PHILADELPHIA REFLECTIONS
Musings of a Philadelphia Physician who has served the community for six decades

Return to Home

Related Topics

.American and European Unions, Compared
The (1648) Treaty of Westphalia created the modern nation-state by respecting sovereignty within agreed boundaries. Soon, everyone had a sovereign King. Today, Europeans live in republics, but wish to unite for economic benefits. Like others however, they found that hard to do, and so began with monetary union, alone. Unlucky timing: world monetary crisis suddenly struck.

Rise of the Formidable State

{Martin Luther 1517}
Martin Luther 1517

The Catholic Church dominated Central Europe for centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, but after the final elimination of European paganism and the invention of the printing press, church dominance weakened. Martin Luther in 1517 started the (Protestant) Church Reformation which in 1648 was to culminate in reversals of roles: Kings and their secular states not only put an end to eighty years of religious wars but also established their dominance over Church power at the Treaty of Westphalia. Although the rules were not spelled out in the treaty, the "nation state" was created as the new organizing principle of governance. Land boundaries were established first, then residents within that territory were unified with a sovereign in a highly variable two-step process. The King chose his religion and everyone else complied, except for those who chose to flee. That was indeed a bitter pill for Pope Innocent X. The Catholic Church had once been "sovereign", now the King was sovereign, the highest level of appeal. Tiny national boundaries had previously made it easier for the Vatican to rule a multi-nation arrangement; after Westphalia many nations consolidated into fewer. When avoiding the use of force was important, however, nations generally straightened out their differences by splitting up and becoming smaller. The American colonies were to come close to losing their war for independence by being too weak, however, and all of them wanted to explore uniting into a stronger Union. There had been essentially no examples to follow, for thirteen sovereign nations to unite voluntarily, but to many it seemed like a logical progression. It seemed to require a new sort of sovereignty, perhaps it would be a republic, but many were unsure of that. At that point, almost every nation on the globe had a king of some sort, But although there were many who felt the hereditary monarchy had proven its value, it was simply too much in 1787 for most Americans to fight eight years to be liberated from a hated King, then put themselves back into a monarchy. Besides, many advantages of a larger union had appeared during the Revolution. At least they deserved to be explored and tested. The Treaty of Westphalia and the Constitutional Convention had a number of rough similarities. Both regions had experienced long periods of tyrannical central rule, followed by shambling disintegration, and disliked both extremes. Both of them stumbled into new forms of governance, searching for a more moderate balance. Both of them improved their situation: achieving fewer wars and more prosperity.

{Thomas Hobbes}
Thomas Hobbes

The Peace of Westphalia tested out a number of types of governance, which at that time mostly consisted of choosing ways to pick a King and defining what was expected of him. Reading Machiavelli still shocks the civilized world by his stating outright that the people of a nation mainly want to be prosperous and successful in war. He thus announced it is often useful to have a ruthless even unscrupulous king, bound by no moral rules from any other source. Thomas Hobbes in The Leviathan argued that the people should transfer their rights to the King, fusing their goals to his. Jean-Jacob Rousseau argued the opposite: that all sovereignty resides in the individual citizen, his sovereign opinion emerging collectively with other citizens as the "will of the people", or "vox populi est vox dei". Unfortunately for all of these and other theories, in 1787 almost two centuries had by then elapsed since the Treaty of Westphalia, and many unfortunate consequences had arisen from these proposed forms of government. Rousseau's fatal flaw would only appear a year or two after the Philadelphia Convention, at the guillotine. The flaw of pure democracy was that democracies prove workable only in small countries with good acoustics. Consequently, the first decision of the Constitutional Convention was already clear; America had to have a republic, with elected representatives. At that time, Americans were better acquainted with the Roman Senate than the Greek model, and George Washington was particularly enthralled with the Roman republic. Of course, almost everyone was still better acquainted with the British Parliament, for which the Roman Senate was mostly a polite conversational substitute, under the circumstances.

{Niccolò Machiavelli}
Niccolò Machiavelli

James Madison, who was one of the few at the Constitutional Convention with a classical college education, was deeply concerned about the Formidable State. Not only had the Revolution been fought over the abuses of George III, but two centuries of the Holy Roman Empire were convincing that Machiavelli on the throne was often inspired by motives at odds with those of his subjects. Surrounded by Quakers in Philadelphia, the Constitutional Delegates were ready to listen to arguments blaming most wars on Kings rather than mistaken reasoning. What emerges from reflecting on the Constitution is a system which seems to believe we should have a government in which the people, ruling within a body of law, are sovereign, the last word. The voice of the people without rules leads to anarchy. Religion is respected, but avoid church politics at all costs. Instead of a sovereign moral code, we merely need a set of axioms, like Euclid's geometry. Half a dozen principles seem to work well enough, the rights of the minority, freedom of speech and religion, English common law, the right to bear arms, are axioms probably true but certainly not sacred. The rest is "common sense" or vox populi. In some final convulsion of new discovery, we might change an axiom or two, but slowly, slowly. Maybe a straight line isn't the shortest distance between two points, but it would be so disruptive to say anything else, we should demand proof of the highest order even to discuss it.

John Dickinson of little Delaware was probably the best lawyer in America at the time, had written many documents, great and small. But he delivered his most telling speech in private, to James Madison in the corridor, so to speak. In effect he said it was intolerable for the big states to relegate the small states to perpetual minority status; how would Madison like to live in a state where no one would ever have a chance of election to President? The convention had been meeting for five weeks, and Madison had won almost every vote. From that point forward however, he mostly lost every vote without apology. Eventually, he got the point; but not before he was in despair that the Constitution was going to be a failure. And not before the small states each got two Senators.

This series of essays has a focus on the past, particularly the past of my home city, Philadelphia. At this particular moment, there is as much concern about the unchecked power of central government to endanger human rights with genocide and torture as there was in the days of William Penn and Patrick Henry. There is as much concern about confiscatory debt forgiveness as was expressed by Robert Morris and Alexander Hamilton. But on the other hand, there is no more concern, either. Whatever the offenses of the Vietnam War or the Holocaust, we need to be hesitant to endorse supra-national sources of morality like the United Nations or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, when we already have considerable experience with employing our own axioms of behavior.

(2258)

Please Let Us Know What You Think


(HTML tags provide better formatting)

Because of robot spam we ask you to confirm your comment: we will send you an email containing a link to click. We apologize for this inconvenience but this ensures the quality of the comments. (Your email will not be displayed.)
Thank you.