Democracy or Republic? might well be the title of the D debate between liberals and conservatives on the nature of the American political system. (In the view of some liberals, the easiest way to spot a conservative is the habit of referring to America as a republic.) Democracy, in the strict procedural sense of one man/one vote and majority rule, has always been anathema to conservatives who recognized the threat to family, community, and decent social order posed by such a revolutionary scheme. Like the early Federalists (and later on the Whigs), American conservatives have prized stability and liberty above equality and fraternity. With Metternich, they could agree that “You cannot exaggerate the goodness of the people, I might say of all peoples; but their ignorance is as great; therefore they must be led.”

If conservatives like to trace their descent from John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, they would be as justified in holding up Madison, Jefferson, Calhoun, and even Andrew Jackson as their spiritual forefathers. The suspicion of governmental power, the hostility to an entrenched elite, combined with a willingness to let each man go to the devil in his own way—these “conservative” characteristics can more readily be found in Jefferson than in any of The Federalists, and it is significant that the great individualist and elitist Albert Jay Nock regarded himself as Jefferson’s disciple.

With the partial exception of Tom Paine—who was never really an American—there weren’t any true-blue democrats among the Founding Fathers, and the democrat/ republican debate serves no useful purpose. Like most of our political and social quarrels, the terms of the debate only obscure the real subject at issue. Two topics, primarily, occupied the framers and founders, and neither of them was democracy. The first was the problem of setting up a republic in a territory as vast as the United States occupied even before the Louisiana Purchase; the second was the matter of adjusting the relations between the states—in a word, federalism. The influential poet and propagandist Joel Barlow put the case succinctly in 1801. Using an architectural metaphor. Barlow argued that the American system was based on two essential principles, democratic representation and federalism:

There is one maxim which ought not to be forgotten, that these two pillars of the edifice, the representative principle and the federal principle, should never be separated. Though one of them alone may promise liberty and the other of them alone may promise peace, yet we cannot be confident that either liberty or peace will become extensive or permanent, unless these well assorted principles are united in one system, and kept inseparable in their practice.

By itself, the representative principle quickly leads to the majoritarian tyranny by which urban New Yorkers and Californians may legislate the morals and social codes of rural Nebraskans—or vice versa. The triumph of representation without federalism may be seen in such inspired experiments as Prohibition and, although the situation is a bit more complicated, Roe v. Wade. While the Supreme Court is not an elected body, it is chosen by the President and approved of by the Congress. As such, it is supposed to represent the national will on legal and constitutional questions. For much of the 20th century, the national judiciary at all levels, backed if necessary by the armed forces, has deliberately overridden the federal principle in the name of democracy and representative government, although it has never been clear that a majority of voters ever approved of forced busing or the ban on school prayer.

Federalism, not republicanism or democracy, expresses the genius of the founders and of the American people. The greatest exponent of federalism, Thomas Jefferson, made the clearest exposition of the principle in his proposals for public education in Virginia. In a letter to Joseph C. Cabell, Jefferson declared that the secret of good government was the division of power and the allocation of responsibility to the appropriate levels of authority:

Let the national government be entrusted with the defense of the nation and its foreign and federal relations; the state governments with the civil rights, laws, police, and administration of what concerns the State generally; the counties with the local concerns of the counties, and each ward [roughly a township] direct the interests within itself. It is by dividing and subdividing these republics from the great national one down through all its subordinations until it ends in the administration of every man’s farm by himself, by placing under everyone what his own eye may superintend, that all will be done for the best.

If Jefferson was the most thoroughgoing federalist, the authors of The Federalist were not far behind. Hamilton, in number 17, declared that the roots of federalism lay in “the known fact in human nature, that its affections are commonly weak in proportion to the distance or diffusiveness of the object.” Strongest in families, it grew progressively weaker as it was forced to extend itself to an entire nation. Hamilton also defended state sovereignty and denied that the national government’s taxing power could be used as a pretext for interfering in the rights of states. In number 28 he declared that state militias would be used to resist such usurpation. Madison concurred and in number 46 suggested that states would band together to prevent such encroachments. Even the arch-centralist John Marshall declared (in his infamous decision on McCulloch v. Maryland) that “no political dreamer was ever wild enough to think of breaking down the lines which separate the states, and of compounding the American people into one common mass.”

The response of many “antifederalists” was simply that the Constitution did not go far enough in its federalism. Patrick Henry stuck at the phrase “‘We the people,’ instead of the states of America.” In the early years of the republic, however, federalism seemed to work reasonably well. When Tocqueville made his famous visit, he noted the vigor of local government in New England and observed that “the townships are only subordinate to the state in those interests which I shall term social, as they are common to all the citizens. They are independent in all that concerns themselves.”

It would be a mistake to overemphasize the uniqueness of American federalism. While the Constitution is entirely deserving of. the praise lavished upon it—indeed, it is underappreciated—ours is not the first attempt to construct a nation out of confederated polities. Madison, Adams, and other well-read American statesmen were familiar with such ancient experiments as the Achaean league and with the more recent examples of Switzerland and the Holy Roman Empire. In many respects it is the Empire, with its mosaic of local authorities and traditions and nicely graded levels of sovereignty, that is the best exemplar for American federalism.

Not coincidentally, the most elaborate theory of federalism was put forward by Joannes Althusius (or Althaus), a German Calvinist lawyer who used the Holy Roman Empire as his model. His Politics, first published in 1603, is a curious blend of Aristotle, Roman law, and Holy Scripture. The root concept is the Consociatio Symbiotica, that is, the natural association of people living together. In the very beginning of his work, Althusius states the dominant theme:

Politics is the art of allying people together for creating, cultivating, and preserving a social life among themselves. . . . All government is held together by sovereignty and subjection; the human race right from the beginning proceeded from sovereignty and subjection. For Adam was constituted lord and monarch by God over his wife and all those who were born from her and the rest. . . .

In the course of his great work—and it is a disgrace that American political thinkers are so little familiar with it—Althusius repeats Aristotle’s arguments that man is a social animal and, like Aristotle, begins his discussion of social organization with the family and proceeds from there to corporations, cities, provinces, and the empire. The key to the whole matter, as Carl J. Friedrich points out, is that on all levels the union is composed of the units of the preceding level. In this sense the constituent members of the empire or nation state cannot be individual citizens but such lower political units as provinces (in the U.S., states) and cities. If there is a failure at some level, if a link in the chain breaks, it is not up to individuals to choose a successor or restore order. It is the responsibility of the constituent members. Our own electoral college was designed along similar lines. Indirect election is not so much a case of insurance against irresponsible democracy (the opinion of Sir Henry Sumner Maine) as it is a recognition that America is not governed by “we the people” except through its natural communities.

Althusius’ federalism has obvious points of contact with Aristotle and with the social philosophy of the Catholic Church as it was expressed in Pope Pius IX’s Quadragesimo anno: “One should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise . . . nor transfer to the larger and higher collectivity functions that can be performed and provided for by lesser and subordinate bodies.”

Indeed, federalism is not so much a theoretical principle as it is a set of observations. Families really do take care of their own; communities can and do regulate their own affairs without any national police telling them what to do. It is built into the nature of man, as Hamilton recognized, that we care most for those who are near and dear to us, and we are prepared to do for children and neighbors what we would not dream of doing for strangers.

All of this could be derived from a serious reading of the Scriptures or from Aristotle’s Politics; however, even a thoroughgoing materialist cannot fail to be impressed by the arguments now being put forward by sociobiologists. Creatures are interested in their fellows, so the evidence suggests, in direct proportion to the degree of genetic relatedness. Parents and children, brothers and sisters are related to the highest degree of 50 percent, a ratio that decreases in the ever-widening spirals of kinship. In a natural village community, virtually everyone is more related to each other than they are to strangers, and that alone is sufficient to explain the origin of patriotic group loyalty.

It is not just biological evolution that can be called into the service of political federalism. If political anthropology has anything useful to teach us, then it seems clear that man has passed through a series of stages in his social evolution up to the state. The ancient theory of Aristotle, that families coalesced into villages, and villages into political communities, has found confirmation in the more recent work of E.R. Service and Ronald Cohen. All that remains is to point out that modern men and women, in their moral and social development, gradually recapitulate the stages of human social evolution. We begin by loving only our mothers, then our immediate family, then the neighbors, eventually our town. Some go so far as to love their state or their region; fewer learn to love their country; and a few saints earn the right to endure the entire human race.

One of the central tenets of liberalism (and of a certain degraded, Sunday school religion) is an insistence upon the universality of social obligation. By liberalism, let it be understood, I mean that evolutionary movement in political philosophy symbolized by Hobbes, Locke, Bentham, and, say, Sidney Hook. Whether it takes the form of a libertarian assertion of individual rights (translation; increase the power of the state and demand police protection for pornographers) or the leftist credo of John Rawls, who thinks we all have to give everything away to the Third World until their standard of living rises to meet our own, liberalism is radically opposed to federalism in all its forms and to the very idea that human beings have natural obligations. To be fair, liberals do not especially hate the family, and they are occasionally willing to praise the democracy of New England town meetings; however, liberalism is radically opposed to federalism in any form, because the liberal faith in universal principle virtually compels them to make war on all natural, rooted institutions of human society.

Men are programmed by nature and, I should say, designed by God, to grow up and reproduce autonomous families, to govern their local affairs in face-to-face self-governing communities, and to operate on the national and international stage only by way of those higher levels of political association that have grown out of family and community. It is as wrong for the national government to interfere with local school districts as it is for a private citizen to conduct foreign policy. In extreme cases, we call the one tyranny and the other treason, but they are only different sides of the same coin.

The American system of local autonomy, state sovereignty, and limited national government worked well for two generations. By the mid-19th century, however, the sectional debates over tariffs and slavery were a powder keg which—to be ignited—needed only the election of a centralist politician whose principles took precedence over the long-standing federal arrangements. Lincoln himself declared that if he could save the Union by destroying the Constitution, he would. Before he was through, he had done both. To his credit, Lincoln viewed his own actions as emergency measures; within his own party he was a moderate—the unbalanced Charles Sumner told Charles Francis Adams Jr. that moderates like Lincoln and Seward were traitors! Lincoln’s own plan for Reconstruction would have gone a long way to restoring the autonomy of the states and the natural balance of powers that had existed before the war. His premature death is a rare case when the word “tragic” actually applies to a political event, because it revealed all too clearly the true nature of democratic absolutism. Had he lived, the generous and humane Lincoln would have delayed the recognition.

In the century and a quarter following Lincoln’s death, the American people have witnessed a steady erosion of the federal system. The 14th Amendment has been used with reckless abandon as the pretext for subverting state and local governments; the taxing power has been used in precisely the manner that Hamilton rejected—as a wrecking bar; state governments have preyed upon local authorities; and all levels of government have passed laws interfering in family life. On the other side of the coin, private citizens have taken up the habit of showing the medius digitus to state: They resist the draft, invade public property, conspire to shelter illegal aliens, and go about the world making deals with foreign heads of state. It is a complete muddle, and rare is the politician—liberal or conservative—who cares anything about the problem; rarer still is the politician who is willing to do anything. Under the circumstances, voter apathy is understandable.

The current low estate into which politics and politicians have fallen is very much the result of the deliberate hypocrisy that is practiced upon the American people. We talk grandly of our democracy while at the same time making war upon any group of citizens or any region that offends us. In the name of democracy we tell local school boards how to run their schools and force them to redraw district lines to achieve racial balance. It is a weakness in the national character that goes back to the palmy days of the Mathers. It is the mark of the puritan that he cannot bear the idea that anyone is different from himself He is like the little girl in the children’s story who lay awake at night fretting because the town clocks did not agree with hers.

A reformation at the point of a bayonet is no reformation at all, and it cannot be said that 125 years after emancipation race relations in the U.S. are all they might be. Still, we cannot resist compelling other peoples to live as we would have them. Hardly a day goes by without a newly discovered conservative calling for the overthrow of some friendly regime on the grounds that is not sufficiently democratic. When the South Africans tell us to clean our own house, we are shocked, but really, is Jesse Jackson so far wrong in his complaints? When conservative politicians routinely denounce apartheid, while sending their children to middle-class schools and living in de facto restricted neighborhoods, what are we to think, except that they are wooing the black constituency? There must be less expensive and more honorable means of buying votes than the cynical disruption of foreign policy for strictly personal and local benefit. It is particularly insulting to blacks, who are assumed—quite unfairly—to fall for such a ploy.

Our own federal system offers very practical approaches to such problems. For us as individuals, the internal affairs of South Africa are none of our business. Unlike France in the 1790’s, the United States is not a revolutionary regime obliged to spread its own ideology throughout the world. Early in our history we rejected the temptation to interfere in the liberation struggle of Greece, and whatever the politicians might have said, we did not fight two world wars to make the world safe for democracy. We fought them in the belief—right or wrong—that our country was threatened. If there was any ideological motive behind our entrance into World War II, then we must bear the eternal shame of having propped up the most vicious and murderous European regime in the 20th century, the Soviet Union.

The case of abortion is both a harder and a simpler matter than social justice for a federalist to handle: harder because it is human lives that are at stake; simpler because we already know how to handle murder in this country. It is almost always a case for local jurisdiction. Sure, a murderer in some states serves five years, in others 10, and if he was unlucky enough to shoot his victim in Governor Bob Graham’s Florida, he got what he had coming to him. But the same people who don’t like the federal courts taking down crosses or forbidding prayer in schools think it is a good idea to have a national law on abortion, preferably a constitutional amendment. Years ago my friend John Reed, a good Christian even if he is a sociologist, set me straight on this one. We simply cannot run our own lives and reform New York City too. That job is beyond the capacity of a Hercules.

This is not a simple question of states’ rights. The states can be just as tyrannical as the national government. But ours was once a limited government with a delicate system of checks and balances. More than the balance of powers between the three branches of the central government, The Federalist distribution among the various levels of governments was an insurance against tyranny. For some time now we have elevated a number of principles above the federal arrangement: social and economic justice, equality, individual liberty—in a word, democracy. The result has been tyranny in a good cause, but tyranny nonetheless. As Americans contemplate their Constitution and its legacy, they would do well to remember that it was federalism—not democracy—that guaranteed their liberties, and that it is federalism that needs to be restored.