At the time of his death in 1977 at the age of 49, Herbert J. Storing had just taken up duties as the Robert K. Gooch Professor of Government at the University of Virginia and Director of the Program on the Presidency at its Miller Center of Public Affairs. For the two prior decades he was on the faculty in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago, where he taught courses on the American Founding, constitutional law, public administration, American political thought, and the presidency. Storing, himself, had been a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the 1950s, where he was taught by Leonard White, perhaps the nation’s leading scholar of public administration; C. Herman Pritchett, a distinguished scholar of American constitutionalism; and Leo Strauss, one of the twentieth century’s most influential scholars of political philosophy.
Many of Storing’s widely read and highly influential writings on the American Founding, race relations, bureaucracy and public administration, and statesmanship have fallen out of print, thus limiting access to a body of profound instruction on the nature and enduring importance of America’s deepest political principles.
The American Founders
Storing believed and demonstrated through his writings and teaching that modem Americans had much to learn from a recovery of the thought of the nation’s leading Founders, especially those who were principally responsible for drafting and ratifying the Constitution of 1787. He rejected the all-too-common assumption that the deepest kind of political understanding necessarily progresses with the passage of time. If we begin with such an assumption, we foreclose any possibility of learning from those who came before, thereby begging the question whether the architects of our political order—or any other American statesmen or thinkers—have anything important to teach us today.
As is also clear from these writings, Storing’s investigation and analysis of the political thought that animated the nation’s Founders were not exercises in the sociology of knowledge or even intellectual history as conventionally understood. He rejected the notion that one could learn as much about the nation’s founding principles from the second-rate thinker as from the first-rate. The major political actors of the era were not all equally penetrating in their understanding of republican government and what would be necessary to ensure its success. Indeed, as Storing noted in his review of more than a hundred essays and pamphlets written in defense of the Constitution during the ratification struggle of 1787-88, these “other” Federalist writings, “taken as a whole, . . . tend to be rather shallow and routine” in comparison with the much more famous Federalist Papers written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. Storing found “nothing in [these] Federalist writings comparable to the range and depth of The Federalist.”
What, then, of the Anti-Federalists, those who opposed the adoption of the plan of government recommended by the Constitutional Convention? That Storing devoted much of his scholarly efforts over a decade to the preparation of the first complete edition of Anti-Federalist thought is testimony enough to the value he placed on recovering the principles of this side of the debate as well. While it is true that Storing’s own mature conclusion after years of close study was that “the Anti-Federalists lost the debate over the Constitution . . . because they had the weaker argument,” he also came to believe that the deepest of the opponents of the Constitution rightly understood the necessary dependence of any popular government on republican virtue. The Anti-Federalists were reasonably fearful that the new governmental scheme did not make adequate provision for inculcating and promoting such virtue.
Although the Federalists did not deny the importance of virtue, they did express reservations about its sufficiency in preventing interested majorities or factious leaders from violating private rights or the public good. Madison, in particular, had written that “neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control” (Federalist 10). More so than their opponents, the leading Federalists emphasized the importance of effective government as “the key to the attachment of the people and to civic virtue itself. A government that can actually accomplish its resolves, that can keep the peace, protect property, and promote the prosperity of the country, will be a government respected and obeyed by its citizens. It will, moreover, promote private and public morality by providing them with effective protection.” Effective government, in turn, meant “wise deliberation and vigorous execution.” And these required a well-designed bicameral legislative body and a unified executive promoting a system of sound administration.
Thus, at bottom the Founding debate was a great contest over how to achieve the ends of liberty and self-government to which both sides were thoroughly committed. As Storing notes, to see the creation of and contest over the Constitution as merely the result of a clash of interests—“the large and small state interests; the commercial and landed interests; [and] the northern and southern interests”—is to miss an essential dynamic of the founding process and to do an enormous disservice to those responsible for fashioning the American political order. For what divided the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, as well as Federalists and Anti-Federalists more generally, were not merely interests but also “certain broad principles of free government.”
These principles included: the necessity of a strong Union versus the virtue of small political units; the need for energetic administration of government versus the importance of republican spirit in promoting law-abidingness; the importance of institutions for moderating and refining public opinion versus the need for republican government to remain true to the interests and reasonable desires of the citizenry; and the reliance on self-interest in combatting tyranny from popular majorities or governmental institutions versus the ultimate grounding of republican institutions on civic virtue. It is perhaps not an overstatement to say that understanding and explicating these great founding principles were the core of Storing’s scholarly efforts.
Much of the rest of Storing’s corpus, then, is best understood in light of its relationship to the American Founding and to the debate over the principles of free government that animated the epochal political events of the Founding period. No issue, of course, raises deeper questions about the Founders’ commitment to liberty and self-government than does slavery.
Slavery and Race Relations
Storing’s writings on slavery and race directly challenged the common modern view that those who wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776 did not include blacks in the “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal” and that those who wrote the Constitution in 1787 sanctioned slavery in the new nation. As Storing shows, this critique of the Founders embraces both the radical Abolitionists’ view that the Constitution, in protecting and furthering the slave interest, was a “compact with the devil”; and the view of mid-nineteenth century slavery defenders, who held either that the principle of human equality in the Declaration of Independence was a “self-evident lie” or that when the authors wrote “all men” they meant simply “all white men.”
Yet these interpretations of the Founders’ approach to slavery were rejected by no less a person than Frederick Douglass, former slave and the most prominent and gifted black orator and spokesman during the decades surrounding the Civil War. Storing’s close analysis of the constitutional provisions related to slavery and of judicial and political practice and opinion in the nation’s first decades is a masterful defense of Douglass’s view—one also shared by Abraham Lincoln and other leaders of the Republican Party in the 1850s.
The Civil War ended slavery in the United States, but in so doing it precipitated a new and daunting challenge: bringing the two races, for decades consigned by positive law into a master-slave relationship, together onto a plane of social and political equality. As Storing notes, race relations remain a serious problem for American democracy. Where is one to look—where in particular ought black Americans to look—for insight and guidance as to how the two races can be brought together into a genuine community of citizens? Storing points the way to recovering the thought and contributions of two towering black Americans: Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. He contrasts these teachings with those of W. E. B. Du Bois, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and a man whose writings were the inspiration for much black political thought in the United States in the early and mid-twentieth century.
In his one-volume edition of black political thought, Storing shows how black American thinkers address not only the needs of their race but also “perennial questions of political life,” including the issue of individual responsibility, the nature of prejudice, the relation between the political whole and its parts, and the relation between law and justice. It is through reflection on these perennial issues, as well as on the specific problem of race relations in the United States, that thoughtful Americans will learn much from black American political thought and from Storing’s perceptive analysis.
The Public Interest
Other writings address the relationship of rights, the rule of law, and the public interest. In particular, Storing devoted much of his attention to the difficulty of maintaining the rule of law in a governmental system devoted to securing natural rights and, therefore, self-interested ends. Just what specific civil rights and duties flow from government’s origin in natural rights is by no means obvious and thus defines much of the task of both lawmakers and jurists in a liberal political order. Moreover, natural rights remain a standard to which aggrieved parties or critics of the law can recur, denying authority to conventional laws and perhaps undermining the disposition to law-abidingness essential to civil society.
This last point is addressed by Storing at some length in his case against civil disobedience. The argument here is framed by the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, and the case for civil disobedience made by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Referring to a natural standard against which to measure conventional laws, King categorized laws into two types: just laws and unjust laws. As citizens we owe obedience to the former but not the latter. We have a right, even an obligation, to disobey unjust laws. Yet, to show respect for the law as such, King argued, the transgressor ought willingly to accept the punishment for his actions.
In his analysis of what may well be the most distinctive contribution of the civil rights movement to American political thought, Storing asks searching questions about the practical consequences of a doctrine that encourages individuals to break laws that violate their personal sense of justice, as well as the principled justification for such actions in any fundamentally just regime. For the unjust regime, Storing argues, the proper stance is not civil disobedience but revolution. But in the fundamentally just regime, civil disobedience endangers the habituation to law-abidingness that is essential if “the liberal regime [is to perform] one of its most admired functions, to provide the basis for political deliberation and political education.”
Read More: Civil Disobedience
In their rejection of the feeble, state-centered Articles of Confederation in favor of a genuine national government resting on a broad popular foundation, the Founders embraced energetic government capable of enforcing its mandates over a vast territory and a growing population.
This gave sound and efficient administration an importance for the success of popular government not found in the earlier theories of republican government; for at the time of the American Founding, it was widely accepted that republics had to be small enough that citizens would identify their private interests with the public good and would willingly carry out the laws with little need for governmental compulsion or force. Small republics meant small governments and little formal distinction between the government itself and the citizenry, as in ancient Athens, where many offices simply rotated among the citizens. In his writings, Storing explores the implications for American democracy of the Founders’ original choice for a large republic and therefore big government.
One of those implications is the growth over time of a large federal bureaucracy that, according to critics, is unresponsive to public interests and desires and is therefore, in some fundamental respects, undemocratic. Yet as any student of the Federalist Papers knows, the government fashioned by the Constitution of 1787 was not designed to be simply responsive to public opinion. Madison, for example, had written of the need for representatives to “refine” and “enlarge” the public views. Here the Senate, with its election by state legislatures and six-year terms, was to play a larger role than the House, with its direct popular election and two-year terms.
Storing asks whether today’s Senate, now popularly elected and much more subject to external influences, continues to moderate and elevate public opinion. He finds instead that the modern Senate is “but a faint reflection of its former self . . . far more popular, far more susceptible to the passing fancies of the people, than the founders intended.” Does any other institution in the national government, then, fill the role of the original Senate? Storing’s provocative answer is that the national bureaucracy at its best infuses certain “senatorial” qualities into American popular government. Such qualities include a commitment to orderly administration and procedural fairness; a “cautious prudence”; a disposition to follow precedents and, more generally, to preserve the rule of law; a “degree of insulation from shifting political breezes”; and a capacity to bring “the accumulated wisdom of the past to bear upon political decisions.”
Paralleling the growth of a large federal bureaucracy in the United States has been the development of a science of administration that seeks both to understand and to guide what civil servants and their agencies do. As both student and critic of the new science, Storing challenged the soundness of its fundamental premise: the radical disjunction between deciding what to do (politics determining the ends) and actually carrying it out (administration fixing the means). In the end, Storing argued, there is no getting around the fact that civil servants must exercise discretion, often in large amounts, in carrying out their responsibilities. In so doing, they will necessarily be guided more by reasoning about ends and principles—the essence of political reasoning—than by the instrumental reasoning of one who merely serves the will of another. “In the most crucial sense,” Storing held, “it can be said that, for the founders, the problem of government is a matter of administration.” Yet such administration cannot be understood as a merely instrumental art, divorced from the kinds of reasoning that lie at the heart of practical wisdom, of what used to be called prudence.
This means that good administration necessarily points toward statesmanship, a task that in our political system seems to fall more often to presidents than to other public officials. Storing sketches the essential elements of democratic statesmanship and their grounding in the American constitutional order. He particularly faults the common view that “the presidency is or ought to be simply democratic.” Some framers, such as James Wilson, saw “that the president would have to be the ‘man of the people,’ . . . but they also saw that the president would have to be a major element in government capable of restraining, checking, and guiding the people. It is this combination that makes the politics of the presidency so fascinating and difficult.”
This problematic nature of the president’s relationship to the people and their wants forms the basis of Storing’s delineation of the president’s three great constitutional tasks: to administer effectively the laws passed by Congress, to check and balance the will of the legislature (and thus at times the will of the people), and, at least occasionally, to guide and instruct public opinion.
The first two of these tasks, Storing maintains, were quite consciously built into the constitutional structure. But the last was only hinted at by some framers and opposed by others, who feared that popular rhetorical leadership would of necessity decay into demagoguery. In devising their carefully crafted institutions, “what some of the founders neglected is that in a popular government . . . the people have to be reasoned with by their statesmen. This means reasoning not only at the level of specific policies but also at the level of constitutional principle.” And here the argument comes full circle, for it was the opponents of the Constitution of 1787, more than its creators and defenders, who anticipated the need in this or any other republican government for popular or moral leadership to enlighten understanding and to form character.
Storing’s fullest account of statesmanship is contained in the essay “American Statesmanship: Old and New,” left unfinished at the time of his death. Here Storing identifies the “strong tendency” in American politics “to resolve the role of the public official into two simple elements: populism, or radical democracy, and scientific management.” Neither element alone nor the combination of the two encompasses the heart of statesmanship as traditionally understood. Our modern doctrines of leadership—a term much more common now than statesmanship—represent a decay from the founding generation, when it was understood that at least occasionally one needed in public life “an extraordinary (and perhaps ultimately inexplicable) devotion to public duty and an understanding of the principles of governmental structure and operation of the broadest and deepest kind.” At the end of this essay, Storing sketches the key elements of the “essence of statesmanship.” These include an understanding of the ends of an organization or political community, moral stature and the grasp of “the moral side of public decision making,” sound practical reason (what used to be called “prudence,” or practical wisdom), and decisiveness.
Herbert Storing was a dedicated teacher of the great principles of republican government. He taught black Americans the principles of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington; he taught political leaders that statesmanship worthy of the name must rise above the mere service of popular desires; and he taught all his countrymen the profound insights of the Founders into the challenge of establishing and preserving republican government. This is liberal education and education for citizenship at its best.
The great themes of Storing’s scholarship were the great themes of the political discourse of the nation’s founding. Although one can find much variety and disagreement in the political thought of the Founders, most agreed on certain fundamental points: that the people’s inclinations are not always the same as their interests; that statesmanship requires moderating and guiding public opinion; that the public interest is a meaningful concept and is not simply reducible to the interests of the parts; and that republican government will not be successful without promoting qualities of sound citizenship.
There is perhaps no fitter end to this essay and no fitter introduction to Storing’s writings than his speculation as to how a particularly thoughtful Founder might reflect on modern American government and politics: “I think he would concede, finally, that while in his heart of hearts he had thought that he and his generation had finished in its essentials the task of making the American polity, there is after all work still to be done.”
—Joseph M. Bessette, adapted from Toward a More Perfect Union