…got some new material simmering… but I’ve been hiding in the library shelves the last week, otherwise trying to get some real world work done. Here’s a useful fragment for later use the next time we feel like discussing constitutionalism, from the historian Forrest McDonald:
It should be obvious… that it is meaningless to say that the Framers intended this or that; …their positions were diverse and, in many particulars, incompatible. Some had firm, well-rounded plans, some had strong convictions on only a few points; some had self-contradictory ideas; some were guided only by vague ideals.
Isaac Kramnick concurs. Referring to the various “distinguishable idioms” in the discourse of 1787 – “republicanism,” “Lockean liberalism,” “work-ethic Protestantism,” and “state-centered theories of power and sovereignty” – he offers the following caution to those seeking some overarching version of “original intent” (emphasis in the original) :
None dominated the field, and the use of one [idiom] was compatible with the use of another by the very same writer or speaker. There was a profusion and confusion of political tongues among the founders. They lived easily with that clatter; it is we two hundred years later who chafe at their inconsistency.
[amazon-product]0700611088[/amazon-product]The above quotes come from the introduction to Jerome Huyler’s Locke in America (1995), which attempts to synthesize apparent contradictions through a proper understanding of Locke’s work and influence. I’ll close for now with another historian’s promise to find order among these contradictions – from Gordon Wood, describing what the Framers of 1787 expected in exchange for their rejection of the ancient republican virtues embodied in the “Spirit of 1776”:
The illimitable progress of mankind promised by the Enlightenment could at last be made coincident with the history of a single nation. For the Americans at least, and for others if they followed, the endless cycle of history could finally be broken.