The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

The Design of the Constitution

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Although some compromises were necessary to complete the framing of our Constitution—and to ensure that we had a constitution at all—our Constitution was not a mere bundle of pragmatic compromises. Our Constitution was designed: it was the product of a carefully crafted deliberative process in which history’s lessons concerning the effects of different forms of civil government for liberty and justice were carefully weighed and the proposed means of giving us the best form of republican government that the people of the various states would accept were both considered and reconsidered. 

The very rules of the Constitutional Convention formulated by the Framers before they began their work that hot summer in Philadelphia were designed to minimize passion and to maximize reasoned deliberation about the best achievable sort of civil government for the American states and their people. Grandstanding was excluded by restricting attendance only to the states’ delegates and by forbidding all dissemination of the proceedings until the Great Convention’s work had been completed. Wise decisions were fostered by permitting the delegates to reconsider any matter—regardless of whether they had voted on it before and the outcome of previous votes. 

What the Framers sought to achieve, as Hamilton tells us in Federalist No. 1 and then again in Federalist No. 85, the concluding essay of the greatest commentary on our Constitution, was “the additional security,” beyond that which their states’ governments afforded, “to republican government, to liberty, and to property.” 

It was a given that the form of civil government established by the Constitution would a popular government (one based on the will of the people): Americans would accept no other. Americans were a Christian, Bible-centered people who knew that God had given His people a republican government before they sinned and demanded a king (I Samuel 8), and that God’s law protects property. 

But it was just as essential that that popular government be a republic—not a democracy. The Framers knew the dangers of unchecked majority rule. They knew that majorities tend to have a short-run and often a superficial view of men and things; that their views are changeable; that they too often follow popular favorites; and that they can be manipulated to their own detriment by those favorites or by a crafty minority.  They knew too much about the nature and historical consequences of democracies for justice and liberty to desire a form of government based on unmitigated majority will. Only one of the 55 Framers (James Wilson of Pennsylvania) argued from democratic premises. All our other Framers argued on the basis of republican principles. They knew, as James Madison said in Federalist No. 10, that a pure democracy (in which the people themselves meet, debate, and make the laws)

“…can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security and the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” 

Factions are groups of people—minority or majority—united and motivated by a common interest, desire, or passion to work against others’ rights or the common good. Factions destroy popular governments and liberty. Pure democracy gives majority factions unlimited authority which majorities use to do injustice to minorities, violating their persons and property. “[R]educing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights,” as democracy does, does not make everyone equal “in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions,” so it does not prevent men from thinking differently, acting differently, acquiring different amounts and kinds of property, forming factions based on their different possessions and opinions, and doing injustices to each other. 

Making everyone politically equal does not remove the inequalities which God’s creates into men. It does not prevent men from making unequal uses of the talents, resources, and opportunities which God’s divine providence gives them. It does not remove sin from men’s hearts. Nor does it create the best form of civil government. Instead it places property, justice, liberty, popular government itself, and even the long-run good of the majority in jeopardy. That is why virtually all of the Framers wanted to give themselves and their posterity—us—a republic, not a democracy.

In seeking to give us a republic, not a democracy, in order to protect against the injustices done by majorities to minorities’ persons and property, the 55 Framers—at least 51, and probably as many as 53 of whom, as M.E. Bradford discovered, were Christians—were in effect putting the principles of at least most of the “Second Table” of God’s law into our Constitution.  For in giving us a republic, not a democracy, they were giving us a form of government which better protects minorities against the kinds of things which majorities in democracies have done to minorities in the distressing political history of man: murder (6th Commandment), theft (8th Commandment), false witness (9th Commandment), and covetousness (10th Commandment). 

By doing this they were also working to protect majorities against the evils that result from the sins of democratic governments: civil wars between the minority and the majority, and despotic one-man or minority governments to which people turn when they grow disgusted with the instability and injustices of majority rule. 

But to have a republic, not a democracy, would not be enough to protect property, justice, and liberty. For the Framers knew the history of republics too. The representative principle of republican government—the people selecting representatives to meet and deliberate about the government’s laws and policies—only makes it possible “to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” The history of republican governments, they knew, makes it clear that there is no guarantee that a republican form of government will guarantee the selection of wise, patriotic, justice-loving representatives who will make and administer just laws.

In order to create a greater probability of having such representatives and enjoying just laws which protect property and liberty two things are necessary. First, it is necessary to have a virtuous people who are so because of the influence of “religion”: Christianity. This was the often unstated premise of both opponents and advocates of the proposed Constitution. Second, it is necessary to have a well-designed republican government. That was the task to which the Framers set themselves in the Constitutional Convention. That was the issue of the debates over ratification of the Constitution and in writings like The Federalist concerning ratification of the Constitution. 

And that is the issue which Americans must confront when we consider proposed or de facto changes in the structure and powers of our constitutional system.

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