Americans have learned many important lessons from our political history. From experience we can now see the wisdom of our Founding Fathers expressed in our Constitution: enumeration and separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism, etc. I believe it's now time to learn a lesson from leading founders about the value of "moderation" in politics.
The word "moderate" is now often used to indicate a centrist political position. But to our founders, "moderation" meant something like temperance, judiciousness and open-minded reasonableness — a disposition to avoid extremes of action and expression. In The Federalist Papers, numbered political essays written when the Constitution of 1787 was undergoing the scrutiny of a ratification process, two of our leading founders, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, tried to teach "a lesson of moderation."
In Federalist No. 1, Hamilton contrasts "moderation" with the "intolerant spirit" of "those who are ever so much persuaded of their being in the right in any controversy." In Federalist No. 2, John Jay, who later became the first chief justice of the Supreme Court, contrasts moderation with "pride," which predisposes us to "justify all (our) actions" instead of "acknowledging, correcting or repairing (our) errors and offenses."
In Federalist No. 37, James Madison extols the "spirit of moderation," which he says is "essential" when judging whether "public measures ... advance or obstruct the public good" and laments that, because of human nature, this spirit of moderation is more often "diminished than promoted, by those occasions which require an unusual exercise of it." Madison observes that bias, passions and interests often obstruct "fair discussion and accurate judgment" and commends those who "add to a sincere zeal for the happiness of their country, a temper favorable to a just estimate of the means of promoting it."
Madison continues: "Persons of this character [moderation] will proceed to an examination of the plan submitted by the (Constitutional Convention of 1787), not only without a disposition to find or to magnify faults; but will see the propriety of reflecting, that a faultless plan was not to be expected. Nor will they barely make allowances for the errors which may be chargeable on the fallibility to which the convention, as a body of men, were liable; but will keep in mind, that they themselves also are but men, and ought not to assume an infallibility in judging the fallible opinions of others."
More than anything else, it is the human tendency to "assume (one's own) infallibility" when censuring others, which is destructive of civility in political discourse. On the other hand, a temperament "favorable to a just estimate" of the public good is one which balances zeal with a sense of one's own limitations, inclining one to listen judiciously to others' points of view, and to avoid rash expressions and the tendency to rush to judgment.
Political discourse in this country now involves more of its citizens than ever before, but too many have not learned Madison and Hamilton's "lesson of moderation." As a result, the political right is able to profit from using alarmist fear tactics to demonize the left, and the left is smugly satisfied with using ridicule to make the right seem foolish. Amid this tumult, we can only hope that new voices of reason who have learned the "lesson of moderation" will eventually be discovered and assume a new prominence.
Mark Riddle, a retired Japanese instructor, lives in Pleasant Grove.