Thursday, September 19, 2013

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 you study 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 the Anti-Federalist papers. There can be no doubt that the Founders believed that liberty depended on each part of the government acting as an effective check on all the other parts of the government, and that meant not only between the three national branches, but also between the states and the national government.

Tempest at Dawn
Patrick Henry, "Give me liberty, or give me death"
The Founders believed in limited government in the form of a representative republic. They distrusted a direct democracy, because majorities had historically taken advantage of minorities. 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.

Checks and balances were not enough, however. 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.

Because they feared they might forget some crucial restrictions, the delegates decided it was safer to define powers, instead of limitations. Besides, monarchies had general power, so they 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 remained 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.

Delegates also decided to choose members of the national government by different means, so it would be difficult for one faction to gain control over the 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 are the ones that oppress people. They knew it from their own experience—and they knew it from their extensive scrutiny of governmental forms throughout history. 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. 

Few modern politicians feel restrained by the Constitution. We often hear laments that elected officials 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. 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.

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