11 October 2010

What Were They Thinking? (part 10)

In this series, I hope to show how the understanding of our founders was shaped and guided by those literary works with which they were familiar.

In Part 9, I showed writings from Richard Hooker from which certain parts of the Declaration of Independence could be said to flow. Today we look at Letter #1 from "Centinel" to the readers of the Philadelphia Independent Gazetteer and the Philadelphia Freeman's Journal on October 5, 1787, regarding the proposed constitution.

In the letter, "Centinel" compares and contrasts English society to America's, and points out that the form of government which works in Britain wouldn't work here. Through this argument, he asserts that the tri-lateral government proposed by the new constitution provides not nearly enough safeguards against those who would stray from the pure principals to which the authors ascribe.

There they have a powerful hereditary nobility, and real distinctions of rank and interests; but even there, for want of that three orders of government [legislative, judicial, and executive - Ed.] they exist but in name; the only operative and efficient check, upon the conduct of administration, is the sense of the people at large.

Suppose a government could be formed and supported on such principles, would it answer the great purposes of civil society; if the administrators of every government are actuated by views of private interest and ambition, how is the welfare and happiness of the community to be the result of such jarring adverse interests?

Therefore, as different orders in government will not produce the good of the whole, we much recur to other principles. I believe it will be found that the form of government, which holds those entrusted with power, in the greatest responsibility to their constituents, the best calculated for freemen. A republican, or free government, can only exist where the body of the people are virtuous, and where property is pretty equally divided; in such a government the people are the sovereign and their sense or opinion is the criterion of every public measure; for when this ceases to be the case, the nature of the government is changed, and an aristocracy, monarchy or despotism will rise on its ruin.

From this we may suppose that "Centinel" might have seen into the future some 200 years, and read today's news. Or has he?


Previous posts:
Part 1
Part 2

Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

Part 7 
Part 8
Part 9

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