Skip to main content

The American Leviathan

July 2024
3min read

Man is a contrary sort, driven by a desire to eat his cake and have it too. He wants incompatible things, and although this gets him into all kinds of trouble it may be the source of his strength. His desire for opposite extremes leads him into life-saving compromises, and the simple fact that no compromise lasts very long compels him to keep on tinkering. Because he never can get what he wants he keeps on trying. This often costs him more than he can afford to pay, but it may be good for him; at the very least it keeps him from getting stagnant.

Thomas Hobbes, the seventeenth-century political philosopher, noted that mankind wants both liberty and dominance. He wants to be free to do as he pleases, but he also wants to live under the controls that will give him some sort of security, especially security against war, riot, and rebellion—matters which are usually brought on by people’s insistence on full liberty of action. So, said Hobbes, men created government, the commonwealth, the “great Leviathan” set up to “tye them by fear of punishment to the performance of their Covenants and observation of [the] Laws of Nature.”

Of all of the Leviathans which mankind has devised, the one set up in America is in many ways the most unusual, and Roy F. Nichols, the distinguished historian from the University of Pennsylvania, examines this country’s experience in a thoughtful new book, Blueprints for Leviathan: American Style , which strikes this reviewer as an exceptionally stimulating discussion of the way we govern ourselves.

Until the Founding Fathers got down to work after the American Revolution, governments had come into being more or less by haphazard. Bodies of law, custom, and observance grew up around a strong central power, usually without any basic plan except for recognition of the fact that the will of the strongest is likely to prevail; men adapted themselves to a Leviathan, made the best of it, and now and then had to resort to violence in order to modify it to meet their most pressing needs. But in America, Leviathan—that is, the whole structure of government—was specifically contrived. Men found themselves in a vast geographical area, remote from all the rest of the world, with nothing much to go on except the undeniable necessity of creating a body politic which could function in a country that was like no other country that had ever existed.

Not only was this country remote from the other nations of the earth; its separate parts were remote from each other, and the sort of centralization that was common elsewhere was obviously out of the question. Furthermore, the Founding Fathers were starting from scratch. In sheer self-defense—to avoid the confusion and misunderstanding which would have caused the whole organism to fall apart—it was necessary to put everything down in writing. Elsewhere, if a constitution existed at all it was devised long after government itself had been created; here the constitution had to come first.

Blueprints for Leviathan: American Style , by Roy F. Nichols. Atheneum Press. 333 pp. $6.50.

Thus a whole series of constitutions, compacts, and charters came into being. As Mr. Nichols remarks, “No move of significance in the developing republic has been made without a written manifestation of purpose and authority.” The most individualistic and independent human beings on earth found themselves making a comprehensive effort to substitute the rule of law for the rule of force, to encompass all of the activities of a society of free men in the framework of an interlocked series of formal collective agreements.

This, when you stop to think about it, was slightly singular. Americans have always been noted for a tendency to lawlessness, an impatience with restraint, a mood that exalts the right of each man to act as he sees fit. Yet they found themselves, at the very beginning of their experience as a nation, attaching supreme importance to the law-making function. If men are going to live by laws, the power to draft and enact those laws is of vast consequence. One consequence of this is that from the adoption of the Constitution down to the present day the structure of government has needed constant attention and frequent overhaul. Mr. Nichols points out that the American people, who have this structure in their care, “must be men capable of complex intellectual activity, able to adjust the mechanism, to change the specifications as time changes and to be ingenious in supplying new parts.” This is an unending challenge, and it led Abraham Lincoln—at a time when adjustments and changes were being made at enormous expense—to pose the haunting question: “Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?”

The problem was recognized from the beginning. The men who established this republic were largely of English background, and at the time they were going about their labors England was fully dedicated to the rule of law. But the whole point of the English operation was that the underlying constitution was unwritten. This could not be the American pattern; blueprints and specifications had to be drawn up in advance. Furthermore, government in this far-flung land had to operate on two levels. The newly independent colonies had to devise their individual state constitutions at the same time that they were putting together a central government; and the men who were doing all of this, even though they were showing a remarkable respect for formal codes of government, were also men who strongly distrusted centralized authority and believed that as much power as possible ought to be held close to the grass-roots level. Thus, says Mr. Nichols, “Instead of continuing the loose league of independent republics or creating an allpowerful centralized national government, the daring innovators created a novelty in political construction, a federal system embracing thirteen units, including four million people, and extending over a region that had a’meteorological variety marked by such contrasts as Maine winters and Georgia summers.”

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.