From a discussion on Citizen Tom’s blog on the forms of government, I wrote a bit on of how the US Constitution was inspired and framed:
There are conceptual hints in Scripture and remarks by Jesus on what forms of government are disfavored, but the Framers took inspiration from Aristotle. Many Enlightenment thinkers tended to downplay Aristotle, though the re-discovery of his works is one of the factors leading to the Enlightenment. But many of the Framers read Aristotle directly as well as earlier writers he inspired including Locke and de Montesquieu.
Aristotle spends the first several chapters of Book 4 of Politics cataloging systems of government in a way reminiscent of Linnaeus taking apart the structure of species of flowers. Aristotle gets something of a bad rap here, in which he is frequently said to “favor rule by a strong and virtuous leader.” This misunderstands him, as that is not his most favored arrangement. Here he describes a government divided into three branches:
Having thus gained an appropriate basis of discussion, we will proceed to speak of the points which follow next in order. We will consider the subject not only in general but with reference to particular constitutions. All constitutions have three elements, concerning which the good lawgiver has to regard what is expedient for each constitution. When they are well-ordered, the constitution is well-ordered, and as they differ from one another, constitutions differ. There is (1) one element which deliberates about public affairs; secondly (2) that concerned with the magistrates- the question being, what they should be, over what they should exercise authority, and what should be the mode of electing to them; and thirdly (3) that which has judicial power.
Aristotle’s work has given rise to many diagrams of governing systems, like this one from Wikipedia:
Of Aristotle’s favored system, he describes three functions, and de Montesquieu later develops this.
But de Montesquieu, as important as he was, actually didn’t like the three-branch system all that much, and seemed a bit fuzzy about how England’s government actually worked. Calvin’s role in developing the three branch idea is also often overlooked.
Still, Calvin was preceded by the deep thinking on these issues of Aristotle by almost exactly two thousand years, in which Aristotle developed surprisingly modern ideas not just of government, but of citizenship and virtue and liberty.
So America was inspired by ancient Greece, who inspired Anglican and European thinkers. But those Europeans had been inspired by America already, as the experience of the early Pilgrim governments (including formalizing the concept of religious liberty) had been documented into a book popular in England and Europe that influenced de Montesquieu and others, and from thence back to us.
The expression “scratched their heads” sounds to me like people gathering together and working a plan out from scratch. In the case of the Framers, a few key players arrived with plans already worked out in their minds. One, the Virginia Plan, was already written, and the Pinckney commentary, the New Jersey Plan, and Hamilton’s rather royalist idea now called the British Plan followed closely behind. These plans went through iterations of revision and combination to form the ultimate result. The Virginia Plan, for example, contains chunks with quite recognizable descendants in the Constitution.
A key aspect of the Convention was that it wasn’t just a group of learned men — though it was certainly that. These men were representing a dozen different nations engaged in an exercise of forging a joint governing system. But each already had their own (often quite different) governing system, as well as strong ideas as to how the joint enterprise should look. The Constitutional Convention was thus a time more of compromise than invention — and yet ultimately invented the most successful governing system ever created.
The US Constitution is not perfect, and certain ambiguities have been taken advantage of. (One of these, the Necessary and Proper clause, gave rise to the excellent Necessary and Proper blog by Jeff Rutherford.) These quirks things can be, and should be, addressed. But the basic concepts have proven worthy of preserving, and restoring to the level of respect and authority that they deserve. Only through such a course of action can the United States be preserved as a prosperous and free land.
===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle