Norvus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution
University Press of Kansas: (Reprint ed., 1986)
Interesting and Insightful! (5 Stars)
Just what sorts of ideas were going on in the Framers’ minds when the drafted the federal constitution? This book provides great insight into the ideas, concepts and intellectual history and framework that the Framers were operating upon.
An extremely capable historian and writer, McDonald starts out by noting some important considerations facing the Framers: protecting the life, liberty and property of citizens; their commitment to republican government (although there was disagreement and uncertainty as to what that precisely meant); history (in the sense of convention, legacy and their place in its continuing flow); and political theory.
The chapter on the Rights of Englishmen begins with the Framers understandings of freedom, liberty, and property—as inherited through English common law, refined by Blackstone, and developed independently in the New World. Blackstone considered property a third “absolute right,” following life and liberty. Of course, he used the word property in the more narrow sense of dominion (rather than the sense of proper as something proper or particular to an individual person). In any case, McDonald discusses Blackstone’s qualifications and exceptions to this absolute right, which allowed for the regulation of property (through sumptuary laws, eminent domain, taxation, and the granting of monopoly privileges). McDonald then relates America’s experience in light of the English understandings and tradition. The emphasis on property is particular important because, until the Revolution, Americans’ general views about liberty were grounded in the same kinds of historical, philosophical and legal foundations as their views of property.
McDonald’s chapter on political theory is particularly enjoyable, as he traces the tensions existing amongst the different theories of rights held by the Framers, as well as some of their respective implications. He discusses the appeals made by Americans to natural law as transcending the general norms of English law. A succinct discussion of John Locke’s natural law views, which McDonald insists has been “astonishingly misinterpreted.” McDonald then proceeds to an interesting comparison and contrast of the two predominant strands of republicanism in America: puritan and agrarian. He proceeds to analyze the “country party” oppositionists as a third influential group and delves into Montesquieu. Many readers will be struck with the differences McDonald describes between the notion of “separation of powers” and a system of “checks and balances”—since most people today describe them as one in the same.
Also interesting is the political economy chapter. McDonald has written more extensively on this subject elsewhere, and it is also the subject of much attention in his stellar biography of Alexander Hamilton. Indeed, the latter part of the chapter is devoted to Hamilton’s sophisticated ideas about commerce and finance. The earlier part of the chapter discusses the influence of the French physiocrats, Adam Smith and other early political economists, and continues with an overview of England’s experience with public debt.
One chapter is devoted to principles and interests—both those that motivated Framers and (relatedly) how the Framers understood the role and effects of those concepts. Here one finds an interesting discussion of Madison’s understanding of factions—made famous in Federalist No. 10. McDonald traces the intellectual roots of this idea, discussing the views of Hume on factions and contrasting them with the Bolingbrokean understandings of republicanism. “[I]t is meaningless to say the Framers intended this or that the Framers intended that,” notes McDonald, “their positions were diverse and, in many particulars, incompatible.” His survey certainly affirms this understanding (which is also adequately covered in Jack Rakove’s Original Meanings).
A succinct chapter describing the Constitutional Convention follows, in which McDonald catalogues how different groups at the Convention employed the arguments of different political theorists in order to advance their respective viewpoints as to how the federal government was to be constituted, what powers were to be entrusted to it, and to which respective branch they would be entrusted. Much to my delight, McDonald contrasts the understanding of the separation of powers as embodied in the Constitutional document with pre-existing understandings of the separation of powers and the duties commonly thought proper to the respective branches.
Finally, the concluding chapter discusses the powers given to the federal government in the Constitution, and how they operate.
All in all, this is an excellent volume that anyone appreciating political theory, American history and our nation’s Constitution should enjoy.
A FEW FURTHER THOUGHTS: I plan on reading many more books by McDonald. The political economy chapter was particularly interesting to me, as was his analysis along those lines as presented in his biography of Alexander Hamilton--as mentioned, another excellent read.
(Downtown Seattle, WA)