ICYMI: Our founders planned for times like these

Signing of Constitution


By Bob Eschliman


Common Sense LogoNote: The following was published Nov. 24, 2014, but remains just as relevant today.


The accumulation of all powers legislative, executive and judiciary in the same hands, whether of one, a few or many, and whether hereditary, self appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny. Were the federal constitution therefore really chargeable with this accumulation of power or with a mixture of powers having a dangerous tendency to such an accumulation, no further arguments would be necessary to inspire a universal reprobation of the system.

– James Madison, Federalist No. 47


Relying heavily upon the writings of the French philosopher Charles Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, otherwise known today simply as Montesquieu, the Framers – specifically James Madison, the architect of the U.S. Constitution – built a federal government with distinct separation of powers. The reason for those separations is, ironically, far less apparent than you might think.

In 1996, Scott R. Stripling, the former director of the National Center for America’s Founding Documents at Boston University’s School of Education, wrote about the Founders’ motivation for separation of powers. He said the primary reason was the Founders weren’t entirely sure that a “democratic” form of government – whereby men ruled themselves – was possible, given human nature.

Much of Stripling’s point is rooted in Federalist No. 70 and Federalist No. 71, both of which were authored by Alexander Hamilton. And, he quotes liberally from both. But, he also makes a point to invoke the model for the American presidency, George Washington.

The article quotes a letter Washington wrote to Henry Lee, dated Sept. 22, 1788. In it, our nation’s first president establishes the necessary balance between power and authority – something the “constitutional scholar” now inhabiting the White House clearly missed – and between restraint and duty.

Like John Adams, Washington knew the federal republic created by the Constitution was only applicable for a nation of “moral and religious people.” So, like the People he was to represent, the President must also be of strong moral and religious character.

In the end, the Founders envisioned a President who would ensure the ends of the national consensus were met, not his own agenda, leaving the means to be determined by the People’s elected representatives in Congress. But they also fully understood human nature.

“Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net,” Adams wrote 10 years later to the officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Massachusetts Militia.

So, the Founders instituted specific checks and balances upon the various branches of government. The President could veto legislation that he felt wasn’t in the best interests of the People. Congress could rein in a President who abused his power, either through the power of the purse, or by impeachment.

And when those checks didn’t work, the responsibility again returned to the hands of the People, in whom all government power originates (see the Declaration of Independence). As another favorite philosopher of the Founders, Voltaire, said, “Great power comes with great responsibility” (no, Stan Lee didn’t invent the phrase).

In other words, what happens next is up to you.