Our Enemy, The State, Ch. 5, Sec. III

by Albert Jay Nock, 1935



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It may be repeated that while State power was well centralized under the federation, it was not centralized in the federation, but in the federated unit. For various reasons, some of them plausible, many leading citizens, especially in the more northerly units, found this distribution of power unsatisfactory; and a considerable compact group of economic interests which stood to profit by a redistribution naturally made the most of these reasons. It is quite certain that dissatisfaction with the existing arrangement was not general, for when the redistribution took place in 1789, it was effected with great difficulty and only through a coup d'Etat, organized by methods which if employed in any other field than that of politics, would be put down at once as not only daring, but unscrupulous and dishonorable.

The situation, in a word, was that American economic interests had fallen into two grand divisions, the special interests in each having made common cause with a view to capturing control of the political means.One division comprised the speculating, industrial-commercial and creditor interests, with their natural allies of the bar and bench, the pulpit and the press. The other comprised chiefly the farmers and artisans and the debtor class generally. From the first, these two grand divisions were colliding briskly here and there in the several units, the most serious collision occurring over the terms of the Massachusetts constitution of 1780. [8] The State in each of the thirteen units was a class-State, as every State known to history has been; and the work of manoeuvring it in its function of enabling the economic exploitation of one class by another went steadily on.

General conditions under the Articles of Confederation were pretty good. The people had made a creditable recovery from the dislocations and disturbances due to the revolution, and there was a very decent prospect that Mr. Jefferson's idea of a political organization which should be national in foreign affairs and non-national in domestic affairs might be found continuously practicable. Some tinkering with the Articles seemed necessary--in fact, it was expected--but nothing that would transform or seriously impair the general scheme. The chief trouble was with the federation's weakness in view of the chance of war, and in respect of debts due to foreign creditors. The Articles, however, carried provision for their own amendment, and for anything one can see, such amendment as the general scheme made necessary was quite feasible. In fact, when suggestions of revision arose, as they did almost immediately, nothing else appears to have been contemplated.

But the general scheme itself was as a whole objectionable to the interests grouped in the first grand division. The grounds of their dissatisfaction are obvious enough. When one bears in mind the vast prospect of the continent, one need use but little imagination to perceive that the national scheme was by far the more congenial to those interests, because it enabled an ever-closer centralization of control over the political means. For instance, leaving aside the advantage of having but one central tariff-making body to chaffer with, instead of twelve, any industrialist could see the great primary advantage of being able to extend his exploiting operations over a nation-wide free-trade area walled-in by a general tariff; the closer the centralization, the larger the exploitable area. Any speculator in rental-values would be quick to see the advantage of bringing this form of opportunity under unified control. [9] Any speculator in depreciated public securities would be strongly for a system that could offer him the use of the political means to bring back their face-value. [10] Any shipowner or foreign trader would be quick to see that his bread was buttered on the side of a national State which, if properly approached, might lend him the use of the political means by way of a subsidy, or would be able to back up some profitable but dubious freebooting enterprise with "diplomatic representations" or with reprisals.

The farmers and the debtor class in general, on the other hand, were not interested in those considerations, but were strongly for letting things stay, for the most part, as they stood. Preponderance in the local legislatures gave them satisfactory control of the political means, which they could and did use to the prejudice of the creditor class, and they did not care to be disturbed in their preponderance. They were agreeable to such modification of the Articles as should work out short of this, but not to setting up a national [11] replica of the British merchant-State, which they perceived was precisely what the classes grouped in the opposing grand division wished to do. These classes aimed at bringing in the British system of economics, politics and judicial control, on a nation-wide scale; and the interests grouped in the second division saw that what this would really come to was a shifting of the incidence of economic exploitation upon themselves. They had an impressive object-lesson in the immediate shift that took place in Massachusetts after the adoption of John Adams's local constitution of 1780. They naturally did not care to see this sort of thing put into operation on a nation-wide scale, and they therefore looked with extreme disfavour upon any bait put forth for amending the Articles out of existence. When Hamilton, in 1780, objected to the Articles in the form in which they were proposed for adoption, and proposed the calling of a constitutional convention instead, they turned the cold shoulder; as they did again to Washington's letter to the local governors three years later, in which he adverted to the need of a strong coercive central authority.

Finally, however, a constitutional convention was assembled, on the distinct understanding that it should do no more than revise the Articles in such a way, as Hamilton cleverly phrased it, as to make them "adequate to the exigencies of the nation," and on the further understanding that all the thirteen units should assent to the amendments before they went into effect; in short, that the method of amendment provided by the Articles themselves should be followed. Neither understanding was fulfilled. The convention was made up wholly of men representing the economic interests of the first division. The great majority of them, possibly as many as four-fifths, were public creditors; one-third were land-speculators; some were money-lenders; one-fifth were industrialists, traders, shippers; and many of them were lawyers. They planned and executed a coup d'Etat, simply tossing the Articles of Confederation into the waste-basket, and drafting a constitution de novo, with the audacious provision that it should go into effect when ratified by nine units instead of by all thirteen. Moreover, with like audacity, they provided that the document should not be submitted either to the Congress or to the local legislatures, but that it should go direct to a popular vote! [12]

The unscrupulous methods employed in securing ratification need not be dwelt on here. [13] We are not indeed concerned with the moral quality of the proceedings by which the constitution was brought into being, but only with showing their instrumentality in encouraging a definite general idea of the State and its functions, and a consequent general attitude towards the State. We therefore go on to observe that in order to secure ratification by even the nine necessary units, the document had to conform to certain very exacting and difficult requirements. The political structure which is contemplated had to be republican in form, yet capable of resisting what Gerry unctuously called "the excess of democracy," and what Randolph termed its "turbulence and follies." The task of the delegates was precisely analogous to that of the earlier architects who had designed the structure of the British merchant-State, with its system of economics, politics and judicial control; they had to contrive something that could pass muster as showing a good semblance of popular sovereignty, without the reality. Madison defined their task explicitly in saying that the convention's purpose was "to secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction [i.e., a democratic faction], and at the same time preserve the spirit and form of popular government."

Under the circumstances, this was a tremendously large order; and the constitution emerged, as it was bound to do, as a compromise-document, or as Mr. Beard puts it very precisely, "a mosaic of second choices," which really satisfied neither of the two opposing sets of interests. It was not strong and definite enough in either direction to please anybody. In particular, the interests composing the first division, led by Alexander Hamilton, saw that it was not sufficient of itself to fix them in anything like a permanent impregnable position to exploit continuously the groups composing the second division. To do this--to establish the degree of centralization requisite to their purposes--certain lines of administrative management must be laid down, which, once established, would be permanent. The further task therefore, in Madison's phrase, was to "administration" the constitution into such absolutist modes as would secure economic supremacy, by a free use of the political means, to the groups which made up the first division.

This was accordingly done. For the first ten years of its existence the constitution remained in the hands of its makers for administration in the directions most favourable to their interests. For an accurate understanding of the newly-erected system's economic tendencies, too much stress can not be laid on the fact that for these ten critical years "the machinery of economic and political power was mainly directed by the men who had conceived and established it." [14] Washington, who had been chairman of the convention, was elected President. Nearly half the Senate was made up of men who had been delegates, and the House of Representatives was largely made up of men who had to do with the drafting or ratifying of the constitution. Hamilton, Randolph and Knox, who were active in promoting the document, filled three of the four positions in the Cabinet; and all the federal judgeships, without a single exception, were filled by men who had a hand in the business of drafting or of ratification, or both.

Of all the legislative measures enacted to implement the new constitution, the one best calculated to ensure a rapid and steady progress in the centralization of political power was the Judiciary Act of 1789. [15] This measure created a federal supreme court of six members (subsequently enlarged to nine) and a federal district court in each state, with its own complete personnel, and a complete apparatus for enforcing its decrees. The Act established federal oversight of state legislation by the familiar device of "interpretation," whereby the Supreme Court might nullify state legislative or judicial action which for any reason it saw fit to regard as unconstitutional. One feature of the Act which for our purposes is most noteworthy is that it made the tenure of all these federal judgeships appointive, not elective, and for life; thus marking almost the farthest conceivable departure from the doctrine of popular sovereignty.

The first chief justice was John Jay, "the learned and gentle Jay," as Beveridge calls him in his excellent biography of Marshall. A man of superb integrity, he was far above doing anything whatever in behalf of the accepted principle that est boni judicis ampliare jurisdictionem. Ellsworth, who followed him, also did nothing. The succession, however, after Jay had declined a reappointment, then fell to John Marshall, who, in addition to the control established by the Judiciary Act over the state legislative and judicial authority, arbitrarily extended judicial control over both the legislative and executive branches of the federal authority; [16] thus effecting as complete and convenient a centralization of power as the various interest concerned in framing the constitution could reasonably have contemplated. [17]

We may now see from this necessarily brief survey, which anyone may amplify and particularize at his pleasure, what the circumstances were which rooted a certain definite idea of the State still deeper in the general consciousness. That idea was precisely the same in the constitutional period as that which we have seen prevailing in the two periods already examined--the colonial period, and the eight-year period following the revolution. Nowhere in the history of the constitutional period do we find the faintest suggestion of the Declaration's doctrine of natural rights; and we find its doctrine of popular sovereignty not only continuing in abeyance, but constitutionally estopped from ever reappearing. Nowhere do we find a trace of the Declaration's theory of government; on the contrary, we find it expressly repudiated. The new political mechanism was a faithful replica of the old disestablished British model, but so far improved and strengthened as to be incomparably more close-working and efficient, and hence presenting incomparably more attractive possibilities of capture and control. By consequence, therefore, we find more firmly implanted than ever the same general idea of the State that we have observed as prevailing hitherto--the idea of an organization of the political means, an irresponsible and all-powerful agency standing always ready to be put into use for the service of one set of economic interests as against another.




Next: Our Enemy, The State, Ch. 5, Sec. IV




.. [8] This was the uprising known as Shays's Rebellion, which took place in 1786. The creditor division in Massachusetts had gained control of the political means, and had fortified its control by establishing a constitution which was made to bear so hardly on the agrarian and debtor division that an armed insurrection broke out six years later, led by Daniel Shays, for the purpose of annulling its onerous provisions, and transferring control of the political means to the latter group. This incident affords a striking view in miniature of the State's nature and teleology. The rebellion had a great effect in consolidating the creditor division and giving plausibility to its contention for the establishment of a strong coercive national State.Mr. Jefferson spoke contemptuously of this contention, as "the interested clamours and sophistry of speculating, shaving and banking institutions"; and of the rebellion itself he observed to Mrs. John Adams, whose husband had most to do with drafting the Massachusetts constitution, "I like a little rebellion now and then.... The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all." Writing to another correspondent at the same time, he said earnestly, "God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion." Obiter dicta of this nature, scattered here and there in Mr. Jefferson's writings, have the interest of showing how near his instinct led him towards a clear understanding of the State's character.

.. [9] Professor Sakolski observes that after the Articles of Confederation were supplanted by the constitution, schemes of land-speculation "multiplied with renewed and intensified energy." Naturally so, for as he says, the new scheme of a national State got strong support from this class of adventurers because they foresaw that rental-values "must be greatly increased by an efficient federal government."

.. [10] More than half the delegates to the constitutional convention of 1787 were either investors or speculators in the public funds. Probably sixty per cent of the values represented by these securities were fictitious, and were so regarded even by their holders.

.. [11] It may be observed that at this time the word "national" was a term of obloquy, carrying somewhat the same implications that the word "fascist" carries in some quarters today. Nothing is more interesting than the history of political terms in their relation to the shifting balance of economic advantage--except, perhaps, the history of the partisan movements which they designate, viewed in the same relation.

.. [12] The obvious reason for this, as the event showed, was that the interests grouped in the first division had the advantage of being relatively compact and easily mobilized. Those in the second division, being chiefly agrarian, were loose and sprawling, communications among them were slow, and mobilization difficult.

.. [13] They have been noticed by several recent authorities, and are exhibited fully in Mr. Beard's monumental Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States.

.. [14] Beard, op. cit., p. 337.

.. [15] The principal measures bearing directly on the distribution of the political means were those drafted by Hamilton for funding and assumption, for a protective tariff, and for a national bank. These gave practically exclusive use of the political means to the classes grouped in the first grand division, the only modes left available to others being patents and copyrights. Mr. Beard discusses these measures with his invariable lucidity and thoroughness, op. cit., ch. VIII. Some observations on them which are perhaps worth reading are contained in my Jefferson, ch. V.

.. [16] The authority of the Supreme Court was disregarded by Jackson, and overruled by Lincoln, thus converting the mode of the State temporarily from an oligarchy to an autocracy. It is interesting to observe that just such a contingency was foreseen by the framers of the constitution, in particular by Hamilton. They were apparently well aware of the ease with which, in any period of crisis, a quasi-republican mode of the State slips off into executive tyranny. Oddly enough, Mr. Jefferson at one time considered nullifying the Alien and Sedition Acts by executive action, but did not do so. Lincoln overruled the opinion of Chief Justice Taney that suspension of the habeas corpus was unconstitutional, and in consequence the mode of the State was, until 1865, a monocratic military despotism. In fact, from the date of his proclamation of blockade, Lincoln ruled unconstitutionally throughout his term. The doctrine of "reserved powers" was knaved up ex post facto as a justification of his acts, but as far as the intent of the constitution is concerned, it was obviously a pure invention. In fact, a very good case could be made out for the assertion that Lincoln's acts resulted in a permanent radical change in the entire system of constitutional "interpretation"--that since his time "interpretations" have not been interpretations of the constitution, but merely of public policy; or, as our most acute and profound critic put it, "th' Supreme Court follows th' iliction rayturns." A strict constitutionalist might indeed say that the constitution died in 1861, and one would have to scratch one's head pretty diligently to refute him.

.. [17] Marshall was appointed by John Adams at the end of his Presidential term, when the interests grouped in the first division were becoming very anxious about the opposition developing against them among the exploited interests. A letter written by Oliver Wolcott to Fisher Ames gives a good idea of where the doctrine of popular sovereignty stood; his reference to military measures is particularly striking. He says, "The steady men in Congress will attempt to extend the judicial department, and I hope that their measures will be very decided. It is impossible in this country to render an army an engine of government; and there is no way to combat the state opposition but by an efficient and extended organization of judges, magistrates, and other civil officers." Marshall's appointment followed, and also the creation of twenty-three new federal judgeships. Marshall's cardinal decisions were made in the cases of Marbury, of Fletcher, of McCulloch, of Dartmouth College, and of Cohens. It is perhaps not generally understood that as a result of Marshall's efforts, the Supreme Court became not only the highest law-interpreting body, but the highest law-making body as well; the precedents established by its decisions have the force of constitutional law. Since 1800, therefore, the actual mode of the State in America is normally that of a small and irresponsible oligarchy! Mr. Jefferson, regarding Marshall quite justly as "a crafty chief judge who sophisticates the law to his mind by the turn of his own reasoning," made in 1821 the very remarkable prophecy that "our government is now taking so steady a course as to show by what road it will pass to destruction, to wit: by consolidation first, and then corruption, its necessary consequence. The engine of consolidation will be the federal judiciary; the other two branches the corrupting and corrupted instruments." Another prophetic comment on the effect of centralization was his remark that "when we must wait for Washington to tell us when to sow and when to reap, we shall soon want bread." A survey of our present political circumstances makes comment on these prophecies superfluous.