The clearest evidence that the United States Constitution is not perfect is the fact that we have amended it 27 times. The Constitution is more perfect now than it was in 1789, but there are Liberty Bell-sized cracks that still need work.
The Electoral College has resulted in two presidents in the last 20 years—George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016—who did not win the popular vote. The Senate is alarmingly skewed toward sparsely populated states. The House is gerrymandered into too many safe seats. The Supreme Court is a partisan gerontocracy.
What were the Founders thinking?
“I think they’d say they were wrong about many of these things,” says historian and journalist Thomas E. Ricks. “Their answer would be, ‘We designed the Constitution to be amended, and you should fix it.’ The Senate went from being selected by state legislatures to being elected by the people through an amendment. Voting was expanded to women through an amendment. We should continue amending it.”
In First Principles, his engaging new history of the Revolutionary Era, Ricks finds the Founders fallible and uncertain. The Constitution did not come down from Mt. Sinai on stone tablets. It was an experiment. Many choices the Constitution’s drafters made—like how many houses Congress would have and how we would elect a president—could have gone another way.
They still can. Ricks sat down with The Daily Beast to discuss.
The United States government does not work very well. The founders did not foresee what partisanship would wreck the system they designed. Why do you still care what they think?
What’s important about these old white men who’ve been dead for 250 years is that we still live in the house that they designed, yet most of us have very little understanding of how they looked at the world, what they considered important, what fears they tried to address in the Constitution. It’s worthwhile to step back and ask: What did they think? What was their political vocabulary?
Why were they so interested in Greek and Roman history?
They take several lessons from history, and the key one was the decline of the Roman Republic—the time of Cato and Cicero—and the takeover by Julius Caesar. The Roman Republic was destroyed by two things: faction and corruption. The founders had a great fear of faction, which really means partisanship.
To John Adams especially, faction was tantamount to treason. When he sees Madison and Jefferson forming, essentially, a political party in opposition to his Federalists, he freaks out. Adams starts putting anti-Federalist, anti-Adams newspaper editors in jail because of factions. Corruption was much less of an issue because there wasn’t much money in politics.
Were there factional, coalition-style governments in the world at that time?
Not really. The idea of a loyal opposition didn’t come into use in England until the 1820s.
And the founders were not trying to build a coalition-style government.
They expressly did not want a parliamentary-style system. They wanted more separation in the branches of government. In England, a member of Parliament could sit in the Cabinet. The founders wanted legislative and executive branches that would be totally separate from each other, and they wanted a strong judiciary. Plus, there was an enormous dispersal of power between the state and federal governments.
They did this because they distrusted power. Madison knew they could not solve the problem of factions, but he could balance faction against faction, interest against interest. If you disperse power widely enough, the only way to make progress is by making deals and coming together. I think Madison may say that a lot of what’s happening in America today is not a bug; it’s a feature.
Partisanship has led to some unintended consequences. The Senate is now effectively a wing of the Trump White House.
The founders would be shocked at the lethargy of the Senate. They designed the executive and legislative branches to be separate branches of government, and the sleepiness of the Senate is a subordination of the White House. The founders thought the legislative branch would be the most energetic branch of government and would push around the executive branch and be checked by the judiciary.
What else do you think should be changed?
I’d like to see the members of the Supreme Court have a single term of 14 or 18 years so that we don’t have a geriatric Supreme Court that’s out of tune with a changing America.
The first four chapters of the book are about Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison, and it’s interesting how little their political views were shaped by their religious faith.
That was a distinctly non-religious period in American history, particularly among the elites. The absence of the clergy from the Revolutionary generation is striking. There was only one clergyman—John Witherspoon, who was the president of Princeton—who participated in the Declaration of Independence. Religiosity did not play a big role in the Declaration of Independence or in the Constitution.
Why were these people so interested in the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans? Had these writers endured for 2,000 years, or was it more of a revival of these writers?
A lot of these ancient texts were discovered or rediscovered during the Renaissance. The great Enlightenment works like Montesquieu’s The Spirit of Laws are looking at Roman history. When the founders look around for ideas about forms of government, they look to ancient history because there aren’t a lot of other places to look. They look especially to the Roman Republic for what’s good, what’s bad, and what’s dangerous, and Madison spent years studying the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Montesquieu was interested in individual rights, separation of powers, rule of law.
Right. Montesquieu effectively invented the modern liberal state around balancing justice with freedom. How can a society be built on tolerance of differing views without anarchy? That involves balances of preserving order without intruding on individual rights except to protect justice and order. Montesquieu was looking back to Greece and Rome for many of these views.
You wrote that Thomas Jefferson’s literary tastes were surprisingly pedestrian, which made me laugh and think about the founders as normal people who had to make a living and make sure their kids got to school on time. Did you get a sense of them as regular people figuring out their lives?
They were normal people in the crucible of revolution and formation of a new government, and that can turn ordinary people into extraordinary people. In normal times, George Washington would have been a tongue-tied bachelor in the background of a Jane Austen novel. Jefferson was a hypocrite who dreams of liberty and lives off the sweat of enslaved human beings. He had pedestrian literary taste but also wrote the Declaration of Independence, which is both a great political document and a work of literature.
The Declaration of Independence was also—in a sense—pedestrian. Jefferson wrote it to be read on the streets by people who were not steeped in political philosophy.
I wouldn’t call the Declaration of Independence pedestrian, which makes it seem slow or simple. It’s something that everyone could stand on the street corner and discuss, and at the same time it was a great work of literature with soaring rhetoric.
You are a war correspondent, so it would have made sense for you to write about this period in the context of the French and Indian War and the American Revolution.
Wars are there in all of my books. My book Churchill and Orwell is about someone from the right and someone from the left who start thinking the same way about certain things, but World War II was at the center of that. First Principles is not about the American Revolution, but the principles were all involved in and affected by the Revolutionary War.
I talk to a lot of historians and struggle with the question of what to do with history. I tend to resist the tautological idea that history is a device to correct our mistakes and think more about history as a study of who we are. How do you think about that?
If you don’t know where you’ve been, it’s hard to see where you’re going. I find it much easier to think about making changes to the Constitution because I’ve become more familiar with the debates during the original formulation of the Constitution. We decided a lot of things one day or another 250 years ago in Philadelphia, and we can change it. They set up a way for us to change it. If you’re familiar with those debates, it makes it easier to think about how we might change the Constitution today.