When Martin Diamond decided to collect his essays of some twenty years into a single volume, he selected as its title As Far as Republican Principles Will Admit. That selection was the only piece of guidance he left for those whose task it became to finish the project after his sudden and tragic death in 1977. But, as Diamond would have insisted, it was guidance enough. He composed titles for his essays with the utmost care and deliberation well before he began writing them, because an essay’s title was, for him, its end or purpose—its reason for being written. Just as the end or purpose of a political institution, when fully elaborated, explains every facet of its behavior, so the title of a written piece, he insisted, should suggest or imply its entire argument. And as Diamond foresaw, once we have explored the title’s meaning we do indeed have a glimpse of his full argument about the nature of the American political order.
The immediate source of the phrase “as far as republican principles will admit” is Federalist No. 77—one of the essays composed by “Publius” (the pseudonym collectively adopted by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay) to explain and justify their proposed new Constitution. In No. 77, Publius maintains that the presidency of the new republic would exhibit the qualities of energy, independence, secrecy, and dispatch that executive action often requires, but without transgressing the boundaries of republican principles—that is, only insofar as republican principles will admit. This claim was a remarkable one in 1788; popular governments and effective executives had theretofore been considered utterly antithetical. Based on centuries of political experience, people believed they could have either sound, effective, energetic government or popular, democratic government, but not both. Human experience since the American Founding has done little to diminish the boldness of Publius’s claim to have constructed a government at once popular and energetic.
This claim, understood more comprehensively, is a portal into Martin Diamond’s teaching about the nature of the American regime. Diamond argued that ours is emphatically a popular or republican political order, in the face of decades of scholarship suggesting that the Founders in fact established a nonpopular, antidemocratic political system to protect the prerogatives of the rich few against the poor many.
At the same time, however, Diamond insisted that democracy—or the large, commercial democratic republic envisioned by the Founders—was but the foundation or framework of our regime. Within that framework, various political and human excellences theretofore not associated with democracy were permitted, and even encouraged, to flourish. Among these excellences, he suggested, were protection of minority rights against majority abuse; effective, stable, competent government; commercial acquisitiveness and associated “bourgeois virtues”; active involvement of citizens in republican self-government; a due regard for, and a political order that rewarded, divergent and unequal human abilities; and latitude to reflect on the highest things, for those few who wish to do so.
The form these excellences take, however, is always shaped and constrained by the underlying foundation in popular rule. Thus, Diamond reminded us, whenever we seek to improve the regime we must do so not by imposing alien, unattainable, utopian purposes upon it, but by cultivating the excellences peculiar to it, and within the limits by which it is defined. The aim of our political thought and action should always be to make this regime its best self, that is, to preserve and nurture its estimable qualities, as far as republican principles will admit.
Foundations: The Democratic Republic
A major theme of Diamond’s essays is his argument in favor of a restoration of the Founders’ bona fides as genuine democrats. That the American regime is fully democratic (or republican, or popular—terms that were synonymous for the Founders, according to Diamond) is by no means the accepted point of view among academicians and intellectuals today. We still live in the shadow of those great scholars—J. Allen Smith, Vernon Parrington, Charles Beard—whose thinking and writing about the American Founding were shaped (and, Diamond would argue, distorted) by the frustrated high hopes of the Progressive Era.
After searching for reasons to explain this nation’s unwillingness to adopt, fully and expeditiously, the array of progressive social and economic reforms the twentieth century clearly demanded, Smith, Beard, and others concluded that the American political order had in fact been designed to frustrate democratic reform. Indeed, they came to believe, the Founders had established a system that would protect the property of the wealthy few against the demands of the poor many, by making impossible the rule of popular majorities.
Martin Diamond, however, denied emphatically that the spirit of plutocracy prevailed at the American Founding. Rather, he insisted, the Founding Fathers—above all, the Founder from whose mind sprang the American Constitution, James Madison—intended a distinctly democratic order, one that would permit moderate, deliberate popular majorities to prevail. They must, however, be moderate, deliberate majorities—there, Diamond insisted, is the rub.
From the historical perspective available to the Founders, democratic regimes had been anything but moderate and deliberate. In Publius’s words from Federalist No. 10, they had been “spectacles of turbulence and contention . . . as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” For invariably, popular majorities—enkindled by various religious, political, or economic passions—had come to expropriate, violate the rights of, or otherwise oppress minorities, with calamitous results.
The American political order, by contrast, was designed to avert the disorderly proclivities of democracy, yet without departing from the democratic principle—to be “decent, even though democratic,” in the phrase Diamond loved to use around ardent partisans of pure democracy. To be sure, the Founders devoted much care and attention to the likely “diseases” and “evil propensities” of democracy. That care, however, precisely attests to their democratic intention, Diamond maintained; as true friends of popular government, they prudently limited their focus to the likely problems of the only form of government they had ever envisaged for this nation.
Diamond explained all of the devices dismissed by progressive scholarship as undemocratic and antimajoritarian rather as structures to ensure the formation and expression of decent, stable, moderate democratic majorities, capable of governing effectively. Representation, bicameralism, separation of powers, the presidency, the Supreme Court, the electoral college—all of these elements were designed to allow majorities ultimately to rule, but only after being constrained, refined, and rendered less likely to oppress minorities.
Furthermore, those structures together formed a stable, competent, energetic government—one that could deal with all the domestic and foreign exigencies that any nation faces, but that republics had theretofore been particularly inept at handling. And all of these ends, as Federalist No. 51 explained, would be accomplished by relying upon and encouraging characteristics in the officeholder that were widely and democratically distributed, that is, self-interest and ambition—not honor, religious faith, wisdom, or some other attribute possessed only by a gifted few.
This structure of government was but part of a grander scheme, according to Diamond: the establishment of a large commercial republic, within which the pursuit of wealth or commodious self-preservation would be the preeminent popular pursuit. As a consequence of the large national common market with its diversity-inducing division of labor, Madison argued in his famous Federalist No. 10, the population would be fragmented politically into a vast multiplicity of divergent, narrow, economically based interest groups. The relatively peaceful friction of these interests would replace the bitter, rich-versus-poor confrontation that had previously arisen within—and had ultimately destroyed—smaller democracies, with their simpler economies, throughout history.
Furthermore, Diamond suggested, a preoccupation with immediate, practical economic issues would render people less susceptible to various ideological, religious, or political enthusiasms—enthusiasms that might be momentarily ennobling, but that would sooner or later culminate in majority tyranny. In sum, a commercial nation is a peaceful nation, in the Founders’ understanding, and it is less likely to fall prey to the domestic convulsions that had doomed all previous democracies.
The Founders—and Martin Diamond—appreciated the harshness of this reliance upon ambition in the officeholder and self-interest in the citizen. But it was precisely this new realism about human nature and political behavior that made possible the founding of the first decent democracy, Diamond claimed.
Classical and medieval political theory, the Founders knew, had aimed to lift and mold the character of a regime’s citizens according to some high virtue—courage, or moderation, or piety, or wisdom, or some other human excellence. Every aspect of government and society had to be harnessed to the strenuous high-toning of human nature—the economy, religion, the arts, and all other aspects of culture—to an extent that we today would regard as stifling and oppressive.
As noble as the intention of ancient political theory may have been, however, ancient political practice was disastrous. The soul-shaping doctrines of the ancients lent themselves all too readily to the “soul-saving” auto-da-fé of the Inquisition. The officially declared noble or pious ends of the ancient regime merely served to mask the true character of its rulers, who were in fact vain, grasping, corrupt, hypocritical, and cruel. And intolerant, zealously held religious and philosophical convictions fueled savage wars and bitter domestic convulsions.
By contrast, modern political thought, rooted in the teachings of Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke, maintained that the horrors of ancient political practice could be averted if the goal of ancient political theory—to the high expectations from human nature—were lowered. The new aim of politics—securing commodious self-preservation and moderate civil liberty for all—would be more realistic, and hence more attainable. And this end could be achieved without the all-encompassing, soul-straining regime of antiquity. Rather, it could be reached by relying upon the most common, widely available human passions—self-interest and ambition—gently constrained and channeled by the limited, mild political institutions of the new science of politics. In the words of Leo Strauss, Diamond’s beloved mentor, this new science would be more efficacious than the old because it proposed to take man as he is, rather than as he ought to be.
The new science of politics also permitted the Founders to make a new and compelling case for democracy. No longer would politics take its bearings from human excellences achievable only by the few, or make demands that exceeded the capacities of the many. No longer would seemingly noble political aspirations incite the multitudes to warfare and oppression. A regime of realistic, attainable ends, with mild political institutions as the means, grounded in universally available human passions, is a regime that can safely be entrusted to properly constrained democratic management.
As the Founders understood, however, this new, modern American democracy came with a price. A democratic regime based on commercial self-interest and ambition is by no means an edifying spectacle. Its citizens can be selfish, narrow, materialistic, grasping, and small-minded; its politicians, self-aggrandizing and shortsighted. Diamond insisted we confront the costs of modern democracy honestly, rather than attempt to conceal the harshness of our founding principles behind pleasant or inspiring myths. For ultimately, it is worth paying the price of modernity for a democratic political order that ensures domestic peace, widespread prosperity, respect for liberty, and competent government.
Nonetheless, Diamond insisted, what we have so far seen of the American regime is only its “low but solid” foundation. There is considerably more to the regime than this—enough, in fact, to make it fully defensible against those utopian critics who charge that America is irredeemably lost in a wilderness of philistinism and greed. An ascent from the low but solid foundation is possible—an ascent through a series of human excellences. But, true to modernity, the ascent is only possible, never compulsory; and it proceeds in such a way as never to be entirely out of sight of its low but solid foundation.
The first step in the ascent, according to Diamond, is supplied by the very commercialism that so many people dismiss as mere greed and avarice. He suggests that modern commercial man is not, in fact, narrowly and stingily avaricious, but rather expansively acquisitive. His overriding passion is not to have, but to get. To be successfully acquisitive, however, he must come to possess such estimable qualities as industry, frugality, self-discipline, and perseverance. Moreover, because he is involved in constant commercial dealings with others, he is also compelled to cultivate other virtues, such as honesty, fairness, square dealing, and regard for law and justice, if he wishes to remain in business over the long haul.
Within the very self-interested commercialism of the regime, then, we find the possibility of certain virtues—admittedly humble virtues, and often dismissed as merely “bourgeois”—that nonetheless elevate the character of the citizen and add a tone of civility to society. These by no means contemptible human qualities, moreover, flow quietly, almost automatically, from carefully channeled self-interest, without resort to the strenuous, soul-shaping institutions of antiquity.
Decentralist Federalism and Republican Virtue
The next rung in our ascent is supplied by the American principle of federalism. Diamond considered a strong, vibrant federal system to be absolutely vital to the well-being of the American political order. To interpret federalism as most people do, however—as simply a division of governing authority between central and state governments—is to miss what the Founders truly intended for their political order, Diamond maintained.
The proper view, he taught, was that the Founders blended aspects of federalism—or “confederalism,” which more accurately reflects the traditional understanding that federation members were to retain full, not just partial sovereignty—together with features of nationalism, in which full sovereignty accrues to the central government. Recovering an understanding of the Founders’ unique mixture is important and useful for several reasons, Diamond insisted.
He noted, for instance, that the compound view alerts us to the existence of certain federal elements, including aspects of the Senate and the electoral college, within the central government itself. These elements have nothing whatever to do with the division of governing authority among levels of government, but we must be cognizant and solicitous of them if we wish to preserve the federal–national compound bequeathed us by the Framers.
Moreover, the compound view reminds us that the Founders expected the federal and national elements of the compound each to bring certain distinctive and characteristic contributions to the new republic—contributions that are lost from sight in the muddled contemporary notion of federalism as merely a convenient way of “sorting out” administrative responsibilities.
The contributions of a strong national government were to be a vigorous foreign policy and defense, and an effective regulation of the commercial republic. The federal elements of the Constitution, meanwhile, would help ensure that this national government was kept within limits, by sending a strong, countervailing impulse of administrative decentralization throughout the polity. Restoring the authority of decentralizing constitutional provisions such as the “enumerated powers” clause becomes all the more urgent for this reason, Diamond maintained.
More important, he suggested, the federal element in our compound republic nurtures a particular kind of citizen. In this respect, modern federalism is a faint echo of ancient federalism, which left full sovereignty to the small, intimate polis because it alone provided a suitable nursery for citizenly excellence. American federalism cultivates its particular version of citizenship by ensuring that certain critical political decisions—not grand, national decisions, but those that shape everyday life and determine the character and conduct of the local community—are brought down to a level and are presented in a form accessible to the average citizen.
Because these easily grasped decisions impinge tangibly and immediately on the selfish and commercial interests so important to democratic man, Diamond noted, the individual is drawn gradually, almost imperceptibly, into public life. There, in the give-and-take of the civic forum, he begins to acquire the taste and capacity for republican self-government and, through habit, some degree of self-transcending, public-spirited attachment to the good of the community. To Diamond, who learned this from Alexis de Tocqueville, the federal element in the American compound was a critical device for ensuring that Americans are not forever lost to the debased, atomistic pursuit of merely material self-interest—that is, that Americans are enabled to rise against the downward pull of our low but solid foundation in a commercial, individualistic democracy.
As Tocqueville taught, republican self-government and public-spiritedness are at some distance, indeed, from mere self-interest and ambition. Again, however, this elevation is accomplished without the strenuous institutions or high aims of antiquity. Instead the mild, modern device of administrative decentralization gently cultivates what Tocqueville described as “self-interest properly understood”— an enlightened, expanded, improved self-interest, but ultimately, modern self-interest nonetheless.
The Horizon of Republican Liberty and the Natural Aristocracy
The third step in our ascent is supplied by the Founders’ understanding of liberty and its articulation in the Declaration of Independence. Diamond turned to this aspect of the Founding as he began to deepen his discussion of the character of American democracy and to anchor it more firmly in his view of the modern enterprise.
Essential to that enterprise, Diamond maintained, was a new commitment to the idea of equal human rights—a commitment reflected in the Declaration’s pronouncement that “all men are created equal, [and] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” that government is intended “to secure these rights,” and that legitimate government must be based upon the consent of the governed. This commitment to securing equal political freedom for all was profoundly revolutionary, for it overturned the claim of the wealthy, moderate, pious, or wise few to rule by virtue of excellences peculiarly and unequally possessed by them.
Although human inequality was thereby disallowed as a legitimate ground for political rule, and the equal possession of rights by all became the ultimate basis for government, the Founders nonetheless did not intend to suggest that men were to be considered equal in all respects. Rather, they fully expected fundamental and irreducible human inequalities to persist within the regime of individual liberty.
More than that: the proudest claim of such a regime, as Thomas Jefferson noted, was that it would permit and welcome the flourishing of the “natural aristocracy”—the aristocracy of the naturally talented and skilled. Indeed, a decent democracy would even reward and encourage the natural aristocracy by willingly bestowing upon it high office and other honors. Although the claims of the virtuous or wise few to rule as a matter of right were repudiated, the likelihood that they would hold high office as a way to secure superior public service remained beyond dispute.
Diamond emphasized the Declaration’s limited conception of human equality as a counterweight to contemporary utopian doctrines, according to which human beings are by nature (or should be compelled to become by government) equal in all respects. This view’s consequent hostility to the natural aristocracy is not only a repudiation of both ancient and early modern thought; it may also be a threat to the very survival of the republic, Diamond claimed.
First, he briefly but darkly suggested, a regime that refuses to countenance even the politically safe expression of unequal and superior human capacities courts the active hostility of those who possess such talents—those who are ready to “seize the time,” and who would make the most of it, precisely because they are so gifted.
Expressed affirmatively, a sensibly egalitarian regime can count on exemplary leadership from the talented few, which may spell the difference between life and death for the republic in its darkest hours. The virtues that enabled Abraham Lincoln to bring this nation through its greatest crisis, for instance—his spiritedness and his wisdom—may not be qualities commonly associated with citizens of modern democratic regimes. Nonetheless, because we are a democracy that operates within and respects the broader horizon of liberty, and because we not only tolerate but reward unequal human capacities, Lincoln was available to us, and in a position of critical national leadership, in our moment of supreme need.
Regard and reward for the “natural aristocracy” permits the American regime to rise considerably above its low but solid foundation. It is, however, once again a peculiarly modern ascent. For it is based on the belief that various and unequal human talents are part of the natural order and will come to the fore without government cultivation—indeed, will do so more adequately and fully, precisely because government has largely abandoned the rigorous, character-forming enterprise.
“Enclaves of Excellence” and the Study of Politics
We now approach the highest level of our ascent within the American regime, and are prepared to appreciate just how “far republican principles will admit.” A democracy grounded in respect for liberty, Diamond reminded us, provides a “not inhospitable home to the love of learning.” That is, a decent democracy permits (although it may not encourage, and certainly does not compel) the most intelligent and reflective few to gather in educational “enclaves of excellence,” to wrestle with the highest philosophical questions. As Diamond notes, this gathering occurs at “a respectable distance indeed” from the crude, self-interested foundations of the regime.
It must always be remembered, however, that the enclaves of excellence are—as the name suggests—somewhat fragile islands of contemplation in a roiling, materialistic commercial sea. Diamond’s lifelong concern for the teaching of politics might be understood as an effort to preserve these enclaves from the occasionally excessive demands of the surrounding polity, and from certain self-destructive tendencies within the academy itself.
Because teachers of politics are utterly dependent upon the host polity for support in the form of salaries and students, they owe something to the polity—not, however, so much as to violate their obligation to teach the truth. Diamond suggested that a decent bargain might be struck between academy and polity if the teaching of political things were to begin with a respectful treatment of the polity’s fundamental principles.
For a few students, this treatment would be only the beginning—the essential foundation for a more penetrating inquiry into the nature of politics, which might ultimately raise serious questions about the regime’s fundamental convictions. For most students, however—those with little interest in or talent for penetrating thought—a respectful treatment of the polity’s principles would leave citizenly attachments intact, and even somewhat enlightened. Such a treatment would satisfy the host polity that its young people were not being systematically estranged from its deepest commitments, persuading it to continue to abide the enclaves of excellence.
To study this regime’s fundamental principles meant, for Diamond, to study the Founding. For in the founding moment we see “writ large” the principles, purposes, and unresolved dilemmas that lie beneath our basic political institutions and culture, and that continue to this day to shape every aspect of our political aspirations and behavior. Furthermore, the particular virtue of the American Founding as an avenue into the study of political things is that it offers almost immediate access to the great philosophical contest between ancients and moderns—the so-called “battle of the books.” As Diamond learned from Strauss, understanding that contest is in fact the beginning of wisdom about political things.
If, at the peak of our ascent within the American regime, we are asked to turn to a study of the Founding—that is, to an examination of the Federalist Papers, the large commercial republic, and so forth—then our so-called “ascent” has in truth become a circular return. For, as Diamond might have put it, this is where we came in. We return to the Founding, however, armed with a new appreciation of the low but solid foundation of our regime and of the heights of human achievement it nonetheless makes possible.
Something, however, bars our way back. At the core of the contemporary discipline of political science is an insistence upon the radical distinction between fact and value. As Diamond explained, this doctrine holds that all political values, opinions, and beliefs are in fact nothing but superficial rationalizations or clumsy disguises for underlying economic or psychological or sociological influences—which are the real stuff, the scientifically knowable “facts” about politics.
For such a political science, a respectful treatment of the regime’s fundamental beliefs or convictions is, of course, simply not possible—only a cynically debunking treatment is. Students must learn to brush quickly past any prattle about justice or democracy or equality, to get to the real meat of politics—the underlying configurations of wealth, or cultural patterns of racism and sexism, or the prevalence of “authoritarian personalities” within society. Applied to the Founding, this approach would have to (and does) insist that the Founding Fathers could not possibly have been attempting to construct a decent democracy on the basis of reflection upon experience and political theory. Rather, they had to be motivated by, and primarily interested in protecting, their personal economic holdings.
Just as the fact-value distinction precludes a respectful treatment of our regime’s fundamental principles, so, Diamond insists, it forecloses the possibility of any authentic study of politics. For the genuine facts with which political science must come to grips are precisely values. Politics, he reminded us, is always and everywhere constituted by the rivalry of opinions about the good and the just—by the clash of values. The preeminent task of political science, he argued, is to reason about the degree and quality of reason embedded in such values—to explore and to weigh the various and conflicting claims about justice and the common good, with an eye to their truthfulness. To dismiss all such claims out of hand as mere rationalizations is in fact to blind ourselves to the political phenomena—to make utterly impossible the study of politics.
Ironically, Diamond observed, modern political science is led to misunderstand self-sustaining, reason-rooted political opinion by none other than James Madison himself, whose handiwork suffers so mightily at the hands of that political science. The mechanisms of Federalist No. 10 have tamed and denatured political opinion to such an extent that it may often appear to be little more than the handmaiden of economic self-interest. As much as economic interest may incline us to prefer one option over another, however, it cannot explain the reasons we give for our choice. And politics is precisely about the reasons we offer for what we do or want, and the effort to persuade others that our reasons are “better”—that is, more truthful—than theirs.
In the final analysis, Diamond thus suggests, to return to the Founding in the proper spirit—to come to a true understanding of our fundamental principles—in fact requires nothing less than a new and true political science, cultivated within the enclaves of excellence that those principles support and nourish.
Now we can appreciate the full subtlety and complexity of Martin Diamond’s title, As Far as Republican Principles Will Admit. His title asks us, first, to give full credence to the Founders’ claim that their regime did, indeed, reflect modern republican principles—not plutocratic principles, as some of the Founders’ critics would have it, nor ancient nor religious principles, as some well-meaning but misguided friends of the Founders would have it. Popular majorities were intended to rule in America—provided they were first moderated and refined by our governing institutions, and fragmented into a multiplicity of safely contending economic interests by our large, modern commercial economy.
On this basis, the Founders claimed, their new, distinctly modern democracy would possess certain qualities—prosperity, respect for rights, and stable, energetic government—that democracies had theretofore invariably lacked.
To be sure, the modernity of this new democracy meant that it relied upon and encouraged certain less-than-attractive human qualities, notably commercial self-interest and political ambition. The general tenor of the regime is thus by no means genteel, cultivated, noble, or contemplative. Nonetheless, an ascent from the low but solid foundation in the passions is possible within the regime, Diamond maintained. Commercial acquisitiveness fosters so-called “bourgeois” virtues; federalism gives rise to public-spirited, republican self-government; a proper understanding of liberty and equality permits the flourishing of, and accords honor to, human excellence in all its forms; and within enclaves of excellence, the few who wish and are qualified to do so may cultivate the highest human virtue, wisdom.
This ascent, however, is made emphatically within the modern, democratic regime, Diamond reminds us. It is never altogether out of sight of its Foundations in the baser passions, nor can it ever hope to reach the heights of glory that some ancient regimes achieved, albeit for a few, fleeting moments.
Nevertheless, our ascent does not require the ambitious political art or strenuous, all-embracing political institutions favored by the ancients. Rather, it involves the gentle shaping and molding of common human passions by mild, limited political institutions. Indeed, to some degree, the ascent results precisely because government removes itself from, rather than becomes intensively involved in, the shaping of human souls. For the modern thinkers who inspired the Founding, unleashing human nature was enough to ensure that its virtues (as well as its vices) would emerge and flourish.
This modest, unforced ascent is what takes us as far as republican principles will admit. As Diamond would maintain—and as we should acknowledge—it is quite far, indeed.
For some, of course, it is not far enough. As is clear throughout his essays, Diamond realized that the sober, sensible possibilities of the American regime are under relentless assault from utopian critics, who demand far more than did the Founders from politics and the human condition. These critics are impatient with the large, decentralized, commercial republic, because it hinders the formation of that one, true national majority that will help bring about a new, radically transformed human condition. They are hostile to the notion of a “natural aristocracy” and the liberty that nourishes it, because this new human condition is to be radically egalitarian, that is, egalitarian in every respect. The utopians would even hurl the enclaves of excellence into the struggle against excellence itself.
One has only to survey the horrors that such utopianism has wrought throughout the twentieth century to realize it asks human nature to go too far. Much wiser is it, Diamond insisted, to seek to elevate human nature only as far as our modern, republican principles will admit—to settle for the modest virtues that our regime cultivates in the many, and the higher virtues that it permits in the few.
Implicitly throughout his essays of twenty years, Martin Diamond developed and presented a coherent doctrine of the American regime. His doctrine aims to summon forth the best in us, as citizens: to remind us of human possibilities beyond the merely selfish pursuit of material things, by bringing to light those decent, attainable virtues that are peculiarly ours. Diamond insisted that we ask no more of our regime than it could deliver—but he also urged our regime to live up to its best self.