Today's Politicos vs The Words and Deeds of The Founders
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The Founders on Power

The Founders distrusted overly strong governments.  That’s why they engineered a limited republic. Today, Americans seem to turn to their government to validate and protect real and presumed rights, and increasingly rely on government to guarantee the substance of life.  Many modern Americans embrace national authority and fight to enlarge governmental powers.  The Founders would be appalled.

What would the Founders think about growing government power? Here is what they said in their own words.

In our governments the real power lies in the majority of the community, and the invasion of private rights is chiefly to be apprehended, not from acts of government contrary to the sense of its constituents, but from acts in which the government is the mere instrument of the major number of the constituents. Wherever there is an interest and power to do wrong, wrong will generally be done. — James Madison

A mere demarcation on parchment of the constitutional limits of the several departments, is not a sufficient guard against those encroachments which lead to a tyrannical concentration of all the powers of government in the same hands. — James Madison

No wall of words, that no mound of parchment can be so formed as to stand against the sweeping torrent of boundless ambition on the one side, aided by the sapping current of corrupted morals on the other. — George Washington

The great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. — James Madison

It is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions, to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power. … In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution. — Thomas Jefferson

The legislative department is everywhere extending the sphere of its activity, and drawing all power into its impetuous vortex … Its constitutional powers being at once more extensive, and less susceptible of precise limits, it can, with the greater facility, mask, under complicated and indirect measures, the encroachments which it makes on the co-ordinate departments…The legislative department alone has access to the pockets of the people. — James Madison

The Executive will be always increasing here, as elsewhere, till it ends in a monarchy. — Benjamin Franklin

It is of the nature of war to increase the executive at the expense of the legislative authority.  — Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 8

The authority of magistrates is taken from that mass of power which in rude societies and unbalanced democracies is wielded by the majority. Every separation of the executive and judicial authority from the legislature is a diminution of political and increase of civil liberty. Every check and balance of that legislature has a like effect. — Gouverneur Morris

It only remains to know which power in the constitution has the most weight, for that will govern; and though the others, or a part of them, may clog, or as the phrase is, check the rapidity of its motion, yet so long as they cannot stop it, their endeavors will be ineffectual, the first moving power will at last have its way, and what it wants in speed is supplied in time.   Thomas Paine, Common Sense

What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.  — James Madison

The ultimate authority, wherever the derivative may be found, resides in the people alone.  — James Madison

Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself.  Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others?  — Thomas Jefferson

When a people shall have become incapable of governing themselves and fit for a master, it is of little consequence from what quarter he comes.  — George Washington

James D. Best is the author of Tempest at Dawn, a novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Look for his forthcoming book, Principled Action, Lessons from the Origins of the American Republic.

2 comments

1 Jeff Edelman { 12.28.11 at 9:15 pm }

And thus, it boils down to morals and character. The Founders said that, too.

[Reply]

2 Herbert R. { 05.17.15 at 12:45 pm }

As the Founders saw it, a system in which the ruling power could alter the constitution as it pleased, and thus expand the scope of its authority, was a system in which freedom was imperiled.

[Reply]

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