Are politicians today as wise as those who wrote the Constitution?

Could our current crop of politicians be as great as those of the founding generation?

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  • No... William Voegeli

    i"What sets the politicians of 2009 apart from the ones of 1787 is the pervasive modern denial that human nature is something we can understand and a basis on which we can found a political order."

    Suppose we rephrase our debate topic: "Are today's [select a field of endeavor or expertise] as wise as their counterparts in 1787?" The indisputable answer for a long, long list of professions would be, "You must be joking." The eighteenth century's doctors, scientists, and engineers had more in common with practitioners from thousands of years ago, who relied on primitive superstitions, than they do with their counterparts today, who are highly specialized, dauntingly well informed, and expert in the use of rigorous methodologies for rejecting false hypotheses and second-best practices.

    The default assumption, then, is that there is no reason to believe the steady and often startling advances in our understanding and capabilities apply to science or medicine but not to politics. None of us would hire George Washington's dentist. Why, then, should we shrink from rewriting his Constitution in light of everything we have learned in the past 222 years?

    Remember, though, that the story of progress is the story of trial and error. Progress will often require modifying or discarding old ideas, but not becausethey are old. New ideas are better ones only if they do a better job of explaining the world or improving the circumstances in which we live. The ones that fail those tests need to be set aside, not embraced simply because they were coined more recently.

    What sets the politicians of 2009 apart from the ones of 1787 is the pervasive modern denial that human nature is something we can understand and a basis on which we can found a political order. The Americans who wrote and ratified the Constitution believed in certain truths about human nature. These included our fundamental equality, the securing of our inalienable rights as the government's raison d'être, and the need to channel the natural selfishness that engenders factionalism through a constitutional mechanism that protects individual rights and promotes the public good.

    The modern belief, instead, is that what matters is human history, not human nature, our evolution rather than our essence. As the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in 1948, "[No] man who is as well abreast of modern science as the [Founding] Fathers were of eighteenth-century science believes any longer in unchanging human nature." Having discarded the concept of human nature as a fixed star by which to navigate, modern political actors and thinkers can only fall back on "the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society," as the Supreme Court said in 1958.

    If a politics based on human history makes more sense and produces better outcomes than one based on human nature, then modern politicians deserve to be considered wiser than the authors of the Constitution. But only if. There are two problems with the politics of the evolving standards of decency. First, time and reflection show that some standards embraced with confidence turn out to be shockingly indecent. One hundred years ago, for example, many of the practitioners of the politics of progress were also enthusiastic supporters of the eugenics movement, which resulted in policies of compulsory sterilization and the explicit denial of rights based on racial categorization. The day may come when the standards of our own age, which treat abortion as the legal and moral equivalent of an appendectomy, are also regarded with incomprehension and disgust.

    Second, apart from the bland and baseless confidence that our standards can only grow more decent and mature, is the hopeless circularity of appealing to the more enlightened standards just over the horizon to settle today's political arguments. C. S. Lewis wrote that those who frame political and moral dilemmas by asking whether a particular course is consistent with history's direction ask questions that are "of course, unanswerable; for they do not know the future, and what the future will be depends very largely on just those choices which they now invoke the future to help them make."

    In 1885, when he was a prodigious young scholar, Woodrow Wilson wrote that we must replace "blind worship" with "fearless criticism" of the Constitution. It's good advice, but not because the Constitution is especially deserving of skeptical inspection. The point, rather, is that our wisdom and welfare are always better served by approaching ideas and institutions with fearless criticism rather than blind worship.

    Fearless criticism of the long-standing project to supplant politics based on human nature with politics that tracks and keeps a step ahead of human history will show that disdaining the truths self-evident to America's founders has rendered us less wise, less happy, and our experiment in self-government less secure. C. S. Lewis stated the question simply but powerfully in Mere Christianity: "Progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man."

    In 1926 President Calvin Coolidge hailed the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence by calling on Americans to reconsider the possibility that the road laid out by the founders was the right one, and the detour recommended by his contemporaries (and ours) was a profound mistake:

    It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning cannot be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people.


    William Voegeli is a visiting scholar at Claremont McKenna College's Henry Salvatori Center for the Study of Individual Freedom in the Modern World and a contributing editor to the Claremont Review of Books.

  • Yes, but... Jack N. Rakove

    "It is not that politicians today are individually any less intelligent than the founders were, but rather that the system bequeathed to us requires a far more demanding exercise of political wisdom in order to work."

    In 1878, William Gladstone famously described our Constitution as "the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man." Taken by itself, that oft-quoted remark seems to answer the question rather handily. If it does not, ask yourself this one: If you had the choice of being a fly on the wall for one conversation among Adams, Franklin, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison, and another involving any five of our contemporary leaders (including the former Harvard Law Review president who is now POTUS), which group would you rather hear? (I note that neither Adams nor Jefferson attended the 1787 convention, but their previous acts and writings contributed to its "production.")

    The simple answers to the question thus seem obvious, perhaps even self-evident in the eighteenth-century sense (which meant something closer to axiomatic). But a question about political wisdom deserves more than a simple answer. We might restate it in many ways. Were the leaders of that generation smarter, by virtue of background, education, experience, or recruitment, or even raw intelligence, whatever that means? Or were they beneficiaries of a distinct set of conditions that both demanded and permitted the wisdom they revealed?

    As a working historian who has spent his productive hours over nearly four decades asking how the founders of the Republic and the framers of the Constitution did their thinking, I find that they still impress me as an extraordinarily talented group of leaders. James Madison was the most sophisticated constitutional thinker of his era (or perhaps any era), and Hamilton's famous reports on public credit are the most brilliant state papers in our history. For many Americans, Jefferson has become the most morally troubling of the Founders. Yet his intellectual interests and abilities were remarkable, and so was his approach to the fundamental problem of equality. Franklin was a polymath, a serious experimental scientist whose work with electricity was manifestly not a kite-flying lark, and was (by everyone's judgment except that of his colleague John Adams) quite an able diplomat. 

    Explaining how these backwater provincials on the far shores of the Atlantic became who they were poses a serious problem that historians are still far from solving. Yet for all the plaudits we can bestow, it would be absurd to think that the founders were more intelligent or better educated than later generations have been. However intelligence is defined or measured, we have to assume that there is at least as much of it going around these days as there was then, and probably more, given our far greater investment in education at every level.

    But raw intelligence is not political wisdom, a term that still calls for definition to answer this question intelligently. Political wisdom does not exist in the abstract. It is a form of judgment that can exist and operate only within specific contexts of deliberation. It is about analyzing problems and devising solutions to them, but it also entails convincing others that one (or one's own) analysis or solution makes more sense than alternatives. Political wisdom, in that sense, is about education and rhetoric as well as analysis and prescription. It is one reason why we call politics the art of the possible and dismiss visionary proposals that have no chance of adoption as utopian. (Although as close readers of Utopia recall, More embeds his account of the interesting customs of the Utopians in a dialogue about whether counselors to princes can ever expect their advice to be taken seriously. Utopia is thus itself a discussion of political wisdom.)

    Assuming, as we safely can, that the Revolutionary generation included some leaders of exceptional intelligence, how can we best describe and explain their political wisdom? And how does that wisdom compare to that of later generations, our own included?

    We cannot account for the political wisdom of the members of that founding generation unless we grasp the unprecedented opportunities that came their way, first through the collapse of British rule in the colonies and then from the widely perceived imbecility of the Articles of Confederation. This was why John Adams closed his 1776 pamphlet Thoughts on Government by exulting at being "sent into life at a time when the greatest lawgivers of antiquity would have wished to live." It is also why Hamilton began The Federalist eleven years later by observing that it had been given to Americans "to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice." 

    The exercise of political wisdom in 1776 and 1787 began, then, by recognizing the radical possibilities that the collapse of one regime and the radical weakening of another presented to those ready to take advantage of it. At that point, it again becomes interesting to ask how the political upbringing and genius of particular leaders (George Mason in Virginia, John Adams in Massachusetts, James Madison at the federal convention) shaped the deliberations that produced the Revolution's great legacy: the state and federal constitutions that established the forms of government we still follow.

    The great irony of that great legacy is that the founders' political wisdom came to rest on doubts about ours. With its complex mechanism of checks and balances and its patchwork quilt of federal, state, and local jurisdictions, the American constitutional system was designed to make the effective exercise of political wisdom more difficult, not less. Of course, Madison did hope that the federal Constitution would promote better deliberation within the national government than he had experienced back in Virginia. But the net effect of what we call the Madisonian Constitution, manipulated as it is by the proliferating interest groups his theory of republican politics tried to account for, has been to create a system of governance in which the practical exercise of political wisdom is vastly more difficult than it was then.

    It is not, then, that politicians today are individually any less intelligent than the founders were, but rather that the system bequeathed to us requires a far more demanding exercise of political wisdom in order to work. For my own part, I know that the political leaders whom I occasionally have the chance to meet generally impress me with the depth of their knowledge and mastery of a range of issues (at least the ones whose positions and politics agree with mine).

    Whether they collectively can exercise the wisdom to master the challenges that await us is another matter, especially when that wisdom involves thinking critically about the constitutional system the framers of 1787 bequeathed to us. There is no enduring wisdom in an electoral college that violates the one person-one vote standard of modern democracy, or in a rule of deliberation in the Senate that turns the constitutional norm that majorities should be allowed to legislate into a three-fifths requirement for closing debates that never really occur to begin with, or in a system of judicial appointments that allows Supreme Court justices increasingly chosen on grounds of ideology rather than judgment to time their own retirements. Yet none of our political leaders seems to have the wisdom to imagine how one would challenge those aspects of our constitutional system that seem most problematic. 


    Jack N. Rakove is the W. R. Coe Professor of History and American Studies and of political science at Stanford University. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (Alfred A. Knopf).