart, or blathering platitudes of Wolf Blitzer; is quick to point to the root causes be it ineptness, incompetence, or political criminality, the fourth estate is not interested in fostering a true discussion on solutions.  Controversy builds rating, ratings builds advertisers, advertising provides large salaries so there is no incentive to truly look for reform.  Those like National Public Radio, ProPublica, or Public Broadcasting Service who do take a serious look and who do proffer solutions; too often offer solutions which are not practical and are based on academic theory and not practical politics.

The reality of each of these scandals is they were based on the desire to retain or destroy those in power.  Richard Nixon’s desire to retain power and his paranoid delusions about his enemies allowed him to be persuaded to cross the line between hardnosed politics and criminal activity.  The scandals since then have been about undercutting those in power; about destroying ones political enemies.  It can be said that while some of the actions such as Oliver North’s activities as a low level functionary inside the White House deserve commendation there was never any evidence that President Reagan either authorized his activities or knew of them and no other reason to go after Reagan except politics.  While the actions of Clinton were unseemly, and he should have kept his mouth shut when he said, “I never had sex,” his offenses were hardly high crimes and misdemeanors, nevertheless his enemies sought to impeach him because of his political power.

I speak to these scandals as they typify what is wrong with our political system.  We have loss sight that it is not about retaining power but rather governing this diverse nation.  A nation of diverse origins, diverse racial composition, diverse religions, and diverse geography; but a nation bound by common ideals and a constitution, and a belief that men of good character can rise above the fray and do what is right and not what is politically expedient.

It is the failure of our governing class, be it as the local, state, territorial, or national level to live up to this expectation that frustrates every citizens whether conservative, moderate, or liberal.  The only ones who are happy are the anarchists.

Chapter 1

We the People; not, Me the Person

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Preamble of the Constitution of the United States

How many of us have really bothered to think about the words of the Preamble.  In fact I would be willing to bet that most adult Americans, except history and government nerds like me, cannot repeat from memory a complete phrase.  The Preamble is important as it sets forth the ideals the drafters of the Constitution believed was the purpose of our nation and its government.

One should note the first word is we.  It is not I.  It is not me.  It is the collective we.  “We the people of the United States.”  At the time of the writing of the Constitution, the composition of the we was limited.  It did not include women, slaves, and in most cases non-believers or those who owned no property.  Regardless of who was excluded the Preamble was intended to reflect the sense of community which the founders saw connecting the diverse states of the Union.

There have always been multiple competing interests, which our nation has struggled to keep in balance.  Is the individual or the community more important?  Is liberty or order more important?  Which should be stronger the central or state or local governments?  How much power should corporation have, should they be allowed unfettered control over their destiny; or, should they be regulated in such a manner to protect both the community and the individual from the harmful effects of their actions?

In recent year it has been I that has dominated the discussions within the body politic.  Whether it is the right or the left there has been loud gnashing of teeth and wailing whenever it was believed that government or quasi-governmental institutions were attempting to subvert the rights and privileges of the individual.

We have lost sight that the purpose of government is to do what is best of all the people not just what is best for me.  This is hard to do, in a country where there are 350 million citizens it is hard to find the middle; it is easier for those who govern to appeal to their base, to seek to promote policies that appease their supporters rather than to find common ground that serves the commonweal.[1]

But then again our dysfunction stems from the fact that it would appear there is little agreement on what government should or should not be.  There are those on the right, or on the libertarian fringes, who would abolish or severely limit government; that the individual is perfectly capable of deciding what is right and proper.  The problem with this is that it denies the need for people to be part of a community; that as a community they must decide what is right and proper for the common weal.  There are others, those on the liberal fringes, who believe that government is more capable than individuals in deciding what is right and proper.  The so called nanny state approach to government also denies the wisdom of the individual; in that so called experts in all sorts and manners of bureaucratic jargon must make the ultimate decisions for the good of all.

If you think I have described the extremes of our two political parties you are correct, I have.  I do so to point out that it is the extremes of both of our political parties that set the agenda for those who represent the people. Small faction decide the destiny of our nation, small factions set the agenda of the two political parties in Congress and punish those who dare to step away from the orthodoxy of the political establishment.

The We in the preamble is no longer a collective We, it is a We that represents the extremes of the right and left, the extremes who put Me above the needs of all.

So what did the founders believe the purpose of government was:

  • To form a more perfect union
  • Establish justice
  • Ensure domestic tranquility
  • Provide for the Common Defense
  • Promote the General Welfare
  • Secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity
  • Do ordain and establish this constitution

We must first consider what a more perfect union means.  At the time the Constitution was drafted, written, and ratified it was believed anything was better than the Articles of Confederation.  The government of the Articles of Confederation were a valiant but flawed attempt to create a government.  The government created was a confederacy, leaving each state sovereign and free to chart a course that was untenable for the collective good of the thirteen states.  Probably the greatest defect of the Articles was Congress lack of power to regulate commerce between the individual states and foreign governments.  When coupled with the common lack of quorum[2] the Articles of Confederation provided for a weak central government incapable of exercising the basic functions of governance.

What Madison[3] and others envisioned was a Federal system in which neither the central or state governments could effectively function without the mutual support and cooperation of each of the states.  Powers were to be defined and limited so that the sphere of the federal (central) and state governments did not conflict.

Madison, summed it up, in Federalists 10, the necessity of replacing the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution; [4]

“The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished; as they continue to be the favorite and fruitful topics from which the adversaries to liberty derive their most specious declamations.”

So what was Madison talking about here.  Very simply, he was speaking of the power of factions.  Groups of individuals who clamor to the base fears of the public to achieve some purpose other than what is good for the commonweal of the state.  The Article of Confederation had shown the impotency, which majority factions imposed on the state.  For Madison, Hamilton, and Jay, a balance was needed between having a strong central government and the needs of individual states.

Thus a more perfect union was one in which the central government was able to speak with an authoritative voice for the nation, but which each of the state governments was able to influence based on the needs of the individual states and its citizens.  But the founders also realized there needed to be a check on the unbridled power of the central government.  Madison as a student of ancient history, was aware that a republic, which the founders envision the United States as being, had failed because the central government became corrupt and above those who they represented.  But Madison, was also aware, that small republic such as the state, could become as corrupt and unfaithful to the needs to the people.

We must understand that Madison et al were not creating a democracy; they were creating a representative republic.  There were aspects of democracy in the design of the republic, but that was limited democracy in 1789; a democracy of free white men, who were property holders.  They were the ones who would select the people’s representatives to the House of Representatives.  The Senate was to be selected by the each of the State assemblies thereby also being selected not by the individuals, but by the collective acting in concert for the interest of the individual citizens.[5]

A representative republic where each representative had to carefully consider the needs and wants of their individual constituent verses the common good of the nation as a whole.  This rather long quote, by The Right Honourable Edmund Burke, sums up most explicably the duty of a representative of the people.  The views so eloquently expressed by Burke, reflect also the views of that American Conservative, James Madison, who saw governance as doing what was best for all the people and not just some.

I am sorry I cannot conclude without saying a word on a topic touched upon by my worthy colleague. I wish that topic had been passed by at a time when I have so little leisure to discuss it. But since he has thought proper to throw it out, I owe you a clear explanation of my poor sentiments on that subject.

He tells you that “the topic of instructions has occasioned much altercation and uneasiness in this city;” and he expresses himself (if I understand him rightly) in favour of the coercive authority of such instructions.

Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

My worthy colleague says, his will ought to be subservient to yours. If that be all, the thing is innocent. If government were a matter of will upon any side, yours, without question, ought to be superior. But government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination; and what sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion; in which one set of men deliberate, and another decide; and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments?

To deliver an opinion, is the right of all men; that of constituents is a weighty and respectable opinion, which a representative ought always to rejoice to hear; and which he ought always most seriously to consider. But authoritative instructions; mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience,–these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our constitution.

Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament. If the local constituent should have an interest, or should form an hasty opinion, evidently opposite to the real good of the rest of the community, the member for that place ought to be as far, as any other, from any endeavour to give it effect. I beg pardon for saying so much on this subject. I have been unwillingly drawn into it; but I shall ever use a respectful frankness of communication with you. Your faithful friend, your devoted servant, I shall be to the end of my life: a flatterer you do not wish for.[6]

Which brings us back to the matter of our discussion, what is a more perfect union.  For the founders it was a balancing act between the needs and wants of a few and the needs and wants of the whole.  It was about what best for the nation as a community.  Madison and the others understood that there would always be a tension between the needs and the wants of the nation and the needs and wants of the individual states.  There would always be a tension between what was best for the corporate body of men, and what was best for the individual citizen.

We must also remember that Madison and the founders stated that in forming this more perfect union, the nation was also collectively responsible for establishing justice, that is ensuring that we were a nation of laws, that no man was above the law, and that each citizen regardless of their standing in life was entitled to fair and impartial hearings in both criminal and civil matters.  Ensuring domestic tranquility, that is the enforcement of those laws necessary for a civil and functioning society.  Providing for the common defense, which saw the necessity of a small standing Armed Forces to protect the nation and its citizens.[7]  To promote the General Welfare, that is the nation taking actions to ensure that all were treated in a fair and equitable manner, and that all would have a chance to succeed and fail depending on their actions.  And lastly to secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity. . .that is taking no actions that would sacrifice our freedoms and liberties for future generations.

So we are back to where we began this discourse, it is We and not Me.  Unfortunately our nation has become convinced that the Me is more important than the We.  As a nation we have lost sight of the needs of our fellow man, we “follow too much the devices and desires of our own hearts,” and paid too little heed to what is good for all.

As a nation, we have allowed the cult of what is best for Me to so dominate our thinking that as citizens we have lost sight of what a nation is, a community dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal, and that they endowed by the creator with certain unalienable rights.”


[1] com·mon·weal noun 1. the common welfare; the public good. 2. Archaic. the body politic; a commonwealth. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/commonweal?s=t

[2] The Articles of Confederation required a quorum of nine states to be represented in Congress before any action could be taken; many times the Congress would wait and wait for sufficient states to be present in order to take action.

 [3] I shall admit to a bias towards Mr. Madison.  He was the principle architect of our Constitution and perhaps our first great Political Scientist who immersed himself in the study of ancient governments, their strengths and weaknesses prior to the Constitutional Convention.  In my humble estimation Mr. Madison is the most underappreciated of our founders.  When I hear political commentators (aka bolivators) speak of the founders intent I find that most have a superficial understanding of our government and the constitutional foundation established by the founders.  I am particularly distressed by those, who claim they wish to return our nation to the vision of the founders and when pressed will quote someone like Thomas Paine or even Patrick Henry, who at best were polemists, and in the case of Paine was a nihilists and anarchists.

  [4] Excerpt From: Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. “The Federalist Papers.” iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewBook?id=361565445

 [5] This provision was repealed by the Seventeenth Amendment.  There are those who argue that this amendment fundamentally altered the nature of our representative government by making the Senate more responsive to the wants of the people.  This is a specious argument, a review of the history of the United States Senate shows that turnover has not changed greatly and that except in rare cases the members of the Senate reflect the dominate political arrangements of the state the Senators represent.  Moreover the Senate rather than becoming a rubber stamp, has since the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment continue to serve the role envision by the founders, to cool the passions of the people.

[6] http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch13s7.html, Edmund Burke, Speech to the Electors of Bristol, 3 Nov. 1774Works 1:446—48

7 I suspect Mr. Madison and the founders would be horrified at the size and scope of the National Security State that exist in the United States today.  They would be further horrified at the imperialistic actions of the United States in the use of our Armed Forces for offensive actions against nations whose actions posed little or no threat to our own.

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