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Reports From the Political Laboratory

ISSUE:  Winter 1944

The Republic. By Charles A. Beard. The Viking Press. $3.00. Majority Rule and Minority Rights. By Henry Steele Commager. Oxford University Press.. $1.50. American Political Parties: Their Natural History. By Wilfred E. Binkley. Alfred A. Knopf. $3.75.

It may well be, as Mr. Commager says, that the American political experience of three and a half centuries has afforded “the most elaborate political laboratory in all history and one whose findings have been pretty well recorded.” For thirty years now, roughly since the publication of Mr. Beard’s study of the origins of the Constitution, historical investigators in that great laboratory have been reporting findings and releasing odors not always flattering to American democracy and its institutions—often quite unflattering, in fact. Yet it is safe to say that the products of this generation of historians will long be considered monumental.

All the writers whose books are here under review have made their contributions in the true tradition of critical realism, some of them contributions of the first importance. Their most recent findings, however, are ringing affirmations of optimism that draw comfort from the past and prophesy good for the future. To Mr. Commager “the history of the American nation is after all the most effective answer that can be made to the charge that democracies are unstable and subversive . . . and lead to all the other evils that critics from [John] Adams to Spengler have prophesied.” The record, he believes, reveals “a stability, a respect for law, a zeal for individual and minority rights that cannot be equalled, it is safe to say, by any other type of government in the history of western civilization.” Mr. Beard scoffs at the “delusive rhetoric” of “European pessimists,” and dismisses their cyclical theories of history and prophecies of doom as “utterly inapplicable to the United States.” Mr. Binkley likewise appears to take for granted the uniqueness of American history and destiny in the modern world.

Of the three works Beard’s “The Republic” challenges the most serious attention and lays the strongest claim to enduring interest. In the first of these dialogues the author promises his neighbors that he will “try to offer something substantial on which general agreement may be reached as to the very essentials of the Constitution.” The rich conversation that follows, however, was not begun at the fireside of Mr. Beard’s study, nor for that matter at the Federal Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. It is rather a continuation of a classic conversation that is as old as Western Civilization. Nearly all the old subjects are brought up in one way or another and most of the old arguments are used: the nature of power, the meaning of justice, the conflict between liberty and authority, the rights of property and the rights of man—these and many more. With a little prompting on current events, Harrington and Locke and Sidney and Hobbes and Milton might have joined in these dialogues along with Rousseau, Madison, Hamilton, and Jefferson.

One of Mr. Beard’s guests accuses him of playing “a kind of game borrowed from Old Socrates and dressed up in an American garb.” This his host promptly denies—and properly. For although he applies the Socratic elenchus with studied effect at times, and is as guilty as ever the old Greek was in stacking the dialectical cards in his own favor, he often abandons the skillful question for a good stiff lecture when he gets the floor. Moreover, his intense pragmatism has little but scorn for “Greek metaphysics.” Had modern Europeans put in the hours they spent on Plato in reading The Federalist they would have been far better off, thinks Mr. Beard. “The only issue I can see that has any sense in it,” he writes, “is this: Where do we go from here?”

For several college generations of American history students Mr. Beard has played the Franklin mean against the Hamilton-Jefferson extremes. In the freedom of the dialogues of “The Republic,” however, his admiration for the great Federalist stands out with revealing clarity. His repeated confession that he comes from “a long line of Federalists, Whigs, and Republicans” is made in the spirit of the other Beardean paradoxes. But he is in dead earnest when he says that “Marshall was a godsend to the country” and throws in Webster for good measure, or when he expresses regret that the Supreme Court “has not set aside many acts of Congress which do, in my view, violate the Constitution and yet have received judicial approval.”

It is over this Hamiltonian Federalist view of judicial review that Mr. Beard’s opinions clash completely with those of Mr. Commager. The lectures published under the title “Majority Rule and Minority Rights” were delivered at the I University of Virginia during the two-hundredth anniversary of its founder’s birth. Appropriately enough they constitute a reaffirmation and a revival of Jefferson’s “unterrified and unflinching faith in majority rule,” and his reiterated condemnation of minority rule by means of judicial review. Mr. Commager admits, in fact demonstrates, that the “theory of the tyranny of the majority” has been so consistently preached by Hamiltonians that “many Americans have come to believe that our Constitutional system is not, in fact, based upon the principle of majority rule,” and accept without question the institution of judicial review. “It is sometimes forgotten,” he writes, “that Jefferson rejected it in toto.” In Jefferson’s opinion the judicial oligarchy was “usurping legislation,” “bidding defiance to the spirit of the whole nation,” making the Constitution “a mere thing of wax,” and setting at naught the principle of majority rule. Mr. Commager believes that “it is true today as it was in 1801 that the minority can ‘retire into the judiciary as a stronghold,’ and ‘from that battery’ beat down the works of republicanism.” Mr. Commager’s reading of the history of judicial review leads him to the conclusion that “Almost every instance of judicial nullification of Congressional acts appears, now, to have been a mistaken one.” Whereas tradition has pictured the courts as the defenders and Congress as the enemy of the civil liberties, he finds that “Congress, and not the courts, emerges as the instrument for the realization of the guarantees of the bill of rights.”

But what of the fear of the liberals that majorities will destroy minority rights and constitutionalism generally, if judicial restraints are removed? Mr. Commager believes that the liberals have been as guilty of offense against the principle of majority rule as the conservatives, that liberalism has “emphasized overmuch” minority rights, and that “even more important is the majority interest.” Judicial review is not the only limitation protecting minorities, and the history of majority rule strengthens his faith that their rights are safe enough without this negation of Jeffersonian faith.

Professor Binkley’s “American Political Parties” is, unlike the books of Beard and Commager, a non-controversial history of party development and struggle. Although the emphasis is placed upon material interests of sections and classes as the motivation of party activity, Mr. Binkley devotes many pages to the personalities of dominant leaders. Of especial interest are his portrayals of Jackson, Greeley, Tilden, and Cleveland.

At times one feels that he is following a fond and over-enthusiastic guide who lingers too long over familiar objects, and persists in using a lantern where natural lighting is sufficient. His zeal is understandable, however, and his love of the subject he treats contagious. His book deserves a generous acceptance.


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