For some time now, our political rhetoric has increasingly moved toward an opposition between classes, causing tension—indeed a kind of warfare—between what Aristotle called the few rich and the many poor. Our founders worked hard to bridge this gap…

Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords readers the opportunity to join Virginia Arbery as she examines the nature of rhetoric, the rhetoric employed in the founding of our nation, and the rhetoric proper to a Republic. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher 

Every mid-term election, citizens of our republic are given the opportunity to judge whether each candidate’s rhetoric reflects our fundamental principles. To be sure, there are some irreconcilable differences among us, but, if as good citizens of a republic, we get our bearings by what we share, we will all the better be able to deliberate about policies as we “lock ourselves in conversation” in John Courtney Murray’s phrase. A republic, where the public things are open to debate, offers the opportunity for the highest discourse. It is a civil conversation, more moderate and dispassionate than, say, an argument within a family, where close blood ties make things more lively but perhaps less rational. It is civil because we share a reverence for the law. Which law? In our regime, all laws and officeholders must answer to the Constitution.

Our rhetoric should answer to it as well. But for some time now, our political rhetoric has increasingly moved toward an opposition between classes, causing tension—indeed a kind of warfare—between what Aristotle called the few rich and the many poor. Aristotle built his most practical regime, the mixed polity, around a regime that would seamlessly include both. Our founders worked hard to bridge this gap and to mute any potential tension. Quite the opposite is happening now. One example is the response to Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the 21st Century, which Jonah Goldberg called in Commentary, the “Big Book of Marxiness.” Everyone from Hillary Clinton to Bill Gates seems to be citing Piketty’s questionable numbers and worn-out philosophy. In another example, Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew speaks of corporate “inversion” as a breach of “economic patriotism.” Facing a thirty-five percent corporate tax rate, companies like Walgreens and Metronics would like to incorporate outside the country, which is perfectly legal. But President Obama seconds Secretary Lew: “I don’t care if it’s legal; it’s wrong”—in other words, unpatriotic. Then, of course, there is the artificial manipulation of income by the Affordable Health Care Act, which has resulted in a dramatic decrease in full-time employment—“The Full-time Scandal of Part-time Employment,” as Mortimer Zuckerman calls it.

In addition to being artificially split into irreconcilable economic camps, Americans continue to hear from our Department of Justice that they are racist. In these issues and so many others, I am reminded of an excellent essay by Robert Goldwin, in which he talks about inflammatory language as being inappropriate to a republic. Republican rhetoric, he muses, is neither whispered nor shouted. One can’t shout, “Be moderate!” He cites Carmen from the opera: She won’t reconcile herself to the fact that her soldier-boy lover must leave when the bugle sounds. She resists, saying, “Gypsy love knows no law.” Mr. Goldwin comments, “So it is with unbounded moralism. Alluring and seductive, it, too, knows no law. The morality of our constitution is very much a bounded and law-abiding morality.” And so we have our highest elected officials sounding like Carmen: “I don’t care if it’s legal. It’s wrong.” Moderation is the virtue most required of republican citizens so they can be locked in argument about the public good under the rule of law.

One could continue with this litany of symptoms of our diseased republic. The rhetoric of class warfare, though attached to many different agendas, is itself driven by one passion: a passion for equality. Our founders appealed to and trusted in “the deliberate sense of a virtuous people.” We were equal under the law but quite unequal with respect to our gifts, faculties, and capacities to acquire property. Protecting that “diversity in the faculties of men,” they asserted, was the “first object of government.” So how might one characterize the right rhetoric for our republic, for our regime?

Constitutional Morality

Let us begin by reviving this keyword, regime, which answers the question “Who should rule?” Should already implies a judgment of merit. Thus, a question of justice is being addressed when a people answers the question one way or another. Often discussions of governance are silent about justice, the absolute anchor of liberty and law. As Madison argues in Federalist 51: “It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.” Every political founding answers the question of justice primarily in terms of who should rule—one wise man? A few good and noble men? A mixed polity comprised of the people themselves, moderated by the few rich in a kind of equality of classes? The answer is crucial, because liberty without justice is license, and law without justice is tyranny.

Our regime or constitution answers the question who should rule by asserting that a people schooled in liberty are worthy of rule because they are virtuous. Such a people are the “fountain of all legitimate authority.” (Federalist 22) The founders, however, were not simplistic democrats. They rejected Athens as a model, but also Sparta and even Rome. In their view, what was so problematic about these self-ruling ancient regimes was their unchecked passion. Reason rather than the passions should rule the people, but the good judgment of the people is often confounded by their passions. A passionate attachment to rights can cause them to be especially unreasonable. Therefore, our founders put structures in place to help diminish the problem of majority faction (the passions of the many) and to help ensure the just behavior of the office holders (the passions of the few). Herein lie the two central teachings of American Constitutionalism. Surprisingly, they are not explained in the Constitution itself. We have to look to the Federalist Papers written by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay under the pseudonym, Publius, for our “constitutional morality.”

With the guidance of the Federalist Papers and of Aristotle’s four causes, we will establish how our founders—the efficient cause of our regime—envisioned a republic of ordered liberty that would safely preserve the liberty of the people while ensuring stability. Applying Aristotle’s other three causes to the American regime, we will review the following:

  1. The public good, the end or final cause of the regime.
  2. Separation of powers—the arrangement for the holding of offices, the formal cause of the regime.
  3. Citizen virtue in a republic, the material cause.

The Preamble and the Rhetoric of the Public Good

Recently, my five-year-old granddaughter recited for me the Preamble of the American Constitution. We should all memorize it, as she was asked to do, for it holds the guidelines for any rhetoric that aims at the public good, which is the final cause or end of the American regime:

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.

Since 1789, there have been 11,539 proposals to amend the Constitution; we have actually amended our Constitution thirty-three times. Neither the word “rights” nor the word “equality” is even in the Preamble—but no one has ever proposed amending the Preamble. It still serves as our finest statement of purpose.

Let’s analyze this statement of purpose briefly by asking a few questions. What is it that government ought to do? Here the founders echo Aristotle’s perspective that the aim of all law-making is to “make men better,” while the aim of any good regime is to “establish justice.” Can a self-ruling people do this? Can republics be moderate?

The ancient democracies could not be, so our founders aimed to solve the problem of turbulent democracy with a new political science providing representation and separation of powers. A large, extended republic would stand in great contrast to the small homogeneous republics of the ancient world; according to the argument in Federalist 10, a larger scope would dissipate majority faction while providing more characters fit to govern. Madison claims that the passions of the many will be controlled by this “enlargement of the orbit” of a self-ruling people of “diverse and unequal faculties.”

But geography is certainly not enough. In the very first Federalist Paper, Hamilton challenges its readers to show they can be a virtuous people and not a factious one:

It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.

The founders are throwing down the gauntlet, saying something like this: So you want liberty, but will you—can you—proceed with reflection before you choose the form you endorse and the principles upon which the form is based? We’ve heard a great deal about “choice” over the last forty years. Aristotle tells us that choice is the last point in deliberation. To be free means to deliberate, not just to act from the passions. To deliberate well means that one must be virtuous, moderate, and able to think dispassionately. The best choices are principled ones. Publius challenges all Americans to be candid men, speculative men, men who think through the long-term effects of their public choices.

Anyone who desires rhetoric to be civil needs to set aside “identity politics,” which tends to dominate public discourse today. As the late Jean Bethke Ehlstain observed, when identity becomes the ground of politics, there is a resultant loss of civility. What matters is not “What they say or do, but what they are.” Note the caution Hamilton gives at the end of Federalist 1—the one who agitates that rights are more important than ordered liberty will end up being a demagogue, a crowd pleaser, a Caesar. Citizens of a republic will fall for his argument and slowly lose the most fundamental right, the right antecedent to all others proclaimed in the Declaration: the right to self-government. And lest we forget, the Declaration is highlighted by the Federalist as containing the principles to which we are committed, grounded as we are in “the honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom.” (Federalist 39)

If self-government is the keystone of republican citizenship, how does a people achieve it when, as Aristotle points out in his Politics, there are so many elements in a city incompatible with each other? (Book 4) Will our representatives really represent these elements, the cause of different sentiments and inclinations in a country? (Federalist 10)

Separation of Powers—the Formal Cause

As did Aristotle, the founders saw that there was indeed a fundamental tension between the few and the many. In Federalist 57, we encounter an elevated insight into the Founders’ philosophy of Constitutionalism simply:

The aim of every political constitution is or ought to be first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold the public trust.

Separation of powers is the structure that ensures that we achieve this general aim of all good constitutions. Our founders were interested neither in setting up agenda-driven politics nor in facilitating the emergence of charismatic leaders. They were exceedingly wary of the “dazzling lights” of ancient republics or democracies who quickly petered out because the structures under them were poorly framed (Federalist 14).

The separation of powers is meant to ensure the extended contribution of good men, but also to prevent the rise of tyrants. The founders knew that there would be Huey Longs and LBJs, men who would seek, secure, and hold on to legitimate offices for their own ends. The framers knew that men are “vindictive, rapacious, and ambitious.” They sought to ensure that each office would have a stake in the operations of the other office that most shared an interest in the same Constitutional ends. For instance, the Senate shares the treaty-making power with the executive, both offices being interested in stability and national character with respect to foreign powers. The executive shares in the legislative power to the extent that it can veto legislative action, which veto, in turn, can be overridden. The executive is the Commander-in-Chief, but all appropriations for military operations come from Congress. Such arrangements come out of a deep reflection on human nature, “Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint” (Federalist 15).

Clearly, the right rhetoric for a republic, as Madison wisely articulated in Federalist 51, must avoid language that will, in the passion for equality, jeopardize ordered liberty, resulting in either anarchy or tyranny. Publius was perfectly content for legislation to be infrequent, little, and slowly decided. Indeed, gridlock is of the very essence of government working, not the other way around. As Martin Diamond comments, republican liberty exists in the delay, the space between the cup and the lip. Good politics, like good manners, will not be hurried.

The Material Cause—the People

The word republic comes from the Latin res publica, the “public thing.” Publius insists that the purpose of the Constitutional Convention was fulfilled by sacrificing “private opinions and partial interests to the public good.” (37) The tone of early statesmen was to promote, as Gordon Wood puts it, “an intimate and trusted relationship with their rational audiences.” Commenting on the rhetoric of the founding period, Mr. Wood explains that eighteenth-century gentlemen had a “civic sense of being part of a network of society for the welfare of the common good.” Early in the Federalist Papers, the actual public concerns are mapped out, largely paralleling the points of the Preamble: Government must secure the common defense, preserve the public peace, regulate commerce, and conduct foreign affairs.

Thus, the American regime was brilliantly founded in terms of its end, its form, and its material. It seems altogether ironic that government today should, on the one hand, so thoroughly have distanced the people from self-rule, and on the other, revived the very passions that the original Constitutional purposes were meant to neutralize. Let me point to two major derailments that help explain where we are today, one in the formal cause—that is, the separation of powers—and one in the material cause, the people themselves.

Derailing the Formal Cause

Infatuated with progressive ideas, Woodrow Wilson disliked the separation of powers. Trying to get around the “inefficiency” of congressional rule, he established an extensive bureaucracy and civil servants. He implemented administrative centralization, which Tocqueville warned would destroy liberty. Today there are 2.79 million civil servants and 1300 agencies in the three branches of government. Since the time of Wilson, we have increasingly been an administrative state, not a self-governing people. The rhetoric accompanying the transformation of our regime is all too familiar. In his “First Inaugural,” in a passage that has been echoed all too often lately, FDR said

It is to be hoped that the normal balance of executive and legislative authority may be wholly adequate to meet the unprecedented task before us. But it may be that an unprecedented demand and need for undelayed action may call for temporary departure from that normal balance of public procedure. I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that…a stricken world may require…. But in the event that the Congress shall fail to take one of these two courses [control banks, credits, investments]…I will ask Congress for…broad executive power.

FDR claimed that he was acting on the “people’s mandate for direct vigorous action.” In his Four Freedoms Speech, he added to freedom of speech and freedom of religious expression, two others that the founders would have considered infringements on divine territory: freedom from fear and freedom from want. The expansion of rights has been unimaginably creative ever since.

The Derailment of the Material Cause

Accompanying this shift toward bureaucracy, the proper objects of the people’s concern have become subsumed by an uneducated but dominant obeisance to public opinion rooted in identity politics. Mr. Wood comments that majority opinion has become “almost as mystical as Divine Providence.” We have gone from a complex rhetoric of principles and solid argumentation to a simple one that appeals to the needs and wants of particular groups. Instead of constitutional principles, rhetoric must answer to the mercurial public opinion, which is given the force of history.

As journalist Michael Dougherty observes, “The most bullying argument in politics is to denounce people with whom you disagree for being on the wrong side of history.” This kind of rhetoric is often deployed against religious groups who hold to traditional views of marriage and of the natural beginning and end of life. We must ask ourselves how we came to be taking partial aspects of ourselves—our gender, our color, our race, our whatever—as our political definition and our claim to rights? When political rhetoric engenders policies that make one’s identity the ground of politics, public ends or purposes can no longer be the material of civil conversation.

Let me suggest that we have lost what Hannah Arendt called “the boundary of shame”—the barrier that, if breached, makes things uncivil. Shame, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, is not a good in itself, but it nevertheless “gives reluctant witness to its own fallen state.” It is a recognition of our incompleteness.

The Right Rhetoric for a Republic

Emphasis on the form of the regime would be the focus of George Washington’s fundamental contribution to Americans’ self-understanding in The Farewell Address. Washington taught a commitment to both federalism and to a strong national government with certain limited and enumerated objects. His rhetoric, outstanding for both its modesty and its constitutionalism, aimed at achieving the unity of the disparate states behind the new form. He could have been a monarch; he chose instead to call his fellow citizens to a higher standard: “Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtues?” Appealing to each citizen’s honor, he goes on that as a “great nation” we are called to “give mankind the magnanimous example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence.” In my view, George Washington established the paradigm of republican rhetoric, one that concentrated on the form rather than on policies, eschewing partisanship for attachment to and reverence for the law.

Such rhetoric is what we need to engage in and hear from our current officeholders and candidates, one in which we imagine again the public good embedded in the admirable structure of the American Constitution. Recall that its craftsmen “ordained and established” it, as stated in the Preamble, “for the United States of America.” The Federalist Papers is our guide. Studying this book well is an act of gratitude. Without that labor of gratitude that takes us out of ourselves and into a great and unprecedented epic enterprise of self-government, we will never be equal to the gift. Without it, our alternative is the arbitrary rule outside the rule of law; the surest path to tyranny is the rhetoric of demagogues. With that labor of gratitude, on the other hand, we can recover constitutional morality and thus secure the blessings of Liberty for ourselves and for our posterity.

This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in September 2015. It is republished with gracious permission of Integritas by Wyoming Catholic College (Issue 1.6). 

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now

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