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While Americans today constantly hear, make, and defend arguments about the role

by | Jun 24, 2021 | American Literature | 0 comments


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While Americans today constantly hear, make, and defend arguments about the role of government (e.g. how much it should intervene into private affairs; how large or small it should be; what it should or should not regulate, etc.), we spend much less time thinking about what type of political bond “government” actually represents and how it differs from other historical forms of political power. In other words, we take the idea of “government” as a timeless notion, one that apparently all societies and cultures have contended with or debated over, throughout history. But nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, the idea of government, which is a relatively recent philosophical and political idea, emerges during the Enlightenment period (1700-1800), as an alternative form of political rule opposed to the rule of feudal monarchies and its notion of absolute sovereignty (i.e., where a king or queen is bestowed absolute power over a territory, supposedly by God himself). A populist form of power, government is instead a complex notion because it deals with and argues over the rights of individuals, and not the divine right of a sovereign. In other words, government is actually an attempt to limit or check political power, rather than a direct form of power in its own right. This is why modern American politics is always asking the question, what role should government play in ” X” facet of social life — whether that “X” is the economy, the environment, or issues of privacy, like the reproductive rights of women or gun ownership So, whereas absolute monarchies gave the king the power to rule over a territory or people with absolute impunity, government alternatively seeks to constantly limit itself so that it can allow its citizens (“the individual”) a certain number of “rights,” such that these individuals are allowed to better pursue their own self-interests and freedom. This is why we constantly argue about the role of government, because the question of what government is and how it should be extended to protect individual rights is a constant struggle between its citizens. Indeed, if the role of government is to protect its citizens’ ability to pursue their self-interest, then this means the problem of government will constantly change over time and will be open to constant interpretation and revision. Or, as is suggested in your reading this week, the social problem of faction is sown right into the concept of government as a political bond. In making this observation, I am taking the lead from the arguments that James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay make in their famous defense of the new U.S. Constitution, The Federalist Papers. Here, they argue for why a strong central government would be more beneficial in ensuring individual rights and national prosperity than a loosely connected confederation of states (as is what was the case for the first decade of the young nation, under The Articles of Confederation). In particular, in Federalist Paper No. 10, the future 4th President of the United States, James Madison, argues–perhaps surprisingly–that the first role of government is not to achieve a unity of interest or an equality of condition among its citizens, but rather to protect the individual’s right to pursue their own self-interest in acquiring “property” or “wealth,” even if this inevitably creates a society divided by the unequal distribution of wealth. Or, as Madison puts it, in his own words: “The diversity in the faculties of men from which the rights of property originate is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results: and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors ensures a division of the society into different interests and parties” (366). This might be bit shocking to a modern reader — that is, Madison openly admits that the first role of government is to allow citizens every opportunity to gain wealth (“property), and that the inevitable end result of this fact, i.e. social inequality, is what government is meant to regulate and negotiate. Government, according to Madison, should protect the individual’s ability to pursue property, and then, mitigate the negative results that follow from the division between the particular interests of those who have property and those who do not. Put simply, government ensures and protects class division such that the pursuit of individual economic freedom can flourish. If this seems different from our current government’s goal to try and mitigate social inequality, then we have to remember that, in its inception, the Founding Fathers envisioned the government being led by “enlightened statesmen,” that is, rich, highly educated property-owners who used their independent means of living as a way to best decide policies for the entire population. In this era, only property-owning white men were allowed to vote, hold office, and make policy. We need to remember this fact if we are going to understand Madison’s aforementioned arguments. Since the late 19th century, the role of government has actually changed somewhat to the extent that government is conceived as a vehicle to insure equal rights under the law and often actively intervenes in creating an environment of equal opportunity. For this assignment, then, I would like for you to reflect on how Madison’s idea of government — it’s role in protecting the individual’s self-interest and its pursuit of property — differs from Winthrop’s puritan vision of politics. How is Madison understanding of government a product of the enlightenment period? Why is Madison more interested in regulating or limiting social faction rather than overcoming it, like Winthrop? Does Madison have a different conception of human nature or morality, different from Winthrop? Why does Madison think that the first object of government is to ensure the protection of self-interest and not “the care of the public,” like Winthrop? Choose two or three examples from the Federalist Papers or Winthrop’s sermon to support your answer.

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