Update the Philadelphia Story: While the Declaration of Independence Has Stood the US in Good Stead for 220 Years, It May Now Be in the Interests of Republicanism to Amend It
Keane, John, New Statesman (1996)
Disperse ye villains, ye rebels! Lay down your arms!" Thus did a patrol of nervous British redcoats disturb the spring dawn of a Massachusetts day. Eighteen American militiamen were shot, eight fatally, and within days news of the Lexington massacre galvanised the colonies. British parliamentary monarchy was judged miserly and aggressive. America, even the word, now seemed free, larger, more confident. The path to liberty was to be lit with principles the world would follow.
Fifteen months after Lexington, on 4 July 1776, Congress approved the Declaration of Independence that was read out a few days later to cheering crowds in Philadelphia. It proposed an entirely novel form of democracy. For the first time in human history, a two-tier, federated system of republican government elected by and responsible to its citizens was created. This new "compound republic", as one of the framers, James Madison, later call edit, stressed the place of a written constitution based ultimately on the consent of citizens and specified the powers of government and the rights of the citizen: to a free press, to vote and (twisting Hobbes' maxim that covenants unprotected by the word are worthless) to bear arms.
Resistance to tyranny, it was argued, required abolition of the old fiction that the people resemble a body crying out for an all-powerful, sovereign head which must logically be authorised to muzzle and blindfold its subjects and to speak and act on their behalf. Sovereignty of this sort, the British Crown-in-Parliament, underestimated the people and overvalued unified power.
In a still bolder move, the Philadelphians unpicked the classical republican assumption that the people, like an earthly God, are the unified source of all political authority. Especially from the time of the Articles of Confederation in 1778, the revolutionaries cut a path into the unknown by insisting that Americans could only become wholesome citizens if they became subdivided citizens of a subdivided polity, governed through a balance of powers at the federal level involving the presidency and Congress, but with many powers reserved for government at the state level.
The Philadelphians refused to see the relationship between the state and federal tiers of power in zero-sum terms. They were adamant that the new federation, by dividing and clearly limiting the jurisdiction of the two tiers of government, would help tame the arrogance of representatives, ensuring that those who governed could not stand above the law, violate the rights of citizens or suffocate the public spirit of the commonwealth.
This sense of public spirit or public virtue infiltrated every aspect of the Philadelphia model. It insisted that freedom could not mean freewheeling individualism; rather it should be seen as the unhindered ability of citizens to act in concert with others and so to govern themselves within a constitutional framework. Freedom as self-government implied the need to restrain selfishness and shabby morals among politicians and men of wealth, but it also implied duties of democratic and civic participation by individuals themselves.
In the economic sphere, the new republicanism required that even core liberal values sanctifying private property and wealth, along with free competition, be subordinated to the principles of civic virtue. Few republicans thought that public spirit could or should eliminate disparities of wealth. But most were agreed that the availability of citizenship rights to all adult, white, male citizens, not just to property owners, would ensure ongoing public discussion about how to divide the divisible, guaranteeing that patterns of wealth and inequality would not be seen as natural, reflecting the will of God or the casual brutalities of "market forces", as they were in the anciens regimes of Europe.
America's contemporary argument between Reaganite liberals and a ragged coalition of communitarians, New Deal Democrats and community organisers, along with those from the right, such as Pat Buchanan, who speally for new forms of public regulation of the economy, is still deeply rooted in this Philadelphia debate. …