Our Tradition: The American Polity

The essential peculiarity of the [American political system] has not been the assertion that in the words of John Locke, “the people shall be judge” of “the prince and the legislative act,” nor in the determination that government shall be by the people. The Middle Ages knew this meaning of the sovereignty of the people and acknowledged that a sense of justice presumed to be resident in the people empowers them to judge the prince and the legislative act. The genius of the American system lies rather in the bold answer given to the urgent nineteenth-century question, “Who are the people?” After some initial hesitation America replied forthrightly, “Everybody, on a footing of equality.” This is a greatly humanist statement, pregnant with an acceptance of the human that was unique in history. This answer denied that the people are the great beast of aristocratic theory. It also denied that the people are immature children, as in the theories of the enlightened despot, who reserved to himself, as Father and King of the nation-family, the total ius politiae and the right of spiritual and political tutelage over his subject-children. The American proposition asserted that the people can live a life of reason, exercise their birthright of freedom, and assume responsibility for the judgment, direction, and correction of the course of public affairs. It implied that there is an authentic and exalted human value in this commission to the people of the right of self-government.

On this premise the American system made government simply an instrumental function of the body politic for a set of limited purposes. Its competence was confined to the political as such and to the promotion of the public welfare of the community as a political, i.e., lay, community. In particular, its power of censoring or inhibiting utterance was cut to a minimum, and it was forbidden to be the secular arm of any church. In matters spiritual the people were committed to their freedom, and religion was guaranteed full freedom to achieve its own task of effecting the spiritual liberation of man. To this task the contribution of the state would be simply that of rendering assistance in the creation of those conditions of freedom, peace, and public prosperity in which the spiritual task might go forward.

Within the problematic of a Christian humanism the question here is where this concept of the people in their relation to the temporal power can and ought to be accepted. Can the human value in the statement that the people shall judge the prince and the legislative act — as well as elect him, limit his powers, and direct the manner of their exercise — be affirmed? Can all its implications be loyally accepted? Nature has made the statement. Is the work of grace one of contradiction, or of transformation?

Heretofore the Catholic answer has been somewhat ambivalent. The American political idea and the institutions through which it works have been accepted in practice, rather completely and perhaps naively. At the same time there seems to exist an implied condemnation of the system in theory. The condemnation appeals to the stand taken by the Church against Jacobin democracy, the type of government based on radically rationalist principles that emerged from the French Revolution. A condemnation of the American idea is implied only because there has been an official failure to take explicit account of the fact that the American political system and its institutions are not of Revolutionary and Jacobin inspiration. The question now is, whether this ambivalent attitude is any longer either intellectually or morally respectable, whether it takes proper account of the realities in the situation and of the special affirmation of the human that America has historically made.

From We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, by John Courtney Murray, S.J., C.) 1960 Sheed and Ward, Inc. Reprinted with permission of Andrews, McMeel and Parker. All rights reserved.


tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...