“We the people”

I have to admit to a personal idiosyncrasy: whenever any group claims authority to speak on behalf of the people, I look for a place to hide or, barring that, to throw up.

Diderot and his pupil

With no notable exceptions, I detect therein the workings of a small group of demagogues lacking real legitimacy and hence seeking its simulacrum.  

The US Constitution, which opens with the words in the title, is a case in point. The other day I mentioned that it was ratified by less than three per cent of the people in whose name it supposedly had been drafted.

That set an example for all post-Enlightenment states to follow. Governments voted in by, say, a third or even a quarter of the people, claim a ringing popular mandate. That, they insist, empowers them to do whatever they like, including playing fast and loose with the constitution. Hey, the people have spoken. So you, Mr Sceptic, might as well shut up.

The opening passage of the US Constitution was lifted almost verbatim from the constitution of the Iroquois nations: “We, the people, to form a union, to establish peace, equity, and order…”.

That wasn’t a case of simple plagiarism. For the framers obviously lacked any examples of prior republican charters. Hence they asked John Adams, who at that time was drumming up support for the new state in Europe, to write an overview of all existing forms of government.

He responded by producing a three-volume work that remains a seminal text of political science to this day. It took Adams some three weeks to write, making one rue wistfully that few contemporary politicians would be capable even of reading such an essay in that time, never mind writing it. (Joe Biden, ring your office.)

Among other polities, Adams specifically investigated the experience of American Indians whose tribes often ran themselves along proto-democratic and proto-federalist lines. He evidently found the opening words produced by the Iroquois Confederacy sufficiently inspiring to suggest a version of them for the preamble to the US Constitution.

Every American schoolchild knows (or rather used to know) that. But the words “we the people” also had a more immediate and less exotic provenance in the works of Denis Diderot, one of the key figures of the Enlightenment.

Diderot was perhaps the greatest French writer of his time, much admired by the other men with a claim to that distinction, Voltaire and Rousseau. Yet he illustrates the depth of the abyss into which even a supremely gifted man can fall when he lacks sound metaphysics to hold on to.

Diderot’s novels, The Nun, Rameau’s Nephew and Jacques the Fatalist rival Voltaire’s Candide for coruscating brilliance, but his fiction isn’t what he is mainly known for.

As the editor of, and principal contributor to, The Encyclopaedia, he laid out the blueprint for the coming civilisational mayhem. It’s his ideas, and not just his words, that worked their way into the formative documents of both American and French Revolutions.

Diderot is often misquoted as saying, “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” Pedantic readers notice the inaccuracy and gleefully say that Diderot said nothing of the sort. But he did.

For the benefit of such erudite readers, here’s the exact quotation from his poem: “La nature n’a fait ni serviteur ni maître;/ Je ne veux ni donner ni recevoir de lois./ Et ses mains ourdiraient les entrailles du prêtre,/ Au défaut d’un cordon pour étrangler les rois.” [“Nature created neither servant nor master;/ I seek neither to rule nor to serve./ And its hands would weave the entrails of the priest,/ For the lack of a cord with which to strangle kings.”]

(At this point, kaleidoscopic scenes starring King Charles and Archbishop Welby flash through my mind, but I make an effort to chase them away.)

So never mind the exact wording, feel the spirit. And it was the spirit that animated the Enlightenment.

Like any modern revolutionary movement, it accommodated two salient human types I call the Nihilist and the Philistine. The Nihilist seeks to destroy the old order; the Philistine, to build some sort of eudaemonia on the resulting rubble. The two types coexist symbiotically in every revolution, but their relative weight differs from one to the next.

Thus both the American and French revolutions sought to destroy, with the Nihilist’s voice clearly discernible in the discordant political choir. But the Philistine claimed his own share of voice too, offering some vision of what he wished to create.

If the two types were more or less balanced in the American Revolution, the Nihilist was the dominant voice in the French version of the Enlightenment oratorio. And Diderot was both the choir master and the preacher.

Bizarrely, his sermons reached all the way to the Russian court of Catherine II, that most absolute of monarchs. Catherine liked to flirt with fashionable ideas and often described herself, against all evidence, as a republican. Hence she sought Diderot’s advice on how to weave the ideals of the Enlightenment into the Russian political fabric. (That didn’t prevent her from extending serfdom to the Ukraine.)

When she found out that Diderot was struggling to make ends meet, she appointed him caretaker of her vast library and paid him a princely (revolutionary?) sum of 50,000 livres in advance. Diderot then spent five months in Petersburg, swapping platitudes with the Empress every day – against the background of the screams coming out of the torture chamber run by her secret police chief Stepan Sheshkovsky.

On his deathbed, Diderot bequeathed his political will to Catherine, and it was his dying wish that she should follow it to the letter.

The Empress not only should abdicate, wrote Diderot, but she should also exterminate any future pretenders to the throne. He left it to her imagination whether or not to use priestly entrails to that end.

“There is no true sovereign other than the nation, and there can be no true legislator other than the people,” taught the dying man.

Catherine ought to bestow on her grateful subjects a constitution, added Diderot, starting with the words: “We the people, and we the sovereign of this people, swear conjointly these laws, by which we are judged equally.”

To her credit, the Empress didn’t follow Diderot’s prescriptions. But other people did.

That’s why I’m always amused (and bemused) when fire-eating American patriots deny any philosophical and political links between their country’s founding and the Enlightenment. But then ideologies of any kind are impervious to facts – and reason.   

6 thoughts on ““We the people””

  1. I thoroughly enjoy reading each and every one of your articles. Today’s entry sent me to my dictionary – twice! – coruscate and eudaemonia being new to me. If only I had taken education as seriously as a young man. And, while I have read the entire collection here, I do occasionally click on the links for related articles and reread.

    We the people, having once consented to be governed, are chained to it (or ground under it) in saecula saeculorum.

    While it does not help us in our current condition, I do find it comforting that the “vision of the anointed” (than you again, Thomas Sowell!) predates our own political and cultural mess. Diderot’s conceit (being an accomplished writer he fancied hiumself an accomplished politcal scientist) is matched by nearly all our present day academics and “intellectuals”. The more things change the more they stay the same.

    1. Thank you. And I’m sorry about sending you to the dictionary — that’s never my intention. I just try to find the most precise word to say what I want to say, and English offers endless possibilities for that. Every now and then I’m interviewed by Russian streaming services, and I regularly find myself stuck for a word in what’s supposed to be my mother tongue. I thought that was my fault, for not having spoken much Russian for decades. But then I realised it was the fault of the Russian language, whose vocabulary is only about a third the size of English.

      1. It is wonderful to have such a vocabulary available to us. Which makes it all the more shameful that the progressives are set on destroying meaning.

        I enjoy learning new words, though at my age they quickly become strangers again.

  2. If Diderot had wanted to compile a useful encyclopedia, he’d have accepted the great composer J-P Rameau’s offer to write the articles on music, instead of entrusting the work to the rather less great composer J-J Rousseau. Rameau seems to have had no interest in politics at all, and is therefore the earliest example known to me of a man denied a job for not being PC enough.

  3. “The opening passage of the US Constitution was lifted almost verbatim from the constitution of the Iroquois nations”

    Thank you for the reminder. I had forgotten that. Hearing or reading “We the People …” always makes me want to ask, “Which people?” It was the Iroquois, of course, most of whom ironically sided with the British.

  4. The “We the People” that drafted the Constitution were a tiny group of the elite who came together in reaction to the real people who were being oppressed by the Massachusetts mercantile class.
    The small holders were suppressed by a mercenary army raised by that class.
    The constitution before the constitution, the Articles of Confederation, wasn’t doing the job for the upper classes, so they made a document that worked for them and “We the People” was a fib.
    I recommend Leonard L. Richards’ Shays’s Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Final Battle.

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