The Devil Quotes Scripture, and Tyrants Quote Madison

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Mac Owens and Cort Kirkwood both lived at my place in our bachelor days of yore; I wish Cort had been around when Mac was, because Mac’s really going off the deep end in his latest defense of Bush. Cort, grounded and anchored in reality, might have been able to plant some seeds back then that could help Mac out of his "dilemma," which besets him still.

Mac’s piece, posing as an apologia for Bush and Ashcroft, actually constitutes a paean to Father Abraham, whose providential mission and foresight allowed him to destroy the Constitution in order to "save" it. While I defer in things Lincoln to the able Professor DiLorenzo, I cannot resist theoretical inquiry when confronted by manipulation and distortion of plain language.

Mac cites James Madison, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, with no further references or context. Here is Mac, framing the issue. Mac is speaking, quoting Madison:

"The dilemma a president faces in time of emergency was expressed by James Madison in a letter to Thomas Jefferson: u2018It is a melancholy reflection that liberty should be equally exposed to danger whether the government have too much or too little power.’" Lincoln addressed this dilemma [Mac continues] during his speech to a special session of Congress after Fort Sumter. "Is there," he asked, "in all republics, this inherent, and fatal weakness? Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?"

First of all, for Madison, it is clearly the free people who face this danger to liberty, not the government — in fact, the clear intent of Madison’s observation is that a power-hungry government cadre will be the beneficiary if free people do not properly and constantly rein it in. As we will see, Madison is asking the question, "Does the Constitution rein in government enough, or do we need more chains on that vile beast" — like a Bill of Rights (which had not yet been adopted)? Liberty is clearly his concern.

Second of all, I must point out that it is Mac, not Madison, who introduces the issue of "emergency" into the conversation. That is not in itself entirely incorrect, although it is misleading. It is not incorrect because "emergencies" — war foremost among them — do arise in the life of nations, even in the life of a free republic. Bringing this up can mislead the reader, however, because Mac implies that Madison was addressing "emergencies," which character Mac imputes to the situation Lincoln faced. But clearly the context of Madison’s letter was not "emergencies" at all, as we shall see.

Mac’s citation of Saint Abraham is instructive — in the same manner as Sherlock Holmes told Watson that he often found him instructive: "Watson, when I say that you are instructive, I mean I learn from your mistakes."

With this in mind, the sensible observer might ask, why does Mac cite a letter from Madison to Jefferson concerning the additional protections that liberty might require in addition to the Constitution — specifically, a Bill of Rights — as though he meant exactly the opposite, namely, an acknowledgement by the major author of the Constitution that a time of "emergency" might actually require a government to seize even more power in violation of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to preserve its own existence?

Mac presents the Madison citation as though it referred to a government in extremis — in time of emergency, such as war — instead of in its clearly-intended sense of the eternal vigilance that is the price of liberty, and the tools — in this case, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights — required to put that vigilance into eternal action. Once establishing that false premise, Mac then stands on it to conjure up a "dilemma," as though Madison was wondering, gee, just how much unconstitutional power should the government seize in times of "emergency"? This, as Lenin said of Marx regarding Hegel, "stands Madison on his head."

The actual context of Madison’s letter (see the entire text here) is revealing. Writing in 1788, after the Constitution had been written but before the required nine states had ratified it, Madison addresses the desirability of a Bill of Rights that would place additional restrictions on government at all times, including "emergencies." After all, war was and is a fact of life for the Founders, as in our own time. The Founders did not write one Constitution for peacetime and another for the time of war. [They did, however, require that Congress declare war]. Here Madison assumes the traditional view of human nature, that fallen man will from time to time be at war, but that does not change the Constitution. Three views regnant today differ from Madison’s: the modernist, the ideological, and the imperialist.

The modernist assumes that, since man is not fallen, the intellectual class, inspired by Kant, can "raise the consciousness" of the peoples and nations, remove all vestiges of ancient (traditional) regimes, and put an end to war. This notion motivated Wilson, and prevails among soggy-headed liberals and U.N.-worshippers.

The ideological notion of war emerged from Marx and Lenin and their "permanent revolution." For Marx, class warfare has prevailed in every stage of history. Only with the victory of communism, establishing first the reign of terror ("Dictatorship of the Proletariat) and then the post-revolutionary classless society, when there is no exchange ("like Robinson Crusoe," Marx dreamed), would there be — for the first time in history — no more war. This view, once prevailing only among the left, now permeates a large population of secular "progressives." It also supplies the indispensable dialectic for the imperialists.

The imperialist notion of war hearkens back to ancient times, a favorite of many Straussians and a subject of specialty for some of them. The imperialist war serves to impose upon the unruly peoples of the world (the barbarians, who are barely, if at all, human) the rule and the rules of the imperial power — in the case of contemporary neocon imperialists, the secular, autocratic, far-reaching (worldwide), technologically unsurpassed, and morally decadent "democracy." This view prevails among ideologues and non-ideologues alike, including the Warbucks crowd and a surprising number of Cold Warriors whose bellicosity was not sufficiently vented by the time the Berlin Wall fell.

All three of these non-traditional, totalitarian approaches reject Madison, but conform to, and, indeed, welcome, the approach that Mac takes in perverting Madison to canonize Lincoln.

First, the Wilsonian modernist warmonger welcomes the opportunity to place the superior intellectuals of his acquaintance and appointment in charge of reshaping the world (remember, Wilson had served as president of Princeton University). At Versailles, these savants produced the world that careened into chaos and another world war, all the while strengthening the power of our central government — as advertised, predicted, and applauded by Mac’s non-Madisonian Lincoln.

Second, the ideological warmonger embraces Mac’s Lincoln because ideological war is ceaseless, and so, every nation is in constant "emergency." In such a view, the timeless principles of Constitutional government never quite apply, because the government faces an emergency, you see, and Mac gives the self-appointed Lincolns of the world full power to resolve the "dilemma" — that is, the stricture of the rule of law — in favor of the whim of the ruler and his government. Once that view prevails, the free people have no defense against tyranny. Stalin and Hitler were two thoroughgoing competing leftist ideologues, and FDR sadly allied himself with one of them. As a result, our postwar politicians have become so intellectually muddled that they reflect much more Stalin’s ideological approach to language as a dialectical weapon of the permanent revolution than they reflect Madison’s timeless principles of liberty.

Third, the contemporary imperialist warmonger welcomes Mac’s Lincoln as well. Indeed, Mac is bringing Lincoln "up-to-date" here specifically for the purpose of defending Bush. Here we have an endless "emergency," a permanent war that will stretch beyond our lifetime (which is why the government refuses to have Congress declare war: such a responsible, Constitutional act would mark a beginning and look forward to an end.] This breakdown produces a strategic situation perfectly conducive to Lenin’s "permanent revolution" as well as to Wilson’s approach to the world as an ideological sandbox. The imperialist eschews talk of his power lust (every tyrant in history has), instead talking of imposing "democracy" on the world, whether the world wants it or not. As Rousseau told his totalitarian heirs, if the people resist the tyrant, "they must be forced to be free" — when he meant "enslaved."

The distortion, and then the overt destruction, of Madison’s meaning, are classically typical of modernist and leftist thought: For Mac, Lincoln faced a "dilemma": the plain and simple chains that our Constitution places on the executive power suddenly become a "dilemma," as though the Founders were actually inviting Lincoln to ignore the Constitution at his whim, which in fact he proceeded to do. Mac is not satisfied with the objective result; he also insists that it bear the seal of approval of the Founders. To this end he conjures up a continuity from Madison to Lincoln, when the exact opposite is obviously the case. Mac’s Lincolnian "dilemma" is actually nothing more than Lincoln’s desire for power confronting the constitutional prohibitions thereof. Calling this a "dilemma" constitutes indulgence in classical Marxist-Leninist dialectic.

In this specific regard we should consider once more Mac’s Lincoln quote:

Lincoln asks, "Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?" Here, Lincoln speaks not of the nation, or a free people, but of the government — not simply a team of administration apparatchiks that can be replaced, but something magically transformed into an entity that embodies the people, includes them, instead of (as Madison saw it) endangering them when bad actors in office break the bonds imposed by the Constitution. [Thirty years ago, my friend Mel Bradford wrote a beautiful and memorable analysis of the Gettysburg Address in Triumph Magazine. There he described how Lincoln transformed the notion of limited government into one "by the people, of the people, and for the people" — and then analyzed the meaning of "people" in each of those formulations, since each was radically different from the other.] One thing is perfectly clear: for Mac, the Lincoln who is confronted by this pesky "dilemma" is the totalitarian sovereign of Rousseau, and not the modest, humble, and lawful statesman of Madison and the Founders.

Clearly, the quote that Mac has chosen to represent Lincoln’s "harmony" with Madison and with the Founders actually represents Lincoln’s radical departure from — indeed, his rejection of — that tradition. Mac blesses this — the outright destruction of the ordered liberty of constitutional government — by bequeathing on the tyrant’s whimsical lust the inoffensive sobriquet "dilemma." What a connivance!

Moreover, Mac furthers this destruction of principle by rejecting our traditional moral and constitutional values, and embracing instead rank consequentialism: "In all decisions involving tradeoffs between two things of value, the costs and benefits of one alternative must be measured against the costs and benefits of the other." Here Mac, while offering a bow towards Aristotle, actually rejects the traditional Aristotelian notion of prudence and adopts instead the modernist calculative intellect of Thomas Hobbes — an intellect not in charge of, but in service of, the passions in the "war of all against all," with the dominant passion lusting after continued power of the present occupants of the machinery of government, with decisions being made not on the basis of whether they are intrinsically right or wrong, but whether they will further the accomplishment of the objectives sought by those who have cast off principle and succumbed to power lust.

Then why does Mac go through such effort to absolve Bush by seizing upon Madison and creating a "Madisonian" Lincoln? Here he falls into the trap for the wayward laid out by "The Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God": even those who reject morality and embrace instead the power lust must by nature speak the language of morality, and not power lust, when appealing to the people. Which proves, of course, not only that Nature’s God and Natural Law are right, but that Mac and Lincoln are wrong — that the people are indeed distinct from the government, and that they are empowered to throw out the malfeasant apparatchiks when they succumb to power lust. They can refuse to be "forced to be free" by a tyrant. Mac calls such resistance "extremism," but if the people do not have that choice, by the natural right with which they have been "Endowed by their Creator," then there can follow no other consequence of the tyrant’s lust than the violence of dictatorship and oppression.

Christopher Manion Archives

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