Notes On The Debates In The Federal Convention Concerning A Council Of Oracles

by Ron Fein

JULY 27, 1787, IN CONVENTION

The postponed question being taken up of whether the Legislature, Executive, and Judiciary should be joined by a Council of Oracles.

Mr. MADISON moved that such a council be constituted as a separate body within the Legislature, equal to the House and Senate, its consent needed for all legislation.

Col. MASON approved heartily of the motion. The oracles’ wisdom had proven critical during the late war. At the siege of Charleston, only their foresight averted a defeat and ignominious surrender. And General Washington has credited his victory at the battle of White Plains to their guidance. If New York had fallen to the British, the war may have lasted seven years rather than four.

Mr. GERRY. No one disputes that the wisdom of the oracles wd. guide the men of the representative assemblies in their judgment. But the Council of Oracles shd. form a fourth branch of the general Govt., not a body within the Legislature. The oracles shd. not be burdened to vote routinely on matters of roads and tariffs &c., but instead bestow their insights upon the other three branches as needed.

Mr. KING concurred with Mr. Gerry. If the oracles are constantly occupied with mundane questions, the spirit may depart from them. Let them advise the other branches of the Govt. when needed, and otherwise tend to their own inscrutable affairs.

Doctr. FRANKLIN did not see the necessity of a separate Council of Oracles. In Greece the Pythia at Delphi speaks to those who seek counsel, whether high or low, for one day per month, nine months per annum. But she forms no part of any Govt.

Mr. HAMILTON remarked that the case of the Pythia was not applicable. Greece is divided and the priestesses must be available to Sparta even when it marches agst. Athens. Our object is a Govt. that unites the States, not one that advises them in their wars agst. each other.

Col. MASON. Further support for this proposition derives from the varied locations of the temples. Without a separate body in the Govt. empowered to restrain the secular branches, will Massachusetts heed the words of a priestess in Virginia if her words differ from those of the one in Boston?

Mr. MADISON. The oracles are all infallible and their advice, if understood correctly, is identical. But they may phrase their words differently, or men may understand them differently, leading to misunderstanding. A council of them wd. speak with one voice.

Mr. SHERMAN agreed that oracular guidance is indispensable. Men are corrupt and shortsighted; the advice of the priestesses is always correct even if we fail to understand it. But fallible men must interpret their words and make their own decisions. The oracles shd. not be encumbered by formal positions in the Govt. given their sacred duties in their temples &c.

Mr. KING apprehended that if the oracles formed a part of the Govt., that unscrupulous men wd. attempt to bribe them to secure advantage.

Mr. WILSON. The priestesses must remain pure and holy. To further embroil their delicate and virtuous constitutions in daily affairs wd. strain their spirits overmuch. The Executive and perhaps the Judiciary are well advised to consult the Apollonian priestesses from time to time, but they shd. not be given a role in the general affairs of the Govt.

Col. MASON’s opinion had been changed by the arguments used in the discussion. He was now sensible of the necessity of protecting the oracular priestesses in their spiritual domains and not overly enmeshing them in the affairs of men.

Mr. MADISON was content to withdraw the original motion and propose another in its place. He moved that, from time to time, the Executive shall seek the advice and counsel of an oracular priestess when he shall think proper; and further, that he may require the opinion of the principal officers of the Govt. regarding the correct interpretation of her words. 

The motion passed unanimously.

~

Bio:

Ron Fein is a writer, lawyer, and activist based near Boston, Massachusetts (USA). Find him at ronfein.com and on Twitter @ronfein.

Philosophy Note:

The Framers of the U.S. Constitution sometimes showed great wisdom and foresight, but they were blinded in many ways by their own prejudices, divisions, and misconceptions about how the new United States of America would develop. What if something like the Oracle at Delphi, widely accepted as capable of accurately divining the future, had been available to them? Would they have been able to take proper advantage of this amazing resource? My guess is not.

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