Review of the Book
The Power in the People
Sydney A. Mayers
[Originally published in 1949, a new edition was
published in 1972.
This review was probably written in 1972,
reprinted in Fragments, July-December 1985]
A quizzical eyebrow may well be raised at the thought of reviewing
at this time a book first published in 1949. Yet, when the book in
question remains a continuing example of intellectual
accomplishment, which can be read even today as if it were now newly
issued, surely there is ample reason once again to call attention to
it. The Power in the People, a great work by Felix Morley,
is a contemporary classic, as rewarding and edifying as ever, whose
enduring validity is perhaps best evidenced by the fact that when a
new edition appeared in 1972, a quarter century after it was
written, it was reprinted without change from the original edition.
Nor is any change required currently, for there is no need to update
so timeless land timelyl a volume.
Basically, Dr. Morley's text is a treatise on the birth and growth
of the American nation, its topic being politics, not economics. In
it he presents an extremely profound analysis of the origin,
creation, and development of the governmental structure that has
brought about the evolvement of the United States from a group of
isolated colonies to a rich and powerful country. However, the book
ranges far beyond this oversimplified description. While Morley
considers in broad and pene trating fashion the form, system, devel
opment, and operation of our govern ment, it is clearly not the
structure that commands his earnest attention as much as the
character and purpose of our perhaps unique kind of government, and
its effect on the life and liberty of the American populace.
Dr. Morley strongly emphasizes his concern that there exists far
too little understanding, not only of the very meaning of the term "republic,"
but also of what really constitutes a repub lican system of
government, and the particular and quite special nature and goals of
our own republic, as rooted in the Constitution. He somewhat
bitterly points out that "foreign observers have long been more
interested than Ameri cans in analyzing the differences that
distinguish our Republic from any other political experiment of this
or earlier times." He quotes James Madison, "the master
builder of the Constitution," who in The Federallst explained
that a republic has ". . . a government which derives all its
powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and
is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure,
for a limited period, or during good be haviour. It is essential to
such a govern ment that it be derived from the great body of the
society, not from an incon siderable proportion, or a favored class
of it." lincidentally, The Power in the People is
dedicated by Felix Morley "to the Memory of James Madison."
Bluntly setting forth his belief that "Itihe Preamble has
received inade quate attention in the many compre hensive and
searching studies made of the Constitution of the United States,"
Morley asserts unequivocally that "this book is primarily
concerned with the Preamble and only incidentally with specific
articles and amendments." The reason for his concentration on
the fifty famous opening words is evident. In the Preamble to the
Constitution appear six specific aims, to attain which "we, the
people of the United States" ordained and established that
magnificent instru ment, the sixth goal being to "secure the
Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity." Morley
examines the Preamble at length and in depth, and concludes inter
a/ia that the last stated objective, to assure liberty for all,
is clearly the most important.
Notwithstanding Dr. Sam Johnson's cynical quip anent the alleged
concur rence of patriotism with rascality, it must be said that
Felix Morley was, in the best sense, a patriot. He fervently
believed the U.S.A. was established on the basis of ethical
principles: that its peculiar government is best suited to the
attainment of liberty, and that its political system was designed by
men of moral stature and noble purpose. In the book, he heatedly
takes issue with Albert Jay Nock, who, like historian Charles Beard,
cast a captious eye toward the Constitutional Convention, asserting
that the drafters included men representing special interests, four-
fifths of whom were public creditors who would profit by the
Morley counters the Nockian criticism by again outlining the
nature of the American republic. "It is designed," he
explains, "to provide a people who are instinctively democratic
with a govern ment calculated to safeguard them from the excesses of
democracy as a political system . . . [D]emocracy, as a method of
government, is affected with an in stability that swings easily into
tyranny. How to provide a democratic people with a stable republican
government was the problem that confronted the founders at
Philadelphia. The formula they found is not above criticism. But it
has worked." In this connection, it is interesting to note
that, later in the book, where Morley discusses the State, which he
incisively distinguishes from Society, his conclusions are in
triguingly similar to the anti-State philosophy so forcefully
propounded by Neck. Morley's distinction is simply put:
"The State, in short, subjects people,
whereas Society associates them voluntarily."
Having said of the American system that "it has worked,"
Dr. Morley posits at least one reason for its success, the exercise
of concession and conciliation. "Concessions to the minority,"
he writes, "are not necessary in a demo cracy. Concessions to
the majority are not necessary in a tyranny. But in a republic,
designed to prevent and not to induce tyranny, concessions by both
majorities and minorities are as oil to the machinery of government."
Conceding that conciliation which undermines principle becomes "compromise
of a nature intolerable to honorable men," he nevertheless
observes that frequent ly self-interest "likes to masquerade as
principle." His ultimate point is that there is no
insurmountable difficulty in this matter where the individual
himself conscientiously draws the boundary between honorable
concession and dis honorable compromise.
Describing an author or his output as "scholarly" has
regrettably become so trite as to offer rather faint praise. Felix
Morley merits a more meaningful acco lade for this profoundly
enlightening essay. It is scholarly, of course, reflect ing an
unusually broad background of academic and journalistic achievement.
Moreover, Morley's writing is skillful and effective, so that his
painstaking evaluation of the many facets of American political
history comes through with amazing clarity. The reader of The
Power in the People is accorded an unusual privilege, the rare
experience of enjoying brilliant literary style whilst absorbing
education, thanks to the author's keen mind and dexterous pen.