“That the American Revolution and the American people –of all the world’s peoples the most materialistic and most vulgar and least disciplined- should have produced a governmental system adequate to check the very forces they unleashed; this was the miracle of the age, and of the succeeding age, and of all the ages to come. The French, the Russians, the Italians, the Germans, all the planet’s peoples in their turn, would become so unrestrained as to lose contact with sanity. The Americans might have suffered a similar history, had they followed the lead of those who, in 1787 and 1788, spoke in the name of the people and of popular “rights.” But there were giants of the earth in those days, and the spoke in the name of the nation, and the people followed them. As a result, the Americans were, despite themselves, doomed forever to be free.”
The concluding paragraph of E Pluribus Unum- The Formation of the American Republic 1776-1790 by Forest McDonald.
McDonald’s story of the development and ratification of the constitution is an excellent companion to his Norvo Ordo Seclorum- The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution.
The development of the constitution by some of the most intellectually capable men we have ever produced was an extremely fragile enterprise exposing sharp cultural differences and very pragmatic and economic concerns of the day. It was radical in numerous ways, but two are worth noting.
The supremacy of the written law holding all branches of government accountable was as significant as the concept of democracy. While we take this for granted today it was radical at the time.
Secondly, the concept of a republic that did not depend on virtue to hold it together was quite different from the view of republics at the time. Perhaps the colonies’ experience with the failed Articles of Confederation led them to be quite skeptical of depending on mankind’s good nature.
The structure to divide government vertically with federalism and horizontally with checks and balances was meant to frustrate man’s passions, ambitions and factions. It was necessary for the early Progressives to delegitimize this structure in order to promote the greater power of the central government they sought.
Unlike Wilson, FDR sought to sanction his progressive policies through a rationalization to carry out constitutional wishes rather than to delegitimize critical constitutional principles as historical relics unsuited for modern times.
While capitalism was a new concept and largely unfamiliar to the founders, their radical constitution which limited and decentralized power proved to be an exceptional mate for an economic system which also decentralized decision making authority. While this marriage of personal liberty and economic freedom has produced an extraordinary nation, it is worth remembering how fragile it was at its birth and why its core principles remain relevant.