Special To The Caldwell Journal (By Daniel B. Rundquist – 03/05/2017)…There is that phrase at the very beginning of the U.S. Constitution that nagged at me when I first set out to study this subject many years ago. It was the preamble, “We the people…In order to form a more perfect union…” The very phrasing assumed that the Constitution we were about to read was inherently flawed. It was only a best attempt to be “more perfect.” It appears that with such wording the Framers seemed to understand that only God’s Law was in fact perfect and anything created by mankind would come up short.
So how did the founders know to “form a more perfect union?” More perfect than what, exactly? Were they only referring to the Articles of Confederation which preceded the American Constitution? We would like to believe that these men intended to learn from the mistakes of other statesmen, but how could they ensure that their America would be “more perfect” unless they knew what had not worked prior and why? The nation they sought independence from, England, was certainly “less perfect,” but it was a monarchy, not a “union.” So how did our Framers formulate their ideas about what a “more perfect union” must look like?
Perhaps one of the better short descriptions of the foundation of a republic is discovered in a letter written by American General Charles Lee to Robert Morris:
“I have ever from the first time I read Plutarch, been an Enthusiastik for Liberty…for liberty is a republican garb, indeed it is natural to a young Person whose chief companions are the Greek and Roman Historians, and Orators, to be dazzl’d with the splendid picture, but alas, I now find, this perfect kind of liberty cou’d be only supported by qualities not possess’d by the Individuals of the Modern World, a publick and patriotick spirit reigning in the breast of every individual superseding all private considerations, it was this spirit alone that carried several of the Grecian States and the Roman Republic triumphantly through so many ages, for as to the formal literal consummation of these Governments. They were defective to absurdity, it was Virtue alone that supported them, all writers agree that Virtue must be the basis of republics, and most of all of federal republics, have the Americans this necessary virtue?”
It was virtue, then, that was expected to support Liberty in the United States, in the view of the hopeful General Charles Lee. And where did he get that notion? It was common practice in those days for every student to learn the history and literature of the ancient world from a young age; Charles Lee was no exception and neither was Thomas Jefferson. Many of these school texts in the classic area were still being published in Greek and Latin, forcing pupils to learn these languages at the same time. This was arguably a positive, and something we generally do not require of students today. We know that Jefferson read the Iliad very early on and even collected ancient Greek and Roman coins. He wrote:
“Among the values of classical learning I estimate the Luxury of reading the Greek & Roman authors in all the beauties of their originals … I think myself more indebted to my father for this, than for all the other luxuries his cares and affections have placed within my reach.”
The connections of our Framers with the world of the Ancients were deep and broad. The Federalist Papers are littered with so many discussions and writings by the Framers citing the successes, failures, and philosophies of the Greeks, Romans, and other civilizations past. In reading these exchanges, one begins to understand just how serious our Framers took up the matter of their work for the new Constitution, both in form and function.
In addition to his voluminous body of writings, Thomas Jefferson gifted America with even more permanent evidence of his connection with the ancient world—his architecture. It was no accident why Jefferson latched on to the architecture of Greece and the Roman Republic. His education was based in the ancient world, which emphasized above all, “civic virtue” and a manifest resistance to the elements of tyranny.
While in England the architecture of the day focused on Baroque and the neoclassical styles, Jefferson’s architectural designs were a rebellion away from both of these. One might say an extension of his beliefs and commitment to the American cause. This was to be a lasting reminder that America was not to be like England. We were to be a free nation, embracing the “civic virtues” akin to the Roman Republic.
Not only did Jefferson design his villa style home, Monticello in the Palladian style but he contributed many more similar works in his lifetime and thus contributed to an explosion of the same Palladian style throughout America in the form of churches, libraries, government buildings, universities, and private homes. These all stand today as a silent testament to the man we seem to want to forget in the 21st century.
The final, ratified American Constitution that the Framers settled upon was about as “perfect” as could be expected from any convention of statesmen of the time. It is our responsibility as American Citizens to keep the Constitution functional and intact. Today we must not forget the warning issued by Thomas Jefferson—years before the convention began in 1787—even while the Revolutionary War still raged:
“But is the spirit of the people an infallible, a permanent reliance? Is it government? Is this the kind of protection we receive in return for the rights we give up? Besides, the spirit of the times may alter, will alter. Our rulers will become corrupt, our people careless. A single zealot may commence persecutor, and better men be his victims. It can never be too often repeated, that the time for fixing every essential right on a legal basis is while our rulers are honest, and ourselves united. From the conclusion of this war we shall be going down hill. It will not then be necessary to resort every moment to the people for support. They will be forgotten, therefore, and their rights disregarded. They will forget themselves, but in the sole faculty of making money, and will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for their rights. The shackles, therefore, which shall not be knocked off at the conclusion of this war, will remain on us long, will be made heavier and heavier, till our rights shall revive or expire in a convulsion.”
Dan Rundquist is a Caldwell Journal Contributor.
Copyright 2017 Caldwell Journal on behalf of Dan Rundquist. All rights reserved.