Politics and the Creative Imagination 8

So they reconsidered the immemorial doctrine of the separation of powers, and recast the elements involved from legalized social orders—crown, nobility, and commons—which had never been a direct part of their lives, to functioning branches of government— executive, legislative, judicial—which had been.
So too they confronted the authorities—Montesquieu above all— who propounded as dogma the idea that free republican states, like the Swiss cantons, must be small. Knowledgeable people had said again and again that large republics, ruled by the people themselves and lacking the coercive power of monarchies, would simply splinter and crumble into anarchy until order was restored by military force. How could representative government and consensual law reach into the raw outer fringes of an extended republic?
To this they replied that the form of representation that had developed naturally in the remote American provinces simply demolished such received logic. The actual representation of inter¬ests and people in the governments of these colonies—as opposed to Europe’s representation of estates and privileged localities—made the extension of the nation to continental proportions perfectly com¬patible with republican freedoms. Ancient and modern thinkers both, they said, simply had no notion, because they had no experi¬ence, of the dynamic system of representation that had grown up in America—a system that shifted with the growth and movement of the population and in which representatives were bound to con¬stituents’ wishes. How could Montesquieu, whose ideas had been formed in the Old World, have known of this dynamic system? “Had he been an American,” Stevens wrote, “and now living, I would stake my life on it, he would have formed different principles.” “For the American states,” James Wilson declared in a major address to Penn¬sylvania’s ratifying convention, “were reserved the glory and the happiness of diffusing this vital principle throughout the constituent parts of government.”
Disposed, in the upheaval of the Revolution, to find in their own diminished provincial world not deprivation but the source of new advantages—discovering that the glass was half full, not half empty—they weeded out anachronisms in the received tradition, discarded elements that were irrelevant to their provincial situation, and with imagination and an intense vision of what the future might be, built a new structure on the actualities of the provincial world they had known.
But the effect of their provincialism ran deeper than that. As their identity as a separate people took form through the Revolutionary years they came to see that their remoteness from the metropolitan world gave them a moral advantage in politics. The leadership of Britain, like that of the rest of Europe, they learned from innumerable publications and from the hundreds of friends and relatives who returned from visits to the home country, had succumbed to corrup¬tion and corrosive cynicism. Since freedom in the end depends on the integrity and to some degree the virtue of rulers and ruled alike, Britain was no longer the bastion of liberty it once had been. Amer¬ica—in the simplicity of its manners, its lack of luxury and pomp, its artlessness, homeliness, lack of affectation and cynicism—America had taken Britain’s place as the moral guardian and promoter of lib¬erty. They had no illusions about the innate corruptibility and venality of all people everywhere: “If men were angels,” Madison wrote, “no government would be necessary.” But they believed that their provin¬cial isolation and lack of great wealth and sources of great power had protected them from the worst dangers of corruption. And so they could live by what Madison called “this great republican principle”:
that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom. Is there no virtue among us?—If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks—no form of Government, can render us secure.
In a morally enervated world overcome with corruption, America, they believed, was unique; and their sense of moral integrity, nour¬ished in the awareness of provincial simplicity and innocence and discussed endlessly, almost obsessively, in their political writings, for¬tified and justified their determination to defy tradition, to build their own, different political world, and to create a new and permanent model for the benevolent use of power.
It was an intensely creative moment in Western history. Great authorities, established theories, the world of metropolitan sophisti¬cation were left behind in favor of fresh thought and the wisdom of local experience. Faithful to their provincial lives, convinced of the rightness of the principles they wished to make real, the Revolution¬ary leaders, Madison wrote, “accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society: They reared the fabrics of governments which have no model on the face of the globe.”
Their provincialism, and the sense they derived from it of their own moral stature, had nourished their political imaginations. Uncertain of their place in the established, metropolitan world, they did not think themselves bound by it; they were prepared to chal¬lenge it, and, as Thomas Paine put it, to begin the world anew. With fresh energy, and ambitious to recast the overrefined, overly elabo¬rated, canonical system of thought and institutions that had domi¬nated their lives, they sought to achieve a profound transformation of government and politics. Their unlikely experiment on the outer fringes of European civilization threatened the stability of state sys¬tems throughout the greater world, and it contained within it a force that would radiate out, however erratically, into areas of social life they had not intended to reform.
In the most general sense, what conditioned and stimulated the Founders’ imagination and hence their capacity to begin the world anew was the fact that they came from outside the metropolitan establishment, with all its age-old, deeply buried, arcane entangle¬ments and commitments. From their distant vantage point they viewed what they could see of the dominant order with a cool, criti¬cal, challenging eye, and what they saw was something atrophied, weighted down by its own complacent, self-indulgent elaboration, and vulnerable to the force of fresh energies and imaginative designs. Refusing to be intimidated by the received traditions and confident of their own integrity and creative capacities, they demanded to know why things must be the way they are; and they had the imagi¬nation and energy to conceive of something closer to the grain of everyday reality and more likely to lead to human happiness.
We have neither their need nor their opportunity to begin the world anew. But we do have the obligation, as inheritors of their suc¬cess, to view every establishment critically, to remain in some sense on the margins, and forever to ask, with Ellsworth, why things must be the way they are, knowing, as he did, that it is never enough to say they must be so—one needs to know why.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *