Constitutions built upon a separation of powers were not made to last. The conceit that executive and legislative branches of government might be set in equipoise, and balance each other off over the decades, was amusingly mocked by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. in The Deacon’s Masterpiece (1858):
Have you heard of the wonderful one-hoss shay,
That was built in such a logical way
It ran a hundred years to a day…?
The secret to building a carriage, the Deacon thought, was to make each piece as strong as the rest, so that no one part wears out first. And as there’d never be a weakest spot, the shay would go on forever, just like the imagined Madisonian Constitution. Well, it lasted and lasted, the talk of the town, until 100 years to the day it all collapsed at once and the new owner found himself sitting on a pile of ashes. No part wore out first. Everything went simultaneously. “End of the wonderful one-hoss shay. Logic is logic. That’s all I say.”
For conservatives this has been a sad time. First, Walter Berns and Harry Jaffa, two giants of the movement passed away on January 10. Famous antagonists, who agreed on so much in practice and so little on policy, their deaths on the same day brought to mind the deaths of Adams and Jefferson on July 4, 1826. That much-remarked coincidence reminded me of the passing of Luther Martin on July 10, 1826. Who, I wondered would be next, and would it be a notorious tippler? Henry Manne was a golfer, not a tippler. Unlike Martin, however, he deserves to be remembered…
Joseph de Maistre never met men in the abstract. Frenchmen, Italians, yes—but not “Man.” There were no universal principles of government, applicable to all men at all times, only governments suited to the different kinds of people in different countries.
Maistre was right, and to that extent, American conservatives are wrong if they think that their constitution is the perfection of human reason, a light unto the Gentiles. They’re especially wrong since the Constitution isn’t looking too good these days. One can love liberty and one can love America’s Constitution, but one can’t love both together without a thick set of blinders.
In The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America, I argued that the United States was drifting towards the one-man rule of an all-powerful President. It’s not something people, especially American conservatives, wanted to hear, but then I had a secret ally in Barack Obama. He’s the gift that would never stop giving—but for term limits.
“Have you heard of the wonderful one-hoss shay, that was built in such a logical way, it ran a hundred years to the day?” If you haven’t, you’ve missed one of the most amusing poems of the nineteenth century, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.’s splendid satire of the American constitution. Shays or carriages break down, said Holmes, when one joint is stronger than the next. “There’s always somewhere a weakest spot, … and that’s the reason, beyond a doubt / A chaise breaks down but doesn’t wear out.” And so the Deacon built a carriage that wouldn’t break down because each part was a strong as the rest. On and on the carriage went, until 100 years from the day it was made it all turned into dust. “End of the wonderful one-hoss shay, logic is logic, that’s all I say.”
The poem was written three years before the outbreak of the Civil War, when the defects of a logical constitution seemed all too apparent to Holmes’ fellow Bostonians. Not that the Framers were logicians, of course. They were almost all practical politicians and simply strove to give us something better than what they had had.
We will soon know if the U.S. Senate changes hands, but I’m not one of those waiting with bated breath. I had lunch with a prominent conservative columnist a while back. “It’ll be different in November,” he exulted. “We’ll take the Senate!” “And then what will happen?” I asked. “We’ll pass legislation and send it up to Obama,” he answered. “And then what will happen?” I asked.
My friend thought that the most arrogant and narcissistic President the country has ever seen would blanche before Mitch McConnell. Count me a skeptic. We have gridlock this year, and we’ll very likely have gridlock in 2015, whatever happens in November.
Oh, I know there’s the Senate’s advise and consent role, when it comes to judicial appointments. Conservatives like to pretend that that’s important. All it means is that, with divided government, we won’t see Justice Eric Holder. So we’ll see Justice Elena Kagan. Tell me what’s the difference.
With this I end with thanks a month-long stint as a Law and Liberty blogger. It’s been great fun, even with the distractions that came from pushing my book, The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America.
The book’s thesis is that, from an admirable patriotism and a less attractive ignorance of history, American libertarians do not adequately defend liberty.
We are all patriots first and philosophers second—and that is just as it should be. For American theorists, patriotism means elevating people such as James Madison to the pantheon of political philosophy. The British have Hume and Burke, the French have Rousseau and Tocqueville—and the Americans have Madison and Hamilton. To be sure, they’re not mediocrities. But then they’re not the people who made the deals that produced the Constitution, or whose beliefs informed its content.
There is a tendency to liken modern parliamentary systems to the kind of one-man rule seen in most presidential regimes. The claim, made by Don Savoie and others, is that prime ministers are all-powerful. But it’s more accurate to see parliamentary systems as a kind of corporate government, with the PM as CEO and the party bigwigs as a not impuissant board. The CEO is fine as long as he seems to be able to lead the party into the next election, but if not he’ll find he’s not really in charge. As happened to Thatcher in 1990 and Jean…
From a Canadian perspective, America looks a wee bit like a unitary state and not a federal country. In Canada, provinces can opt out of the Charter of Rights, Quebec has its own immigration policies, and so on. Remember Trent Lott? He belonged to something nasty called the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission. Sovereignty… The word gave me pause. I turned to the web site of my native province to see how it described Canadian federalism. What it said was that Canada was a federal country and that provinces were sovereign within their sphere of competence, as defined by the British North America…