Ideas That Formed the Constitution, Part 17: Sir Isaac Newton

Ideas That Formed the Constitution, Part 17: Sir Isaac Newton
Sir Isaac Newton, 1689, Sir Gottfried Kneller. (Public Domain, PD-old-100)
Rob Natelson

Although each essay in this series is pegged to one or more individuals, the series fundamentally isn’t about the individuals, but the ideas they represent.

Sir Isaac Newton wasn’t a political thinker like Marcus Cicero or John Locke. He was a scientist. Indeed, he exemplified the Scientific Revolution—an event that changed not only how people thought about the physical universe, but also how they thought about politics and government. In that way, Newton and his scientific colleagues greatly affected the U.S. Constitution.

Newton and the Scientific Revolution

Aristotle’s works dominated the theory and practice of science throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages. Aristotle’s dominance faded during the Renaissance, however, and in the ensuing years. Nicolaus Copernicus refined the already-existing theory that the sun, not Earth, was at the center of the solar system. Johannes Kepler described the nature of planetary orbits. Francis Bacon outlined the scientific method. Galileo Galilei made discoveries in physics and astronomy. René Descartes’s mathematics facilitated the integration of math and physics. Gottfried Leibnitz advanced the fields of mathematics, physics, and philosophy.
Newton was the exemplar of this enlightened age.

He was born in 1643 (by our current calendar) in Lincolnshire, England. He had a difficult childhood, and his talents surfaced rather late. His string of astounding discoveries began after he enrolled at Cambridge University.

Newton invented calculus and made breakthroughs in optics and the laws of motion. His Latin term for the universal attractive force—gravitas, “heaviness”—gave us our word “gravity.” Encyclopaedia Britannica describes his book “Principia Mathematica” as “the fundamental work for the whole of modern science.”
Later in life, Newton became president of the Royal Society and warden of the British mint. He became deeply involved in the mint’s operations. The first scientist to be knighted, Sir Isaac died in 1727, at the age of 84.

Effects on Political Thought

The Scientific Revolution, and particularly Newton’s work, taught men that the universe wasn’t willful or chaotic, but governed by rules of order. Once you knew the rules, the physical universe became predictable. The physical world was, in 18th-century parlance, a “mechanical” place.
Newton’s fame encouraged others to tinker with mathematics, machinery, and astronomical models. Garry Wills’ book “Inventing America” describes both the 18th-century fascination with mechanical order and balance, and the efforts to apply “mechanics” to politics. Wills wrote of the Declaration of Independence, for example: “The Declaration’s opening is Newtonian. It lays down the law.” Wills added that “Newton’s ordering of the inanimate universe led men to seek an equivalent pattern in human activity.”

Effects on the Constitution

Participants in the 1787–1790 debates over the framing and ratification of the Constitution frequently drew analogies between scientific law and political and constitutional systems. Illustrative are some observations by John Dickinson during the Constitutional Convention. Here is their context:

The early days of the convention were dominated by arguments for a powerful national government that would relegate the states to wholly subordinate roles. James Wilson and James Madison were among those making such arguments.

Madison also favored a small aristocratic Senate. He claimed that a larger Senate would have insufficient influence. He compared the case to that of the tribunes in the Roman Republic: When their number was increased, Madison said, they lost influence.

On June 7, 1787, Dickinson decided he had had enough of this. According to Madison’s own notes, here is what Dickinson said:

“The preservation of the States in a certain degree of agency [i.e., independent activity] is indispensable [sic]. It will produce that collision between the different authorities which should be wished for in order to check each other. To attempt to abolish the States altogether, would degrade the Councils of our Country, would be impracticable, would be ruinous. He compared the proposed National System to the Solar System, in which the States were the planets, and ought to be left to move freely in their proper orbits.

“The Gentleman from Pa. [Mr. Wilson] wished he said to extinguish these planets. If the State Governments were excluded from all agency in the national one, and all power drawn from the people at large, the consequence would be that the national Govt. would move in the same direction as the State Govts. now do, and would run into all the same mischiefs. The reform would only unite the 13 small streams into one great current pursuing the same course without any opposition whatever.

“He adhered to the opinion that the Senate ought to be composed of a large number, and that their influence from family weight & other causes would be increased thereby. He did not admit that the Tribunes lost their weight in proportion as their no. was augmented and gave a historical sketch of this institution. If the reasoning of [Mr. Madison] was good it would prove that the number of the Senate ought to be reduced below ten, the highest no. of the Tribunitial corps.”

Notice how Dickinson reduced Madison’s argument about the Roman tribunes to an absurdity. More important for present purposes, however, were Dickinson’s mechanical modes of expression: “collision between ... authorities,” the solar system, the flow of a great river, references to “weight.”

Analogies like these occur throughout the constitutional debates. Participants besides Dickinson enlisted the solar system in particular. A writer using the pen name “Marcus” asserted that under the Constitution, “The State Judiciary will be a satellite waiting upon its proper planet: That of the Union like the sun, cherishing and preserving a whole planetary system.”

My favorite example from this genre comes from the Massachusetts ratifying convention, held in early 1788. Opponents of the Constitution had been arguing for annual elections, which, they said, were suggested by nature itself.

William Hershel had discovered the planet Uranus only seven years previously. A supporter of the Constitution, James Bowdoin, took advantage of the discovery to make a point at the opponents’ expense:

“If the revolution of the heavenly bodies is to be the principle to regulate elections, it was not fixed to any period, as in some of the systems it would be very short; and in the last-discovered planet it would be eighty of our years.”

Charles Turner rose in response:

“In reply to the Hon. Mr. Bowdoin, ... He was, he said, greatly in favor of annual elections, and he thought ... it would be establishing a dangerous precedent to adopt a change; for ... the principle may so operate, as, in time, our elections will be as seldom as the revolution of the star the honorable gentleman talks of.”

Effect on the Constitution’s Structure

Much of the final Constitution resembles an interlocked and finely tuned machine. As Charles Carroll of Carrollton wrote:

“The three distinct powers of the federal Govt. are skilfully [sic] combined so as to balance each other, by that reciprocal check & counterpoise, which the most approved writers on Govt. consider as its chief perfection ... [T]he several State-Governments will always keep it within its own & proper sphere of action: [T]hus while it restrains the State-Governments within their orbits, it is by them retained within its own; acting, & acted upon it will produce that order, that stability in the civil, which we see exists in the physical world, where if I may compare great things to small, every planet, every center of each system attracting & attracted, repelling, & repelled keeps that station, & rolls within those spheres, which the great Author of all being has prescribed to each.”

Further exemplifying the intricate and balanced structure is the Constitution’s Article V, which sets forth the amendment process. Madison was its principal draftsman, and it shows that he shared his generation’s “mechanical” mode of thought:
  • Article V prescribes two ways of proposing amendments—a more democratically based congressional method and a state-government-based convention method.
  • For Congress to consider proposing, only a voting majority need agree; but to actually propose, two-thirds of each house must agree.
  • Conversely, for a convention to consider an amendment, two-thirds of the states must agree; but for the convention to propose only a voting majority of states need agree.
  • Paralleling the two ways of proposing are the two ways of ratifying: by popularly elected state conventions (considered the more democratic mode) or by state legislatures (more state-government based).
  • Both methods of ratification require approval by three-fourths of the states, a margin that ensures both widespread state agreement and widespread popular agreement.
Balance and order. All very Newtonian.
Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Robert G. Natelson, a former constitutional law professor who is senior fellow in constitutional jurisprudence at the Independence Institute in Denver, authored “The Original Constitution: What It Actually Said and Meant” (3rd ed., 2015). He is a contributor to The Heritage Foundation’s “Heritage Guide to the Constitution.”
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