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constitution and ambitionAmbition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.
-Federalist 51

Contemporary students of politics, and of American politics in particular, have long held that this selection from The Federalist Papers, arguing that the new Constitution of 1787 should be made the law of the land, shows that ours is a political system rooted in selfish ambition. Hard bargains struck by powerful men seeking to increase their own wealth and power are the stuff of American politics, the story goes. Why? Because, they argue, our Constitution was written by men who believed that tyranny can only be avoided by playing factions off against one another.

Not surprisingly, this reading of our constitutional order was first propagated by people convinced that the framers of our Constitution themselves were using government for their own selfish ends. On this reading, put forward most prominently by Progressive historian Charles Beard, the framers constructed our Constitution in order to stymie the wave of democratic spirit sparked by the American Revolution so that they might maintain their own wealth and privilege. Beard’s cynical view of the framers and their handiwork has done much to undermine Americans’ belief in the possibility of virtue in politics. Taught in colleges, universities, and even high school “civics” courses, Beard has influenced generations of students, shaping them into adults who expect little but selfishness from anyone working in the public sphere. Ironically, many of the perpetrators of this negative vision of politics have an overwhelming, naïve faith in the virtue of unelected bureaucrats. But, where the rough-and-tumble of politics and legislation are concerned, Americans for decades have viewed the world through cynical eyes, convinced that all is selfish ambition. And, after all, what is ambition, but the drive for mastery over others, for more of whatever we desire?

It certainly is true that too many in public life govern for their own sakes, claiming to “serve the people” while making themselves millionaires through manipulation of law, policy, and their own public images. It would be easy, in the current climate, to conclude that most who “serve” today serve only themselves. But as we contemplate the particulars of various corrupt politicians, we should consider that the vices they display are not natural to public life. Indeed, the good news for our country is that the republic was formed with a knowledge of human nature that took account of both its weaknesses and its strengths. They understood the possibility of virtue and, perhaps most important, the sense in which ambition itself need not be a vice.

One might consider, here, the case of George Washington. It has for some time, now, been fashionable among the academic left to paint Washington as a hypocrite—as an arrogant man who feigned humility, a slave owner who spoke of liberty, and a selfish profiteer who mouthed platitudes concerning the virtues of public service. These facile criticisms, rooted in hostility, half-truths, and deliberate misconstruing of Washington’s motivations, seem positively intended to blur the lines between virtue and vice. They cannot succeed, unless we allow them to do so, in masking from us the positive side of human nature, and of ambition, on which our constitutional system depends.

Washington was no hypocrite. Neither was he some post-modern individualist consumed by the desire to be “authentic” in following his own whims-of-the-moment, seeking justification only in his love of himself. Washington was ambitious. But then, while ambition often is (and was during Washington’s time) a word used to denote a selfish desire for wealth, power, and fame, it also may mean simply a high goal. Indeed, fame itself may be no bad goal, if conceived properly. Where today thugs in the street and sad creatures on reality television may view themselves as successful for achieving a base, fleeting form of fame, Washington, and the framers more generally, understood fame as presenting more noble possibilities.

Now sometimes the object of ridicule, Washington’s modelling himself on the Roman hero Cincinnatus was neither ridiculous nor even rare in his era. Like that Roman hero, Washington valued a reputation for virtue, and was willing to pay a high price to achieve that reputation. Leaving the comforts of home and hearth to lead the fight in an extremely risky war for independence, Washington, like Cincinnatus, resigned his military commission when his job was done, returning to his home, satisfied that he had done his duty and earned a reputation about which he could justly be proud. He re-entered politics only when convinced (and it took some convincing) that the United States must have a new Constitution, and served at the head of the Convention, knowing full well that he would be leaving his home, again, to serve in a public office that gave him little joy. At the end of his first term he was talked out of retirement (again) in significant measure because he feared he might be held to have abandoned his country before it was ready to see him go. After his second term, Washington gave his country perhaps the greatest of the many gifts he bestowed: the example of a President retiring voluntarily to return to private life.

Washington’s ambition worked out rather well—for him, and for our nation. Of course, this was not the primary kind of ambition against which The Federalist warned, and which our system of checks and balances was intended to protect us in the struggle against too much concentration of power. Base ambition will always be with we fallen creatures. Nonetheless, it is not, or at least should not be, the only motivation for public actors. Indeed, the checks and balances mentioned in The Federalist were mere “auxiliary precautions” in a system primarily dependent upon virtue in the people.

Some may find such notions too elitist, too aristocratic for our democratic times. But the proper, virtuous desire for good reputation is even more necessary in a democratic than an aristocratic society. When representatives are taken from the mass of the people, when those who are raised poor as well as those born to privilege can become political leaders, it is especially important that the selfish ambition to make oneself rich and powerful, and to use such wealth and power to help one’s friends and family while harming one’s perceived enemies be kept in check by an ambition to be seen as virtuous.

One of the great harms done to our country in this era of secularism and individualistic authenticity is the entrenchment of the belief that one man’s opinion is as good as another’s. Especially when one has achieved a position of wealth and power, one may purchase the expressed, if not real, good opinion of those who depend on one’s goodwill, be they employees, consultants, fellow conspirators, or allies in the press. Lacking a genuine, common mind concerning the nature of virtue and the requirements for good reputation, auxiliary precautions like our Constitution’s checks and balances no longer will suffice to protect our constitutional order.

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1 reply to this post
  1. From T. Slater, SJ, “A Manual of Moral Theology” (1925) [it is to be hoped that Saint John Paul II will smile indulgently at the pre-Vatican II reference to a “manual”]:

    “Pride leads to many other vices, among which are: presumption, ambition, vainglory, boasting, and hypocrisy. …
    (b) Ambition is the inordinate striving after dignities and honours. The inordinateness consists in striving after honours to which one has no just claim or greater than one’s due, or by unlawful modes and means, or with too great eagerness. Apart from such inordinateness it is not sinful to seek after honours and dignities, as these belong to the class of things that are in themselves indifferent; it is a meritorious act to seek with moderation after dignities and honours in order thereby to be able to do more for God and one’s fellow-men.
    ” If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.”[ i Tim. iii i] Such an act belongs to the virtue of magnanimity. Ambition is commonly a venial sin, but it becomes mortal when it is the cause of serious harm, or when the means employed to attain its end are grievously sinful.”

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