I had an epistrophe! Or Lincoln did, I guess, in his Gettysburg Address, but I amplified it.

I’ve been searching for a foundation for modern American democracy that tries to solve problems out of expediency with piecemeal legislation. Such a government would be aware of how such legislation might fit into more strident political systems, but it would be confident enough in its own philosophical foundation to not be overly concerned about it. It would have enough self-knowledge – enough philosophical bottom, if you will – to distinguish itself from oligarchies, plutocracies, autocracies, and socialist states. It would have enough internal coherence to project a kind of moderation that seeks compromise but isn’t defined by it. It wouldn’t be easily caricatured as a worried peacemaker, a candidate for an Al-Anon program, brought up in a family of raging political alcoholics. Instead, this philosophy’s moderation would be as principled as the extremes’ philosophies, but its principles would be better.

My way of thinking about the elements of such a moderate philosophy of democracy is Lincoln’s famous epistrophe from the Gettysburg Address: “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” I use these three different prepositions to outline the parameters of an American political philosophy of moderation.

Of the people,” I think, requires a philosophy that understands government as being part of the people, an expression of the people and proof of its ability to govern itself. The left-wing, anti-government creeds of the French Revolution and of Marxism, now unwittingly co-opted in part by much of the American Right, is a fantasy never realized by any Western nation. Both the French Revolution and Marxism envisaged a state in which government would become unnecessary. I think that’s heaven on earth – the state, as Madison might have put it, when men become angels. Even when a particular government is the enemy, as we claimed the English crown was in 1776, government itself is not inherently an enemy. The government, as Pogo might have put it, is us.

One can see the impulse to associate the people and the government most strongly in New England’s early approach to government. Colin Woodard in his book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America summarizes it here:

Yankees would come to have faith in government to a degree incomprehensible to people of the other American nations. Government, New Englanders believed from the beginning, could defend the public good from the selfish machinations of moneyed interests. It could enforce morals through the prohibition or regulation of undesirable activities. It could create a better society through public spending on infrastructure and schools. (Kindle Locations 999-1004)

I assign “of the people” to an understanding of government as a positive, collective activity, as an authoritative expression of the community.

By the people” seems to accept a distinction between the government and the people not suggested by “of the people.” “By the people” requires a responsive government perhaps most thoroughly expressed by the antifederalists. Their concern about the size of the federal government, their insistence on a written bill of rights, and their desire for term limits reflect a belief in a personal government. The antifederalists of the 1780’s wanted to look at the federal government and see servants doing the people’s will. “By the people,” understood in this light, hates the inhuman and unresponsive bureaucracy associated with big government. It hates the idea of lobbyists and of any person or organization having purchased a special place in the government. It hates “crony capitalism,” for instance, a controversy that made the front page of today’s Washington Post. The antifederalists before them feared that the new Constitution “did not manage to secure the government against the danger of minority faction – tyranny by one man, or a few men, of enterprise, ambition, and wealth,” as Charles R. Kessler put it in his brilliant introduction to the Signet Classic edition of The Federalist Papers. The Tea Party – a kind of small-government, populist movement – may come closest today to my version of “by the people.”


For the people” may, on the surface, seem diametrically opposed to my version of “by the people.” Instead of following “by the people”’s focus on a merely responsive government, “for the people” focuses foremost on a responsible government. This emphasis is perhaps most thoroughly expressed by the federalists of the 1780’s. Kessler first made this distinction between responsive and responsible government to sharpen an analysis of the federalist-antifederalist debate during the ratification years. He summarizes it in his introduction to the The Federalist Papers:

If republican government is to be responsible, it must be responsive to the people and answerable to their will. But if it is to be responsible in the more positive sense, it must go beyond mere responsiveness and be able to serve the people’s true interests or their reasonable will, even if this course of conduct is not immediately popular. (xxii)

The federalists believed that not every expression of the people’s will amounted to their reasonable will. Jefferson expresses it this way: “Independence can be trusted nowhere but in the people in mass. They are inherently independent of all but moral law.” Jefferson’s “moral law” is synonymous with “natural law,” an egalitarian version of classical natural law that Locke more than anyone made accessible to the Framers. The qualification of the people’s will by “moral law” and “natural law” means that the parameters of the popular will was restricted by reason. Edward J. Erler, in his introduction to Harry V. Jaffa’s Storm Over the Constitution, expresses it this way: “In egalitarian natural right, consent necessarily takes precedence. It is the task of constitutional government – and the rule of law – to insure that consent is not merely the expression of the people’s will but of their rationality” (xxiv). Of course, Martin Luther King’s appeal to these concepts of reason and natural law allowed him to justify his actions in Birmingham. He and his followers, he claimed, were justified in violating an unjust law.

The emphasis I find in “for the people” on a government’s responsibility therefore protects a minority from the majority’s tyranny, a chief concern of James Madison in drafting the Constitution. A government “for the people,” then, protects all of its people, even those who frustrate the majority’s will. It may pass legislation to protect the rights of certain minorities or to expand the participation by certain classes of people in the nation’s government and society.

There are certain overlaps.Of the people” and “by the people” both emphasize a popular government and eschew moneyed interests. “By the people” and “for the people” both emphasize individual rights. “For the people” and “of the people” both emphasize the natural authority of government.

A moderate philosophy of democracy would legitimize the three impulses I define with the Gettysburg Address’s epistrophe, and it would seek to balance each impulse with the other two. Because “of the people, by the people, for the people,” as I’ve amplified each, stand in some opposition to one another, no political party alone could champion the entire philosophy. But such a philosophy might permit us to talk to one another, and even to learn from one another, again.

I’ve found writings involving what might be considered building blocks for some principled, moderate, democratic philosophies, and I hope to blog about them sometime soon.

6 thoughts on “A framework for political moderation

  1. Peter – if I end up teaching government again this coming year I will use this and call on you to be the visiting professor. You are so brilliant.

  2. John and Al, thanks! Al, if you do, you better not let the administration know! I have no qualifications. Though I’ve sometimes thought that English and government would be a great pair of courses to combine, particularly at the twelfth-grade level.

  3. They combine ENG/HIS – taught together in the SAME classroom at Poolsville MD HS. #1 HS in Maryland. You can easily get your history license – one Praxis test away. If I did it (by studying Barrons AP study guide) you would be a cakewalk. Let’s say we guest spot in each other’s classroom at least once next year, Ha,

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