Is America's immense size harmful to the principles of a republic?


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Baron Holbach4
April 10, 2006, 10:27 AM
The antifederalist Brutus warned that large republics become too diversified and drift toward tyranny:

http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch4s14.html

Republican Government


[Volume 1, Page 124]

CHAPTER 4|Document 14

Brutus, no. 1

18 Oct. 1787Storing 2.9.10--21
Let us now proceed to enquire, as I at first proposed, whether it be best the thirteen United States should be reduced to one great republic, or not? It is here taken for granted, that all agree in this, that whatever government we adopt, it ought to be a free one; that it should be so framed as to secure the liberty of the citizens of America, and such an one as to admit of a full, fair, and equal representation of the people. The question then will be, whether a government thus constituted, and founded on such principles, is practicable, and can be exercised over the whole United States, reduced into one state?

If respect is to be paid to the opinion of the greatest and wisest men who have ever thought or wrote on the science of government, we shall be constrained to conclude, that a free republic cannot succeed over a country of such immense extent, containing such a number of inhabitants, and these encreasing in such rapid progression as that of the whole United States. Among the many illustrious authorities which might be produced to this point, I shall content myself with quoting only two. The one is the baron de Montesquieu, spirit of laws, chap. xvi. vol. I [book VIII]. "It is natural to a republic to have only a small territory, otherwise it cannot long subsist. In a large republic there are men of large fortunes, and consequently of less moderation; there are trusts too great to be placed in any single subject; he has interest of his own; he soon begins to think that he may be happy, great and glorious, by oppressing his fellow citizens; and that he may raise himself to grandeur on the ruins of his country. In a large republic, the public good is sacrificed to a thousand views; it is subordinate to exceptions, and depends on accidents. In a small one, the interest of the public is easier perceived, better understood, and more within the reach of every citizen; abuses are of less extent, and of course are less protected." Of the same opinion is the marquis Beccarari.

History furnishes no example of a free republic, any thing like the extent of the United States. The Grecian republics were of small extent; so also was that of the Romans. Both of these, it is true, in process of time, extended their conquests over large territories of country; and the consequence was, that their governments were changed from that of free governments to those of the most tyrannical that ever existed in the world.

Not only the opinion of the greatest men, and the experience of mankind, are against the idea of an extensive republic, but a variety of reasons may be drawn from the reason and nature of things, against it. In every government, the will of the sovereign is the law. In despotic governments the supreme authority being lodged in one, his will is law, and can be as easily expressed to a large extensive territory as to a small one. In a pure democracy the people are the sovereign, and their will is declared by themselves; for this purpose they must all come together to deliberate, and decide. This kind of government cannot be exercised, therefore, over a country of any considerable extent; it must be confined to a single city, or at least limited to such bounds as that the people can conveniently assemble, be able to debate, understand the subject submitted to them, and declare their opinion concerning it.

In a free republic, although all laws are derived from the consent of the people, yet the people do not declare their consent by themselves in person, but by representatives, chosen by them, who are supposed to know the minds of their constituents, and to be possessed of integrity to declare this mind.

In every free government, the people must give their assent to the laws by which they are governed. This is the true criterion between a free government and an arbitrary one. The former are ruled by the will of the whole, expressed in any manner they may agree upon; the latter by the will of one, or a few. If the people are to give their assent to the laws, by persons chosen and appointed by them, the manner of the choice and the number chosen, must be such, as to possess, be disposed, and consequently qualified to declare the sentiments of the people; for if they do not know, or are not disposed to speak the sentiments of the people, the people do not govern, but the sovereignty is in a few. Now, in a large extended country, it is impossible to have a representation, possessing the sentiments, and of integrity, to declare the minds of the people, without having it so numerous and unwieldly, as to be subject in great measure to the inconveniency of a democratic government.

The territory of the United States is of vast extent; it now contains near three millions of souls, and is capable of containing much more than ten times that number. Is it practicable for a country, so large and so numerous as they will soon become, to elect a representation, that will speak their sentiments, without their becoming so numerous as to be incapable of transacting public business? It certainly is not.

In a republic, the manners, sentiments, and interests of the people should be similar. If this be not the case, there will be a constant clashing of opinions; and the representatives of one part will be continually striving, against those of the other. This will retard the operations of government, and prevent such conclusions as will promote the public good. If we apply this remark to the condition of the United States, we shall be convinced that it forbids that we should be one government. The United States includes a variety of climates. The productions of the different parts of the union are very variant, and their interests, of consequence, diverse. Their manners and habits differ as much as their climates and productions; and their sentiments are by no means coincident. The laws and customs of the several states are, in many respects, very diverse, and in some opposite; each would be in favor of its own interests and customs, and, of consequence, a legislature, formed of representatives from the respective parts, would [Volume 1, Page 125] not only be too numerous to act with any care or decision, but would be composed of such heterogenous and discordant principles, as would constantly be contending with each other.

The laws cannot be executed in a republic, of an extent equal to that of the United States, with promptitude.

The magistrates in every government must be supported in the execution of the laws, either by an armed force, maintained at the public expence for that purpose; or by the people turning out to aid the magistrate upon his command, in case of resistance.

In despotic governments, as well as in all the monarchies of Europe, standing armies are kept up to execute the commands of the prince or the magistrate, and are employed for this purpose when occasion requires: But they have always proved the destruction of liberty, and [are] abhorrent to the spirit of a free republic. In England, where they depend upon the parliament for their annual support, they have always been complained of as oppressive and unconstitutional, and are seldom employed in executing of the laws; never except on extraordinary occasions, and then under the direction of a civil magistrate.

A free republic will never keep a standing army to execute its laws. It must depend upon the support of its citizens. But when a government is to receive its support from the aid of the citizens, it must be so constructed as to have the confidence, respect, and affection of the people. Men who, upon the call of the magistrate, offer themselves to execute the laws, are influenced to do it either by affection to the government, or from fear; where a standing army is at hand to punish offenders, every man is actuated by the latter principle, and therefore, when the magistrate calls, will obey: but, where this is not the case, the government must rest for its support upon the confidence and respect which the people have for their government and laws. The body of the people being attached, the government will always be sufficient to support and execute its laws, and to operate upon the fears of any faction which may be opposed to it, not only to prevent an opposition to the execution of the laws themselves, but also to compel the most of them to aid the magistrate; but the people will not be likely to have such confidence in their rulers, in a republic so extensive as the United States, as necessary for these purposes. The confidence which the people have in their rulers, in a free republic, arises from their knowing them, from their being responsible to them for their conduct, and from the power they have of displacing them when they misbehave: but in a republic of the extent of this continent, the people in general would be acquainted with very few of their rulers; the people at large would know little of their proceedings, and it would be extremely difficult to change them. The people in Georgia and New-Hampshire would not know one another's mind, and therefore could not act in concert to enable them to effect a general change of representatives. The different parts of so extensive a country could not possibly be made acquainted with the conduct of their representatives, nor be informed of the reasons upon which measures were founded. The consequence will be, they will have no confidence in their legislature, suspect them of ambitious views, be jealous of every measure they adopt, and will not support the laws they pass. Hence the government will be nerveless and inefficient, and no way will be left to render it otherwise, but by establishing an armed force to execute the laws at the point of the bayonet--a government of all others the most to be dreaded.

In a republic of such vast extent as the United-States, the legislature cannot attend to the various concerns and wants of its different parts. It cannot be sufficiently numerous to be acquainted with the local condition and wants of the different districts, and if it could, it is impossible it should have sufficient time to attend to and provide for all the variety of cases of this nature, that would be continually arising.

In so extensive a republic, the great officers of government would soon become above the controul of the people, and abuse their power to the purpose of aggrandizing themselves, and oppressing them. The trust committed to the executive offices, in a country of the extent of the United-States, must be various and of magnitude. The command of all the troops and navy of the republic, the appointment of officers, the power of pardoning offences, the collecting of all the public revenues, and the power of expending them, with a number of other powers, must be lodged and exercised in every state, in the hands of a few. When these are attended with great honor and emolument, as they always will be in large states, so as greatly to interest men to pursue them, and to be proper objects for ambitious and designing men, such men will be ever restless in their pursuit after them. They will use the power, when they have acquired it, to the purposes of gratifying their own interest and ambition, and it is scarcely possible, in a very large republic, to call them to account for their misconduct, or to prevent their abuse of power.

These are some of the reasons by which it appears, that a free republic cannot long subsist over a country of the great extent of these states. If then this new constitution is calculated to consolidate the thirteen states into one, as it evidently is, it ought not to be adopted.


The Founders' Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 4, Document 14
http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch4s14.html
The University of Chicago Press

Storing, Herbert J., ed. The Complete Anti-Federalist. 7 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.


1987 by The University of Chicago
All rights reserved. Published 2000
http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/

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Baron Holbach4
April 10, 2006, 01:03 PM
The balkanization of the United States is perhaps the strongest evidence supporting Brutus's warning. America's former homogeneity has been fractured by an unrelenting trend toward heterogeneity. Is America's landscape tending towards numerous ethnic colonies dangerous to the republic?

geekWithA.45
April 10, 2006, 01:50 PM
The issue of scale, is, I think, one of the least understood and yet biggest contributor to our current situation.

Consider that at the time of the first constitutional census, the population of the 13 colonies was a mere 4 million, (counting slaves, but not Indians), and that the most populous state was Virginia, with a whopping 1 million inhabitants.

Basically, at the time of the founding, the population was roughly equivalent to modern day Los Angeles, spread out all over the easter seacoast states.

Modern NYC's population is TWICE that, at around 8 million.

There are two factors to consider. The first is the complications of scale that arise as Brutus mentions, and the other is the perversities that occur with density.

The densities we deal with today were unprecedented at the time of the founding.

Alienation, hostility, entrenched corruption all seem to highly correlate with the ridiculous sort of population densities we encounter in cities that approach or exceed 1 million, and yet the list of these cities is extremely short:

Columbus 3 729,911
San Francisco 760,353
Jacksonville 790,972
Indianapolis 800,589
Honolulu 906,589
San Jose 908,712
Detroit 3 914,353
Dallas 1,228,613
San Antonio 1,235,128
Las Vegas 1,239,805
San Diego 1,281,366
Phoenix 1,428,973
Philadelphia 1,484,224
Houston 2,043,446
Chicago 2,882,746
Los Angeles 3,864,018
NEW YORK 8,101,321

You'll note that the vast majority of these cities are also collectivoLeftist strongholds.

I guess when you can't get more than 4 inches away from your neighbor, you become very interested in tampering with his activities.

Baron Holbach4
April 10, 2006, 02:32 PM
. . . the perversities that occur with density.

A very apt phrase.

The U.S. being such a large nation, geographically and demographically, it has become more and more necessary for the federal government to expand its centralized base of power. The regulatory police state is marked by further inroads into all aspects of American lives and further erosion of the Bill of Rights.

longeyes
April 10, 2006, 02:43 PM
Yes, and with "perversity" comes the rubbing of elbows, innovation, and progress of all kinds.

Embrace chaos, it's not your friend, but it's here to stay.

Tyranny isn't the long-term problem, it's dissolution. Entropy.

But you can always emigrate to Ireland, Iceland, or New Zealand.

iocane
April 10, 2006, 02:55 PM
If America was smaller we would be a tempting target for larger nations. With the school system turning out more and more students who know very little about what it takes for a democracy to function, of course we are going to have problems.

longeyes
April 10, 2006, 03:03 PM
The failure of the schools to teach basic American principles has nothing to do with the size of the country. It's a deliberate strategy to create a new country with different values. "Individual" was replaced with "Culture;" "liberty" was replaced with "Diversity."

Rock on.

Standing Wolf
April 10, 2006, 09:41 PM
You'll note that the vast majority of these cities are also collectivoLeftist strongholds.

Just a coincidence, I'm sure. Right? Uh... right?

Art Eatman
April 11, 2006, 12:31 AM
I dunno as how size itsownself is any particular problem. 200 years back, communication was more of a problem between Philadelphia and NYC tha today between San Diego and Bangor, Maine--or Key West and Seattle.

There have always been and always will be those who--with the best of intentions--want to direct the activities. And, as we know, not all have the best of intentions. These people gravitate to government and continually seek to extend its powers.

Whille we can see the Big Events such as Lincoln or FDR or LBJ, the small nibbles in between these milestones never cease.

Which is why I would disagree with Brutus insofar as size being any sort of MAJOR cause.

Art

gc70
April 11, 2006, 01:05 AM
I think Brutus did recognize the core of the problem. Representative democracy only works well when the people know the representatives and the representatives know the people.

I used to live in a small town and attended most city council meetings. Whenever a councilman tried something tricky, people spoke out against it and, after the meeting, mobilized their neighbors to stop the shenanigins.

Where I live now, city council meetings are televised. Although the duplicity of the council members is obvious to anyone watching the broadcast, serious objections are rarely raised during the meetings (people have to register in advance to speak on specific topics during council meetings) and it is difficult to energize a large enough segment of the population to exercise voter influence over what the pols are doing.

arcticap
April 11, 2006, 06:36 AM
Whether a republic is large or small, the old adage that "all politics is local" still holds truth. And that is largely what keeps representatives in power, if they are doing a good enough job of representing their local constituents. That's why there are relatively short 2 year election cycles for Congressmen and most state and local representatives too.
Also, we have a historically unprecedented fragmentation of power spread between 3 branches of Federal government, and operating at 3 levels (Federal, state and local). And that's not including the power found within the Constitution (tradition) and the power of the citizenry itself. And since we really believe and understand that absolute power corrupts, the fragmented system is designed as much as possible to insure that no one person or party, can ever really gain relatively absolute power. The power is just too fragmented and spread out to effectively accomplish that.

arcticap
April 11, 2006, 06:38 AM
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arcticap
April 11, 2006, 06:39 AM
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arcticap
April 11, 2006, 06:40 AM
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Molon Labe
April 11, 2006, 07:03 AM
I think Brutus did recognize the core of the problem. Representative democracy only works well when the people know the representatives and the representatives know the people.Bingo.

Do you know your representative? Have you met with him/her? Do they know you?

I have never felt I've had any real representation. I suspect I'm not alone. Hence there is a serious problem with our system.

Baron Holbach4
April 11, 2006, 09:40 AM
I have never felt I've had any real representation. I suspect I'm not alone. Hence there is a serious problem with our system.

On the state level, Maryland, to offer an example, is a bastion of power held by liberal democrats. Most of the liberals' power base is centered in two counties and one city: Prince George's County, Montgomery County, and Baltimore City. A presidential candidate could sweep 21 counties but still lose the overall state vote by losing Prince George's County, Montgomery County, and Baltimore City.

geekWithA.45
April 11, 2006, 09:57 AM
Re: the two models of town council meetings, one which is attended and interacted with, and the other which is televised and ignored.

That's a perfect example of something out of social psychology called the bystander effect, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bystander_effect), which is a form of diffusion of responsibility (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diffusion_of_responsibility), which is an enabling factor in "stuff happening" be it Kitty Genovese, the rise of Nazism through democratic means, or the degenerate state of American civic involvement.

If a citizen is someone who makes the safety, wellbeing and freedom of his fellow humans his direct personal responsibility, then there are many factors like this that work against it.

hugh damright
April 11, 2006, 01:37 PM
I think of it as a question of animal behavior. Animals form collectives for their common good, and a collective has to be some certain size to be for the common good. I think the American instinct is that the proper size collective for mankind is the State. Of course, some States have more people, and some have more territory ... I think Californian has 70 times as many people as Wyoming. So I realize this isn't an exact science. But the Framers said that a collective smaller than a State would be despotic, and they said that to consolidate the States into one big State would also result in despotism.

It is the principles of federalism, the separation of State and federal powers or "States' rights", that were to make free government possible in a vast area.

The thing is, we are founded upon the principle that the US is too vast an area for a simple republican government. But perhaps at some point it became too big for even a limited federal government. But the obvious and natural solution, to split into, has been on hold for generations.

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