Mansfield Examines Origins of U.S. Government

Harvey Mansfield, a political philosopher and professor at Harvard, gave a talk on Friday afternoon as part of BC’s John Marshall Project, which studies the citizenship and statesmanship required by a constitutional republic. Mansfield’s talk focused on The Federalist Papers and the way in which James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay formulated their argument for America’s current system of government.

Mansfield noted that the Federalists set up a form of government aimed at defending the state against foreign and domestic enemies. In response to the failed Articles of Confederation, Madison, Hamilton, and Jay—who collectively wrote under the pen name Publius—attempted to address several problems with the American government under the Articles and provide an alternative set of ground rules through The Federalist Papers.

“The Federalists made liberalism popular and republicanism viable,” Mansfield said. “On the one hand, [they] refashioned the ideas of Locke and Montesquieu to accommodate the American republican genius. But on the other, they gave lessons in prudence to naïve republicans, enthralled by utopian theory and unable to learn from a sad experience.”

One of the major problems faced by the government was that of factions, which constitute “groups of citizens who hold beliefs that impede on the rights of other citizens or go against the common good.” To prevent factions from imposing on others’ rights, while also maintaining liberty for every citizen, Madison argued that the United States should be a large republic. This would decrease the probability of one particular faction gaining majority power and impeding citizens’ rights.

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” Mansfield said. “Ambition must be made to counter ambition.”

In the second half of the papers, the Republican-minded thinkers vehemently opposed the idea of a single executive branch, arguing instead for a “plural executive,” which would distribute the power usually associated with the President among many elected political leaders. Publius settled these concerns with a defense for the need of a single executive in Federalist No. 70.

“Publius had to refute the ‘idea that a rigorous executive goes against the genius of republican government,’” Mansfield said. “Publius advanced the … view that a single executive was more responsible because he is unable to escape criticism by deflecting it to his colleagues.”

In addition, each branch of the government must have an equal amount of power so that they can prevent a single branch from becoming too powerful. The interrelated nature of the three branches of government was also important to Publius, who saw this as the most effective way to enforce a system of checks and balances.

The contemporary criticism of the Constitution centers on its ambiguity, and Mansfield believes this was an intentional decision that Publius made. The vagueness of the text grants its interpreters a degree of freedom, which Mansfield said allows for “a society to excel.”

“A republic needs its guarantees for survival,” Mansfield said. “But it also needs its promises, necessarily optimistic to survive with honor.”

Using lessons from Publius, Mansfield sees an opportunity to understand how the U.S. government works and why the Founding Fathers deem it most effective for it to work in this fashion. In doing so, the government may be more effective in protecting its citizens’ rights and liberties. While many criticize the Constitution and the Founders for designing a government whose goal was not to be efficient, Mansfield encouraged the audience to view it differently.

“Despite the wearing away of [Publius’] prized invention, new circumstances suggest that legislative usurpation is no longer the main danger: the loss of understanding that intends veneration is,” Mansfield said. “In the hostility of some scholars, the Constitution remains mainly intact, and to understand politics as of now, hardly if any source exists than the author of The Federalist.”

Featured Image by Kaitlin Meeks / Photo Editor