Skip to comments.FReeper Book Club: The Debate over the Constitution, Cato #5
Posted on 04/15/2010 8:10:23 AM PDT by Publius
The name Cato had strong echoes throughout the entire Revolutionary period. Every schoolboy knew of Cato the Youngers integrity and his stand against Julius Caesar, not only from reading Plutarch, but from Joseph Addisons popular play. Cato had been George Washingtons favorite play, and hed had it performed for his troops at Valley Forge. Many famous utterances of the day were as soaked in Cato as they were in the Bible.
Historians believe that the anti-Federalist writer who took that name was most likely New York Governor George Clinton.
1 To the Citizens of the State of New York:
2 In my last number I endeavored to prove that the language of the article relative to the establishment of the Executive of this new government was vague and inexplicit, that the great powers of the President, connected with his duration in office, would lead to oppression and ruin.
10 And here I cannot help remarking that inexplicitness seems to pervade this whole political fabric certainty in political compacts, which Mr. Coke calls the mother and nurse of repose and quietness, the want of which induced men to engage in political society, has ever been held by a wise and free people as essential to their security; as, on the one hand it fixes barriers which the ambitious and tyrannically disposed magistrate dare not overleap, and on the other becomes a wall of safety to the community; otherwise stipulations between the governors and governed are nugatory, and you might as well deposit the important powers of legislation and execution in one or a few and permit them to govern according to their disposition and will, but the world is too full of examples which prove that to live by one man's will became the cause of all men's misery.
11 Before the existence of express political compacts, it was reasonably implied that the magistrate should govern with wisdom and justice, but mere implication was too feeble to restrain the unbridled ambition of a bad man or afford security against negligence, cruelty, or any other defect of mind.
12 It is alleged that:
17 Therefore, a general presumption that rulers will govern well is not a sufficient security.
18 You are then under a sacred obligation to provide for the safety of your posterity, and would you now basely desert their interests, when by a small share of prudence you may transmit to them a beautiful political patrimony that will prevent the necessity of their traveling through seas of blood to obtain that which your wisdom might have secured?
19 It is a duty you owe likewise to your own reputation, for you have a great name to lose; you are characterized as cautious, prudent and jealous in politics; whence is it, therefore, that you are about to precipitate yourselves into a sea of uncertainty and adopt a system so vague and which has discarded so many of your valuable rights.
20 Is it because you do not believe that an American can be a tyrant?
21 If this be the case, you rest on a weak basis; Americans are like other men in similar situations when the manners and opinions of the community are changed by the causes I mentioned before and your political compact inexplicit; your posterity will find that great power connected with ambition, luxury and flattery will as readily produce a Caesar, Caligula, Nero and Domitian in America as the same causes did in the Roman Empire.
22 But the next thing to be considered in conformity to my plan is the first article of this new government, which comprises the erection of the House of Representatives and Senate and prescribes their various powers and objects of legislation.
23 The most general objections to the first article are:
37 But with respect to the first objection, it may be remarked that a well digested democracy has this advantage over all others, to wit, that it affords to many the opportunity to be advanced to the supreme command, and the honors they thereby enjoy fill them with a desire of rendering themselves worthy of them; hence this desire becomes part of their education, is matured [in] manhood and produces an ardent affection for their country, and it is the opinion of the great Sidney and Montesquieu that this is in a great measure produced by annual election of magistrates.
38 If annual elections were to exist in this government, and learning and information to become more prevalent, you never will want men to execute whatever you could design Sidney observes that a well governed state is as fruitful to all good purposes as the seven headed serpent is said to have been in evil; when one head is cut off, many rise up in the place of it.
39 He remarks further, that it was also thought, that free cities by frequent elections of magistrates became nurseries of great and able men, every man endeavoring to excel others, that he might be advanced to the honor he had no other title to, than what might arise from his merit, or reputation, but the framers of this perfect government, as it is called, have departed from this [democratic] principle and established biennial elections for the House of Representatives who are to be chosen by the people, and sextennial for the Senate who are to be chosen by the legislatures of the different states, and have given to the Executive the unprecedented power of making temporary senators, in case of vacancies, by resignation or otherwise, and so far for establishing a precedent for virtual representation though in fact their original appointment is virtual thereby influencing the choice of the legislatures, or if they should not be so complaisant as to conform to his appointment, offence will be given to the Executive and the temporary members will appear ridiculous by rejection; this temporary member, during his time of appointment, will of course act by a power derived from the Executive and for and under his immediate influence.
40 It is a very important objection to this government that the representation consists of so few, too few to resist the influence of corruption and the temptation to treachery against which all governments ought to take precautions how guarded you have been on this head in your own state constitution, and yet the number of senators and representatives proposed for this vast continent does not equal those of your own state; how great the disparity, if you compare them with the aggregate numbers in the United States?
41 The history of representation in England, from which we have taken our model of legislation, is briefly this:
45 Another thing [that] may be suggested against the small number of representatives is that but few of you will have the chance of sharing even in this branch of the legislature; and that the choice will be confined to a very few; the more complete it is, the better will your interests be preserved, and the greater the opportunity you will have to participate in government, one of the principal securities of a free people; but this subject has been so ably and fully treated by a writer under the signature of Brutus that I shall content myself with referring you to him thereon, reserving further observations on the other objections I have mentioned for my future numbers.
The opinion is nearly unanimous that the person behind the nom de plume Cato was Governor George Clinton of New York, and not altogether from style. This is, as the title indicates, the fifth of the letters written to New York newspapers from Cato, concerning what he regarded as the deficiencies of the proposed plan of government. This one was, as well, a summation both of his objections and of those of his political allies.
The Cato series was a continuation of the political rivalry between Clinton and Alexander Hamilton that had placed the latter as the third member of New Yorks Constitutional Convention delegation, thereby minimizing Hamiltons influence at the Convention he had done so much to promote. The other two members of that delegation were members of Clintons faction, John Lansing and Robert Yates, the latter of whom wrote under the anti-Federalist sobriquet Brutus, and much of whose work has already been examined. While all three men were present at the Convention, the votes of the other two overruled that of Hamilton; when absent, his single vote was insufficient to constitute a quorum for the representation of New York.
That sort of deliberately induced futility tends to make an activist such as Hamilton bitter, and so when Clinton himself entered the lists in the New York newspapers under the name of Cato, Hamilton was quick to reply under the pen name Caesar, a reference to the great Roman political rival of Cato the Younger. It was a vigorous and acrimonious exchange, Catos sniping matched by angry, mocking ripostes from Caesar. There were two such replies before Hamilton decided to pursue the matter strictly, and more temperately, within the auspices of the Federalist Papers. A taste of the tenor of these replies is to be found in Caesars second epistle, published 17 October 1787.
I am not one of those who gain an influence by cajoling the unthinking mass (tho I pity their delusions), and ringing in their ears the gracious sound of their absolute Sovereignty. I despise the trick of such dirty policy. I know there are Citizens, who, to gain their own private ends, enflame the minds of the well-meaning, tho less intelligent parts of the community, by sating their vanity... All he [Cato] can say against the New Constitution has been already disseminated in a neighboring State by the glorious defenders of Shayism.
Caesars reference is, of course, an attempt to link Cato to Shays Rebellion and the language rather less than moderate. George Clinton was later to serve as Vice President under Hamiltons rivals Jefferson and Madison, replacing on the 1804 slate the sitting Vice President, one Aaron Burr of New York, who had spent the previous July shooting Hamilton to death in a duel. Passionate times.
This particular paper is, in part, one of the more widely quoted offerings from the anti-Federalists, largely for the litany of complaints between 3 and 8, which ring delightfully in modern ears.
3 That he [the President] would be governed by favorites and flatterers, or that a dangerous council would be collected from the great officers of state...
Ironically, the very medium in which this was published, a New York newspaper, would figure large in the ranks of those favorites and flatterers over the years, at one point taking the country into an arguably unnecessary war with Spain. As for the matter of a dangerous council, Washingtons first Cabinet would consist of four members, their numbers having swollen to no fewer than fifteen Cabinet and six Cabinet-level positions over two centuries, not including the Vice President himself, about whom Cato has this to say.
5 That a vice president is as unnecessary, as he is dangerous, in his influence...
It is, to be sure, a position graced by such luminaries as Agnew, Quayle, Gore and Biden of late. Seldom has anyone attended a funeral for a foreign head of state quite so competently. However, occasionally there occurs a Cheney as well. Dangerous, possibly, but as to unnecessary, a sober observer of the second Bush Administration must demur. And then the essays money quote:
4 That the ten miles square if the remarks of one of the wisest men drawn from the experience of mankind may be credited would be the asylum of the base, idle, avaricious and ambitious, and that the court would possess a language and manners different from yours...
The ten miles square refers, of course, to the District of Columbia, established in Article I, Section 8 of the proposed Constitution. Washington himself would refer to the area by the phrase ten miles square, preferring with characteristic modesty not to utter his own name aloud as the new countrys capital. The asylum of the base, idle, avaricious and ambitious is pointed enough to become the citys motto, were it possessed of a sense of humor. The notion that the ruling class there possesses both language and manners different from the country at large is perhaps not quite true in the sense that Cato intended it, but in every other sense it is very true indeed.
Cato goes on to predict an aristocratic government headed by a monarchical President (7, 8), warns that such a government will soon cease to resemble those of the constituent states, and that over time even a people as wary of government as his contemporary Americans might, in time, change their opinions on the matter (13), opening the door for despotism.
20 Is it because you do not believe that an American can be a tyrant?
21 If this be the case, you rest on a weak basis; Americans are like other men in similar situations when the manners and opinions of the community are changed by the causes I mentioned before...
The key to this assertion is what Cato insists is the general inexplicit nature of the Constitution, leaving in his opinion enough room for interpretation so that autocracy may creep in. Not for him the phrase living document!
Other objections, specifically with respect to Article I, are now enumerated. Cato cites Montesquieu and Algernon Sydney Sydney was one of Robert Yates other pen names in the controversies in the New York papers, incidentally to the effect that a truly responsive representative government should be elected annually, not every two years for the House and six for the Senate (24, 39). He repeats Brutus points that the Senate acts in an executive role with regard to treaties (29), in a judicial role with regard to impeachments (30), that it makes standing armies possible (32), places the state militias under federal control (33), and effectively accords the slave trade a permanent status (34), presumably by protecting that trade under the rubric of states rights.
It is a concise, if somewhat ominous, summation. This particular essay breaks little new ground, but that was not its purpose. That purpose was to lay out in a single newspaper presentation all the cogent objections to the ratification of the proposed Constitution in one body of print.
One notes that despite all this, Clinton was later to lift his objections to the Constitution after it was agreed to include the Bill of Rights. How much of the latter actually dealt with the objections listed in this essay, and how much was simple compromise, is a topic to be expanded upon in later pieces.
FReeper Book Club: The Debate over the Constitution
5 Oct 1787, Centinel #1
6 Oct 1787, James Wilsons Speech at the State House
8 Oct 1787, Federal Farmer #1
9 Oct 1787, Federal Farmer #2
18 Oct 1787, Brutus #1
22 Oct 1787, John DeWitt #1
27 Oct 1787, John DeWitt #2
27 Oct 1787, Federalist #1
31 Oct 1787, Federalist #2
3 Nov 1787, Federalist #3
5 Nov 1787, John DeWitt #3
7 Nov 1787, Federalist #4
10 Nov 1787, Federalist #5
14 Nov 1787, Federalist #6
15 Nov 1787, Federalist #7
20 Nov 1787, Federalist #8
21 Nov 1787, Federalist #9
23 Nov 1787, Federalist #10
24 Nov 1787, Federalist #11
27 Nov 1787, Federalist #12
Hooyah! Tax day BTT. “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Printed up for later remarks - - thanks, guys!
I can agree with Cato so much about the number of representatives, but disagree with him on the purpose of the senate. The number of representatives in the U.S. Congress is a joke. One man can’t possibly represent 600,000 people. Districts are gerrymandered every ten years not to ensure adequate representation of the governed, but to protect the seat for the ruling party.
More representatives means smaller districts. It means constituents can meet with the representative face to face, not at high ticket speeches where the representative (candidate) mouths beatitudes and ignores the interests of all but the largest donors. Smaller districts mean that the common man can campaign for the seat and win it based on his character and perception in the community. The current system rewards fundraising first. All other measures of fitness for office are distant also-rans.
More representatives means that it will be more difficult for them to agree to do something, which is fine with me. Every time they do something, it comes out of my pocket. Every time they don’t do something, I’m happy. Government was supposed to be local first, so that it would know the needs of the citizens and respond to them. The congress knows only who throws the most money and makes the most noise. This is the aristocracy that Cato despised.
The senate envisioned by the constitution was likely to be an aristocracy, and that was its purpose. It was meant to represent the interests of the states at the federal level, not to be the subject of campaign mud slinging and platitudes. These days the senators campaign on the basis that they hauled in a cash cow for the state, rather than the founding principle that they forced the federal government to respect the independence of the state that sent them. On this, Cato was wrong. The popular election of senators quickly forgot the reason they were there. The senate became a promotion system for politicians who aspired to greater power.
Here you have correctly identified one of the greatest mistakes thus far made in the life of the United States. The 17th amendment!
Are you suggesting a Virtual Congress of 10,000 members conducted on the Internet? I like the idea and suggested it on another thread, but got richly flamed for it.
Every time I read these documents I’m impressed at the quality of minds that were involved in the founding of this country in contrast the the hacks, intellectually vapid and deceitful dregs that now occupy the offices.
It's also worthwhile for the congressman to actually show up for work. We expect it of 16 year olds. The people who run the country should be held to that standard, provided it's not too much for them to meet. I prefer that they meet face to face. It's too easy to cheat over the computer.
There is a possibility that because there are so many representatives, the amount of laws they are asked to vote will prevent them from reading them, and instead require them to depend on the trust of other representatives to evaluate the worth of a new law. This could lead to a system of complicity, but the idea is to make it easy for anyone to run for office against the incumbent. That should lead to an eventual dilution of their power, which is exactly what the authors of the constitution wanted.
It might even make it easier to try to change a system by appealing to the state government. The states were intended to be powerful elements of the union, not vassals of the fed. We're starting to see a return to state soveriegnity, but I fear that the federal pig will invent some new bribe/extortion to circumvent the states if the movement becomes a real threat. In this case, I think it is better to make the states stronger by bringing the fed down.
Fascinating. Educational. Outstanding.
I don’t agree with the idea of a virtual congress. (Technology is going to progress to the point where it will be impossible to distinguish between a video of a real person and a computer composite)
I do believe we need a larger Congress. If for nothing else, it makes the House so unwieldy it’s harder for new laws to be passed.