The Founding Formula
Interest in the Founding Fathers remains high. (Just try getting a ticket to “Hamilton.”) Can any contemporary statesman compare in stature to those transcendent figures? Accordingly, “originalists” these days are consumed with uncovering the meanings and intentions of those hallowed architects of our nation.
There is one aspect of the debate at Constitutional Hall in 1787 and beyond that needs to be highlighted; most of those present were worriers. Some harbored the notion that the prospective governing structure should include a King, because only a monarch would be capable of binding together a rancorous cluster of states that, despite success in the Revolution, had not demonstrated much willingness to get along with each other. But most thought this to be a ridiculous idea, given the fact that the colonists had just overthrown a King who, they claimed, had oppressed them and rejected their pleas for greater home rule. Besides, a King in France had just lost his head for having turned a deaf ear to the plight of his subjects. Moreover, the only American who possessed monarchial credentials, George Washington, showed no interest, thought it absurd that anyone could ascend to a throne in the new Republic where every free man thought himself the equal of any other.
No, America was not made for Kings. Bur far more people were worried that the new nation might fall prey to aristocratic rule. After all, throughout the period almost every colony (excepting perhaps Rhode Island) saw a self-appointed elite take command (albeit under the ultimate authority of England). These cliques monopolized power in each province, maintained their exclusivity and proved adept at accumulating wealth (via land ownership, speculation and trade). Americans travelling to England could not but note that aristocrats ruled the mother country. John Adams was more outspoken than anyone else, warning against the threat the “Dons, the Bashaws, the Grandees, the Patricians, the Nabobs, call them by whatever name you please,” posed even in a society that recognized no formal aristocratic titles.
Did that mean that democracy should reign in America; that the common man could be entrusted with governing, determining matters of state? Few, if any, at that time thought that to be a good idea. Far too easily could the “people” turn into a mob; (mob activity was fairly common during the Revolution). In Revolutionary France they appeared to have acted in precisely that fashion. The people, united, could also threaten the rights of property (after all large numbers owned no property themselves and thus would have little at stake.) Indeed, in Massachusetts in 1786-7 common folk had been on the march (Shay’s Rebellion) against state authorities, who they claimed had levied onerous taxes upon them. Furthermore, relatively few people enjoyed the benefits of a formal education and thus could not be expected to think clearly and dispassionately about weighty issues. Finally, history offered no instructive examples of societies based on the widespread participation of ordinary folks. It was, therefore, too risky to launch such an experiment at this time when the need for stability was paramount.
So if such obvious limitations discredited exclusive rule by a monarch, or an aristocracy, or by the common man, what was to be done about devising a government that would provide for the general welfare and would have a decent chance of surviving and succeeding? The answer the Founding Fathers settled upon incorporated a little bit of this and a little bit of that. They called it a “mixed government” and provided for an Executive who might seem like a King but who was not, a Senate that was thought would be the preserve of the local elites who would engage in lofty debate along with a House of Representatives (“the people’s chamber”) where ordinary Americans might express more down-to-earth concerns. Thus, no single point of view prevailed: each camp had to accept some portion of the ideas they opposed. Somehow their collective fears produced a sturdy framework. In short, they found out that the jumble of approaches they blended together could work. And that’s why they’re called the “founding” fathers.