To delineate his principles takes Garry Wills three hundred pages, using James Madison’s famous adage (“If men were angels, no government would be necessary”) as springboard:
But if men were angels, they would need no sexual partners, no education, no cooperation to feed and raise families. An angel (that fiction) has no body, no ignorant youth to be enlightened, no need for others. We do not conclude from this that sex and the family and education are evil in themselves. Being human is not an evil condition, but one needing completion from others, in love and companionship, in teaching and learning, in mutual support and correction — in all of which government has a part to play.
Why is it so difficult for Americans to admit this fact? One reason is that the semi-official philosophy of government we absorb, with various degrees of conscious articulation, is a vulgarized theory of John Locke’s social contract, which teaches that government is founded on a necessary loss of freedom, no on the enhancement of liberty. Another reason is that prudent watchfulness over governmental pretensions is imperative, and people fear that we will “let down our guard” if we grant that government is good in itself. To admit an essential goodness in government is not to say that everything governments do is good. but a simplistic conclusion is encouraged as the only safeguard against a surrender to despotism.
Published in 1999, A Necessary Evil squints through the smoke of William Jefferson Clinton’s impeachment, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Contract For America, Newt Gingrich, and talk show hosts. It’s a rearguard effort that looks simultaneously quaint and prescient, Wills’ own The Paranoid Style in American Politics but comprised of chapters discrete enough to publish in, say, The New York Review of Books without context.
Madison the constitutionalist, Wills argues, was not Madison the congressman and aide de camp of Thomas Jefferson in which capacity he wrote the astonishing Virginia Resolutions, the ur-text for Southern secession three score years later; rather, Madison recognized the void at the center of small-f-federalism, which was the palliative effect of a strong central authority cooling the passions of the states. A line from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural speech is also instructive: no constitution provides for its own destruction. Around the banal conclusion that politicians out of power say stupid things Wills rallies quotes from President Jefferson reeling from the disaster known as the Embargo Act, the enforcement of which made John Adams’ Alien and Sedition acts look like traffic ticket collection:
If all these people are convicted there will be too many to be punished with death. My hope is that they will send me full statements of every man’s case that the most guilty may be marked as examples, and the less suffer long imprisonment under reprieves from time to time.
Benjamin Franklin did not live long enough to direct his appraisal of Adams (“means well for his country, is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in some things, absolutely out of his senses”) at Jefferson.
Disquisitions on nullifiers, insurrectionists, seceders, and vigilantes constitute the bulk of Wills’ book, a lot of which readers have seen elsewhere but not synthesized so pithily. Opposition to Hamiltonian systems of credit and banking, he writes, inhibited the Confederacy’s establishment of sound legal tender, for example. That’ll show those secessionists. We dislike government so much that in the new systems we plant the seeds of their own demise.