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America’s Aristocratic Founding Fathers August 31, 2009

Posted by Daniel Downs in American history, Declaration of Independence, equality, politics.
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It is widely believed that the American republic is ultimately based on the principle that all men are created equal. Contrary to universal opinion, however, this principle, far from being wholly democratic, is a precondition for any genuine aristocracy! Needless to say, so shocking or paradoxical an assertion requires supportive argument, for which purpose consider the argument of my book On the Silence of the Declaration of Independence.

The statement of the Declaration that all men are created equal was intended to inform mankind in general, and the British government in particular, that Americans belong to the same species as Englishmen, hence that they are endowed by nature with certain unalienable rights peculiar to homo sapiens.

Since man did not create his own nature, he did not create the rights he possesses by virtue of his nature. Hence, he cannot be justly divested of those rights so long as he does not violate his nature or that which distinguishes man and beasts. Of the qualities that distinguish men from beasts, suffice to mention philosophical reason and moral sensibility or the sense of shame. Thus, only because man is homo rationalis et civilis does he possess (or can he seriously claim) the unalienable rights to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

Notice that while the statesmen of the Declaration claimed that Americans possess these rights as species, they were being prevented from fully exercising those rights as individuals. This implicit distinction between the possession and exercise of rights is of profound significance. For nothing in the Declaration suggests that all men as individuals are entitled to the actual exercise of their rights without qualification.

In proof of this, it is sufficient to point out that the Declaration of Independence was incorporated into most of the state constitutions, many of which prescribed proper­ty and other qualifications for voting and for office. An implicit dis­tinction was therefore made between men’s rights and privileges. Whereas the rights men possess as species are defined by nature, the privileges they exercise as individuals are defined by law, whether written or customary.

Accordingly, the equality spoken of in the Declaration does not extend to privileges. Nevertheless, and strange as it may seem, the notion of privilege is a logical consequence of the Declaration’s principle of equality! For the principle that all men are created equal should be understood as a moral prohibition against any and all privileges based on race, nationality, class, or parentage. The only moral title to any privilege which society may confer must be based on individual merit.

In other words, what the equality of the Declaration requires is that no person be precluded by law from earn­ing any established privilege on the basis of factors extrinsic to human nature or to those intellectual and moral qualities that dis­tinguish the human from the sub-human. Examined in this light, the principle that all men are created equal—which does not mean they are born equal in their intellectual, moral, and physical en­dowments—may be regarded as the precondition of a genuine aristocracy!

As Jefferson wrote to John Adams: “I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents. . . . The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society.” It thus appears that the American polity had its origin in a syn­thesis of democratic and aristocratic principles. This synthesis is con­sistent with the notion of government based on the consent of the governed, provided the governed consist of an enlightened and public-spirited body of citizens—citizens who possess the capacity to discern, select, and defer to men of merit.

This democratic-aristocratic synthesis underlies The Federalist Papers and is most clearly evident in its recurring theme of deference to merit. In Federalist 36, Alexander Hamilton declares: “There are strong minds in every walk of life that will rise superior to the dis­advantages of situation, and will command the tribute due to their merit, not only from the classes to which they particularly belong, but from society in general. The door ought to be equally open to all.”

To be sure, James Madison admits (the obvious) in Federalist 10 that “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.” Nevertheless he expects that the popularly elected members of the House of Representatives will more often than not be of such caliber as “to refine and enlarge the public views,” representatives “whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to tem­porary or partial considerations.”

As for the (original) Senate, in­asmuch as the “State legislatures who appoint the senators, will in general be composed of the most enlightened and respectable citizens, there is reason to presume, says John Jay in Federalist 64, “that their attention and their votes will be directed to those men only who have become the most distinguished by their abilities and virtue, and in whom the people perceive just grounds for confidence.”

Finally, in Federalist 68, after analyzing the advantages of the electoral college method of choosing a President, Hamilton concludes: “It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters preeminent for abilities and virtue.”

Thus, even in this brief sketch (developed at great length in my Philosophy of the American Constitution) we see that the government established by America’s Founding Fathers exemplifies a synthesis of democratic and aristocratic principles. This will be made even more apparent in my forthcoming book Toward a Renaissance of Israel and America in which I develop a Judaic understanding of how America’s great founders combined the protection of economic interests and the cultivation of virtue.

By Prof. Paul Eidelberg

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