Superior Spirits and Fundamental Law

Superior Spirits and Fundamental Law

After covering the ideal qualities of a good ruler, Eliot offers some realist commentary. In this “imperfect state” no one will embody them comprehensively or perfectly. The quest for the exemplar ruler is a fools errand. That said, there are men who are more capable than others. Eliot clearly believes in some sort of natural hierarchy. Some men possess “a larger proportion of understanding and integrity.” They are “superior spirits, men who are born to guide, to instruct, and to preserve; their abilities and their virtues denote that they were formed for the public good.” It’s what God made them for, and they are dutybound to serve their country.

There’s a new resource up here at American Reformer: Andrew Eliot’s 1765 election day sermon. Comparatively, Eliot’s sermon is short and highly readable, and it presents a window into the religious and political expectations of New Englanders just prior to the war for independence. The historically interested and casual laymen alike will be interested in Eliot’s discourse. Albeit Eliot leans toward popular sovereignty, he demonstrates that it can be held in tandem, if in tension, with appreciation for monarchy. Read the brief introduction to the sermon for general background and context. Per usual, some highlights and brief commentary on a few themes in the sermon follows below.

Constitutions and Fundamental Law

“It is necessary they [i.e., rulers] should have a particular acquaintance with the constitution of the country they are called to govern. Reason we say dictates that there should be government; and the voice of reason is the voice of God.” “[C]onstitutions are a sort of fundamental laws, which cannot be violated without the greatest danger to a community.” Later Eliot adds, citing Romans 13, “submit yourselves to every human constitution for the Lord’s sake.” This applies to rulers and the ruled. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, “fundamental law” is a difficult early modern concept to nail down, but it certainly means no less than constitutional expectations, especially as to governmental form.

Constitutions, good constitutions, should be tailored to a people, a time, and a place. This is partly the reason why they should be considered fundamental law, especially if they, being well thought and well applied, are reasonable and conducive to a people’s good. The very thing that makes constitutions good can also cause them to expire, and, thereby, make change necessary.

“Perhaps the same constitution is not best for all societies, or for the same society at all times.” Hence, a key caveat from Eliot regarding the default respect for constitutional arrangements:

“I will not say, that they who are in government may not propose an alteration in the constitution, when they see manifest inconveniences; every member of the state may do this; and there may be extraordinary cases wherein it may be necessary to deviate from common rules; in such cases the safety of the people is to be preferred to every other consideration. But no wise ruler would desire a general power of dispensing with the laws; nor is it possible to proceed with too much caution in making any great alteration in the civil constitution of a state; especially when it has been long established, and the wisdom of ages has been employed to confirm it.”

This is true statesmanship Eliot is calling for. Fundamental law, preexisting constitutional structures should be respected and only cautiously tinkered with. Hence,

“where the constitution is tolerably good, it is generally the wisdom of those in power, to maintain a sacred regard to it themselves; and to endeavor that it may not be violated by others. This is their safety, and very often the safety of those they govern. When a humor of changing once begins, no mortal can tell where it will end.”

But the entire point of such arrangements is, or should be, the safety, good, and prosperity of the people to whom it applies as a mechanism for governance—all good governance must exist for these purposes. A true statesman, then, is not eager for change for its own sake, nor wanton innovation. Yet, the good of the people is paramount. To the extent that preexisting structures do not serve that end they can and should be dispensed with. This is ends-based governance as opposed to the procedural, means-based variety. Too many Americans instinctively appeal to and are pacified by the latter.

Religion and Virtue

“Rulers cannot come up to the character of the text, unless they are men of religion and virtue.” If they are not godly then the very skills and competencies that make men good rulers will degenerate into “cunning” and exploitation, pursuit of private interest over the common good. The temptation is simply too great for men of skill given such vast means. To be clear, by religion Eliot means Christianity. By virtue, he means true piety. Eliot genuinely thinks that a Christian is simply more capable of good and magnanimous rule.

“[The] Christian temper… will more than anything help us to distinguish between right and wrong; when private interests and private views are removed… When rulers have such a happy disposition, they will study the true interest of those they govern, which is the way to understand it; they will watch against a little party spirit and every selfish sinister view.”

And again, “When the love and fear of God reign in the heart, men will rise to nobler heights, and to more distinguished acts of virtue, than from any other motive. When they consider the whole community as brethren, they will naturally seek the common good.”

Of course, prudence, frugality, temperance, and industry are all qualities becoming of a good ruler.

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