A Reminder from History: Independence and The 4th Amendment
For the past month or so, I’ve locked myself into a sort of make-shift grad course on politics and philosophy by concurrently reading two massive compendiums on both subjects, one of them widely considered a classic and the other more recent: Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, and Alan Ryan’s On Politics.
With Russell, I’m still trudging my way through his long discussions on Aristotle, and probably will be for awhile. But in On Politics I’ve made my way across the Adriatic to the study of Roman thinkers like Cicero and Polybius. One passage in particular caught my eye, where Alan Ryan discusses Polybius and the importance of constitutions in maintaining a stable, well-functioning state, as opposed to relying on the arbitrary luck of having “good people” in office. Ryan also uses this opportunity to discuss how this influenced the thinking of the American founders and how a strong constitution, and not some superstitious attachment to myths of glorious national beginnings will ensure the health of the new republic.
And since it’s July 4th, our Independence Day, I thought I might share the passage here. Yes, I know it’s more directly related to our Constitution which came several years later, but unfortunately no one cares about “Constitution Day” (it’s September 17th by the way), so today will have to do:
The belief that the founding moment is decisive dies hard. When the framers of the Constitution of the United States set out to construct “a machine that would go of itself,” they expressed the inherited conviction that their new country’s constitution would determine its future, and the belief that a Polybian recipe was needed. Neither peace nor prosperity would be secure if the constitution gave the demos absolute power; but class warfare would be inevitable if a wealthy upper class monopolized political power and exploited the lower classes. As for leadership, one man must be the focus of allegiance and the source of leadership as George Washington had been during the war, or the country would be rudderless; but if Washington was tempted to rule as George III had tried to, the United States would become a tyranny for which a second revolution would be the only cure. Not everyone took the analogy between the body politic and the human body so seriously as to think that an ill-made constitution could not sustain a long-lived and healthy regime merely because a sickly baby was unlikely to become a healthy and long-lived adult human being. Still, a surprising number of people did, and do.
– Alan Ryan, On Politics
If anything, words like these should be a stern reminder to those who preach the perfection of the founding fathers and worship every position they took or word they said. Yes, having good people on your side is important, but its endlessly more important to have one’s institutions framed in such a way that you are protected when the bad people show up.
Oh, and speaking of the number 4, there is a pretty important amendment in the Bill of Rights that bears that number:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
One should do his or her part to ensure these words don’t just become a words on a page, but remain one of the protections that made the American experiment worth fighting for in the first place.
Happy Independence Day.