In today’s day, we are confronted with disorder, almost chaos and anarchy at times. How do we bring order out of a disorderly situation? The concluding years of the American Revolution in the 1780s provides us with an example.
The Constitution was framed in the wake of the disorder caused by the American Revolution. In the 1780s there existed financial insecurity, economic decline, social unrest, political conflict. Ebenezer Hazard in Philadelphia and Jeremy Belknap of Boston were two thinkers who were part of the intellectual climate during which the Constitution was written. My book, Ebenezer Hazard, Jeremy Belknap, and the American Revolution (Routledge) provides a detailed overview of their respective political philosophies.
The challenge of the American Revolution was, for Hazard and Belknap, to somehow bring order out of an inherently disorderly situation. Eight years of conflict, chaos, and wanton freedom must be countered by stability and order. How? England represented order, against which the Americans waged a war for liberty. To gain liberty, disorder had to be pursued—in other words, war. Conservatives at the time reasoned that the disorder of too much liberty has to be constrained by government. The Americans could not have a revolution that was anarchic. They had to have some kind of order, which they accomplished with state governments and the Articles of Confederation. But this situation was one of thirteen sovereign powers attempting to unite the American people in a common government, and disorder and chaos still threatened. Conservatives, fearing disorder, decided to erect a more orderly government, the Constitution. The Constitution involved a reconciliation between freedom and order.
Jeremy Belknap and Ebenezer Hazard believed that the epoch of revolution, of liberty and the threat of disorder, was akin to the individual’s struggle with sin. God grants the individual free will, just as the Americans wanted to exercise their free will by declaring independence and achieving liberty from England. The problem with free will is that humans are prone to sin: free will leads to sin, from which, to recover, one must find grace in God’s forgiveness. For God establishes His eternal order of right and wrong, good and evil, virtue and sin, which humans try to conform to, and when they sin, which they inevitably do, they must reach out to God’s mercy for forgiveness. Just as human sin can be constrained, mitigated, by conforming to God’s order, God’s justice, so too human liberty that is too wanton can be constrained, mitigated, by government order, government justice. But can government ever approach the goodness of God, the order of God, the justice of God? The individual must recognize the sovereignty of God—that God’s will alone is the ultimate authority. Likewise, in civil affairs, can the people recognize a sovereign power that alone has the ultimate authority, that we can submit to, when necessary, even give up some of our liberty to, just as we submit to God, and know that we must sometimes give up some of our sinfulness, our free will, to conform to God’s order?
The U. S. Constitution was to Belknap and Hazard an example of sovereignty in civil affairs that would be akin to God’s sovereignty providing an overarching authority over individual free will.