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Alfred de Grazia:

PUBLIC & REPUBLIC : Political Representation in America


Part  D


A summary of the currents of thought on representation during the Revolutionary-Constitutional Period shows a vigorous conflict growing up between the aristocratic-democratic and mass-democratic ideas. Originally both parties agreed that the essential element in representation was to be found in the relationship between the representative and his constituents. They agreed that relationship must be direct and must contain as much of the contractual connection of agent with principal as possible. The chief reason for this agreement was that the major objects of attack were similar in both cases -- the unrepresentative monarchy, a lack of consensus between American and British political conditions, and the theory of virtual representation. The solution of the immediate problem was the definition of representation in terms close enough to their own joint interests that their own representatives would of necessity conform to such interests, and the establishment of the idea of the popular chamber as not only an important chamber but as the single influential institution. The relative emphases placed by each party on the various theories justifying a close relationship indicated the beginnings of their disagreements over representation.

Before the Philadelphia Convention, while the propertied elements were most anxious to sustain the doctrine of "no taxation without representation," the radical democrats were most eager to guarantee the natural rights of man. Theoretically, and for the transient purposes of revolutionary propaganda, there was no conflict between the right of property to be represented and the natural right of man to control his representatives, for the latter right included the right to hold and protect personal property. But the theory of natural rights was more than a doctrine of property, as the writings of Paine, Franklin, and Jefferson showed: it was a theory of the nature of the whole man.

Man is more than an owner. He is a rational being who should be allowed a full measure of toleration and power in the working out of his social instincts. Education, liberty of movement, scientific, cultural, and commercial progress, and freedom to dissent are part of his birthright. Paine and Jefferson imagined man as primarily an agriculturist possessed of a freehold. At this state of the natural rights theory, the effects of the Industrial Revolution in America or England had not been felt deeply, interests were not diffuse, and relationships to the means of production were not so complicated. Madison named the American classes as the commercial, the landowning and the professional. He believed that the professional class would serve as a leaven and an arbiter between the other two. But even his simple categories seemed too competitive to the Naturrecht thinkers who felt, like the Stoics, that man's similarity to man is so basic and consequential that the only foundation for just laws might be unanimity of sentiment. They were both provincial and cosmopolitan, putting complete faith in the folk consensus and universalizing the consensus out to the world. Like Marxism of a later day, they could make sweeping generalizations about the universality of certain political sentiments which they had derived from a presumed universal interest.

Conversely, the American leaders who believed in shifting, interest representation had more to say about men's foibles than their virtues, more about their dissimilarities than their community, more about society than about nature. As Jefferson himself saw it in 1823, the Republicans allegedly "cherished" the "people" while the Federalists "feared and distrusted" them.[98] The view point of the Americans believing in shifting interest representation become involved generally in the Constitution. The reaction from the Revolutionary mass-democratic tendencies accounted partially for their success. But an important element in this success, frequently overlooked, was the state-federal fight which diverted the attention of delegates and debaters in the Convention from their ideas of society to the sovereignty issue. When Madison tried to point out to the Convention that sectional issues were more important than state-federal issues, he failed to halt the quarrel. Probably his failure was fortunate for the success of his own theories of government, for if the state-federal debate were diminished, Wilson would have received strong support and would have been able to press home more vigorously his ideas of direct democracy.

Instead, the quasi-confederational character of the Senate and the Presidency soon played into the hands of the aristo-democrats. Almost immediately, Madison and Hamilton worked both institutions into the balancing-of-interests view of government. Instead of treating the indirectly representative portions of the new government as state-federal compromises, they treated them as purposeful elements in the controlling of factionalism and popular passions.

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