So did John Hancock, William Whipple and Samuel Adams.
Richard Henry Lee, the future-father of Robert E. Lee, signed.
Elbridge Gerry, of “Gerrymandering” fame, signed.
Ben Franklin was also one of the signees.
The 56 who signed The Declaration of Independence knew monarchial power; they came of age during the realm of King George and acted when given a chance. The 3rd charge from the Declaration addresses King George’s refusal to represent the people in the legislature:
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
Representation was, to the signees of the Declaration, “a right inestimable to them.” They also noted that the effort to take that right was, “formidable to tyrants only.”
Thirteen years later, in 1789, many of those same revolutionaries provided our blueprint for representative government, the US Constitution.
Constitutionally representative government is a human invention; the United States has been a leader in this idea and it is even what we proposed for the former Soviet states and are implementing in Afghanistan and Iraq. A “constitution” is also individual. We are constituted beings: there are things that make us who we are. The same is true of governments.
Prior to constitutions, kings and queens (monarchies) ruled. With the invention of constitutions, the people claimed a right to government. The writers and ratifiers of our Constitution treated it like a map of right principles. They were trying to tame power, to tame factionalism, by giving it time and space to present itself. They weren’t trying to silence groups, but to give them a voice. That is the subtle genius that we have lost, but it’s in there, in the Constitution, and we’re going to see about using it.
I’ll begin by telling you up front what this is about: it’ll be revolutionary, though like it was in 1789, the revolution will be constitutional. Following the Constitution isn’t an overturning of value; it is implementing an existing value. Revolution done by following our Constitution may not sound correct – call it re-formation if you prefer. Below, I’ll go into depth on a couple of issues to show you what has happened to this power of ours. Again, with the Is, this isn’t done out of morality, per se. We live under a constitution in the United States, and that of itself isn’t that moral. Today, we know from experience that humans like to amass power, and this principle was well known to the founders and ratifiers of the Constitution. They knew that in order to counter this principle of power, to counter its effect, you had to balance power between interests. In our case, the compromise was a balance between states and the people. The framers could have designed and submitted for ratification a system that favored one set of interests over another, or even a Legislative Branch with one chamber (unicameral), but they didn’t. They wanted a balanced system of checks and created and ratified a Legislative Branch with a House of Representatives, the people’s house, and a Senate, the states’ house. Nowadays we miss the significance of the separation. I missed it for decades. We’ve grown accustomed to looking down on people, to think they are not capable of things like self-government, but the ratifiers believed otherwise. They talked of the genius of the American people; they didn’t find our genius in our superior intellect, but in our way of sorting out factionalism. They had just come out of a revolutionary/civil war, and they knew how bad things could get and what concepts like liberty and freedom and security meant. The genius of the people was found in allowing a representative of a group to vote another’s interest. One representing many; the genius was in the concept, which meant trusting in the represented interests of others, not simply individuals, but an individual representing individuals (others). The genius is still there today.
What has evolved in the US House of Representatives was never the intent of the members of the Constitutional Convention; neither was it the will of the state governments that ratified the document. The delegates and ratifiers had a good understanding of humans. They also had a good understanding of why a people’s house – one described in Federalist 55 by James Madison as a House: “for the purposes of safety, of local information, and of diffusive sympathy with the whole society.” They understood why a people’s House with its lofty standard would not necessarily protect the people: a high principle is hollow unless you can back it up. Backing it up meant providing a means for supporting them, the factions formed by the people, and to devise a way for them to express themselves. It is this principle that has been misplaced but not lost. The House, as an institution, was designed to be augmented – to grow – and if you do not augment something designed to be augmented, if you do not allow it to grow in response to its environment, then you change a fundamental element of a thing and it becomes something else. That is what has happened to the US House of Representatives. Our House isn’t at all what it was intended to be: it has become a place of the few instead of the many.
Adapted excerpt from “Oligarchy,” chapter three of the forthcoming The Book of the Is: A book on bridges (Summer 2013).