Friday, May 02, 2008

The Republic and Change

The following is a white paper of The Jacksonian Party.

The United States, as I have looked at elsewhere, has a republican form of government.  That form of government does not rest its power in one individual but, instead, divides it up between different individuals or groups of same so as to allow different interests in a nation to have a say on the practice of governing.  Republics, generically, existed long before the United States and had varying forms going back even to before Roman and Greek times.  Councils either chosen, appointed or self-appointed by land holdings or other means, would come together to adjust their collective course for the good of society and allow competing interests to change their collective course.  This does not preclude monarchy from being a form of republic, as the monarch would have certain powers and need some form of more common assent to enact laws and enforce them.

Pure Athenian Democracy had direct rule of those casting the votes and that would then create the government by those chosen in the casting of potsherds.  In that doing a ruling council would be chosen to serve as a form of council to help draft the agenda of things needed to be done.  While a powerful position, the vote of the whole was the only thing to enact them, and such power was limited to two terms in office for each person.  This extended into the judicial system where a 'jury of your peers' meant at least 201 people for private suits of small size, 401 for larger suits and 501 and extra lots for things affecting the whole of the state, all the way up to the full 6,000 chosen to be available to serve on such juries.  While not a form of republican government we have come to know today, that basic shifting of administrative, judicial and legislative roles is one that has become long-lasting in republics since that time.

Far later would by a form of more democratic republicanism via representatives that may seem strange to us, but is still entirely recognizable as a formulation of this type of government.  That form was seen in the Doge of Venice, which was a life-time elected office by the inner council of families.  These were the powerful families in Venice that started out as a way to get some form of non-hereditary executive by that council choosing a number from its ranks who would then choose the Doge.  The Great Families (now *that's* Italian!) were seen as getting undue favor by this system so a much more complex system was put in place, and attempting to describe it leads to innumerable head-aches:

The Great Council of 40 would be chosen by lot to 30 and then that 30 would be reduced by lot to 9. 

That 9 chose 40 and that 40 was reduced by lot to 12. 

The 12 then chose 25 who were reduced by lot to 9.

The 9 then elected 45 who were reduced by lot to 11 and THEY chose the Doge!

If you throw in provisos where individuals not in previous choices/selections are not allowed in later ones, this actually does work!  While the 40 would be the main legislative part of the government, the Doge was expected to have no connections to any of the families and rule fairly, and then, upon death, a decision would be made on the fairness of that rule and the estate penalized or aggrandized due to the fairness of that rule.  Mind you, the Doge didn't get much in the way of powers in foreign policy and such, as the Families were involved in much trade, but that high level of separation goes beyond immediate friendship circles and starts to pull in more remote parts of the Great Families to actually have a hand in deciding the workings of Venice.

Stepping from Mediterranean history, a second form of republicanism shows up in the far Nordic lands of Scandinavia where local democracy would rule the day at the lowest levels, but a system of accountability would be held all the way to the monarch.  This was done under the concept of The Thing, which is an assembly meeting for an appointed time.  While descriptive of the clan-based system of lawgiving from the Germanies to Greenland, it starts at the lowest and most local level and then works its way upwards through principalities/counties to regions and then to the state level.  This cascading succession of assemblies would happen to ensure that problems between families, towns, counties, region and the state were addressed in a representative fashion.  While certainly knowing of the southern forms of institutions by medieval times, the oral history of such gatherings indicate that this simple form of governance dates back into pre-contact times.  Like the Doge of Venice set-up, this would be representative of landholders and the Thing would concern the property, or things, which needed to be addressed between landholders and also deal with problems arising between individuals.  Each Thing was sovereign for this via the Lawspeaker that would be the chosen individual to administer the law and ensure that each higher assembly respected that law and then pass down decisions that were in accord with higher levels to the lower.  In this way the people would hold the power over the King, and those monarchs recognized that their ability to rule rested upon that common assent.

While the US system teaches much from Athenian Democracy, it is the more down-to-earth local level democracy of the Thing that makes up the Common Law of England that was instituted, with some higher level functions that start to sound like the selection of the Doge of Venice when looking at the Presidential side.  From those two systems, as well as others seen from republics in Switzerland and Netherlands, the US system would seek to inculcate the best parts and understandings of republics and democracy, while safeguarding the rights of individuals from government.  While we who are the descendents of a constitutionally organized republic resting on representative democracy enjoy this system immensely, and we see the other, modern forms of democracy from the parliamentary system, it is perhaps quite natural that we think it is the only or best form or type of government.  And it is those other forms of republics that came in for review at the founding era, so that a thorough examination could be performed by all sides, and criticism levied against proposals.  This would not, of necessity, be a nice or fun debate but one that is enlightening to see where the wisdom of our system comes from.

Take, as an example, James Madison in Federalist No. 48 on 01 FEB 1788 and the comparison of Venice to that of elected democracy by Thomas Jefferson, which he boldfaces, my bolding elsewhere:

The first example is that of Virginia, a State which, as we have seen, has expressly declared in its constitution that the three great departments ought not to be intermixed. The authority in support of it is Mr. Jefferson, who, besides his other advantages for remarking the operation of the government, was himself the chief magistrate of it. In order to convey fully the ideas with which his experience had impressed him on this subject, it will be necessary to quote a passage of some length from his very interesting Notes on the State of Virginia, p. 195. "All the powers of government, legislative, executive, and judiciary, result to the legislative body. The concentrating these in the same hands is precisely the definition of despotic government. It will be no alleviation that these powers will be exercised by a plurality of hands, and not by a single one. One hundred and seventy-three despots would surely be as oppressive as one. Let those who doubt it turn their eyes on the republic of Venice. As little will it avail us that they are chosen by ourselves. An elective despotism was not the government we fought for; but one which should not only be founded on free principles, but in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among several bodies of magistracy as that no one could transcend their legal limits without being effectually checked and restrained by the others. For this reason that convention which passed the ordinance of government laid its foundation on this basis, that the legislative, executive and judiciary departments should be separate and distinct, so that no person should exercise the powers of more than one of them at the same time. But no barrier was provided between these several powers. The judiciary and executive members were left dependent on the legislative for their subsistence in office, and some of them for their continuance in it. If, therefore, the legislature assumes executive and judiciary powers, no opposition is likely to be made; nor, if made, can be effectual; because in that case they may put their proceeding into the form of an act of Assembly, which will render them obligatory on the other branches. They have accordingly in many instances, decided rights which should have been left to judiciary controversy, and the direction of the executive, during the whole time of their session, is becoming habitual and familiar."

Mr. Jefferson, via that quote, is making the case for federalism as seen in his home State of Virginia.  Elective democracy is given precedence while Jefferson sees the process of the oligarchy choosing the Doge as 'elective despotism'.  As being Doge was a life-time affair, it would appear to be very despotic, and yet the powers of that executive were extremely limited in foreign affairs, to the point where the Council had to be present while opening diplomatic papers.  In choosing a Doge or Executive to run the laws of Venice equally (for the oligarchs) and ensure the tranquility of Venice the main leaders in the Council were three removed from the decision of choosing that individual.  And because of the need to get impartiality and the idea that one of these bodies could be 'packed'  towards a particular establishment, the random reduction and then separation of the intervening bodies soon exhausts familial boundaries due to age and trustworthiness.  Even with large families, the question of who would be old enough to actually know the laws and judge by them, and adhere to the needs of the Council and Venice, plus not having favoritism show up made the process reach outside of normal family bounds and into the wider contacts of linked lineages and then to weakly associated individuals once that group had to choose its successor group.  By limiting powers and reaching beyond the inner circle of wealthy families or even the secondary circle of their supporters, the process to get an impartial executive worked quite well for a small republic where other, more confrontational forms of democracy, would start to elevate the richest to the most powerful positions and, thereby, marginalize other commercial competitors.  That form of analysis, however, was not available at the time of the founding and there was a strong distrust of power concentration, which Madison cites later on with Pennsylvania as an example.

The 'flip-side' would be taken by Cato in "Cato" Essay on 12 DEC 1787 and his criticism of the process of the Philadelphia Convention and where it might lead to:

By the plan offered to us, both the legislative and executive, derive their appointments either directly from the people: how this can be called aristocracy exceeds the limits of my comprehension; it is true that we are told that the better sort of people will be appointed to govern; I pray God the prediction may not be a false one. But should that be the case, say these political empirics, we shall not have an equal representation. Why? Because every class of people will not be represented. God knows that fools and knaves have voice enough in government already; it is to be hoped these wise prophesiers of evil would not wish to give them a constitutional privilege to send members in proportion to their numbers. If they mean by classes the different professions in the state, their plan is totally new, and it is to be feared the system once adopted, there would be no end to their democratical purity; to take in every profession from the Clergy to the Chimneysweep, will besides composing a motley assemblage of heterogeneous particles, enlarge the representation so that it will become burthensome to the Community; had the representation in Massachusetts been no larger than that in the proposed government of the Union, Shays would never have had a follower:—I think my judgment will not be impeached when I say that if our representation in this state was less, we should be better represented, and the public saved a very great expense—to judge of the future by the past, it is easy to perceive, that small states are as subject to aristocratic oppressions, as large ones; witness the small territory of Venice, at present the purest aristocracy in the world: Geneva, the circumference of which may be traversed in an hour’s march is now oppressed by a dangerous aristocracy; while the democratic branch of the legislature in England retains its primitive purity. Who was it that enslaved the extensive empire of Rome, but an abandoned democracy? Who defended the republic at the battle of Pharsallia, but the better sort of the people? Caesar can be considered in no other light than a more fortunate Cattiline, and the latter in no other than that of an ambitious demagogue attempting to ruin the Commonwealth, at the head of licentious democracy. In the present crisis of our public affairs I confess with the frankness of a free man and the concern of a patriot, that I apprehend more danger from a licentious democracy, than from aristocratic oppression.

What Cato is looking at is the history of large republics versus small ones: no republic was larger than Rome before it fell and yet small republics, too, fall into the trap of forming an aristocratic elite via representational means.  Not elected means, of course, as these systems were oligarchical, in the case of Venice, or small canton based common government in Switzerland.  Here Cato calls out the difference between a large legislative body, like that in Massachusetts, and the problem it had establishing order, because it was representative *not* of the rural farmers but of the wealthy businesses in Boston.  Population density swayed the government to support those interests over that of the poor farmer, and the size of the legislature ensured that while other voices were heard, it would be the elite that ruled.  If it was *only* that elite that gained representation, the Nation would falter.  This is a 'contrarian' analysis of democracy: it must not only be encompassing across all professions, but also needs to be highly limited in size to be effective.  What Cato calls for is a balance between outright democracy, which would  atomize the young Nation into its counties, and a more common form of consensual government that holds the aristocratic tendencies of powerful elected elites at bay.  Trying to wedge Nation based powers into a county via democratic means is seen as an incredibly destructive force.

In one of his most vitriolic diatribes against the process of making the constitution, Luther Martin would, perhaps, be cited as one of the elite types that would worry Cato and Madison, as seen in his post script in Spurious Luther Martin: Address No. 5 on 10 APR 1788 (and let me say that the venom cast in that day and age goes quite far beyond what many of the most vitriolic of bloggers produces today):

P. S. It may seem a little singular, that my objections to this constitution are widely different from those of every other man who has written on the subject; and that, when others are contending for greater powers to be lodged with the people, I am for curtailing those already granted them, viz. the election of the president and house of representatives; and the ratification or rejection of the proposed constitution. The truth is, that I wish to be singular; therefore while some are stickling for that vile democracy which they so blindly admire, I should wish to see an aristocracy, similar to that of Venice, established in the United States. This would effectually exclude the base born rabble from a share in the government—stupid fellows who, as I already told you in my fourth number, are not an atom better than the nation of frogs, in the fable.

Nothing quite says 'elite' like Mr. Martin's view of the common man!  For all of the vitriol, bile, and charges of traitorous activity (even to Washington and Franklin) is something that cannot be wholly discounted:  a small elite government put at distance from how its own laws are administered is at peril from equal administration of those laws.  That oligarchical set-up, by necessity, could not easily favor any of the families involved, nor could any of their legislation attack any, single family as that would be resisted.  In the egalitarian views descending from the Enlightenment, that would not hold water for the young republic, but it is fascinating to see that the basis for a case was being presented, if in a way that would guarantee it garnered no attention and would be dismissed because of the surrounding material.

One of the most fascinating pieces, however, is seen in Fabius II on 15 APR 1788.  Consider the complicated system for the Doge, in Venice, and then consider this when looking at how a President will be chosen:

This president is to be chosen, not by the people at large, because it may not be possible, that all the freemen of the empire should always have the necessary information, for directing their choice of such an officer; nor by Congress, lest it should disturb the national councils; nor BY ANY ONE BODY WHATEVER, for fear of undue influence.

He is to be chosen in the following manner. Each state shall appoint, as the legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of senators and representatives, to which the state shall be entitled in Congress: but no senator or representative, or person holding an office of trust or profit under the United States, shall be appointed an elector. As these electors are to be appointed, as the legislature of each state may direct, of course they will be appointed by the people of the state, if such be the pleasure of the people. Thus, the fairest, freest opening is given, for each state to chuse such electors for this purpose, as shall be most signally qualified to fulfil the trust.

To guard against undue influence these electors, thus chosen, are to meet in their respective states, and vote by ballot; and still further to guard against it, Congress may determine the time of chusing the electors, and the day on which they shall give their votes—WHICH DAY SHALL BE THE SAME THROUGHOUT THE UNITED STATES. All the votes from the several states are to be transmitted to Congress, and therein counted. The president is to hold his office for four years.

When these electors meet in their respective states, utterly vain will be the unreasonable suggestions derived from partiality. The electors may throw away their votes, mark, with public disappointment, some person improperly favoured by them, or justly revering the duties of their office, dedicate their votes to the best interests of their country. This president will be no dictator two thirds of the representatives and the senate may pass any law, notwithstanding his dissent; and he is re-movable and punishable for misbehavior.

But the very same author just a bit further down seems to miss the point:

How varied, ballanced, concordant, and benign, is the system proposed to us? To secure the freedom, and promote the happiness of these and future states, by giving THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE a decisive influence over the whole, and over all the parts, with what a comprehensive arrangement does it embrace different modes of representation, from an election by a county to an election by an empire? What are the complicated ballot, and all the refined devices of Venice for maintaining her aristocracy, when compared with this plain dealing work for diffusing the blessings of equal liberty and common prosperity over myriads of the human race?

That extremely varied system of getting PARTIAL electors to make a GOOD DECISION for the Executive looks strangely equal to that of the Doge in Venice in its complexity and attempt to put distance between the those currently in power and those deciding who should be President.  When various authors point out that we do not have a system to rule by the majority of the people via direct election of a President, they are correct: that is an intentional design strength of the US Constitution.  For all the casting of aspersion by Fabius on Venice, the US put in-place a similarly indirect method to allow wholly partial individuals in temporary bodies to come to a decision on the Presidency.  And while the Electoral College limits placed on its Electors via the States,  if things go past the first ballot, as they did with election of Jefferson, these representatives are given the ability to look *elsewhere* to find someone suitable to the Nation.  The Presidential vote almost always goes to the most poplar in the election, but via the system of checks and balances, that is not only NOT the case, but one's vote is not directly for a President but to the Elector who will help choose a President.

Our current system of elections has an alternative: instead of choosing a President, the States can, instead, have individuals trusted by their communities run as Electors and those Electors can state which individuals they support for Presidency because it will NOT be them.  In our two party system this flexibility of the democratically elected representational system has been cast aside, to have nameless Electors beholden by State Law to vote as their constituencies have indicated via the ballot for President.  In an era in which we are steadily heading towards a decline in voter turnout due to a feeling of distancing from the system run by the two parties, the alternative at the Presidential side is built-in: choose someone who you trust to represent your views on HOW to choose a President to best guide the Nation and not FOR individual candidates.  And if, as I suspect, this will be the first year that sub-50% turnout in a Presidential election, then this form of flexibility should be re-examined to start getting the political parties out of nominating and putting forward candidates to run for the Office of Presidency as they are doing a damned poor job of it.  And for that ability to do something different, we can be very thankful to the good people of Venice for inventing a highly cumbersome form of choosing an executive as a possible alternative to popular election that still ends up with a half-way decent way of doing things.  And if that was not an intentional 'lifting' by the framers of the US Constitution, then we arrived to a similar end for similar circumstances: just how does a Nation get an Executive to look out for the common welfare when those selecting him are entirely partisan and partial to certain views?

No comments: