The Patriot King's American Friends
A strong case may be made that the most important date in American history was July 17, 1787. That was the day the large-state, nationalist delegates to the Philadelphia Convention that gave us our Constitution decided not to walk out after the Connecticut Compromise had empowered the smaller states by giving them an equal number of seats in the Senate. And it was also the date on which Gouverneur Morris began to rally the nationalists around the idea of a popularly elected president. That's not what the framers expected would happen under their constitution, but it's how things turned out in the end, and today presidential power is almost the essence of the Constitution.
What Morris appealed to was the possibility of corrupt bargains were Congress to appoint the president. Indeed, so great was the fear of corruption that the framers' entire constitution could be viewed as an anti-corruption covenant. For, while they admired the British constitution, what they didn't want was the corruption they had seen in British politics, where the sale of offices and titles was an accepted method of greasing the wheels. As Sir Lewis Namier put it, "[M]en no more dreamt of a seat in the House in order to benefit humanity than a child dreams of a birthday cake that others may eat it." The founders meant to have something better, and, though the British constitution was in other respects an admirable institution, an attack on corruption would supply Americans with much-needed product differentiation.
While they abhorred the corruption of British politics, the framers turned to British writers, notably Bolingbroke, for diatribes on just how vicious such corruption could be. Henry St. John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751), was virtually the prime minister for a time, and his skill in state affairs was celebrated by his friend Jonathan Swift. Bolingbroke was a Tory and a sometime-friend of the Stuart Old Pretender. Some in late-18th-century British politics thought history had passed him by — or at least wished it would. "Who now reads Bolingbroke," Edmund Burke asked. "Who ever read him through?" But then Burke was a Whig who took his political principles from the Revolutionary Settlement of 1689, and a romantic Christian, while Bolingbroke was a deist from the arid Augustan age.
For the founders, however, Bolingbroke's jeremiads were essential reading. Adams, Madison, and Jefferson, among others, were all serious students of his works. For them, Bolingbroke was first and foremost an enemy of political corruption and an advocate for republican virtue. But if the Americans thought that British corruption might justify the creation of a republic, Bolingbroke had something else in mind. Quite the opposite, in fact.
There's a familiar story that, on leaving the Convention the day it ended, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin what the delegates had given the country. "A republic, if you can keep it," answered Franklin. But what was the alternative, if we wouldn't be able to keep it? Not a democracy, surely. That simply wasn't on the table. Rather, the alternative to a republic was a monarchy, and that was what Franklin feared might become of America.
The prospect wouldn't have troubled Bolingbroke (or many Americans in 1787). Corruption was what you got with legislatures, he argued, and for a remedy he looked to the possibility of a virtuous monarch, a "patriot king" who would rule above partisan and corrupt politics.
So also today, many Americans begin to look for a virtuous president, be he a Reagan or an Obama, to govern in the interest of the whole of the country, and to fend off the corrupt designs of special-interest groups. We, too, have much to learn from Bolingbroke.
VIRTUE AND CORRUPTION
What 18th-century patriots appealed to, in Britain and America, was a pre-political world in which the common good was easily understood and in which only corrupt private interests stood in the way of virtuous government. Back then, it was easier to think this way, because the space between political parties had been minimized. With the accession of George III, the Tories had made their peace with the Hanoverian succession, and British party differences had dissolved. In America, too, party differences were lessened after the Revolution, since the Tories had mostly been driven into exile. It was therefore possible, in both countries, to imagine enlightened rulers who would stand above political parties and serve the general welfare.
In an essay that George III would take to heart, Bolingbroke described how the patriot king would "espouse no Party, but...govern like the common father of his people...where the head and all the members are united by one common interest, and animated by one common spirit." Like George III (and unlike Machiavelli's prince), he would also be privately virtuous, a moral example for his people. And who might oppose him? There was no "Loyal Opposition" for Bolingbroke to consider — that was a 19th-century innovation. With no parties to appeal to, Bolingbroke addressed himself to the nation as a whole, which spoke and acted through public-spirited agents, of whom the king was the greatest.
Like Machiavelli before him, Bolingbroke had grafted a republican branch onto a monarchical tree. Seventeenth-century republican Whigs like Algernon Sidney had identified the court with corruption and argued for rule by a parliament elected by a virtuous, disinterested citizenry. During the ministry of Sir Robert Walpole, which lasted from 1721 to 1742, however, it was Parliament that had become corrupt, said Bolingbroke, and for good government he appealed to a virtuous prince. Reading Bolingbroke, George III was happy to see himself as just that person, reigning virtuously above parties for the common good. Unlike his great-grandfather and grandfather, George I and II, he was also a British patriot who said "I glory in the name of Briton" when he ascended to the throne in 1760. There was something new in the air, and his subjects reacted to the youthful new monarch with enthusiasm. "The King seems resolved to stop the torrent of corruption and laziness," wrote Laurence Sterne.
Americans were also delighted with the new king, but their enthusiasm soon wore off, and, when the framers of the new constitution assembled in Philadelphia in 1787, they knew that America must be a republic. But could they ensure that it would be virtuous?
The framers did not need to look far for an example of disinterested, republican virtue — Washington, the president of the convention, sat before them on the dais. He had served without pay as the commanding general of patriot forces in the Revolution and had retired to his farm when it was over. No commanding general had sacrificed power in this way, and, when he was told of Washington's plan to return to Mount Vernon, George III said that if he did he would be "the greatest character of the age." There was no doubt that Washington would be the first head of state; he was, it was clear, the only founder who could inspire the citizens to subvert their private interests to the good of their newly born nation.
We don't know whether George Washington read Bolingbroke. But he was not immune to the conflicts about which Bolingbroke presciently wrote. With a cabinet comprised of rivals like Hamilton and Jefferson, Washington needed to manage competing factions — competing self-interests, really — and he warned against "factions" and "the baneful effects of the spirit of party" in his Farewell Address. By factions he meant what today we would call interest groups, and a political party was an assemblage of factions. Bolingbroke knew something about that. "Faction is to party what the superlative is to the positive," he wrote. "[P]arty is a political evil, and faction is the worst of all parties."
The yearning for a virtuous leader who rules above parties never entirely dies. It lingers behind the question "What would Washington do?" and it is the ideal to which American presidents appeal when they claim to speak for the common good against a corrupt Congress. Under our strong presidential form of government, in which political power resides primarily in the executive branch, Bolingbroke's little primer on how to be a patriot king is very nearly the indispensable guide to modern American politics.
VIRTUE AND DEMOCRACY
The crucial moment for America was not the Revolution but the 1787 Convention, when 55 delegates from 12 states assembled to frame a new constitution. In hindsight, it is all too easy to assume that things would turn out just as they did, that the delegates would necessarily have agreed to a new constitution, and indeed that they would have agreed to exactly the constitution we have now. Nothing could be further from the truth. At several points during the convention, the delegates reached serious impasses. Several of them even threatened a walkout, and many thought the country would split into two or three parts. In that case, said Gouverneur Morris, the delegates should prepare for civil war. A formal return to the British Empire, with a right of self-government, was not beyond the realm of possibility, in which case the Revolution would have been undone.
After the convention was over, the Constitution was still in need of ratification, but the final result was little in doubt. The choice was between the Constitution or nothing, and nothing was not in the cards; a return to the pre-convention Articles of Confederation would have resulted in a break-up of the new country. In the end, even Rhode Island, which had refused to send delegates to the Philadelphia Convention, came around and ratified the Constitution in May 1790, a year after Washington had been inaugurated as the first president. It didn't make sense for the state the delegates called "Rogue Island" to try to make a country of itself.
The notes of the framers' debates, recorded mostly by James Madison, are not often read — they run over 1,900 pages in the authoritative Yale edition — but they remain perhaps the greatest set of deliberations on the structure of government and constitutional liberty. Reading them, one is struck by how often the delegates returned to their concerns about corruption, which was the antithesis of republican virtue. Most delegates admired the British form of government but deplored its penchant for corruption and wanted a very different kind of government — a virtuous one, republican in spirit as well as form. But when they looked at the American voters of 1787, they didn't see much in the way of raw material. The confederation was falling apart, they thought, and it could be attributed to an "excess of democracy," with its "turbulence and follies." For his part, George Mason thought that "it would be as unnatural to refer the choice of a proper character for chief Magistrate to the people, as it would, to refer a trial of colours to a blind man."
With little information about candidates, voters wouldn't know how to choose wisely. Worse still, they'd be pawns in the hands of corrupt demagogues. Elbridge Gerry, fresh from Shays's Rebellion in Massachusetts and the defeat of the governor who had called out the troops, couldn't wait to expound on the excesses of democracy: "The people do not want virtue; but they are the dupes of pretended patriots." Even the honest representative, said Madison, can become "the dupe of a favorite leader, veiling his selfish views under the professions of public good, and varnishing his sophistical arguments with the glowing colours of popular eloquence."
The problem wasn't simply low-information voters; self-interest would also blind people to the common good. Washington was the paragon of republican virtue, but privately he doubted whether governments could rely upon a disinterested citizenry, writing to Madison that "the motives which predominate most in human affairs" are "self-love and self-interest." Some of the delegates, such as Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris, simply gave up on the idea of republican virtue. Corruption was precisely what made the British constitution work, said Hamilton: "Purge it of its corruption, and give to its popular branch equality of representation, & it would become an impracticable government: as it stands at present, with all its supposed defects, it is the most perfect government which ever existed." Morris would have agreed with him. In proposing a Senate composed of American aristocrats, he expressed the hope that "there was strength of mind eno[ugh]...to look truth in the face." As Madison recalled, Morris "did not hesitate therefore to say that loaves & fishes must bribe the Demagogues."
Madison and Morris quarreled at the convention, but halfway through they made up, when records suggest that Morris persuaded Madison to support the idea of a popularly elected president. Until then, Madison had subscribed to a filtration theory, first proposed by David Hume, in which the voters might be made to elect their betters. What Madison envisaged was "a process of elections" in which the most senior places in government would be occupied by "the purest and noblest characters" in society. The system would "extract from the mass of the Society" those who "feel most strongly the proper motives to pursue the end of their appointment, and be most capable to devise the proper means of attaining it" — people like Washington and, come to think of it, Madison himself. And so he proposed a constitution in which the voters would elect the House of Representatives, which in turn would chose the senators, and where both bodies would pick the president. If the voters were easily misled, if they became the pawns of popular demagogues, a government might yet be designed so as to extract a set of virtuous leaders from the populace.
Madison's ideas about government went nowhere in Philadelphia. On July 16, 1787, the delegates voted for the Connecticut Compromise, under which the states would have equal representation in the Senate and state legislatures would appoint senators. There would still be filtration, but now the states would do the filtering. As a strong nationalist, Madison hated this. The next morning, the dispirited nationalists from the large states of Virginia and Pennsylvania met over breakfast to consider their options. Some thought they should make the best of it. Others argued for a walkout, and Madison was likely among this number since he was one of the strongest and least flexible nationalists. The Connecticut Compromise had caused him, he confessed, "serious anxiety." But in the end nothing was decided. "The time was wasted in vague conversation." Virtually all of his ideas had been rejected, and Madison must have wondered whether anything could be rescued of the convention.
CHOOSING THE EXECUTIVE
There would be no walkout, and the convention would produce a Constitution. But if the delegates had settled on how to select the Congress, they had yet to decide on the executive branch. The debate over how the president would be chosen is the most fascinating story of the convention, and it all began with a speech Morris made on July 17.
Over the course of the convention, the delegates voted six times for a congressionally appointed president, once unanimously. It was what Madison had first proposed. But after the Connecticut Compromise, Morris realized that a president chosen by Congress would become the servant of the states, since they would appoint the Senate. As a nationalist, that was the last thing he wanted, and so he proposed that presidents be elected by the people (through the medium of an electoral college, to placate the foes of democracy). A popularly elected president, the only person so chosen by the country as a whole, could not fail but to draw power to himself, and thus to the federal government as a whole.
To a convention dominated by small-state delegates who had just adopted the Connecticut Compromise, that wasn't going to be a selling point. And so Morris cleverly masked his proposal as one aimed at corruption: "If the Legislature elect, it will be the work of intrigue, of cabal, and of faction: it will be like the election of a pope by a conclave of cardinals." Two weeks earlier Morris had insisted on the need for corrupt practices, and now he argued for a profound change in the system of government to lessen corruption — but no one addressed his self-contradiction. Crucially, he united the nationalists at the convention around the idea of a popularly elected president, beginning with Madison on July 19. That's not to say that the framers thought they had agreed to our modern method of choosing presidents, which was more a consequence of the advent of democracy and a revolution in transportation and communication. Nevertheless, the extension of presidential power was rooted in the text to which they agreed, and which would not have been adopted but for the ingenious efforts of Gouverneur Morris.
In following Morris, Madison had to abandon the filtration theories he had brought to the convention. What had changed, Madison realized at last, was how the Senate would be chosen after the Connecticut Compromise; for Madison, as with Morris, nationalism trumped filtration, and with it Madison's dream of leaders imbued with republican virtue.
As an intellectual ideal, republican virtue was little heard from for much of the 20th century, apart from a few attacks from both the left and the right. From the left, Charles Beard argued in 1913 that the framers were simply self-interested, wealthy politicians who had designed a government to serve their class. Beard's cynical view of the framers, which reduced republican virtue to self-seeking economics, was popular with early progressives, who chafed at the barriers to social-welfare legislation imposed by the separation of powers and sought to debunk the framers. Since then, many have mistakenly claimed that the Beard thesis was refuted in Charles Beard and the Constitution by Robert Brown in 1956 and in We the People by Forrest McDonald in 1958. What Brown and McDonald concluded, however, was not that the delegates were unmoved by economic interests — only that Beard had failed to find evidence of this. When Robert McGuire and I brought more sophisticated empirical tools to the task, we were able to find that private economic interests were correlated with votes on key roll calls. But that's not to say that delegates who voted for a strong economy were less than virtuous; it might have been precisely how patriots should have voted if they wanted their country to be prosperous.
From the right, republican virtue also came under attack from public-choice scholars like Jim Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, who told us that government can be analyzed as a method by which politicians and rule-makers pursue their private ends. In a pure version of public choice, self-interest is the only thing that motivates people, and this would preclude any possibility of republican virtue. With the possible exception of Tullock, however, no one in the public-choice school really believed that human beings are incapable of selflessness — and Tullock simply delighted in playing the role of the veillard terrible.
THE PATRIOT PRESIDENT
After a long period of disillusionment, republican virtue has experienced something of a renaissance in academic circles, due to superb historians like Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood. Some legal scholars on the left, such as Cass Sunstein, have seized the revival of interest in republican virtue to argue for publicly minded progressive legislation. Less sophisticated versions of this argument have claimed that the public-choice theories might be entirely trumped by playing the republican-virtue card, while the more sophisticated versions (like Sunstein's) incorporate insights from public choice while rejecting reductionism and cheap cynicism.
The dream of republican virtue has never entirely disappeared, then, and as of late it has centered on the presidency. As the executive branch has grown more powerful, presidents have begun to see themselves like a 22-year-old George III, bright with the promise of reform and virtue. This was how George W. Bush spoke to us, immediately after 9/11, when his approval numbers reached over 90%. This was also how Barack Obama campaigned in 2008, and since then he has often adopted the pose of a patriot king, speaking for the country as a whole against partisan voices in Congress. When told "we love you," he answers that he loves us back. When we, as a country, have failed him, he asks us to conduct "some soul searching." When presidents speak like this, what they offer is Edmund Burke's vision of what the House of Commons might be, a government "of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide."
At times, Congress has functioned much like Burke's ideal assembly, as when Republicans nationalized the 1994 election with the Contract with America — a single message for the country. In America, however, it is far easier for the president to play the role of the patriot king. Elected by all Americans, he more plausibly represents all of us than a Congressman from someplace in rural Wisconsin. Congress is a cacophony of confused, little voices; the president is a trumpet that speaks above them all with a single message.
A president's incentives are better too, for congressmen can be expected to promote pork-barrel projects, which are bad for the country but good for their regions. In another theory borrowed from Hume, Madison argued that a majority was less likely to oppress a minority in the extended republic of a large country. While members of a particular religion might form a majority in one state, they could never do so in the country as a whole. As a country, we were simply too big and diverse for that. But if majoritarian oppression might be less of a problem, there's the opposite problem of minority oppression in an extended republic. A minority can oppress the majority when a congressman can effect a wasteful wealth transfer from the country as a whole to his district, with a bridge to nowhere or a wasteful earmark. Minority oppression of this kind is less to be feared from a president, however, as he is elected by the entire country and has little incentive to favor only one part of it.
The president is also the head of state, the symbol of the country, the person who gives his name to the period in which he serves. The healing process after a national tragedy practically requires a speech from the sitting president. Exceptionally meritorious citizens deserve not a medal from the whole country but a presidential medal. It is almost a patriotic duty to love the president, and if we disagree with his policies we must hate him for betraying us. No other political figure, just by virtue of the office he occupies, has become the object of so many of our passions, for none can inspire us as much as the president.
Finally, when Congress is gridlocked, only a president can act for the country as a whole. With a polarized electorate and a political system that gives Democrats an advantage in the White House and Republicans an advantage in the Congress, we'll likely see more of that in the future. We'll also see fewer "grand bargains" between the branches, as presidents realize that gridlock is their friend since it gives them an excuse to rule by decree. Obama is notoriously difficult to negotiate with, and his stubbornness often seems like a strategic ploy to extend his powers. He has shown little interest in cutting deals with Republicans in Congress, and instead he has used executive orders and memoranda to effect major unilateral policy changes, such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. "If Congress won't act, I will," he frequently tells us.
Two things stand in the way of a president who aspires to be a patriot king: his Congressional party and the electorate. For congressmen of the president's party, the primary incentive is to get elected, and they can therefore be expected to support programs that help their particular region at the expense of the whole country. With Republicans, this means farm subsidies and defense bases; with Democrats, international-trade barriers and labor relations. That's going to be less of a check in the future, however, if political power continues its long-term shift from Congress to the executive branch in our increasingly presidential form of government. Obama has for the most part ignored the Democrats in Congress — he doesn't need them to govern. Indeed, it's a bit of a mystery why so much attention continues to be focused on congressional races. Donors have begun to understand this, and campaign contributions are shifting from congressional to presidential races.
The electorate poses a different, more stubborn problem. The patriot king can never be a populist and run by pitting one group against another, or sound the grievances of one race against another. The problem is that, to get elected, a presidential candidate might need to do exactly that. He must mobilize his base, but bases today are riddled with partisan animosities. Obama made a fine speech about race relations in 2008, when he was required to distance himself from Jeremiah Wright, but when he said Trayvon Martin looked like the son he might have had, he identified himself with only part of the American people.
In time, however, today's partisan rancor will likely play itself out. What could emerge thereafter Mancur Olson has called a "superencompassing majority" of voters: a majority with shared ideas about the common good and a willingness to elect a president who appeals to the great majority of Americans. This would not be an avuncular Eisenhower, however, but an Obama on steroids, a president who has discovered his quasi-legislative powers and who has been emboldened by the spirit of Bolingbroke's patriot king.
Would the full-scale blossoming of a patriot president be a good thing? It would, on the one hand, diminish the problem of minority-focused misbehavior by self-seeking congressmen and would give us a stable government that could overcome the problem of gridlock. At the same time, it would result in Madison's nightmare — a government in which one person enjoys the plenitude of political power. The grim logic of presidential government is that, over time, power is concentrated in an executive who runs as the father of his country but who will become an all-powerful monarch.
RECOVERING REPUBLICAN VIRTUE
Is the movement toward a patriot president irreversible? Two conservative writers, George Will and James Ceasar, acknowledge the threat to liberty from an all-powerful president, but propose a way back through a different kind of patriot king, one who resembles George Washington more than George III. Such a president would rule modestly, conceding to Congress the power it has lost to a president who makes laws by diktat and refuses to enforce laws he dislikes. A new constitutional convention would thus be adopted, one which abashed Democratic presidents would follow in turn when their time came.
Is it not a little naïve, however, to believe that a Democratic president would be shamed into following the self-denying example of Republican presidents? Instead, he'd be far more likely to treat the Republicans like pushovers and employ all the powers that the Republicans had abandoned. In American politics, turning the other cheek is never a good strategy. Instead, if one's opponent brings a knife to a fight, one should bring a gun. Not a banana.
In the end, therefore, the search for republican virtue through an all-powerful president is a betrayal of republicanism and its rejection of monarchism. Obama has slipped the bonds of checks and balances, and further on up the road the patriot king waits and smiles and beckons.