Today's Politicos vs The Words and Deeds of The Founders
Random header image... Refresh for more!
Make a blogger happy, come back. Sign up for email post alerts!

Protecting Liberty

“If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one…”   James Madison

When studying the political formation of the United Sates, one is struck by the recurrence of the checks and balances theme—in Madison’s convention notes, the Constitution itself, the Federalist Papers, the minutes of the ratification conventions, and even in the Anti-Federalist papers.  There can be no doubt that the Founders believed that liberty depends on each part of the government acting as an effective check on all the other parts.  That meant not only checks between the three national branches, but also between the states and the national government.

The Founders distrusted direct democracy, because majorities historically have taken advantage of minorities.  They believed that a limited representative republic was the best form of government to safeguard minority rights.  James Madison constantly preached against any system that allowed special interests (factions) to gain control of major elements of the government.  He showed that throughout history, majority factions tyrannized minorities, whether those minorities were based on race, wealth, religion, political affiliation, or even geography.

However, for the Founders, checks and balances were not enough.  They also wanted to specifically define powers to limit the intrusion of government into personal lives.  The Constitutional Convention looked at two different ways of defining national powers.  They debated long and hard about whether to call out each power individually or, alternately, to list restrictions on general powers.  Basically, they had to decide whether to write down what the federal government could do or what the federal government could not do.

Declaration of Independence Because they feared they might forget some crucial restrictions, the delegates decided it was safer to define the powers, instead of the limitations.  In contrast with monarchies, which had general power, the delegates would give their national government only delineated powers.  The Founders’ intent remains clear: if a specific power was not expressly listed in the Constitution, then that power remains with the States or with the people.  They decided this was the safer route because if they made an error, it would leave authority closer to the people. This made sense because the people owned the power anyway.

The delegates also decided to choose members of each branch of the national government by different means, so it would be difficult for one faction to gain control over the whole government.  The House of Representatives would be elected directly by the people, the state legislatures elected Senators, the president would be chosen by an Electoral College, and the Supreme Court would be appointed by the executive and confirmed by the Senate.

The design of the government under the Constitution was not haphazard.  Our Founding Fathers understood that governments can oppress people.  They knew it from their own experience—and they knew it from their extensive scrutiny of governmental forms throughout history.  Concentrated power was more than dangerous, it was life threatening.

That’s why:

  1. They balanced power between the three branches
  2. They gave each branch robust checks on the other two.
  3. They gave the national government only enumerated powers, and retained all other power in the hands of the people.
  4. The members of each branch were chosen by a different method.
  5. They used the states to engineer checks on the central government.

Political power frightened the Founders.  They believed that only by limiting government powers could liberty survive the natural tendency of man to dictate the habits of other men.  Unfortunately, our modern politicians do not feel restrained by the Constitution and they have gathered up nearly all political power in Washington D.C.

We often hear laments that our politicians no longer honor their pledge to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. This is backward.  The Constitution wasn’t written for politicians.  Our political leaders have no motivation to abide by a two hundred year old restraining order.  Especially, if we don’t enforce the supreme law of the land.  The first words of the Constitution read We the People.  It’s our document.  It was always meant to be ours, not theirs.  It’s our obligation to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.  Looking around, it seems we better get busy.

James D. Best is the author of Tempest at Dawn, a novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention.

9 comments

1 Michael Sanera { 12.07.10 at 2:07 pm }

Great closing paragraph. You have it exactly right.
keep up the good work,
michael

[Reply]

2 Mike Breezy { 12.09.10 at 3:02 pm }

I have to agree with Michael, that closing paragraph gave me chills.

We are living in such interesting times. Talking with my peers, in the 20-25 age range, they are all politically active but not one of their beliefs are congruent with the Constitution. Which creates such an interesting situation because it is hard to get some to see that their way of thinking isn’t inline with the ideas the founding fathers built this country on. I am going to pass along this article to them in hopes it will plant a seed of doubt in their current belief system and inspire them to look closer at the actions taken by our government.

[Reply]

3 Joe { 12.23.10 at 5:21 am }

You forget, only some of the founding fathers actually felt that way. There was an entire other faction that believed the government had powers to do anything that wasn’t expressly forbidden. This argument came up in the first few years after the Constitution was ratified when Alexander Hamilton, as Secretary of the Treasury, tried to create a national bank, which was NOT outlined by the Constitution. George Washington, the Father of our Country, took Hamilton’s side in the debate in order to create the National Bank. Your history lesson needs a history lesson…

[Reply]

4 Nick { 12.26.10 at 2:40 am }

Excellent article. It’s an interesting phenomenon to notice all the things that most people would agree to be good, and excellent example being the Louisiana Purchase, that is in violation with the constitution and how these things ratchet up the power of the Federal government.

[Reply]

5 Rich { 02.05.11 at 4:43 am }

The Founing Fathers feared concentrated power but they also feared disunion and conflict between the states. They knew they needed an ‘energetic’ central governement but did their best to structure it with checks and balances to protect citizens from its excesses.
The problem is that they could not imagine an equally dangerous source of concentrated power – corporations. Corporations have no doubt contibuted to level of material well-being they could not imagine – but they also could not imagine their influence in the government and the social upheavels they caused in their history.
The growth of the federal government and its input into social welfare concerns is greatly attributable to the reponse to unrestrained growth of huge corporations and trusts (1870 – 1910 +/-). This was the basis of the development of organized labor and the Progressive Movement which of course was a precursor to the New Deal. The size of federal government and the plethora of economic regulations and social programs that exist today can be seen as outgrwoths of a balance to concentrated economic power.
There is nothing in the constitution to support this because when it was written the country was a land primarily of individual or very small economic players. It makes me wonder what James Madison would have come up with in an additional Article of the constitution to check and balance the huge corporations that loom over our ecvonomy and lives today.

[Reply]

6 dave { 04.13.11 at 4:44 am }

This is one of the finest letters I have had the pleasure of reading about the state of our dying republic. The “200 year old restraing order” point was a brilliant method for demonstrating why our masters want nothing whatever to do with the Constitution (unless it suits them, politicially). I’m going to borrow the argument unashemedly, anything this good deserves to fall under the public domain provisions (a figment of my imagination). There’s a reason why, in the last 50 or so years as government has grown, that there has been an institutional (private and public) objective to replace the founding ideas, to virtually delete the entire discourse of liberty and freedom, from the popular diet and replace it with a sort of progressive democratization, which permeates every educational system within this land, to one degree or another, depending on the progressive nature of the given cultural region. The philosophy seems to have taken root in the cities and moved outward much like the wave of a seismic event. The indoctrination is over. The battle we are fighting is an uphill one, one that sometimes seems like a call into the darkness of space where there was once the shining light of true knowledge and understanding.

[Reply]

James D. Best Reply:

Thanks for the nice note. Feel free to borrow the argument. My only intent is to raise awareness of the erosion of our founding. Every voice helps.

[Reply]

7 nubwaxer { 05.31.14 at 6:21 pm }

” They believed that a limited representative republic was the best form of government to safeguard minority rights.”
the rich have definitely got what they paid for there interests top all others.

[Reply]

nubwaxer Reply:

edit: their interests top all other

[Reply]

Leave a Comment