What Were They Thinking? Examining the Intellectual Inspirations of the Framers and Opponents of the United States Constitution

By Geslison, Benjamin A. | Texas Review of Law & Politics, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

What Were They Thinking? Examining the Intellectual Inspirations of the Framers and Opponents of the United States Constitution


Geslison, Benjamin A., Texas Review of Law & Politics


NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM: THE INTELLECTUAL ORIGINS OF THE CONSTITUTION. Forrest McDonald. Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 1985. 376 pages. $13.00.

WHAT THE ANTI-FEDERALISTS WERE FOR: THE POLITICAL THOUGHT OF THE OPPONENTS OF THE CONSTITUTION. Herbert J. Storing. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981. 120 pages. $14.00.

I. INTRODUCTION

To study the intellectual genesis of the United States Constitution is to study attempts at reconciling inconsistencies and contradictions. These inconsistencies and contradictions abounded not only between those in favor of the Constitution and those opposed to it, but also among members of each camp, and even within the minds of the individuals themselves. The 1770s and 1780s were a remarkable time for discourse on legal and political thought. Recent political, legal, and economic theories were emerging from such thinkers as Hume, Montesquieu, Blackstone, Smith, and Vattel.1 These added to the already rich literature of theorists such as Locke, Hobbes, and Pufendorf and the classical thinkers such as Aristotle, Plato, Plutarch, and Cicero. Theory was in no short supply, and the newly independent United States of America were to be the perfect laboratory in which to test the most promising theories. Inspired in their quest for independence by such works as Addison's Cato,2 which exemplified the ideal of republican virtue and liberty, the Patriots of the Revolution demonstrated outstanding unity of purpose and vision. They would win the war and establish just such a republic. Unfortunately, such unity was much more difficult to achieve once the fighting was over and the time came to actually institute that republic. This was when the inconsistencies and contradictions became evident-not just contradictions between the myriad theories, which were to be expected, but contradictions between the new republic's objectives, aspirations, and guiding principles themselves.

Forrest McDonald's Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution and Herbert Storing's What the Anti-Federalists Were For3 provide a remarkably well-articulated analysis of the political, legal, and economic ideas that inspired the American polity throughout the Framing period. In so doing, the books address many of the contradictions with which the Framers had to grapple before ultimately implementing the republic they so ardently desired.

II. NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM

McDonald begins by posing the problem the Framers faced as one of striking the proper balance between despotism and anarchy.4 In the Patriots' zeal to cast offthe oppression of England, they had failed to recognize that they had as much to fear from too little government as too much.5 The subsequent failure of the Articles of Confederation illustrated this principle. Therefore, with this lesson in mind, the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention began again. They were motivated by four "limiting" and "guiding" considerations.6 First was that the purpose of government was to protect the lives, liberty, and property of the citizens.7 Second was a commitment to republicanism.8 Third was the importance of history-that is, history as a teacher, history as the legacy they inherited from England, and, perhaps most importantly, consciousness of their own place in history.9 The final guiding consideration was the "large body of political theory at their disposal."10 With these common goals and materials at their disposal, McDonald muses, the outcome ought to have been a foregone conclusion.11 Unfortunately, they were unaware of one catch: the incompatibility of the ingredients.12

McDonald analyzes the incompatibility through expositions on the Rights of Englishmen,13 Systems of Political Theory,14 and Systems of Political Economy.15 In the Rights of Englishmen, McDonald points out several contradictions inherent in most Americans' conceptions of "liberty"16 and "property."17 These were not singular ideas, but each was a collection of ideas and rights. …

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