The Prince and the Republican Cloak of Virtue

The American founders were obsessed with republican thought, and republican practice, during the conception of the constitution. During these times, classic republicanism shunned executive power as an institution; unless, it was needed to save the republic. Before 1787, a strong executive meant the likely creation of corruption, and republics cannot exist for long in the midst of corruption. As republicanism is designed to increase virtue and bound corruption; then, the common sense of the times determined that the executive branch should be bounded. If the executive branch was given unitary authority to interact as an equal amongst the legislature and judiciary, surely, the executive would become like Machiavelli’s Prince.

Machiavelli’s seminal work, The Prince, is, at the very least, a guidebook for a strong executive. Machiavelli’s most admired prince, for example, was Cesare Borgia, who “‘stupefied’ the people and ‘satisfied’ the soldiers” (1985, xx). In short, the prince is a man with the people and against aristocracy; however, the prince should purge dissident elites (i.e. Cesare’s actions after conquering Romagna), may rule through fear without the peoples’ consent, controls his own army and uses it when necessary—even domestically, and allow no person or thing to encroach upon his power. Surely, this ideal prince must be tamed in order to enable the longevity of a republic.

The founders’ research of past republics persistently uncovered that they existed almost entirely without executive powers—just legislatures. Republics often existed in small territories—and if the small populations were not imbued with virtue, then the republic would collapse. Devotion to the republic was more important than any other value, so the founders struggled with the creation of the republican state structure. They struggled because it seemed that the republic needed a strong leader—a leader to disperse Shay’s Rebellion and other chaotic anomalies.

After the revolution against the British was underway, the states changed their colonial configuration to models that fit the classic republican schematic. Virginia’s Chief Executive, for example, was chosen by the legislature and needed to ask for a veto from an executive council. Pennsylvania, in fact, employed no governor at all! In other words, the prince was not simply tamed; rather, impotent or absent.

The first American government was a confederacy and was considered to be a failure to many of the founders. Indeed, those founders that believed it failed created the second constitutional convention in order to fix the failures of the Articles. At first glance, the Articles failed because the national authority had no authority (its income, for example, was provided by the will of the many states). The republic would thus enable the national government to act as an equal to the state governments—raising its own army, money, etc.

Of particular salience, most founders also imagined that the executive might mimic the structure of the state governments, though perhaps a little more powerful than the elusive Pennsylvanian exemplar. Indeed, the founders vigorously discussed and decided at the constructional convention the new structure for the republican executive leader. The generation of founders easily agreed that the lesson “learned from their experience with the British and colonial governments was that liberty is threatened by executive power and safeguarded by legislative power” (Milkis and Nelson, 2012, 3). However, the executive under the Articles was too tame, too impotent, and so many desired for a stronger executive but had no agreed upon solution. Indeed, many did not address the topic for some time.

At the constitutional convention, many founders initially wanted a tame executive because they imagined that a Machiavellian prince would bring the republic to despotism. More so, the founders postponed the idea of the executive and focused on the powers of the legislature—the powerful apparatus of classic republican government. Madison’s plan to organize the new government, for example, was silent regarding a council of executives, or, one executive; mainly because the plan allowed for the legislature to determine the issue (Milkis and Nelson). The New Jersey Plan, too, “provided a weak executive as if it were required by the genius of republican government” (Mansfield, 249).

In fact, many founders assumed that George Washington would be the first President, and his presence at the convention as the presiding officer may have stifled conversations about his future position. Perhaps that was why one man vehemently argued for a Machiavellian prince—to break the ice, so to speak. To be sure, Hamilton radiated for four to six hours about the necessity to replicate the English system; mostly, the executive should be powerful like the King (the main difference being that the English King was born into it, while the American President would be voted into office—for life—by electors). Hamilton lost that battle, but many find that he won the war.

How did the constitutional convention undergo a revolution of republican thought; since the executive powers began as vague, absent, and impotent; and then finished as clear, at hand, and powerful? In brief, the answers are plentiful in the flow of republican content that is spelled out in The Federalist Papers (henceforth Papers). The Papers are a reflection of the debate with respect to the best practices for republicanizing the first republic the world had witnessed in many centuries.

In this manner, the Papers often spent a great deal of time overturning classic republican theory. For example, the founders claimed that past republics eventually turned into chaos, or in the most excellent of cases, the republic was saved by a temporary dictator (i.e. Cincinnatus), only to be eventually thrust back into chaos, anarchy, or ruin (i.e. dictatorship). Thus, the founders understood that the republic would need Cincinnatus, so to speak, but to institutionalize the role played by Cincinnatus would have seemed to the American people as the institutionalization of aristocracy—which was exactly what the revolution fought against.

The founders institutionalized a new republican system, and the constitution’s greatest experiment was the executive branch. The later Papers (67-77) illuminate the new republican executive. In a way, the explanation for the executive in these Papers seems to expound the virtuous qualities that Cincinnatus might require. First, the executive would need energy: “quickness, the executive deals more than any other branch with the accidents and force that may thwart or disturb republican choice” (Mansfield, 255-256).

Moreover, energy (Paper 70, 72) allows for arduous enterprises. Indeed, the Paper describe that past republics failed because there was no sustained virtue—maintained energy. Abuse of power, as illustrated in Paper 51, was a sign of a weak republic and an incompetent executive. Second, if a future executive incompetently threw the republican cloak of virtue aside in favor of naked despotism, then the constitution would protect the people from the despot. Indeed, the legislature created the law, and most importantly, declared war (Paper 69).

Once the debates at the constitutional convention were over, the single executive held much (potential) power. The President could veto at will (though he could be over-ruled), assign his own advisors, and explain the state of the union to the legislature. The Papers show that the founders determined that the great tragedy of past republics arose because an executive authority was kept from being virtuous! Moreover, the excellence to be gained by the executive as designed by the new constitution would recruit virtuous leaders. Mansfield made this point clear, “it is government that uses and engages the virtue and ability of preeminent characters. Contrary to the animus against such characters, republics not only need them to survive, but depend on them in order to excel” (266).

Thus, the Papers and the constitution overturned classic republican theory. Mansfield made it clear that energy may not be virtue, but “in the American Constitution energy leads to virtue” (267). The Papers explain that a single executive is far superior to a plural executive, because a plural executive would conceal faults, hide responsibility, and inhibit virtue. The presidential veto enables the virtuous executive to check an inappropriate legislature.

Cato and the Anti-federalists did not think that the constitution would tame the prince and they were fearful of a powerful chief executive. Cato, thought today to have been Governor George Clinton of New York, argued that the powers of the executive were unjustly vague and that (unnecessary) greatness of executive power would best serve a republic with brevity (1 year post in office). After all, why would a virtuous president object—especially since he would be followed by another virtuous leader? Certainly, the constitution should not provide the time or the power of an executive to ruin the country.

And the anti-federalists avidly opposed Hamilton’s notion of an absolute veto over legislative action. Cato continually pointed out the loopholes inherent within the constitutional role of the commander in chief and his ability to appoint people to the courts. Cato questioned the ease of which the republican cloak may be thrown aside (my metaphor), and allow America to give rise to a Julius Caesar. After all, you can’t always see behind the Machiavellian mask.

Hamilton responded by explaining that the critics of the constitution were being hysterical, that there is no diadem sparkling on the president’s brow, and that the president is not really powerful at all. A powerful president, for example, would be elected by the people and claim a mandate from the people in order to subvert the legislature. Moreover, a president elected by the people could engage demagoguery—yet, to be sure, the constitution insulated the executive branch from the people. Indeed, the President was not elected by the people; rather, by the Electoral College. Thus, the President was removed from the people and demagoguery.

Hamilton’s attacks upon Cato may reveal Hamilton as a Machiavellian fox. For example, Hamilton engages rhetorical tricks—articulating that the king of England had absolute power to make war, veto legislation, and had unlimited power of appointment; however, that was a description of a 16th century Monarch—Henry VIII—not King George. Tellingly, Hamilton explains in Paper 69 that the President will have less military power than the Governor of New York, because the Governor of New York may call the militia to service at will; however, the President will not have such a power—not until Congress declares war!

As a brief supposition, the framers and critics may have imagined that they were partisans, but their contentious and open politicking made for a wiser republican construction. The founders rightfully comprehended that a healthy republic required the institutionalization of Cincinnatus’s position. Through the tremulous founding of the American republic, classic republican theory was turned on its head and a new republican theory was born. And it had everything to do with the equal executive. Up until the Civil War, the founders were often presidents, and the “energy” they infused at times proved Cato’s fear to be rational sentiments.

For example, President Thomas Jefferson, an anti-federalist to be sure, believed that his purchase of the Louisiana territory was unconstitutional—but he did it anyway. Often the “energy” of the President crossed the line drawn by the Papers. Surely, the President always had more military power than the Governor of New York, as recorded in countless military maneuvers in the absence of declared war. Overall, the prince was tamed by the new republican institution.

At the outbreak of the Civil War—the dissolution and crumbling of the American republic—Americans elected their Cincinnatus. As the South mounted campaigns of insurrection against its republic, the new President single-handedly operated the government (until Congress returned). He suspended the rights of Americans, disposed of liberties, and, to his chagrin, several hundred thousand men died on his watch. Then, America’s first Cincinnatus restored order and the Union. Abraham Lincoln saved the Republic.

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One thought on “The Prince and the Republican Cloak of Virtue

  1. Pingback: Understanding republicanism | Political Pipeline

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