Conservatives Should Look to the Founders to See How to Fight for Their Ideas

Published May 5, 2011

Commentary Magazine

The policy differences among the likely candidates for the GOP presidential nomination will be, I think, relatively narrow (the exceptions are among the marginal candidates like Ron Paul). There will be differences in emphasis, of course, but the philosophical differences will mostly be marginal. Which means that there may be more emphasis than usual on style and approach.

Some potential candidates, like Michele Bachmann, believe they stand out from the rest of the field because they are, in Bachmann’s words, “fighters.” What we need, some prominent conservatives argue, is “combativeness”—and in making their case they cite the founders.

Countenance and style, then, will be a big issue in the forthcoming campaign—and we can in fact learn quite a lot by using the founders, and particularly the debate about the Constitution, as a reference point.

The debate about the Constitution was not, as Isaac Kramnick points out in his introduction to the Federalist Papers, a model of decorous and genteel discourse. The stakes were exceedingly high. A “torrent of angry and malignant passions” were let loose in the “great national discussion,” according to Alexander Hamilton, who wrote the majority of the Federalist Papers. The Federalist Papers, Hamilton hoped, would rise above the “loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invective.” And so they did. Those 85 essays in defense of the Constitution—written over the course of 10 months, consisting of some 175,000 words—are classics in political theory.

But reading the Federalist Papers, as valuable as they are, doesn’t give you the full flavor for what one commentary called the “fierce storm of argument” that broke out.

Several years ago the Library of America published a two-volume set, The Debate on the Constitution, which provided hundreds of newspaper articles, pamphlets, speeches, and private letters written or delivered by dozens of people from September 1787 to August 1788. It’s an amazing collection, really; it includes the arguments of both Federalists and Anti-Federalists as they debate how best to balance public order and personal liberty.

If you take these exchanges in total, several things stand out. One is the energy and eloquence that characterized those debates. Another is how intelligent and well-informed the combatants were. And yet another is how precise and meticulous the debates were; they devoted great time and attention to matters ranging from concurrent taxation to religion and the state, from the possible abuses of the federal judiciary to what a republic is.

But for present purposes, it’s worth highlighting James Madison’s reply to Patrick Henry on June 6, 1788. “I shall not attempt to make impressions by any ardent professions of zeal for the public welfare,” Madison said as he arose.

We know the principles of every man will, and ought to be judged, not by his professions and declarations, but by his conduct … We ought, Sir, to examine the Constitution on its own merits solely: We are to enquire whether it will promote the public happiness;—its aptitude to produce this desirable object ought to be the exclusive subject of our present researches. In this pursuit, we ought not to address our arguments to the feelings and passions, but to those understandings and judgment which were selected by the people of this country, to decide this great question, by a calm and rational investigation.

Madison then dilated on why Henry’s concern that the Constitution would endanger the public liberty was unmerited. By the time the Federalist Papers were completed George Washington was able to say to Hamilton, “When the transient circumstances and fugitive performances which attended this Crisis shall have disappeared, that work will merit the notice of posterity; because in it are candidly and ably discussed the principles of freedom and the topics of government, which will be always interesting to mankind so long as they shall be connected to civil society.”

Which brings me to the here and now. The proper conservative response to Barack Obama is combativeness, but combativeness of a particular kind, by which I mean intellectual combativeness. But it needs to express itself through the power and persuasiveness of ideas and political ideals.

The founders, being human, weren’t always paragons of virtue in public discourse. And Hamilton, of course, died in a duel with Aaron Burr. But what our founders are venerated for is not simply their wisdom but the quality of their arguments, their capacity to persuade people who in the aftermath of the convention in Philadelphia were concerned that the new Constitution would end in tyranny. The founders were, to an extraordinary degree, able to rise above the “torrent of angry and malignant passions” that characterized their age, just as it characterizes politics in our age.

For conservatism to prevail, it needs public figures, including presidential figures, who are willing to fight for the right ideas but who are also blessed with the right temperament. They need to be tough-minded and irenic, in possession of powerful intellects and attractive personalities. Even, and maybe especially, in the internet era, a touch of winsomeness can’t hurt. And it might even help.

Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, worked in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and was deputy assistant to the president under George W. Bush.

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