Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Lamp of Experience - Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government
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The Lamp of Experience - James McClellan, Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government 
Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government (3rd ed.) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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The Lamp of Experience
The Articles of Confederation, America’s first national constitution, were hastily drafted in 1776 amidst the turmoil of the American Revolution. Because of disagreements among the States, ratification was slow in coming. In fact, the Articles did not actually go into effect until 1781. By 1787 there was widespread agreement throughout the country that the Articles had proved to be unsatisfactory and that it was therefore necessary to change them substantially, or possibly to abandon them altogether and write a new constitution. In the end, as we shall see, the latter view prevailed. The members of the Federal (or “Philadelphia”) Convention who met in Philadelphia in 1787 to “revise” the Articles soon came to the conclusion that the defects were so fundamental that a mere revision would not be practical.
One delegate to the Federal Convention who argued strenuously for a new constitution, and then later led the fight for ratification of the one that was finally drafted, was Alexander Hamilton of New York. After the Convention completed its work on September 17, 1787, Hamilton, joined by John Jay of New York and James Madison of Virginia, wrote a series of essays called The Federalist. Written for New York newspapers, and later distributed in other States, the essays in The Federalist urged the people to support the new Constitution and attempted to explain why it was preferable to the Articles of Confederation. Seeking to present themselves as neutral observers, the authors of The Federalist concealed their identity and wrote under the name of “Publius.” Most other writers, whether favoring or opposing the Constitution, did the same. In New York, for example, one of the most effective critics of the new Constitution was an anonymous writer named “Brutus.” From New Hampshire to Georgia a great “war of pamphlets” erupted in the struggle over ratification of the Constitution. Those favoring adoption called themselves “Federalists,” and those opposing ratification were dubbed “Anti-Federalists.” From their very inception, the 85 essays in The Federalist, or what are commonly known as The Federalist Papers, were immediately recognized as superior to other writings on the Constitution produced during the ratification struggle. Taken together, they constituted a brilliant exposition of the entire Constitution—profound, insightful, and instructive. To this day, The Federalist is universally acknowledged as an American classic, as an indispensable source for an understanding and appreciation of the original meaning and purpose of almost every provision of the Constitution. To his lasting fame and credit, it was Alexander Hamilton who organized the collective effort to publish The Federalist and wrote most of the essays.
Speaking for most of the delegates who attended the Philadelphia Convention, and certainly for many of his countrymen as well, Hamilton confronted the basic dilemma Americans faced in 1787. The Articles of Confederation, he wrote in Federalist No. 15, were an invitation to disaster. “We may indeed with propriety be said to have reached almost the last stage of national humiliation,” wrote Hamilton. Something must be done, he said, “to rescue us from impending anarchy.” The nation was steeped in debt to foreigners and its own citizens; valuable American territories were still in the possession of Great Britain; there were no troops or funds to repel invaders; access to the Mississippi River was impeded by Spain; commerce had declined to its lowest point. So great was “the imbecility of our government,” he complained, that foreign governments would not even deal with it. “The evils we experience,” Hamilton concluded, “do not proceed from minute or partial imperfections, but from fundamental errors in the structure of the building, which cannot be amended otherwise than by an alteration in the first principles and main pillars of the fabric.”
It was on this basis that the Framers proceeded to construct a new framework of government, casting aside the Articles of Confederation and building a new edifice, from the ground up, on “first principles.” But they did not have to begin from scratch. Before we explore the meaning and substance of those “first principles,” and seek to discover how and why they were incorporated into the Constitution, it is essential that we first examine their origin and historical development. “Not to know what happened before one was born,” as we were reminded long ago by Cicero, the great Roman statesman, “is always to be a child.” American political leaders were hardly ignorant or contemptuous of the past. The Framers respected the wisdom of their ancestors, especially their religious learning. They had been reared on the King James version of the Bible, and at least half of them—being Episcopalians—were well acquainted with the Book of Common Prayer. They also respected the lessons of history and were strongly influenced by historical, legal, and constitutional precedents, both foreign and domestic. They had read a good deal of law and history. They knew something of political philosophy, that great body of learning that seeks to know and understand the first principles of government, and what it takes to establish good government and promote the common good or “general welfare.”
But they were not alienated closet-philosophers trying to found a perfect society or utopian paradise, for they were keenly aware of man’s imperfections as well as his strengths. Almost to a man, the Framers were aware of the intricate process by which human beings had learned to live together, at least in some places and at certain times, in freedom, order, and justice. Those who forget the mistakes of the past, it has been said, are bound to repeat them. The Framers knew of the many mistakes that had been made in the governing of great nations. Above all, they knew the benefits enjoyed in a society in which the claims of authority and the claims of freedom were maintained in a healthy balance. “Power corrupts,” said Lord Acton, the nineteenth-century British political thinker, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The men who wrote the American Constitution would have agreed, but they would have also added: “Yes, but absolute liberty can also corrupt a nation. There is no freedom in anarchy.”
“I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided,” the fiery patriot leader Patrick Henry told his fellow planters of Virginia in 1775, “and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging the future but by the past.” The confidence and trust expressed by American political leaders in the political principles they applied in making the Constitution and evaluating its merits stemmed not from rootless theories and ideals divorced from experience and reality, but from the conviction that these principles were tried and true—the result of trial and error spanning centuries of political conflict. This was true of both Patrick Henry, the Anti-Federalist leader who opposed the Constitution, and Alexander Hamilton, the Federalist leader who favored it. What divided these gentlemen in 1787, as we shall later learn, was not so much a disagreement over first principles as a difference of opinion over whether those principles had been given proper weight and correctly adapted to the American situation.