In America in 2017, calling someone an “aristocrat” would usually be far from a compliment. Many interpret the 2016 election as a populist revolt against “elitists.” On this view, voters rejected the political aristocracy represented by Hillary Clinton and chose Donald Trump, who promised to return power to the people.
But we shouldn’t fear the word “aristocracy.” Or even aristocracy itself. The Founders certainly did not. In fact, they sought to establish an aristocracy, and in the Constitution they demand that America be ruled by aristocrats.
On its face, that assertion appears deeply elitist — and not only that, but plain wrong. Doesn’t the preamble of the Constitution declare that “We the People . . . do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America”? Doesn’t this statement mean that, in America, the people rule?
In the most crucial sense, yes. The people are the final authority in our system of government. They, therefore, ultimately rule. But consider how our Constitution works. The people do not pass laws. They do not enforce them. They do not interpret them. Instead, only a few persons holding particular offices perform those duties. The Founders could have decided that the offices would be filled in perfectly democratic fashion: by rotating them among citizens, for example, drawing names at random. Instead, the Constitution assigns high office to those whom the people consciously choose, either directly or indirectly.
Why would “We the People” ratify a constitution with that method for filling political offices? The Founders argued that good government would result from the people’s choosing those whom they deemed especially fit for the task of governing.
In this — this selection of a few by the many — we find not only the substance of something aristocratic but the name as well. Thomas Jefferson calls these elected officeholders members of the “natural aristocracy among men.” James Madison, in Federalist 57, declares that “the aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men” of high caliber.
But what, for the Founding Fathers, defined this natural aristocracy? Its members are not recognized by law. The Constitution forbids the creation of a legally sanctioned ruling class: It prohibits both national and state governments from granting to any person a “Title of Nobility.”
Nor, Madison says, should we base this aristocracy on the qualifications historically privileged by law — qualifications such as those “of wealth, of birth, of religious faith, or of civil profession.” None of these characteristics, he maintains, should be “permitted to fetter the judgment or disappoint the inclination of the people” in their election of officeholders. Madison instead defines the best rulers as those “who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society.” The natural aristocrat would be judged in light of the common good.
What, for the Founders, was the common good? We may find our answer in two places. First, we find it in the document we celebrate every Fourth of July — the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson calls it an “expression of the American Mind.” It defines the common good by asserting the principles of just government, which exists to protect rights and derives its powers from the consent of the people. Second, we see the definition of the common good in the Constitution itself, where we learn how a government may achieve and maintain it. Our system of federalism and separation of powers, for example, exists to “preserve the blessings of liberty to ourselves and to our posterity.”
By Madison’s account, the natural aristocrat will conform to this high standard in two ways. First, he will “possess . . . wisdom to discern” it. He must know the underlying principles and possess the skill to apply them in the making, enforcing, or adjudicating of law. But he must also possess, beyond mere knowledge, the “virtue to pursue” the standard as well. This virtue entails both a desire to act on one’s knowledge and a commitment to the shared understanding of the common good.
Under the Constitution, the qualities of the natural aristocrat know no social or economic status or geographical locale. The natural aristocrat may be born in a mansion or in a shack. His formal education may be first-rate or middling. He may come from Manhattan or West Virginia, from Savannah or Orange County.
Our problem, then, is not that we don’t have an aristocracy — it’s that our aristocracy is what Jefferson considers “artificial.” John Adams, too, warns of the potential threat that artificial aristocrats pose. He notes that not all persons who gain prominence, power, and influence do so because of their wisdom and virtue. People can achieve those ends through their wealth, birth, even their physical beauty.
Today, too many of our political elites obtain their position through those and other illegitimate means. Their status comes from their income, address, or the institutional name on their diploma, but they lack the substance of a true, natural aristocrat. They lack not only the wisdom to understand the common good but also the virtue to pursue it. They misunderstand the Declaration’s principle of inalienable rights and the Constitution’s theory of separation of powers. And to the degree that they do understand, many of them reject those ideas, dismissing them as, at best, surpassed historical artifact or, at worst, monuments to bigotry.
If we are to renew our founding principles, we must encourage a new birth of the natural aristocracy and at the same time move away from the artificial kind. Far from being elitist, that development would vindicate popular rule. For that new birth cannot, ultimately, come from those holding office. It must come from the source of their authority: We the People.