There are many things to like about the Broadway musical 1776. The musical fancifully presents a drama of the debate on the Declaration of Independence in the few weeks leading up to the vote on July 4, 1776. Yes, it is historically inaccurate in places. Yes, it conflates individuals and ideas. Yes, we cannot depend on it for accurate history. But it does present a philosophical dialogue on certain issues that we as a nation confronted then and are confronting now.
One of those dialogues is the role of a representative in a legislative body. Is the responsibility of a representative to vote the preference of the majority of people he represents or to vote his own conscience? In the musical, each state delegation has its own dynamic. Rhode Island is represented by three delegates, two of which are in favor of independence and one of which is opposed. The three are always in a state of combat. The New York delegate is presented as without guidance from his state legislature. However, the most character in the dialogue is the delegate from Georgia.
Enter Dr. Lyman Hall, new delegate to the Continental Congress from the colony of Georgia. Upon his arrival, the weightiest question is how Dr. Hall will vote on the issue of independence. He says that Georgia is divided, the people are opposed to independence but he is in favor, and until he can resolve the problem, he will remain opposed to the question. He starts out on the one side of the spectrum, taking the “democratic” philosophy, to express the view of his constituency.
The musical is driven by the tension of how Congress will move from a tie vote to unanimity in the end. As the story progresses to a conclusion, John Adams sings his climatic overture “Is Anybody There?” He asks, “Does anybody see what I see?” At the conclusion of the song, Dr. Hall quietly makes his solemn observation from a paraphrase of Sir Edmund Burke, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” As he does so, he moves Georgia from the opposition column on the tally board for independence to the favorable position.
Where does this leave us? Which side should we take? Sir William Blackstone would conclude, with Dr. Hall and Sir Edmund Burke, that a representative of the people should utilize his own judgment in casting his vote. But the judgment must be one in favor of the common good and not the good for his constituency. Blackstone wrote in Book 1, Chapter 2, “Of the Parliament,” of his Commentaries:
And every member, though chosen by one particular district, when elected and returned serves for the whole realm. For the end of his coming thither is not particular, but general; not barely to advantage his constituents, but the common wealth; to advise his majesty (as appears from the writ of summon) “de communi consilio super negotiis quibusdam arduis et urgentibus, regem, statum, et defensionem regni Angliae et ecclesiae Anglicanae concernentibus” [concerning the common council upon certain difficult and urgent affairs relating to the king, the state, and defense of the kingdom of England and of the English church]. And therefore he is not bound, like a deputy in the united provinces, to consult with, or take the advice, of his constituents upon any particular point, unless he himself thinks it proper or prudent so to do.
For our society today, the implication of this posture is monumental. Almost from its inception, this nation has been moving away from Blackstone and to Dr. Hall’s original “democratic” position. The transformation in the early stages of the nation can be recorded best by the development and adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the popular election of U.S. Senators. The Seventeenth Amendment supercedes Article I, section 3, Clauses 1 and 2 of the Constitution, providing for selection of U.S. Senators by the respective state legislatures. The Senate, under the original vision of the Founding Fathers, was to represent the wisdom of the states as a counterbalance to the whim of the people. In 1913, that vision was reversed with the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment.
Blackstone would encourage the law to seek out Scripture for guidance. Scripture warns against the attitude of covetousness, seeking to have what others have to the other’s detriment. “Thou shalt not covet . . . ,” Scripture commands. Scripture warns that covetousness will destroy a people.
Covetousness and democracy walk hand in hand. Alexis de Tocqueville saw this early in the nation’s history, writing, “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.” We see what de Tocqueville warned about today. We debate tax credits for special corporate interest groups. We debate entitlements. We debate government services to every group imaginable. We grant bailouts to our friends and allies. If you spend any time around the capital building in Jefferson City, it takes little time to come to the realization that a primary motive in the capital is to obtain benefits from “my” government.
Our commitment to this type of thinking is so extreme that we have not only geographic constituencies of state and representative districts, we have party special interest constituencies. Have any of us never felt the attitude that a congressman must vote a certain way because he represents us, whether because he or she is “our” congressman or because he or she is an R or D? It is even reported that our elected official state that they “owe” a certain constituency group because they voted heavily for a particular candidate. Is this attitude not more like an invading band of insurgents, seeking to plunder the defeated forces? If this is our posture, what is left when the plunder is complete? If this is our posture, our punishment is deserved.
Blackstone suggests an old course, but a course we need to adopt as new: a representative must serve the realm and not the private interests of his own constituents. He must exercise his independent wisdom. To put Blackstone in other words, a representative must seek justice for all. Only by seeking justice for all, can he guard himself and his people against the avarice to benefit some at the expense of others, i.e. covetousness. Covetousness engenders hatred for the group envied, but seeking justice in the public realm fosters an attitude of respect for all people.
Legislators, seek to provide wisdom and justice in your state and not just benefits for “your” people. They are not yours; they are God’s. You have been ordained to execute justice as Romans 13 says. Legislators must lead in this regard. Voters, seek wisdom in your legislators and not just your way. Anything else leads to covetousness and destruction.