Conventional political wisdom says that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, however popular in certain corners, can’t possibly win election to the White House. Too radical, goes the thinking. Inspiring, common-sense ideas, perhaps, but come Election Day, a majority of American voters won’t back the redistribution of wealth implicit in his proposals. Why is that?
Believe it or not, one place to look for an answer is the Constitution, crafted by the richest and most powerful Americans of their day to perpetuate their own control over the government and economy.
Sanders says he is for “having a government which represents all people, rather than just the wealthiest people, which is most often the case right now in this country.” But what that misses is the extent to which that has always been the case, and not by happenstance.
In late 1786, a farmer and veteran of the Revolution named Daniel Shays led an armed insurrection of debtors and veterans in the hills of Western Massachusetts. Objecting to an onerous regime of taxes and confiscations the state imposed to pay its creditors, the rebels marched through the countryside, threatening the new federal arsenal at Springfield and shutting down courthouses to stop foreclosure proceedings. Bankers and merchants in Boston — the same parties who owned the state’s debt — lent Massachusetts more money to put the insurrection down.
In October of that year, General Henry Knox, secretary of war, summarized the rebels’ philosophy: “Their creed is ‘That the property of the United States has been protected from the confiscations of Britain by the joint exertions of all, and therefore ought to be the common property of all. And he that attempts opposition to this creed is an enemy to equity and justice, and ought to be swept off the face of the earth.’ ”
Mortified by the threat to their wealth and power, the elite sought to reconfigure the government more to their liking, and to ensure that such an outburst of popular sentiment couldn’t happen again.
As schoolchildren learn — and adults often forget — the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was only tasked with amending the Articles of Confederation, the document that had governed the breakaway Colonies since 1781. The convention wasn’t supposed to rewrite them entirely. The progressive historian Charles Beard, whose influential “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution” was the first work to reveal the class-based nature of our founding charter, stated the matter plainly when he called it a coup d’etat.
Contrary to what many assume, the Constitution was never subjected to a popular referendum, but to the votes of state ratifying conventions that were themselves largely elected by only white propertied males; indeed, only about 150,000 Americans elected delegates, out of a population of some 4 million. With the goal of persuading New Yorkers to elect pro-Constitution delegates to the state’s convention, James Madison, with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, wrote a series of 85 essays under the pseudonym Publius that were published in local papers between November 1787 and August 1788 under the title, The Federalist. Madison’s most famous contribution, Federalist No. 10, is widely acclaimed for its idea that factions of citizens with disparate interests should be balanced against one another in order to create a republic that would neither succumb to what John Adams called “tyranny of the majority” nor lose its responsiveness to the people as it grew larger in stature and scale.
Yet despite the attention Federalist No. 10 has received from political scientists, it ought to be much better known among all who favor a more equal distribution of wealth, because it explains how our political system, often described as rigged, has in fact been rigged from the start.
“Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens,” Madison writes near the beginning of the essay, gesturing, as he does throughout The Federalist, to the fallout from Shays’ Rebellion, “that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”
That majority, it slowly becomes clear, are the debtors and small landowners, those more recently designated the 99 percent. “The diversity in the faculties of men,” Madison explains, leads to different “rights of property,” and this difference represents “an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests” in the political community. “The protection of these faculties is the first object of government,” he adds.
The main purpose of the new Constitution, then, was to preserve inequalities among individuals and the inequalities in the distribution of property among them. “Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society,” Madison observes. Ever had it been, and ever under the Constitution would it be. The division of wealth and political power, between the haves and the have-nots, between (as the new Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan has put it) the makers and the takers, was to be carefully maintained. For Madison, in Federalist No. 10, the question was how to do so while at least nominally “preserv[ing] the spirit and the form of popular government.”
For starters, Madison suggested, put some distance between the people and the levers of actual power. Such representation would “refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”
The implication is clear: Settle disputes between the people and the elite by making the elite the representatives of the people. Madison even suggested that perhaps such an arrangement would render “the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people . . . more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves.”
Today, many people argue that campaign finance reform is the primary reason the wealthy so thoroughly control the government. But a careful reading of Federalist No. 10 ought to disabuse them of that notion. According to Madison, representative government is superior to democracy — a form of government, he says, that is “incompatible with . . . the rights of private property” — because it filters the public will through the medium of allegedly disinterested leaders. For the founders, only the rich were truly above corruption by “partial considerations.” The same argument has been somewhat less eloquently stated in our own time by noted political theorist Donald Trump.
In a speech at Liberty University in September, Bernie Sanders observed that the country “was created, and I’m sorry to have to say this, from way back, on racist principles.” Historians are divided over that assertion, yet the result was a surprisingly intelligent and elevated debate on an important question about the fundamental meaning of democracy in America, a phenomenon all but absent from our politics for decades.
It is long past time to reconsider a related but different question, one that dominated national political conversation in the earliest days of the republic: To what extent does the government serve the interests of the wealthy who created it? Or, put another way, given the now almost universally acknowledged fact that the government serves the interest of the wealthy, to what extent is that a function not of how the intentions of the founders have been perverted but of how they have been fulfilled?
A careful reading of Federalist No. 10 shows that the problem may not be the Constitution, but the Union itself. “Extend the sphere,” Madison wrote, “and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests. You make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens.” What kind of majority is he referring to, and which rights? Madison is clear. If a national government were constituted, he told his readers, “A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property” — precisely the demands of the Massachusetts rebels — “or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it.”
Sanders and his supporters can rage all they want against a system that benefits the rich at the expense of the rest, but that system has ingeniously safeguarded itself against genuine reform. Even if he were to win the Democratic primary and the general election, Sanders would have to swear to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States,” the very document that has, as he so often puts it, rigged the system. In addition to being speculators, slavers, and philosophers, the founders were also comedians: The requirement to recite the presidential oath is in the Constitution itself.
Richard Kreitner is the archivist of the The Nation magazine.