Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Key Political Insight of Fisher Ames, Founding Father

"To say that government isn’t the answer to our nation’s problems is to presuppose the wrong incentive for erecting government in the first place. Fisher Ames would know that. And that's why he’s relevant." So writes Stephen B. Tippins, Jr. over at The American Conservative in this profile of a sadly overlooked founding father, Fisher Ames:  Died on the 4th of July.  Ames was a leader of the Federalist Party during our Republic's infancy, and aside from being one of the pithiest founding fathers, he was a leader in the fledgling House of Representatives.  Here's a very brief political biography of Ames, courtesy of the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, and here's a slightly longer profile of his political views, courtesy of the Acton Institute.

As Tippins points out, Ames' strongest contribution to political thought is his understanding that democracy, understood in its classical (and negative) sense is incompatible with a strong state -- tyranny would result.  This insight explains his solid opposition to the Jeffersonian project, which combined democratic ideology with a powerful general government (despite Jefferson's deceptive rhetoric to the contrary).  The necessary role of the state in securing the conditions where virtue can flourish -- virtue which is essential in the population of a republic -- is undermined by democracy classically understood.  Radically democratic institutions will not provide the ethos of restraint necessary to reinforce civic virtue in the people, and without such civic virtue, republics cannot function.  This key insight from one of the most conservative of our founding fathers has been increasingly hard to find in modern American political life, not only on the Left but also on the Right. As Tippin concludes his article:
Anti-statist conservatives forget that we left the state of nature in the first place because the souls of men, which are inherently depraved, need nurturing, and only institutions can provide that. But democracy will not tolerate institutions of restraint, political or otherwise. Fisher Ames warned us well, if only we could recall his words.

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