We have forgotten so much of what Americans once knew about America. To choose just one example—a simple but telling one—there is the name of the city of Cincinnati.
For decades, I have been conducting a kind of unscientific poll. Whenever I meet someone from Cincinnati, I always say, “Cincinnati. What an interesting name that is. Do you know where it came from?” The question generally elicits a blank look. So far, no one I have asked has been able to provide the answer. (I am certain many people from Cincinnati do know the answer, but evidently many don’t.)
Please don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to pick on the fine citizens of this great city; many of us who are not from Cincinnati can’t answer the question either.
This would have astonished Americans of the Founders’ generation and many later generations of Americans. Once upon a time, every American knew quite a bit about the men known as the Cincinnati—and about the man they were named for. That man was George Washington.
Washington was celebrated as “Cincinnatus.” He earned that name by being an astonishing example of republican virtue.
Meet the Original Cincinnatus
Washington led America to victory in the American Revolution, but he did not then seize political power, as many in Europe assumed he would and as his contemporary Napoleon did after the French Revolution. In London, George III asked the American-born painter Benjamin West what Washington, having won the war, would do. West replied that it was said he would return to his farm. “If he does that,” said the king, “he will be the greatest man in the world.”
Washington did that, and he was. And then he outdid even that by giving up power yet again.
Peace concluded, Washington resigned his military commission and went home to Mount Vernon and private life in 1783, astonishing the world. He returned to public life to preside over the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and to public office when he was elected president in 1789. He served two terms as president, each time winning every vote of the Electoral College.
His campaign for the second term consisted of him not declining to serve. Americans from all walks of life sent him letters begging him to continue in office and ministers led their congregations in prayer that he would consent to serve again. He then again astonished the world by declining to serve a third term, leaving office in 1797 and retiring to Mount Vernon, a private citizen once more.
It was for these actions specifically that Washington was known as Cincinnatus. Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was a hero of the Roman Republic. In the fifth century B.C., the Roman Senate called on Cincinnatus to lead the army of the republic against foreign invaders. After leading the army to victory, he resigned his commission and retired to his farm.
So, who were the Cincinnati? The Cincinnati were the officers who served with Washington in the Revolutionary War. They were bright with fame because they reflected the glory of their leader. In 1783, they founded the Society of the Cincinnati, and the city was named in their honor in 1790.
Not that long ago, just about any American knew as much or, even more, probably could even have named a few of the most famous Cincinnati. Today, not so much. But our forgetting is not limited to interesting historical facts. What has been forgotten includes the purpose of essential elements of the Founders’ design.
The Founders’ Magnificent Creation
Take, for one example, the Senate. Many of us do not know that senators were originally chosen by the state legislatures—and this change was made not that long ago. In 1913, around the beginning of the Progressive Era, the 17th Amendment to the Constitution tossed aside this critical feature of the Framers’ design, replacing it with the direct election of senators we have today.
The Founders would certainly have opposed the 17th Amendment because they would have understood that it would throw the system they gave us completely out of balance, as it, in fact, has done. It was perhaps the single change that would do the most to undo what the Founders had accomplished by means of the Constitution.
Americans in 1913 showed by their votes they had forgotten the purpose of the Framers’ design for the Senate. We today, by and large, have even forgotten that generation’s forgetting.
The consequences of this change to America’s constitutional order have been many and profound. Probably the most obvious has been the inevitable erosion of the independence of the states and of their ability to counterbalance federal power.
The Senate was once a barrier to the passage of federal laws infringing on the powers reserved to state governments, but the Senate has abandoned that responsibility under the incentives of the new system of election. Because the state governments no longer have a powerful standing body representing their interests within the federal government, the power of the federal government has rapidly grown at the expense of the states. State governments increasingly are relegated to functioning as administrative units of today’s gargantuan central government.
The Founders would say we no longer have a federal system, that the 17th Amendment in effect overthrew the 10th Amendment. Here is the 10th: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
The 10th has become a dead letter. Instead of retaining many of their powers and responsibilities as the Framers intended, the states are more and more entangled in administering federal programs and in carrying out federal mandates. These mandates are often not even funded by the federal government; the costs of unfunded mandates fall on the states.
The many new departments of the federal government that have accumulated in Washington, D.C. during the Progressive Era in which you and I now live, such as Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, and the Department of Education, involve themselves in, and even direct, functions the Framers left to the states.
Politics Ought to Be Local and Limited in Scope
According to the Founders’ vision, American political life was to be vibrantly local and limited in scope. Our contemporary obsession with national politics, the natural result of the centralization of enormous political power in Washington, was not what they intended.
Madison and the other Founders put much emphasis on the importance of the independence of the states to the preservation of Americans’ liberty. Lord Acton, the great scholar of the history of liberty, agreed with them: “Federalism: It is coordination instead of subordination; association instead of hierarchical order; independent forces curbing each other; balance, therefore, liberty.”
Direct election of U.S. senators undermined this critically important protection of liberty. The erosion of Americans’ individual liberty that has resulted is no doubt the most important consequence of the change. Many of our troubles today are self-inflicted, the result of us forgetting how the Founders’ system was designed to work and the unwise changes we have made because of our forgetting.
Tragically, because of our forgetting, we may be on the verge of making another mistake like the one Americans made in 1913. There is a powerful movement afoot to get rid of the Electoral College, an essential constitutional safeguard of American liberty.
As you know, each state is allotted as many electoral votes as it has senators and members of the House of Representatives. To become president of the United States, one must win election state by state. Eliminating the Electoral College and electing the president by direct vote, as the progressives are determined to do, would transform the office. Its occupant would in effect become the president of the Big Cities of America, and the last vestiges of autonomy guaranteed to the individual states by the Constitution’s electoral system would be swept away.