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 document's adoption.

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.