Constitution Day


Susan McWilliams and I have finished editing TWO books of essays by my teacher, and her father, the late, great Wilson Carey McWilliams. Announcements of their publication and encouragements for their purchase are soon to follow. Porchers will gain much from these books.

(You can now pre-order your copy of the first of these two books – The Democratic Soul)

However, in honor of Constitution Day (September 17, 1787), I thought I would exerpt one piece that did not make it into either book – a very early speech delivered by McWilliams, indeed, the among the oldest piece of writing about American political thought that I have been able to find by him. Rough and ready, this speech – delivered in the winter of 1961 to the “Academic Emphasis Program” at the University of Minnesota – lays out some of the basic themes that would inform McWilliams’s work throughout his life, and raises some profound and probing questions about the ultimate compatibility of the American constitutional order and the prospects for local self-government.


The United States was perhaps the first country in the world, certainly the first in the modern world, to claim to be founded on a “science of politics.” And oddly enough, in what seems to be a disintegrating world, this is a trait we share with the Soviet Union. Both of the two nations claim to be based on “science,” a discovery of the true principles of politics. And because of that, it is incumbent upon us to examine “our” science, to examine it not only to see what it is, but to see if it is really different from that of the USSR, if our free society really is a result of it, if the free institutions of American society work because of, or in spite of, that “American Science of Politics.”

The context of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 reveals clearly not only the sweeping claims made by Hamilton and Madison for their scientific politics: it reveals also that this vaunted science was “new,” that there was an older science of politics which it rejected. Thus the two sciences formed the context of that constitutional debate—between political science based on the idea of a “government of laws” and that based on the “government of men.” The two sciences are best distinguished in their ideas of the nature of a constitution itself.

To that older science of politics, that idea of the “government of men,” a constitution is like the “constitution” of a man, his whole make-up and character. It is what makes him distinct and what makes him what he is: the constitution is the whole man, in his organic relatedness, and the complexity of his being. It is what the Greeks meant in the use of the word politica: the constitution of a state is the whole state in all its aspects. And more especially, what is vital in the constitution of the state is the citizens themselves. Laws, in this view, reflect the men which they rule. A republic is a kind of men: free citizens, and not, by contrast, a set of electoral procedures. For free citizens make any set of laws a Republic, and no set of laws will make men who are “slaves by nature” free men.

To that older science of politics men are always individuals and always unique. They can never be “interchangeable,” they cannot be substituted one for the other without some additional change resulting. Law in such a system becomes plural, complex, and local, reflecting the diverse men and ways of life that make up the state. The state, being a “whole,” including the citizen as well as the ruler, has no separation between public and private right. The scope of state action is broad, and indeed, inclusive. There are few areas in which the state cannot act. But the state is severely limited: it is limited by the sheer variety of laws with which it must harmonize every act, by the fact that it must answer to these many laws, for anything it attempts to do. Thus, though it acts in a wide number of areas, the actions that it may perform are severely limited in themselves.

For at every stage, the old science of politics confronts the state with men who make it up. It insists that the traditions and visions, the character and culture of each individual be considered in the decision, and that the state devote itself to purposes these men deem worthy. It insists that the law grow out of and not be imposed over the lives and purposes of men.

The “new science of politics” of Hamilton and Madison conceived a constitution in a radically new way: it was the view of the constitution as a set of rules or written precepts, general rules and procedures for the conduct of public business. The new science assumed that men can and ought to be removed as factors in the state; it asserted that even where the citizens are base men, or corrupt men, the system would work as the framers intended. It was a “scientific method” or a magic of politics, a political alchemy which could transmute baser metals into higher through the proper application of a technique. Men, in this science, were treated as interchangeable beings, as Thomas Hobbes had suggested before—all men were sufficiently equal that none can pretend to any preferment—to any special treatment or consideration as an individual. The new science of politics aimed to create a state which was “a great machine, the parts of which are men,” in Adam Ferguson’s phrase. Yet like Hobbes, Madison and Hamilton confronted the problem that machines must be made by mechanics. They were forced to set themselves outside the state and indeed, outside the general run of humanity, just as Hobbes had exempted from human equality, “the skill of proceeding upon general and infallible rules, called science.”

The idea then was a state which worked of itself, designed by an almost super-human artificer, a “secondary agent of God” who discovered a science that enabled men to be eliminated, that enabled the state to avoid concern with the citizen, and the citizen to avoid concern with the state; it was, in this sense, a political science devoted to the abolition of politics, which sought through rules and institutions to render the state impersonal, impartial, unemotional, mechanical, and—to use the word gently—inhuman, which sought in fact to adapt men to the laws and not the laws to the men. It distrusted, from the transcendent viewpoint it claimed, humanity as such, and found men inadequate by the standard of its science…..

Like all the devices of the Republic, the Constitution was designed to set up and to serve an image which the prophecy of the founders foresaw; it was a set of tools designed to shape purposes toward a specific end. I have stated the system here in unattractive terms—because, I think, those terms apply. But why did men adopt the system—and more, why did they advocate it?

First and foremost, because they believed it made men free, because it relieved the state from any necessity to be concerned with the internal workings of the mind, and because it would liberate man from the ancient restraints of custom and tradition that they tended to lump together as “superstition.” “It could not be less folly to extinguish liberty… because it nourishes faction than it would be to wish the annihilation of air. . . . because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.” Freedom, in that view of Madison’s, demands we tolerate even the factions he felt so pernicious because it is to men as important as the air they breathe. But to say a “man is free” is to assume what a man is; and the founders, no less than anyone else who deals with philosophic ideas in poli¬tics, assumed a definition of man and human nature….

What was the “nature of man” which the Founders hoped to free? It was the view of man the child—that nature is found in beginnings, before society, before education, before culture. Man when first-born is the only true example of the species, and life consists of a progressive loss of the original freedom, innocence, and, if you will, completeness of man.

It believed that man is an atom, a being complete in himself, without others, a man who needs no society to reach his nature or his perfections; it accepted, with Rosseau, the idea that man is “born free but is everywhere in chains.”

It accepted that man the child knew the goals and ends of man. Yet the child was a creature of passions and passions alone—of endless, imperial, infinite desires for acquisition, for the getting of things outside the self, predominantly of materi¬al things and wealth, of scarce things which brought man into competition and conflict with his fellows in a struggle over wealth. Man was largely—almost wholly—economic man; it is interesting in view of our original, question, is it not? How different is that from the “science” of the USSR? It is a humbling fact to admit that before Marx was born, Alexander Hamilton had written in the 79th Federalist paper: “A power over a man’s subsistence amounts to a power over his will.” This view of economic man, of man the competing, fighting animal, man the jungle being born in scarcity and condemned to conflict, was shared by Marx and the Founders; it is at the root of both sciences.

Reason was a “tool of the passions,” developed in this struggle and conflict; indeed it was because it developed this tool that competition was to be encouraged. Competition brought man to his finest development or it cast him aside; it guaranteed the “survival of the fittest” and the progress of the race—no less for the Framers, or the Darwinists, or for Marx. This is not to say that any liked war: they did not, as no decent man can. But they saw war as a necessary tool for progress; the result of man’s fall, it had become the “cunning of reason in history” that assured man’s gradual perfection. And in any case, like it or not, war was writ large in the nature of man: “The fiery and destructive passions of war reign in the human breast with a far more Powerful sway than the sentiments of peace…. to model our political system upon speculations of tranquilityis to calculate on the weaker springs of the human character.”

Men are driven to competition and conflict by want, scarcity, and need; they lack power to fulfill their needs, or the desires given by their passions. But reason suggests that the “war of all against all” is foolish, and men combine with each other—but they do so only in order to combat other men, or to gain additional wealth, or security against each other. It is this view that is the root of Madison’s suspicion of factions and his conviction of their motives hostile to the public good for that is what, in this view, any group must do– war and combat in the interest of its members against others. At best reduced to immobility, it exists for the sake of plunder….

The science of politics which lies at the base of the Framers’ theory is and was a science of loneliness, designed with the arts of the magician to prevent men from attaining contact and community, designed to compel him to find meaning only in things, in the objects toward which his passions direct him—toward things non-human, toward conflict and competition. Men cannot, however, express their hostility toward one another directly, nor can they be entirely deprived of human objects for their passions. Men must “clothe their claws in cotton,” the cotton of good behavior, of manners and morals and procedures and pietistic taboos. They must never speak openly of their suspicions of one another, perhaps never think them at all. By eliminating violent hostility the new science improves on the “cunning of reason” by making the struggle a bit more livable.

We retained illusions in the 19th century and in the early years of this century because of the older traditions of Church and the faith, the old communities and old ways, the new surges of immigrants—who brought to us the sustaining force of vital and living communities—and finally the political parties which arose in spite of Madison’s best designing. All these buttressed the deep needs of man for a sharing of fraternity and vision, for a life which is in the true sense political.

Yet these forces have grown weaker with the years, especially under the corrosive action of war and technology. We have come to an end of illusions, to a world in which the alienation, isolation, and anxiety of man—his sense that he has lost the freedom to act responsibly as a whole man—all have become apparent and familiar facts. And man has, in defense, withdrawn into the apathy that the Framers hoped he would feel, peacefully accepting the direction imposed by the laws, retreating into the family fortress which is too small to resist the drift of the system, a captive fortress good only to reconcile man to the system itself.

Oddly enough, a partisan of the old science of politics, Adam Ferguson, foresaw this clearly as the trend of the “new science” almost at the time the convention met at Philadelphia: “Men will gather together in public only in the resorts for commerce and for mere amusement in the form of the crowd. The private family becomes a retreat in reserve away from competition for status and position. . . This humor is not likely to grow in either Republics or monarchies. It belongs to a mixture of both where the administration of justice is better secured, where the subject is tempted to look for equality but finds only independence in its place, and where he learns, from the spirit of equality, to hate the distinctions to which, on account of their real importance, he pays a remarkable deference.” It is a remarkable description of the ersatz-gemeinschaft, of the pseudo-community, where a rhetoric of community masks real isolation, where hatred and suspicion, fear and distrust and disloyalty contrive to isolate men under a language of communion: a phenomenon common to the totalitarian state and the mass organization, the corporation of the Organization Man, the gigantic trade union, or what have you. For concern for external behavior, as Ferguson was aware, at the expense of private character must always isolate man, and leave him fearful and unable to unite with his fellows for purposes worthy of common endeavor, unable to bear responsibility, unable to be free: “The barriers they raise against evil actions of men would prevent them from acting at all.”

We have come to the end of illusions because we have come close to the Utopia which the Framers hoped, and imagined, that we might attain. It was a Utopia they spoke little of, that they retained inside their minds, but which served, nonetheless, as an unnamed standard by which States and laws and men were judged: a Utopia that Herbert Spencer described so well for that “new science” which unites both Marxists and the science of the Framers:

1. Where administration replaces politics, where managerial skills based on science replaces human skills. Spencer would have had rule by computer if it had seemed possible—a wholly impartial and completely impersonal state in which men do not count at all.

2. Abundance – total and complete material abundance in which a beneficent science provides for all the desires and wants of man, fulfills all his passions and leaves him in a constant euphoria—a child in his bathinet, washed by warmed waters and pleasant senses.

3. Of unrestrained freedom which is yet compatible with order because, given abundance, there is nothing to disagree about. There is an absolute harmony because men have no disagreements; man is completely free because completely alone. He need not use his mind because it has lost its major function, and if it is used, it cannot thereby produce any disagreement with the way things are run.

4. In which there is no responsibility, there need be no concern, no sharing of risks and burdens because there are none….

There is a great concern today about the collapse of moral standards, about the purposeless violence, the confusion and ambivalence, the directionless and visionless descent into the mere satisfaction of sensual desires. And yet this was bound to be. The new science, the government of laws, concerned itself with restraints on the outside of men. Yet in our age those outside restraints have broken down; men are unwilling to await satisfactions because they doubt the ability of that science to obtain what they want. But once the outside restraints break down, men have been deprived of any restraints within themselves….

Brand Whitlock, who knew and was rewarded by political life as well as any man, put it far better than I can do: “For it is not the city that makes the people free but the people that make the city free, and the city cannot be free until the people have become free. . . above all from themselves, from their littleness. . . suspicions, and fears. . . . [I]t is not laws that set them free: They must set themselves free and themselves indeed find the way out.”

And with that appeal to political life; to its fraternity and vision—to the ancient science of politics, and to the government of full human beings—I rest my case to you today.


  1. Why we shouldn’t celebrate Constitution day:

    The founders thought they could oppose vice to vice and produce a virtuous order. Somehow, there might be an error in that thinking. But it shows that the real foundation of the modern political order is not Hobbes or Hume or Locke or Smith, but Mandeville, whose “Fable of the Bees” is subtitled “Private Vices, Publick Benefits.” I maintain that all of modern economics is merely a commentary on Mandeville.

  2. John,
    You’ll find much to like, admire, and ponder in the forthcoming collection of books by McWilliams. I’ll be sure you get copies.

    Klugewicz is most certainly on the trail here, and the quarry is in sight. Few, if any, “conservatives” have the intellectual courage to confront their fetishization of the Constitution – that “New Order of the Ages.”

  3. It’s too bad that these books weren’t out in time for our Constitution Day event here at Friends University, Patrick! I like being able to set aside some reading as particularly relevant to the occasion for the students, and my preference is to point them towards something that will challenge, or complicate, the received wisdom about the document–not challenge it in the progressive/evolutionary way (“the Constitution is a work in progress,” civil rights, etc., etc.–that’s easy), but challenge it in the more fundamental way that McWilliams so often did. I look forward to reading the book; maybe I’ll be able to excerpt something for the students next time around.

  4. Russell,
    Next year all friends (and Friends) can be enlightened… As a young man Carey was an activist in the New Left, but who came to be most admired late in life by thinkers on the Right. Yet, re-reading this essay, I’d say there’s a fundamental consistency in his work throughout his life. In that sense – like our intellectual hero Christopher Lasch – he bridges contemporary divides with a ferocious intellectual honesty. I think you’ll find much to like.

  5. I’m sure that some of our early politicians — Hamilton springs to mind — were motivated by a technological, impersonal view of the state. However, it is a distortion to imply that the POINT of the Constitution is to render virtue and vice irrelevant in politics. The point of the Constitution— through checks and balances and separation of powers— is rather to give formal limits to the influence that a single ambitious official can have, and make it less likely that tyranny will occur. Obviously, we need officials who will obey the law and honor its intentions — is that not virtue?

    Honestly, I find this desire for premodern politics to be disturbing. Who would really prefer the politics of the ancient world or medieval Europe, with no prescribed limits for the state (and how does this fit with “Place, Limits, Liberty)?” Where the state prosecutes for “impiety,” as in Rome and Greece, or heresy, as in the medieval and early modern periods? Where a single vote from the assembly or ruling from the monarch condemns someone to death?

    I find this paragraph particularly bothersome— “There is a great concern today about the collapse of moral standards, about the purposeless violence, the confusion and ambivalence, the directionless and visionless descent into the mere satisfaction of sensual desires. And yet this was bound to be. The new science, the government of laws, concerned itself with restraints on the outside of men… But once the outside restraints break down, men have been deprived of any restraints within themselves.”

    If we look to politics to create our morality, we’re bound to be disappointed. Government does not exist to perfect every virtue, and it does a rather poor job when it tries, as both ancient and modern history.

    By all means, let’s critique the organization of the Constitution and the drive towards centralization it set loose. But let’s not throw out all the clarifications of the state’s role, as differentiated from churches, voluntary associations, etc, that have been advanced in the past 500 years.

  6. As one who wags the writ about while calling foul, this and the Klugewicz piece are serious food for thought. Still, like everything else in this life, the chemistry of existence has its positive and negative poles and there is something about that Constitution, coming when it did, that leads me to believe it is powerfully charged. Would that the current generation of political factotums not short out so consistently.

  7. Patrick, for a semblance of being equitable concerning the Constitution and Publius’s subtle thinking, perhaps you’ll permit me to direct interested readers to David Epstein’s book on the political theory of the FPs. It perhaps goes too far in a Mansfieldian direction, but that may be a pardonable excess/corrective, given Carey & your partisan reading in a negative vein. I saw Carey’s characteristic generosity of interpretation regularly fail him when he spoke of the Constitution/Hamilton/Madison ( and of Reagan). Much more could be said in a positive vein about the elements of the new science of politics; I’d recommend Michael Zuckert’s work on Madison as a good place to start. Just wanted to indicate other authorities, other readings, to your readers. It’s your blog, of course.

  8. Stephen

    Admittedly, this is a topic that is “off the reservation” in terms of this website’s title.

    However, I think you have hit upon a fundamental difference in outlooks between you and Professor McWilliams. Or at least between you and me. What one adjudges to be progress may be considered degeneration by some. And what is called human by me may be considered tyranny by you.

    To my Old Tory mind, the last five hundred years have exhibited degeneration rather than advancement.

    “Who would really prefer the politics of the ancient world or medieval Europe, with no prescribed limits for the state?””

    Well, I would. The artificial separation of public man with private man that has continued unabated for the past several centuries has been nothing but an unmitigated evil. To say that men ought to be free from his fellows in certain prescribed realms, the realms that matter, is to claim that men can find their purposes in themselves individually; this is the road both to despair and the limited—but paradoxically omnipotent—“liberty state” that performs Herculean labours to keep men apart. I think you’ve made Professor McWilliams point nicely: Ideological de-centralisation is not a politics at all. It is an attack on politics.

    “If we look to politics to create our morality, we’re bound to be disappointed.”

    Actually, creating our morality is the whole point of politics.

  9. Actually, creating our morality is the whole point of politics.

    That was certainly true for Aristotle, Plato, and Aquinas. And I think it is true as well for Benedict. This from Spe Salvi:

    14. Against this, drawing upon the vast range of patristic theology, de Lubac was able to demonstrate that salvation has always been considered a “social” reality. Indeed, the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of a “city” (cf. 11:10, 16; 12:22; 13:14) and therefore of communal salvation. Consistently with this view, sin is understood by the Fathers as the destruction of the unity of the human race, as fragmentation and division. Babel, the place where languages were confused, the place of separation, is seen to be an expression of what sin fundamentally is. Hence “redemption” appears as the reestablishment of unity, in which we come together once more in a union that begins to take shape in the world community of believers.

    16. How could the idea have developed that Jesus’s message is narrowly individualistic and aimed only at each person singly? How did we arrive at this interpretation of the “salvation of the soul” as a flight from responsibility for the whole, and how did we come to conceive the Christian project as a selfish search for salvation which rejects the idea of serving others? In order to find an answer to this we must take a look at the foundations of the modern age. These appear with particular clarity in the thought of Francis Bacon.

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