Who Are We the People Anyway?

Who Are We the People Anyway?
AP Photo/Stephan Savoia, File

“The king is dead. Long live the king!” This seemingly contradictory proclamation made upon the death of a monarch encapsulates the theory of the “king’s two bodies.” The medieval concept differentiated between the king as a physical human being, mortal and capable of error, and the king as the body politic, “a Body that cannot be seen or handled, consisting of Policy and Government, and constituted for . . . the Management of the public weal,” as Elizabeth I’s lawyers put it. Upon the death of the old monarch, this public body immediately took residence in the new king, along with his physical presence.

In his recent book, Compromise and the American Founding: The Quest for the People’s Two Bodies, Alin Fumurescu argues that the notion of “two bodies” extends far beyond the age of kings. Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Houston, Fumurescu makes a strong case that the American founding—stretching from the Puritan settlements to the Civil War—can be understood as an extended working out of two rival conceptions of “the people” which reflect these same conceptions of the king.

The People’s Two Bodies

The first body corresponds to the physical body of the king: the people conceived of as a collection of equal individuals, united for their own interests and moving, as Locke put it, “whither the greater force carries it,” i.e. by the majority. This body generally reflects liberal social contract theory. Because of its reliance on majority rule, this is generally what we mean when we refer to the majority or the many (contra the elite) as “the people.”

The second conception sees the people as a “corporation, hierarchically structured, ruled by reason for the sake of the common good.” This is the more classical conception of a people as a whole greater than and, in some ways, more important than the parts that make it up. This unified, corporate body relies for guidance not on the majority but on a natural aristocracy, capable of seeing beyond individual self-interest.

Fumurescu’s thesis is that the development of American politics from the Puritans to the Civil War can be understood as a centuries-long grappling with these two competing, but equally essential, conceptions of the people. Ultimately, some sort of balance between these two was necessary to prevent either one from straying into dangerous territory. The corporatist conception of the people always threatens to devolve into “unchecked power” and rule by corrupt leaders; the liberal conception of the people threatens to devolve into a “licentious mob.” We see this most clearly in the Constitution’s ratification debates, in which Federalists worried about mob rule, while Anti-Federalists worried about an unchecked ruling class. Each seized on a different conception of “the people.” Understanding this balance helps us to weave together many partially correct narratives about the founding.

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