John Locke, Robert Filmer and the Federalists

by Tom Wolpert on December 1, 2013

As noted in a previous post, Locke’s First Treatise of Government is an extended refutation of Robert Filmer’s manuscript Patriarcha or the Natural Power of Kings.  Today, Filmer’s arguments supporting absolute monarchy and the divine right of kings appear so absurd that it would not be possible to recite them at any length without being justly accused of wasting everybody’s time.  Filmer’s position was that all government originated with Adam and governing power was only justly conveyed from the first patriarch Adam, to each succeeding patriarch, who became by ordinance of God, the next succeeding King.

But a brief review of Filmer’s life, as provided in the entry, presents a more sympathetic picture of the person and life of Filmer, if not his views.  Filmer’s home was looted by the Parliamentary Army.  His properties were heavily taxed to support the Parliamentary cause against the British King, Charles I.  Although Filmer did everything he could to maintain his neutrality in this English civil war, one of Filmer’s tenants (apparently) falsely accused him of hiding arms for the Royalists, and Filmer was imprisoned for years.  His estates were seized.  So Filmer had some reason to view monarchy as the only safe and stable form of government – he had reason to view republican or parliamentary politics as an invitation to anarchy, to injustice, to mob rule.

The Wikipedia entry on Filmer introduces an interesting quote by the British utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, probably written in the early 19th century, commenting on the diametrically opposing views of Locke and Filmer concerning government, and rather disregarding the U.S., for reasons known best to Bentham.

Filmer’s origin of government is exemplified everywhere: Locke’s scheme of government has not ever, to the knowledge of any body, been exemplified any where.

Which brings us to the authors of the Federalist Papers and our experiment in self-government.  Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay have many fervent arguments to advance to persuade their readers that the newly independent nation should adopt the Constitution and form a single, united country: the United States.  But what they don’t say is ‘look at this example’ or ‘observe how the system we are advocating was established over in such and such a country, or place, or time.’  Because there were no examples.  A federal system of independent states, each one itself a republican form of government, uniting in a single nation which itself was to be governed under republican principals of self-government, under a Constitution of enumerated powers, did not exist anywhere, had never existed anywhere, and there was precious little evidence that it ever could exist.  The ghost of Robert Filmer lay in the wings, haunting every argument of the Federalist authors with a dark and angry curse: anarchy, injustice, mob rule.  It wasn’t just the American opponents of the Constitution who were adversaries to be defeated with more persuasive words – there was the graveyard of failed experiments in democratic self-government, littering the pages of history, beginning with the Greek city-states.

It calls to mind the words of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg concerning a “new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.  Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”  The political experiment we are engaged in, although now 237 years old, is still a novelty by any reasonable historical standard.  We still haven’t gotten to ‘long-enduring.’   Monarchy had a much longer run, and really did not come to its end until the conclusion of World War I in 1918.  Thinly-disguised monarchies, like Syria and North Korea, demonstrate that if Robert Filmer wasn’t exactly right, he wasn’t exactly wrong.  Brutal political power often communicates itself from father to son.

Which brings us to the latest round of angry political maneuvers, jibes, retorts, curses, accusations, posturing, spin-doctoring, stare-downs, trash-talking, etc.  that grace our present table of political offerings.  We need to see past it.  There is nothing wrong with sharp advocacy, and it would be naive to think you could get sharp advocacy without any bruises or scrapes – real power is involved here, and obtaining real power has always been a full-contact sport.  But ‘we the people’ need to take more decisive steps in focusing the attention of our politicians, and our media, on what the issues are that concern us.  Blaming congress and the media is only good for a time – then the American people have to step up and say to the trash-talking adversaries – let’s hear what you have to say, but clean it up.  We the people say that by the way we vote, by the way we poll, by the way we talk to our representatives and our lobbyists.  Take a position, fight hard for it, but clean it up.  The authors of the Federalist Papers, and in particular Madison writing in Federalist No. 10, would have been dismayed, but not surprised, by the current venomous and faction-ridden nature of our political discourse.  No crystal balls are currently available to give us all the right answers, but if we are going to be long-enduring, we need to lay down the law, not about advocacy, but how advocacy is being practiced.

Madison’s first paragraph in Federalist No. 10 deserves to be quoted in full, because it was the pre-eminent problem then, as now:

 Among the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.  The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice.  He will not fail, therefore, to set a due value on any plan which, without violating the principles to which he is attached, provides a proper cure for it.  The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished, as they continue to be the favorite and fruitful topics from which the adversaries to liberty derive their most specious declamations.  The valuable improvements made by the American constitutions [Madison means the constitutions of the various states] on the popular models, both ancient and modern, cannot certainly be too much admired; but it would be an unwarrantable partiality to contend that they have as effectually obviated the danger on this side, as was wished and expected.  Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.  However anxiously we may wish that these complaints had no foundation, the evidence of known facts will not permit us to deny that they are in some degree true.  It will be found, indeed, on a candid review of our situation, that some of the distresses under which we labor have been erroneously charged on the operation of our governments; but it will be found, at the same time, that other causes will not alone account for many of our heaviest misfortunes; and particularly, for that prevailing and increasing distrust of public engagements and alarm for private rights which are echoed from one end of the continent to the other.  These must be chiefly, if not wholly, effect of the unsteadiness and injustice with which a factious spirit has tainted our public administration.

A ‘factious spirit’ certainly has tainted our public administration.  It may be pointed out with considerable justification that it is money that has tainted our public administration.  The idea that the recent Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court brought this unhappy state of affairs into existence is inaccurate and naive, but a legitimate argument could be made that the decision has the necessary consequence of furthering us down the wrong road.  Taking money out of politics is a bit chimerical, like trying to take sin out of life.  The power of money to buy favorable legislation was a gigantic feature of late 19th century politics and industrial development in this country, and the term ‘trust busting’ is still with is, courtesy of a host of reformers, including Teddy Roosevelt.  More recently, see Robert Caro’s series of biographies on Lyndon Johnson, which details admirably the necessity, power and pursuit of money in politics.  Picking on the ‘evil’ sources of money tends to be an ‘eye of the beholder’ issue, since whichever party is raising the most tends to feel their success is due directly to the popularity and wisdom of their programs.  When the adversary party raises money, that is indubitable proof of wicked plans, corrupt designs and understandings, a factious spirit, etc.   Since my appetite for impossible quests is somewhat limited these days, I will confine my exhortations to observing that we would all be better off, if politicians and journalists were to treat each other with more respect.  A bland and innocuous recommendation, but if even a small percentage of the electorate were to start casting their ballots on just this one principle: against trash talk and dirty tricks, it might at least put some weight on the scales, on the other side of negative attack ads and ridiculous slander.

Robert Filmer would understand completely what we are going through – democracy is a vicious form of government, easily and quickly corrupted by money and party faction, and quick to impose injustices wherever a fickle mob finds that a convenient opportunity arises. If we are going to disagree with him, and join Locke in pursuing a government and a form of public discourse which ‘has never been exemplified anywhere’ –  then there is no substitute for idealism, for integrity, for respect for an adversary’s rights, for a rejection of vindictive uses of the courts and the political process, for honesty.  As absurdly unrealistic as it may seem, we will either reach for such idealism or be buried under a morass of angry and accurate accusations and insults as the great experiment in democracy gives way to the ‘newer models,’ which will just be Robert Filmer’s in disguise.

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