Experience, The Oracle of Truth

Often, Americans speak of the US Constitution as if it is the fountain from which political truth originates. Even those who fight stridently for constitutional orthodoxy sometimes forget that the US Constitution and the rest of America’s founding documents were just as much a climax of political thought as they were a beginning.   

In my previous article for the Federalist Coalition, I cautioned against allowing federalism to become a casualty of the culture war when I asserted that “federalism is one of the few political mechanisms which benefits everyone.” I voiced my belief that “the foundations of our federalist system should be ‘out of play.’”  After making such an impassioned plea to treat federalism as conclusive and the system originating from its application as sacred, I felt impressed to offer some reasons why I view it as such.

By federalism, I mean the political construct we call the American Republic, a constitutional union of sovereign states under a limited national government whose power and authority is divided into separate and co-equal branches. This complicated and unique form of government was not drawn up at a whim.  The Federalist Papers, essays which argued for the adoption of the US Constitution after the Revolutionary War, said it this way: “Experience is the oracle of truth; and where its responses are unequivocal, they ought to be conclusive and sacred.” In plainer terms, we can quote Jonah Goldberg, “The founders put on paper what history had ratified by experience.”

It is easy to be naturally conservative of the founding vision, to accept it under its own terms, recognize that it has worked, and desire a maintenance of its efficacy. It is more complicated and requires deeper learning and understanding to be consciously conservative of the founding vision and to comprehend the origins of that vision. But in this more difficult path lies a more effective way to maintain that founding vision.

First and foremost, we must recognize the founders crafted a government for humans as they are and not for humans as they wished them to be.  As another quote from the Federalist Papers posits, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” The founders recognized, most decidedly, that humanity was not composed of angels. They had learned through a study of history, and through personal experience, that if a system of government allows for abuse, the abuse will inevitably occur. From Caesar and the Roman Senate to King John and the Magna Carta, on to their own contemporary experience with the tyrannical abuses of King George, they knew and understood the corrupting rot of unrestrained power.

Secondly, it should be understood most of the founders were pious men and even those who might escape this label were enlightened seekers of personal virtue. They believed virtue was the desired end of humanity, but they rejected the idea that virtue could be a construct.  They were inheritors of the spirit of the enlightenment and renaissance eras, a spring of intellectual and rational thought that had only just escaped the darkened winter of feudal, papal dictatorial control which had strangled the progress of Western Civilization. Their experience and their learning had prevailed upon them the belief that the individual, unfettered of corruptible autocratic rule, was the greatest well-spring of human progress.

Thirdly, we must take into consideration the failure that was the Articles of Confederation. Their distrust of national government being too strong, the founders’ first attempt at a free society lacked the invested authority and powers given to the national government to maintain the order necessary for the maintenance of individual liberty. The US Constitution was a document with designs to protect freedom and liberty, but it was a tempered vision forged in the mistakes of an attempt at minarchist utopia.

With these three understandings before us, that power corrupts, that the individual is sacred, and that order is necessary for the maintenance of freedom, we have the fundamental blueprint from which the founders crafted the American Republic.  The US Constitution empowered the national government considerably beyond the impotence of the Articles of Confederation and yet checked that power by limiting its scope and authority, divided it into co-equal branches at tension with one another, and further ensured a limiting factor of tension by securing the sovereignty of the states. To ensure the point was not missed, the first action of the new federal congress was to ratify a bill enumerating the rights of the individual under the new framework of federalist government.

Here is where we should recognize the common philosophical and political heritage of all Americans. Here is where we can see what is conclusive and sacred about the Constitution, about federalism, and about the miracle that is the American Republic.  We disagree on much. We contest with each other on matters of ideological approach. We have fought hard and will continue to fight vehemently in factional contests for control of the wheels of government.  But we must honor and treat sacred the understandings of human nature the founders built the government upon because those understandings are what has allowed the contests, the fights, and the great debates of our history to take place largely without the contest of arms and without the dissolution of the republic.

In my previous article, I said we should “let states maintain their sovereignty, let the co-equal branches of government maintain their balance, let the difficult decisions be hashed out in Congress by the people’s representatives, and let the free market of ideas function fully and properly.” What I was saying was we should not turn our backs on the oracle of truth which those who came before so wisely supplicated for an understanding of how to proceed in their time. We must decide how best to proceed in our own time. We are faced with many difficult issues whose answers do not necessarily lie plainly in an old book or document for us to happen upon. But as we proceed, let us not forget that we walk upon a foundation forged by lives, fortunes, and honor sanctified and sacrificed in the crucible of liberation. What we decide to build today, we construct upon cornerstones wisely laid by those who perused the truths of human reality and considered a new and radical way to safeguard the sanctity of the individual against the always encroaching influence of power and greed.  As we proceed with forging new ideas and unique solutions for our own time, let us similarly seek out the oracle of truth that is human experience and let us always recognize the conclusive and sacred nature of what was wrought before our time when that oracle was appealed to in good faith.