I recently wrote an article for his column about a lesser known influence on the Founding Fathers, a man named James Harrington. I think, with the recent acquittal of President Trump and, more specifically, the vote of Senator Mitt Romney, it is worth examining another influence on the Founders. This time the man was a contemporary and a member of the British House of Commons. He was famous for many concepts, but I want to focus on his ideas of how a republic should work.
Edmund Burke was born in 1797 and was a leading statesman and political philosopher of the time. He supported the American colonies’ struggles with Britain, but did not support the Revolution. Probably Burke’s most famous quote is, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” As inspiring as that is, I am more interested in two other quotes. First, “When the leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity, their talents, in the construction of the state, will be of no service. They will become flatterers instead of legislators; the instruments, not the guides, of the people. The second quote is, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
What Burke is arguing is that in a republic it is the duty of representatives to vote their conscience, not the will of their constituents. I know this goes against everything we think today about our democracy, but that is not the way the Founders envisioned representation. As I have said before, the function of the Constitution was to protect the people from the government and the government from the people. As much as they feared tyranny, they feared the masses even more. When it came to our representatives, the Founders believed in the idea of government by our “betters” and virtual representation.
Unlike today where we tend to want representatives who are like us, who somehow know what we are experiencing and can relate to us, the Founders envisioned our representative to be our betters. If we were going to elect someone who was like us, we might as well have a direct democracy. Instead they created a republic where the masses would choose someone who was smarter and more informed than we are to make the important decisions. This was a practice taken from the British, where the masses could vote, but had to vote for a nobleman who had the time to understand the issues. The reason the Founders chose a republic over a democracy was not just out of practicality but because most people do not have the time or ability to comprehend and study every issue and vote.
The concept of virtual representation also came from the British. Think of it this way. Once you vote for your congressman or senator, they represent all Americans. Every decision they make affects everyone, not just people in the state or district where they live. In this way they represent everyone virtually. It was never meant that our representatives poll their constituents. Instead they were to vote their own conscience or intelligence. As Burke said, representatives owe us their judgment. That is why we elected them. If we decide we do not like their judgment, that is why our representatives are voted on every two or six years.
With the acquittal of President Trump on his impeachment charges, I have actually found there is more talk of Senator Mitt Romney’s decision to vote for conviction then the acquittal itself. I assume it is because everyone already knows of the outcome of the senate trial before it even started, but the idea of a politician breaking ranks goes against the current norm. Not all, but most, of the praise for Romney is coming from the left while the vilification of the senator is coming from the right. This is not surprising. The left is praising a man who dared break ranks to stand up for what he thought was right. I have even seen the word hero being used. Of course, I doubt they would use those same words if one of their own broke ranks and voted their conscious supporting the President. Those people would be traitors.
That is how the right is seeing Romney, a traitor who is only jealous because he lost his presidential bid. Many have argued that Romney is breaking his trust with his constituents in voting against Trump. One comment I read said that he owes nothing to his faith or his family, the reason Romney claimed he voted to convict. Rather, the only people he owes anything to are the ones who voted him into office. Though I understand the frustration of the right, party loyalty has replaced virtuous representatives, but historically speaking Romney has acted exactly how the Founders expected our representative to act.
Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at http://www.Historicallyspeaking.blog or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.