The authors of the Federalist papers recognized our strength by acknowledging our weakness
In a modern culture that is adrift, it is good to be reminded of the True, the Good & the Beautiful. Each week it is my humble privilege to offer one selection from an indispensable Canon of essays, excerpts & speeches which will light a candle in the darkness. It is a Canon I have assembled over many years that I hope will challenge & inspire each reader. But most importantly, I hope it will remind us of what is True in an age of untruth. And if we know what is True, we are more apt to do what is Right.
“As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.”—James Madison, Federalist #55
To understand our dignity, we must also be familiar with our fallibility. As children of God, we were created – effectively loved into existence. Called to be faithful to the wonder and joy that is our heavenly inheritance, we sadly opted to follow the more common call: our appetites. Power, honor, wealth and pleasure seemed to us more tangible, more appealing and more satisfying. And yet all served as deformed surrogates for God.
It has been human experience since our beginning to feel our dignity constantly pulled upon by our fallibility. And our free will affords us the choice: do we live up to our call to do and be good? Or do we submit to the temptation to do evil?
Our Catholic Faith asks and guides us on this daily.
But reflecting on the birth of our nation, there is a sense that our Founders understood this Truth without distinctly calling it Catholic. As the Declaration of Independence would enumerate, the colonies’ rupture with Mother England was the consequence of violated dignities. And as the Bill of Rights and Constitution would articulate, the ordering of the new nation must necessarily strike the balance between preserving the inviolable rights due to a dignified people and protecting against the insatiable appetites that often emerge from those same people.
The Federalist Papers, pseudonymously written in 1787-88 by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, were serially published essays arguing in favor of ratifying the Constitution. To read them is to delve into the brilliant minds behind the Constitution as well as the logic and tradition that went into formulating the most extraordinary system of government yet devised by man. But, if you read closely, you will see it: the commentary on humanity’s highest hopes tempered by our all-too-real fallible appetites.
As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist #6,
“There are still to be found visionary or designing men…[who will say that our Republic] will be governed by mutual interest, and will cultivate a spirit of mutual amity and concord… Has it not, on the contrary, invariably been found that momentary passions, and immediate interest, have a more active and imperious control over human conduct than general or remote considerations of policy, utility or justice? Have republics in practice been less addicted to war than monarchies? Are not the former administered by MEN as well as the latter?…”
He goes on,
“Have we not already seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, weaknesses and evils incident to society in every shape? Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age, and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?”
And as James Madison reminded us in Federalist #51,
“Ambition must be made to counteract ambition… It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”
Clearly, the ingenious design of American government is a distinct and far cry from the deeper Truth and Mystery embodied by the Catholic Faith. But the Founders have touched upon a common thread.
We are dignified, but we are fallible. We must rise to expectations of our goodness and decency, but be chastened by our inevitable errors. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison recognized our greatness as a country by, in part, acknowledging our weakness.
Our Catholic Faith, however, carries us beyond the fact that we are dignified, yet fallible. It recognizes that there is hope for recovery. We are, in fact, redeemable. Invaluable children of God prone to waywardness called home to the embrace of Christ.
A story of dignity, fallibility and redemption.
On July 4th, let us remember to celebrate our nation’s independence, but not forget the glorious human story that transcends all nations, all philosophies and finds us resting solely and lovingly in the arms of Christ.