July 11: Gouverneur Morris, Aristotelian

Recent days in the Convention are most significant for the ongoing discussion of how, or whether, to count enslaved people toward representation in the lower House. But a side remark by Gouverneur Morris on July 11 deserves attention. Among the questions before the delegates was how to apportion representatives for the new states that were anticipated to the west. Morris remarked:

Among other objections it must be apparent they [the new Western states] would not be able to furnish men equally enlightened, to share in the administration of our common interests. The Busy haunts of men not the remote wilderness, was the proper school of political Talents. If the Western people get the power into their hands they will ruin the Atlantic interests. The Back members are always most averse to the best measures.

This is a deeply Aristotelian conception of politics: Politics is the activity of the city, where people encounter each other, learn one another’s needs and converse about the common good. What is perhaps most striking is Morris’ high Federalist view that the purpose of representation is not to reflect whatever the people may think. It is to put the best people in charge of discerning the common good.

In Federalist 57, Madison shared that view:

The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first, to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous, whilst they continue to hold their public trust.

Note the order: The first priority is to find wise leaders. Only then is the worry about keeping them in check pertinent. That is elitist, a term to which neither Madison nor Morris would object. But it is not as elitist as the Anti-Federalist trope (see, for example, Centinel 1) that the people were exposed to abuse because they were easily duped by natural aristocrats.

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