The Ideas That Formed the Constitution

12 November 2022

Here are excerpts from a series by Rob Natelson, published by Epoch Times, 12 November 2022, The Ideas That Formed the Constitution. It's worth recommend reading the original articles in their entirety.

First in a Series: The Ideas That Formed the Constitution

... On Sept. 28, 1787, the Confederation Congress asked the state legislatures to provide for the election of delegates to popular conventions to ratify or reject the Constitution. This sparked the greatest political debate in American history....

Schoolbook focus on the framers sometimes leads us to forget that, although the Constitution had only 55 drafters, the convention delegates who adopted it as “the supreme Law of the Land” numbered 1,757 (counting the 109 in Vermont). Many thousands of citizens voted for those delegates. It was the greatest exercise in popular democracy theretofore recorded....

Part 2: The Founders’ Education

... Eighteenth-century education encompassed religion, music, and English....

But the heart of the curriculum—for boys and a few girls—was made up of the Greco-Roman classics. The Greco-Roman classics are a large body of writing composed in Greek and Latin between the time of the poets Homer and Hesiod (about 800 B.C.E.) until the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 C.E. The lines of Virgil paraphrased on the dollar bill were published around 39 B.C.E....

... Latin instruction began as soon as a child enrolled in grammar school. Lessons typically began at 8 a.m., continued till 11 a.m., resumed at 1 p.m., and continued till dark....

Once the fundamentals were covered, grammar school students read authors such as Virgil and Cicero; the historians Sallust, Livy, and Tacitus; and the poets Virgil, Ovid, Horace, and Juvenal....

More relevant to the Constitution is a 1783 committee report to the Confederation Congress recommending that Congress acquire copies of crucial books. The committee’s list included works by Plato, Aristotle, and Plutarch; several volumes of Greek and Roman history... The report is relevant to the Constitution because its authors were James Madison of Virginia, Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania, and Hugh Williamson of North Carolina—all future framers...

The Greco-Roman classics remained constantly in the minds of those who drafted and ratified the Constitution...

Part 3: The Pioneers: Socrates, Xenophon, Plato

By the beginning of the fifth century before the Christian Era (500 B.C.E.), Greek civilization had spread far beyond mainland Greece. Hellenic colonies dominated the shores around the Black Sea; the northern Mediterranean as far as Spain...

Hellenic civilization was highly decentralized. The basic unit of government was the city-state. Decentralization tends to promote creativity and progress, and this certainly was true of the Greeks: They became the parents of modern thought....

Socrates was born about 470 [BCE]... Socrates’s passion was making friends and finding ways to turn those friends into better, more effective people....

Xenophon was born in Athens in about the year 430.... Xenophon also related Socrates’s division of forms of government into kingship (monarchy), aristocracy, plutocracy (which overlaps oligarchy), democracy, and tyranny. Kingship is rule by one person in accordance with the law. Tyranny is rule by one person not subject to law. Aristocracy is government by those who meet certain legal requirements. Plutocracy is rule by the wealthy. Democracy is rule by the people....

Plato was born in either 428 or 427... Plato refined Socrates’s classification of political systems and suggested that the better political forms tend to degenerate into corrupt forms. Aristocracy, for example, becomes oligarchy, and democracy becomes tyranny....

Part 4: The Pioneers: Socrates, Xenophon, Plato, and the Founders

... A delegate to a state convention called to ratify the Constitution probably had a pretty good idea of who Socrates, Xenophon, and Plato were, even if the delegate had never studied Greek. The records of the Constitution’s ratification show participants in the constitutional debates repeatedly referring to Socrates and Plato and, more rarely, to Xenophon....

John Adams may serve as an example of a leading Founder who relied on Plato.... Adams’s underlying theme was that power should be split among legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. However, he went far beyond the theme to create a veritable encyclopedia of republican governments....

Adams summarized Plato’s treatment of how political structures change and deteriorate: Monarchy mutates into aristocracy, aristocracy into oligarchy, oligarchy into democracy, and democracy into tyranny. (Some of Plato’s reasons why democracies degenerate into tyrannies were licentiousness, disregard for the rule of law, and rendering “Strangers [i.e., foreigners] equal[] to citizens.”)...

Part 5: The Ideas that Shaped the Constitution: Aristotle

... He [Aristotle] was born in Macedonia in 384 B.C.E. At the age of 17, he moved to Athens and enrolled as a student in Plato’s Academy. Aristotle always paid tribute to his teacher, although Aristotle took a very different intellectual direction from Plato....

He identified more than 500 species. He’s credited with founding the science of zoology.... Aristotle’s principal treatise on political science was the “Politeia.” English translators commonly render that title as “The Politics” or “The Republic.”...

Aristotle divided government officials into three kinds: (1) the deliberators, (2) the magistrates, and (3) the judiciary. This was the precursor to our constitutional division between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government.

Similarly, Aristotle argued that officials should govern for the benefit of the people rather than for themselves. This was the seed of the Anglo-American duty of “public trust”...

Aristotle refined Socrates’s and Plato’s classifications of constitutions. The “Politeia” identified three political systems in which the rulers governed for the benefit of the people. They were:

  • Monarchy or kingship—that is, legitimate rule by one person;
  • aristocracy—legitimate rule by a relatively small class of “the best” citizens; and
  • constitutional democracy checked by the rule of law and by an aristocratic council. This was the form Aristotle called politeia.

Aristotle added that each of these three forms can degenerate into the following deviations:

  • Tyranny (the worse of the six)—illegitimate dictatorship for the benefit of the dictator;
  • oligarchy—illegitimate rule by and for the benefit of a few; and
  • democracy (unchecked by an aristocratic council)....

Part 6: The Ideas That Shaped the Constitution: Polybius

... Polybius’s most important composition was his “Histories.” Polybius composed this work to explain to his fellow Greeks how, in a scant period of 53 years, Rome had swelled from a merely Italian power to become the arbiter of the Mediterranean world....

James Madison relied on him in preparing a research memorandum for the Constitutional Convention, Madison’s “Notes on Ancient and Modern Confederacies.”...

On the pro-Constitution side, Alexander White—a prominent Virginia lawyer, ratifier, and (later) member of Congress—foretold that Americans would preserve their liberty so long as they could elect their officials. He relied on Polybius’s description of the Roman republic....

 

 

Robert G. Natelson, a former constitutional law professor who is senior fellow in constitutional jurisprudence at the Independence Institute in Denver, authored “The Original Constitution: What It Actually Said and Meant” (3rd ed., 2015).