During times of national crisis, turmoil, and dissatisfaction, we should always return to first principles and right reason.
Some of my favorite quotes from the Federalists and Anti-Federalists:
“We may define a republic to be, or at least may bestow that name on, a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people; and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behaviour. It is essential to such a government, that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion, or a favoured class of it; otherwise a handful of tyrannical nobles, exercising their oppressions by a delegation of their powers, might aspire to the rank of republicans, and claim for their government the honourable title of republic.” (Fed 39)
“A handful of tyrannical nobles” controlled the states, and the federal government could intervene to protect the rights of the citizens of those states. And yet, Madison continued in Federalist 39, “federal” did not mean the same thing as “national,” for the ratification demanded the “assent and ratification of the several states, derived from the supreme authority in each state,” the citizens of the respective state. In deciding whether or not to ratify the Constitution, each state “is considered as a sovereign body, independent of all others, and only to be bound by its own voluntary act.” (Fed 39)
“Justice is the end of government,” Madison stated bluntly in Federalist 51, following Plato and Aristotle. “It is the end of civil society.”
In discussing the need for a strong executive branch in Federalist 70, Hamilton explained: “A feeble executive implies a feeble execution of the government. A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution: and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.” Arguments for energy applied to more than just the executive branch.
“Energy in government is essential to that security against external and internal danger, and to that prompt and salutary execution of the laws, which enter into the very definition of good government. Stability in government is essential to national character, and to the advantages annexed to it, as well as to that repose and confidence in the minds of the people, which are among the chief blessings of civil society.” (Fed 37)
Though never the cohesive force the Federalists proved to be, the Anti-Federalists feared what they considered to be the objective of the Constitution: a consolidated, national government. Such a desire, the Federal Farmer, a leading Anti-Federalist, argued, mostly likely came from “those who expect employments under the new constitution; as to those weak and ardent men who always expected to be gainers by revolutions, and whose lot it generally is to get out of one difficulty into another.” Federalists merely played on the fears of the people, promoting the notion that the current government is fully in a crisis. The result, the Federal Farmer claimed, is predictable. “Instead of being thirteen republics under a federal head, it is clearly designed to make us one consolidated government,” he wrote. “This consolidation of the states has been the object of several men in this country for some time past.”
Another Anti-Federalist, Brutus, claimed the constitution would render the states obsolete through the “necessary and proper clause” of Article I, Section 8. Though the Federalists might write in placating tones regarding the status of states prior to the ratification of the Constitution, the tone would necessarily change once the Constitution was implemented. “It will be found that the power retained by individual states, small as it is, will be a clog upon the wheels of the government of the United States,” Brutus wrote. This will follow the law of nature, as “every body of men, invested with power, are ever disposed to increase it, and to acquire a superiority over every thing that stands in their way.”
Old Whig: “Before all this labyrinth can be traced to a conclusion, ages will revolve, and perhaps the great principles upon which our late glorious revolution was founded, will be totally forgotten. If the principles of liberty are not firmly fixed and established in the present constitution, in vain may we hope for retrieving them hereafter. People once possessed of power are always loth to part with it. . . . The legislatures of the states will be but forms and shadows, and it will be the height of arrogance and presumption in them, to turn their thoughts to such high subjects. . . . The great, and the wise, and the mighty will be in possession of places and offices; they will oppose all changes in favor of liberty, they will steadily pursue the acquisition of more and more power to themselves and their adherents. The cause of liberty, if it be now forgotten, will be forgotten forever.”
Old Whig: “But yet we find that men in all ages have abused power, and that it has been the study of patriots and virtuous legislators at all times to restrain power, so as to prevent the abuse of it.”
Brutus: “The nations around us, sir, are already enslaved, and have been enslaved by those very means; by means of their standing armies they have every one lost their liberties; it is indeed impossible that the liberties of the people in any country can be preserved where a numerous standing army is kept up.”
[Original source: “Bellarmine and Jefferson,” Cincinnati (OH) Catholic Telegraph Register (August 31, 1945), pg. 3.]
The similarity of the ideas of government expressed in the Declaration of Independence and those found in the writings of St. Robert Bellarmine forms the subject of a long article in a recent issue of the Vatican’sOsservatore Romano. This resemblance has often been pointed out, some Catholics even going to far as to declare that the saint, an Italian Cardinal who died more than 150 years before the Declaration of Independence, was Jefferson’s chief inspiration when he wrote the historic document. While the Osservatorearticle is more restrained in its claims, it nevertheless points out several interesting parallels, not only in thought but also in expression, between the Cardinal’s writings and the Declaration of Independence.
Bellarmine wrote that ‘In a free state all men are born free and equal by nature.’ The Declaration of Independence proclaims that ‘All men are created equal.’
Bellarmine wrote, ‘It depends on the consent of the people to decide whether kings, consuls, or other magistrates shall exercise authority over them.’ Jefferson wrote, ‘Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.’
Bellarmine wrote, ‘The people can change a kingdom into an aristocracy, an aristocracy into a democracy.’ The Declaration of Independence says, ‘whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government.’
Although the similarity between the ideas of the Cardinal and those of Jefferson is evident, the degree of the influence of the former on the latter is not clear. The American intelligentsia of the period of the War of Independence had some knowledge of the Cardinal’s teachings, but for the most part only indirectly, through the writings of non-Catholic philosophers, some of whom quoted Bellarmine only to reject his theories. Jefferson himself possessed such a book that summarized Bellarmine’s theory of government. He was also familiar with the writings of philosophers who may have been influenced by the Cardinal, and he was acquainted with the Carrolls of Maryland, a Catholic family whose sons were educated in European Catholic schools and who were probably conversant with Bellarmine’s works. But whether the American statesman read and discussed the Catholic philosopher’s ideas to any great extent before he wrote the Declaration of Independence cannot be proved, especially since Jefferson was only 33 in 1776.
But there is no need to establish a direct connection between Jefferson and Cardinal Bellarmine to prove that fundamental American democracy is supported by Catholic teaching. Whether the founding fathers were influenced by Bellarmine or not, it is certain that the Cardinal, who died the year the Mayflower landed in New England, taught the ideas embodied in the Declaration of Independence a century and a half later. Nor did Bellarmine’s teachings rise full grown from an arid soil. The doctrine he taught, perhaps with more specific details than anyone before him, was a logical conclusion of the philosophical system of the medieval schoolmen, which in turn was the philosophical expression of the teachings of the Catholic Church.
[Original source: Catholic Information, “Did Bellarmine Whisper to Thomas Jefferson?” in The Brookfield (Missouri) Argus (October 17, 1947), page 3. Reprinted in dozens of papers over the next several years.]
Nearly two centuries apart they lived—Robert Bellarmine, Catholic theologian, and Thomas Jefferson, an American patriot. Yet their pens inked out philosophies so similarly sound and God-like that we wonder, we Catholics, whether at least a whisper from the great theologian did not reach the ear of the great statesman as he pondered and wrote his historic document. Read the extracts below from the Declaration of Independence, 1776 and from Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, 1576:
“All men are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” (Declaration)
“All men are equal, not in wisdom or in grace, but in the essence and nature of mankind.” “Political right is from God and necessarily inherent in the nature of man.” (Bellarmine)
“To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” (Declaration)
“It is impossible for men to live together without someone to care for the common good. Men must be governed by someone lest they be willing to perish.” (Bellarmine)
“Governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” (Declaration)
“It depends upon the consent of the multitude to constitute over itself a king, consul, or other magistrate. This power is indeed from God but vested in a particular ruler by the council and election of men.” (Bellarmine)
“Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it and to institute a new government. . . . Prudence indeed will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient reasons.” (Declaration)
“For legitimate reasons the people can change the government to an aristocracy or a democracy or vice versa.” “The people never transfers its power to a king so completely but that it reserves to itself the right of receiving back this power.” (Bellarmine)
“Government by consent of the governed” has been Catholic teaching down the ages. The 16th century doctrine of the “Divine Right of Kings” was, and is, as repellent to the Catholic as it is to the American and when one is both Catholic and American, it is just twice as repellent. So here’s to Cardinal Bellarmine and Statesman Jefferson! May their philosophies ever govern our land and may they conquer those poor lands where ‘kings still can do no wrong’ and where no man dare say them “nay”!
How Joseph Addison’s 1713 play, CATO: A TRAGEDY, fundamentally shaped American republicanism, the American founding, and, especially, George Washington.
A huge thanks to Christine Dunn Henderson, Mark Yellin, and everyone at Liberty Fund for such an outstanding edition of the play.
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Some of my favorite quotes from the lectures of James Wilson, signer of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, delivered at what is now the University of Pennsylvania, 1790-1791.
“Government, in my humble opinion, should be formed to secure and to enlarge the exercise of the natural rights of its members; and every government, which has not this in view, as its principal object, is not a government of the legitimate kind.” [Wilson, “Of the Natural Rights of Individuals,” 1061]
“In his unrelated state, man has a natural right to his property, to his character, to liberty, and to safety. From his peculiar relations, as a husband, as a father, as a son, he is entitled to the enjoyment of peculiar rights, and obliged to the performance of peculiar duties. These will be specified in their due course. From his general relations, he is entitled to other rights, simple in their principle, but, in their operation, fruitful and extensive. His duties, in their principle and in their operation, may be characterized in the same manner as his rights. In these general relations, his rights are, to be free from injury, and to receive the fulfillment of the engagements, which are made to him: his duties are, to do no injury, and to fulfil the engagements, which he has made. On these two pillars principally and respectively rest the criminal and the civil codes of the municipal law. These are the pillars of justice.” [Wilson, “Of the Natural Rights of Individuals,” 1062]
“Under some aspects, character may be considered as a species of property; but, of all, the nearest, the dearest, and the most interest. . . . By the exertion of the same talents and virtues, property and character both are often acquired: by vice and indolence, both are often lost or destroyed. The love of reputation and the fear of dishonour are, by the all-gracious Author of our existence, implanted in our breasts, for purposes the most beneficent and wise.” [Wilson, “Of the Natural Rights of Individuals,” 1063]
“But to that honour, whose connexion with virtue is indissoluable, a republic government produces the most unquestionable title. The principle of virtue is allowed to be hers: if she possesses virtue, she also possesses honour.” [Wilson, “Of the Natural Rights of Individuals,” 1065]
“It is unwarrantable to bestow reputation where it is not due.” [Wilson, “Of the Natural Rights of Individuals,” 1066]
“Property must often–reputation must always be purchased: liberty and life are the gratuitous gifts of heaven.” [Wilson, “Of the Natural Rights of Individuals,” 1066]
“With consistency, beautiful and undeviating, human life, from its commencement to its close, is protected by the common law. In the contemplation of law, life begins when the infant is first able to stir in the womb. By the law, life is protected not only from immediate destruction, but from every degree of actual violence, and, in some cases, from every degree of danger.” [Wilson, “Of the Natural Rights of Individuals,” 1068]
“Slavery, or an absolute and unlimited power, in the master, over the life and fortune of the slave, is unauthorized by the common law. Indeed, it is repugnant to the principles of natural law, that such a state should subsist in any social system.” [Wilson, “Of the Natural Rights of Individuals,” 1077]
“As a man is justified in defending, so he is justified in retaking, his property, or his peculiar relations, when from him they are unjustly taken and detained.” [Wilson, “Of the Natural Rights of Individuals,” 1083]
The above, all taken from James Wilson, “Of the Natural Rights of Individuals” in Kermit L. Hall and Mark David Hall, eds., Collected Works of James Wilson (Indianapolis, Ind: Liberty Fund, 2007), vol. 2.
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