Friday, 8 April 2016

Draft Constitution for Virginia, Part VII: Idealism

Where Jefferson’s apparent ability to strike a balance between philosophy and pragmatism in his draft constitution for Virginia seemed to break down was in the way he attempted to apply this same concept of term limits to the office of Senator. As stated above, Jefferson determined that membership in the upper house of the General Assembly was to be limited by an age restriction (30 years or over), and that those lucky enough to be elected would be force to relinquished their office at the conclusion of three years. Both of these measures were almost certainly intended to shape the character of Virginia’s Senate by first ensuring that it was populated by men with mature judgement and a higher-than-average degree of personal wealth, and then by insulating those men from the day-to-day concerns of the voting public. The modern United States Senate functions along essentially the same lines, and though one may fairly question that body’s effectiveness of late, the logic that defines its basic shape and composition has well withstood the test of time. Jefferson differed from later federal attempts to create a stable bicameral legislative body, however, by mandating that all Senators, once their three year terms had concluded, “Shall be forever incapable of being re-appointed to that house.” While the intent behind such an inflexible restriction seems clear enough – staving off corruption – one is forced to wonder whether the Sage of Monticello considered some of the complications that would likely have resulted.

As with the House of Representatives, Jefferson made sure to explicitly define the size of the Senate in the text of his draft constitution. “The Senate shall consist,” he declared, “of not less than 15 nor more than 50 members [.]” Compared to the lower house’s upper limit of 300, this seems a paltry number of qualified men to locate. Out of a pool of 500,000, minus women, slaves, and non-voters, how hard could it have been to find 50 men over the age of 30, not every year, but every three years? Doubtless Jefferson thought along these lines, and decided that the potential challenge was hardly that. Consider for a moment, however, this same proposition if every three years one had to locate 50 wholly new men. Granted, year after year a new cohort would turn thirty, and thus a new class of potential Senators would become eligible with every election. But what of those men who had served previously? Surely some of them would prove especially suited to the Senate, and in time their service to Virginia would prove eminently beneficial to the public good. Under the regulations that Jefferson laid out in his draft constitution whatever good they may yet have done was of no consequence. Once their three year term expired they were to be exiled from the upper house forever. After a period of a few decades, it furthermore seems rather likely that such a system would produce a Senate composed predominantly of men in their early thirties – a consequence of the older cohorts serving earliest and thereafter being disqualified from re-election. Considering Jefferson’s apparent desire to craft an upper chamber defined by moderation and wisdom, limiting every eligible man to a single term in office appears vaguely counterintuitive.

Likewise, Jefferson seemed not to consider the potential negative effects of single-term membership in the Virginia Senate on promoting public service among his home state’s upper classes. Not every man who sought membership in their local assemblies, in their state legislatures, or in the Continental Congress in the late 18th century did so out of purely altruistic motivations. Some percentage surely looked upon serving a term in public office as Jefferson did, as an obligation due from men of talent and wealth on behalf of the community whose fruits they enjoyed. For these sorts of men, being forced to retire from a legislative body after serving a single term would likely have seemed entirely in keeping with the principles of self-sacrifice and transparency that they held dear. At the same time, there must have also existed some quantity of those seeking or holding public office in 18th century America whose motivations were entirely selfish. For them, public service was simply a means to establish useful connections, gain access to privileged information, or enhance their social standing. Being limited to a single term in a given office likely would have discouraged such men from seeking it altogether, and so much the better. Yet between these two there must have been a third cohort, well-disposed toward their political community as well as interested in furthering their own welfare. They may well have been capable men, wise, judicious, and educated, who simply happened to be more ambitious than they were noble. The community may have benefited greatly from engaging them in public service, provided it made the office in question appear just attractive enough. Confronting men of such character, in whatever percentage they existed, with the brake on their ambition that a single-term limitation surely would have represented, would almost definitely have prevented a sizable portion from even entertaining the notion of pursuing public office.

Thomas Jefferson, for all his flaws, was a man of noble intentions. It is hardly surprising, then, that he intended the public servants responsible for the political and administrative well-being of his home state to be of a similar character. Set on crafting the first republican government in Virginia’s history, he went about the task with an appropriately republican appreciation for such values as self-sacrifice and the public good. The only way a republic could survive, his study of classical antiquity doubtless informed him, was by structuring itself in such a way as to make virtue and integrity the highest social values. Within a society so defined, public service was to be the single most important contribution an individual could make to the commonwealth in spite of the sacrifices it often demanded. Many among the Founding Generation would doubtless have endorsed this vision of republican virtue, and held themselves to standards of behavior no less rigid or self-disciplined. Unfortunately, or perhaps simply as it happened, not every citizen of the fledgling United States cultivated the same sense of ascetic selflessness that men like Jefferson so keenly prized. For that matter, it could neither be depended upon that such high-minded social values would be freely adopted by subsequent generations. Confronted with what they perceived as the greed, corruption, and arrogance of the British ministers responsible for driving a wedge between the colonies and their mother country in the 1770s, many of the Founders swung violently in their other direction when it came time to erect new governments in America. If avarice had been at the root of the recent crisis, then the administration of the American states needed to be purged of any elements that might be seen to reward untrammelled ambition. If the promise of wealth and power had been the chief motivators for service in the contemporary British government, then government in America needed to be selfless, costly to those it employed, and limited in its ability to do harm to the public.

The tangible results of this reformist ethos were most notably the various state constitutions drafted between 1776 and 1780. Though they varied significantly in form and function, each seemed guided by the same common, self-conscious dedication to avoid the sins of contemporary British parliamentary government by enshrining certain fundamental principles into the paramount law of the land. Where the House of Commons faced election at intervals of as long as seven years, the lower houses of Delaware, Georgia, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and South Carolina were all to be elected on an annual basis. Whereas the chief executive of the British government was a hereditary monarch whose legitimacy derived from tradition and precedent, the governors of the various American states were to be elected by the people (New York and Massachusetts), selected from among a governing council (Pennsylvania and New Hampshire), or chosen by the legislature (Georgia by a unicameral assembly, Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland, North Carolina, and South Carolina by a joint ballot of the upper and lower houses). And while members of the House of Commons could seek re-election continuously, until they were defeated, retired, or died, many of the American state constitutions – including those of Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Delaware – placed strict limits on the number of years an individual could hold a given office. Certain of these modifications to the formula of government in American would admittedly prove cumbersome in the years to come – indeed, it was the inadequacies they perceived in the existing state governments that partially motivated men like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton to push for a more “energetic” federal government in the latter years of the 1780s. That being said, the motivation behind this widespread divergence from the established (i.e. British) mode of government was clearly neither isolated nor haphazard. In an effort to be as unlike their forebears-cum-enemies as possible (within reason), many of the Founders set out very deliberately to create administrative frameworks within their respective states that rejected British precedents and embraced Classical republican and Enlightenment principles.    

        While once again maintaining the purity of Jefferson’s intentions, it is possible that he took this common reformist impulse a bit too far. Though his draft constitution for Virginia otherwise demonstrated an admirable balance of principle and practicality, his decision to limit individuals serving in the Senate to a single three-year term appears at least somewhat naïve. Not every man in Virginia of substance and maturity enough to qualify for service in the upper house of the General Assembly would have received such a limitation in good humour. Those who sought appointment to the Senate solely as a means of furthering their own interests were just as well to be warned off, but the surely sizable contingent of eligible men who held service to the public good to be equally as important as service to their own prosperity might have reacted with similar disinterest. This would have represented an unfortunate turn for a body of men sorely in need of fresh recruits on an annual basis, as well as for the people whose interests they were intended to serve. However well-intentioned this provision against repeat service in the Senate may have been, it stands in evidence of the fact that Jefferson at times allowed his idealism and his passion to run wild. As his long-time friend and collaborator James Madison was to point out a decade later in Federalist No. 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Jefferson, it seemed in 1776, believed to the contrary that men could be angels if that is what their government required of them.

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