Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

How Progressives Read the Constitution

From the preface to Correa Walsh’s 1915 book, The Political Science of John Adams:

The theory reviewed in this work is obsolete, but it was extensively in vogue at the time of the framing of our American constitutions. In fact, we live under arragements produced by a modified form of it. Our State and Federal systems of two chambers and veto-possessing governors or presidents, are remnants of the old theory of mixed government. Luckily the entire theory was not carried out of having all the elements equal in the mixture; yet, unfortunately, it was applied to the extent of making two of them nearly so. Although the balance was not brought up to its ideal, the opportunity for obstruction was suffered to remain.

It is submitted that a theory which has passed away but which has left its effect, is highly deserving of sudy, and in its most perfect manifestation.

The study may also lead to practical results. The theory which presided at their birth being a thing of the past, the form still lasting of our governments is an anachronism, and the question arises whether it should longer continue.

The burden of Adams’ argument was that putting "all authority in one center, that of the nation" (in the words of the French minister and intellectual, Turgot) was a terrible idea. On the contrary, Adams argued that checks and balances were necessary. Adams believed both in separations of power among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches and in a bicameral legislature coupled with an executive armed with a veto. (The burden of his Defence of the Constitutions was, in part, that the separations of power, in practice, need such a "tri-cameral" legislative branch in order to rest secure.)

In this passage from Walsh, we see that, in the first part of the 20th Century, American intellectuals, flush with the belief in progress, concluded that our constitution, with its system of checks and balances was an anachronism, and they sought to change it. Before he became President, Woodrow Wilson praised the Parliamentary system as superior to the American constitutional system. For most of the 20th century, America’s intellectuals regarded checks and balances as anachronistic. The argument between Progressive intellectuals and the founders’ constititon is still very much with us. What has changed is that, a century after the Progressive movement developed, many American intellectuals regard the Progressive tradition as the authentic American tradition.

Discussions - 5 Comments

mmm, interesting


I have always had a theory (hypothesis really) that the Left hates the American revolution but loves the French revolution. Mostly based on their reaction to "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness ("property" in the 1st draft) versus "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity".


One of these days I'll have to lay out the two side-by-side to test my theory.


To be a Leftist you have to lie (especially to yourself). And lying is what is required to think that you are being true to America when you espouse just a collectivist philosophy.

I have heard Leftists say that if the Communist Revolution had been done properly and according to principle, then we would live in the new world order, blah, blah, blah, and all would be right with the world. Perhaps the same could have been said of the French Revolution? If only people were not so humanly inhumane as to mess such things up. We could get rid of people, then those systems would be fine.

Oh, wait. Isn't that the object of the Green Revolution? ZPG is never quite enough in the half-way measures of moderates. Let's take that all the way.

Anyway, Richard Adams, who can be expected to see the Constitution as the basis for our government given the subsequent encrustation of the organic government of a purer democracy? Checks and balances inhibit and obstruct change and change is what we want; everyone knows.

So is a conservative reduced to being a revolutionary? If I said, "Back to the Constitution!" would that be a conservative statement, given our Progressive tradition? No. So Progressives are conservative of the status quo. Where does that leave conservatives? Let's trade names!

How to "check" the prevailing Progressive dogma on the retrograde separation of powers and the current need for government to be consolidated to express the "nation"? I think it's necessary to expose the fundamentals: the Founders' view of human nature and of the body politic, and how these contrast with their Progressive counterparts.

For the Founders, human beings are capable of virtue but are not (and will never become) "angels." Not being divine, they need restraint along with liberty in the pursuit of their particular interests or passions. Plus, human differences also being natural, persons' interests will be different and separate; we will not spontaneously do the common good and the notion of a "nation" is not simple.

The body politic reflects this human nature, and so the government (composed of human beings, of course) must be empowered to do the common good, while restrained in various ways to prevent it from doing injustice, or imposing some flawed policy about the common good. Thus the internal checks within the federal government and the outside checks on it provided by the existence of the state governments. Plus, human beings being separate and particular, the government must be structured to comprehend (or represent) these various interests, and distribute power among them to debate and decide what the common good requires (and in crisis cases, what the common good itself is).

Of course, these truths are complex and don't "change" with political fashions. So they often appear rather dismal and dour in the face of some slick, smiling Caesar's enthusiastic, easy offer of oneness.

Did the Progressives pick in particular on John Adams, since he has a weak connection to the Founding (as did Jefferson) understood as presence at the Constitutional Convention? But did they dare pick on Washington? Note that DiLorenzo's next book will assail Hamilton, who was the heaviest recipient of Progressive blows, no?

The Founders also did not believe that we could replace politics with administration, which I take to be the cornerstone of the Progressive creed. I have heard of John Adams, but who is Correa Walsh?

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