A character study of the men who framed US Constitution
Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution, by Forrest McDonald. Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas. 359 pp. $25. ``The delegates were scheduled to assemble on Monday, May 14. Only a handful showed up on time. . . .''
That's from the middle of Forrest McDonald's new book on the composition of the Constitution of the United States of America. Before that sentence, the reader gets over 200 closely-written pages accounting for the diversity of opinion that made that convention one to be remembered. The first half of the book ends with this sobering sentence: ``It should be obvious from this survey that it is meaningless to say that the Framers intended this or that the Framers intended that: their positions were diverse
and, in many particulars, incompatible.''
Given the diversity in that warm little room, it's remarkable that the character -- not characters -- of the framers is the real burden of this book. If the book bristles with wit and intellectual energy -- and it does -- the character of the framers is the reason. As a study of ideas, ``Novus Ordo Seclorum'' is a study of motives, interests, and passions as reflected in the ideas of the framers. At one point McDonald shows how the love of fame -- ``the desire for secular immortality in the grateful rem embrance of posterity'' -- motivated many of them.
So ``ideas'' has a special meaning here. The framers were not bookish; they were, however, vigorously intellectual. They experienced ideas, and they tested their ideas in experience. Indeed, what makes this book so outstanding is the strong sense of reality that comes off every page. The framers -- men like Madison, Hamilton, Rush, Dickinson, and Franklin -- were men of experience. Which is not to say, in today's vernacular, they were ``cowboys.'' Indeed, the big problem that faced these me n was that the American desire for independence had a licentious side. The states were jealous of their liberty and were not to be united without a struggle.
And yet, when all was said and done, the framers did come up with a Constitution that somehow justifies the triumphant Latin blast from the Great Seal of the United States (vide the dollar bill): novus ordo seclorum -- a new order of the ages.
Crucial to McDonald's argument is the point that constitutional government had a chance to take root in the new republic because, up to the Civil War, ``the men who served the nation were of a quality not far beneath that of the Framers themselves.'' Given the decline in character of participating Americans after that, the Constitution itself would have to carry the burden of right government.
Who were the framers, intellectually speaking? As men of experience, the framers drew on English, French, and Roman writers. History and philosophy and commentary were to them forms of experience. But that's not all: Certain specific ideas, ideas vague to us now, were very powerful to them. For example, when McDonald tries to discover what motivated George Washington, he goes to a passage in ``Cato,'' a popular play by Joseph Addison. Washington himself quoted it often, consciously and unconsciously. Th e idea in question is ``honor.'' ``Cato'' makes a crucial distinction between honor and virtue now lost to us.
The distinction between honor and virtue allowed George Washington to conceive of himself as an honorable man -- a man esteemed ``by wise and good men.'' While a puritan republican is virtuous in the sense of self-denying, the virtuous man, pure and simple, is the Stoic ideal: he is esteemed of himself. Yet the two principles of Stoic virtue and public honor, McDonald argues, may exist in the same person; pace the puritan republican (today's ideologue), they are compatible. And when they co exist, honor in Addison's words ``aids and strengthens virtue. . . .''
Virtue and honor cohabited in Washington's large frame. New biographies may discuss his appetite for wealth and women, but they do little to illuminate the ideas that made him what he was. It is the soundness, not the brilliance or punctiliousness, of Washington -- and of the Constitution -- that has met the test of time.
To the degree we can respond to that ideal of honor as the framers did, we can believe, with McDonald, that ``constitutional government [has] become part of the second nature of homo politicus Americanus.'' Otherwise, we shouldn't take refuge in the notion of pluralism enshrined in the Constitution. Pluralism without virtue and honor is another word for chaos. True, the framers were an extraordinarily varied bunch: their Constitution is a flexible compromise. But its heart, the sound perception of polit ical reality it embodies, inspired them. Readers of McDonald will find it inspiring them, as well.
Tom D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.