Would the “Real” Publius Agree? The Founders’ Intent and the Lost Art of Pragmatism

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July 21, 2011 by Daniel Stack

I’ve flirted with the idea of abandoning the “Publius” alias for my blog. One of the things I dislike is when people claim the Founding Fathers would agree with them – it reminds me of people during religious  debates when God is always fortunately on your side. One of the worst examples of this, in my opinion, was Glenn Beck claiming the mantle of Thomas Paine – Thomas Paine a man who supported estaate taxes, a guaranteed minimum income (whether employed or not), was against religion, and held a number of other views that even in this day would be considered radical by the mainstream.

So what about Publius? I  think I’m on firmer ground than Glenn Beck. I’ve not used that name as a sort of retroactive endorsement of my own views but rather in admiration of the authors of The Federalist Papers. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (primarily Hamilton and Madison), three people who did not see eye to eye, managed to eloquently defend the then-controversial United States Constitution, using language designed to be consumed by their fellow citizens. At the same time, they provided perhaps the best documentation of the “Founder’s intent” of which we hear so much.


That said, there’s a few thoughts I have on the matter of the American Publius and the other Founders. The first is the difficulty in applying modern notions of conservatism and liberalism to them. I don’t think Madison or Hamilton would fit neatly into modern political parties. James Madison was a firm believer in a limited federal government and a supporter of state’s rights. So he’d be a Republican, right? I don’t think so. I would imagine he would be quite horrified at the influence that corporations and money have on politics. Alexander Hamilton was a very pro-business capitalist who also advocated a very strong federal government. Shades of modern Republicans and Democrats.

The issues of their day are not the issues of our day. I don’t think we can look at their views of the day and extrapolate how they’d feel on such issues as health care, video game violence, environmental regulations, etc. These are issues which did not exist in a recognizable form. We can extrapolate but I think we have to reach a point where we have to make our own decisions. And I believe that’s what they would want.  The United States Constitution, even with its amendments, is a very brief document. It does not try to tackle every possible issue. Rather it provides the framework for tackling issues. Compare this with the European Union Constitution which is hundreds of pages long and dedicates itself to specific policies. I personally believe the United States Constitution, which is focused on how to govern and enumeration of rights (typically in the form of restrictions on Congress) is the more sensible route. It allows the people of the day to work on issues of the day with the Constitution becoming involved in principles only on the most important matters.


A final point I’d like to make is while the Founders may have had intents, they recognized the need to compromise on their intents. I believe they were far more pragmatic than today’s politicians. They probably had little choice – their nation was born rebelling from the world’s greatest superpower and less than two generations later they were in another war with the United Kingdom. James Madison was no fan of a standing army yet most certainly needed one in the War of 1812. Similarly, Madison, Jefferson, and Hamilton were able to come to a compromise with the Federal government accepting state debts from the Revolution in return for a more southern capital.

Later, President James Madison, who had been opposed to the First National Bank of the United States, was instrumental in forming the Second one in the aftermath of the War of 1812 and the debts which it incurred. Today, this would be a flip-flop. However, back then President Madison was doing the best he could for his nation and adapting to changing circumstances. I think as a nation we’d be far better off with more of this as opposed to politicians who will allow their nation to default on its debts rather than increasing revenue in the slightest.

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July 2011

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