Live Free Or Die: America (and the World) on the Brink (3 page)

BOOK: Live Free Or Die: America (and the World) on the Brink
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George Washington believed the weakness of the federal government under the Articles was leading “rapidly to a crisis” and threatening the very existence of government. He feared we were running from one extreme to another. “What astonishing changes a few years are capable of producing,” he observed. “I am told that even respectable characters speak of a monarchical form of government without horror. What a triumph for the advocates of despotism to find that we are incapable of governing ourselves and that systems founded on the basis of equal liberty are merely ideal and fallacious. Would to God that wise measures may be taken in time to avert the consequences we have but too much reason to apprehend.”

When the delegates met in Philadelphia to re-form the Union, they
understood their unique historical position in mankind's struggle for individual liberty.
37
They knew they faced a monumental challenge in trying to design a constitutional framework for republican government that would weather the test of time. Alexander Hamilton noted in Federalist 1 that many people at the time believed fate had placed upon the early Americans the challenge of determining whether “societies of men” were capable of establishing a good system of government by their own reasoned reflection or whether they were destined to adopt their governments by “accident and force.”
38
“They were engaged in one of the great experiments in the annals of politics, attempting to use the example of previous republics to avert those republics' fate,” McClay observes. “They used the new science of politics in trying to remedy the fatal flaws of republics past. They used history to defy history.”
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They originally intended to amend the Articles to correct their deficiencies but soon realized they needed an entirely new constitution. They would design a system of government that would maximize individual liberties, not just because of their experience with British tyranny but because, as Christians, they firmly believed the words of the Declaration, “that all men are… endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among those are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” That is, they recognized that their rights derived from God, not government, and embraced the scriptural revelation that men were created in God's image with intrinsic worth and dignity and were therefore entitled to liberty.
40
Or as Joe Biden says, “All men and women are created, by the, you know, you know, the thing.”

They further believed that man is corrupted by sin and that, left to his own devices, he would subjugate other men. James Madison was clear on this point in Federalist 51: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But 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. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

Madison wasn't naive enough to believe that citizens' rights would be secured by virtue of a grant on a piece of parchment. The delegates would need to design a system that would ensure liberty by leveraging man's weaknesses instead of ignoring them—pitting men against other men and levels and branches of government against one another. These competing institutions under the control of fallen men would keep each other in check, thereby maximizing individual liberties. “This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public,” Madison explained. “We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other—that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights. These inventions of prudence cannot be less requisite in the distribution of the supreme powers of the State.”

Had the framers crafted a pure democracy, there would have been no safeguards against encroachments on citizens' unalienable rights. The rights of the minority would have been subject to abuses at the hands of the majority—a concept Madison called the “tyranny of the majority.”
41

The delegates' challenge was to establish a federal government sufficiently strong to protect its citizens from domestic and foreign threats but without enough power to imperil the people's liberties. Their solution was to build into the Constitution a scheme of governmental powers and limitations. The government would have defined (enumerated) powers, but there would also be specific limitations on government to guard against its natural tendency to expand at the expense of
individual liberties. They reserved for the states those rights not granted to the federal government and distributed federal power among three separate, coequal branches of government.

“VIRTUE IS OUR BEST SECURITY”

As realists, the framers understood that even with such institutional checks on government as federalism, the separation of powers, and subsequently the Bill of Rights, there was no absolute guarantee against tyranny. They knew liberty would not be self-sustaining. Though they understood man's sinful nature, they believed that by relying on God he could become more virtuous. They reasoned that the Constitution would have a greater likelihood of succeeding if the people adhered to Christian moral standards and aspired to a virtuous society. “A free society demands a higher level of virtue than a tyranny,” writes Michael Novak, “which no other moral energy has heretofore proven capable of inspiring except Judaism and Christianity.”
42

In his Farewell Address, George Washington warned his fellow countrymen against adopting the militant antireligious philosophy of the French. “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports,” said Washington. “In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician… ought to respect and to cherish them…. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion…. reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
43

The founders strongly insisted on this point. “Our Constitution
was made only for a moral and religious people,” said John Adams. “It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” He argued that “virtue must underlay all institutional arrangements if they are to be healthy and strong. The principles of democracy are as easily corrupted as human nature is corrupted.”
44
Samuel Adams observed, “We may look up to Armies for our defense, but virtue is our best security. It is not possible that any state should long remain free, where virtue is not supremely honored.”
45

Almost half a century after the Constitution was ratified, in his famous
Democracy in America
, Tocqueville observed the strong connection between America's religious character and its political system. “It must never be forgotten that religion gave birth to Anglo-American society,” he wrote. “In the United States religion is therefore commingled with all the habits of the nation and all the feelings of patriotism.”

“OUR ENDURING CONSTITUTION”

Due to the brilliance and foresight of the framers and the American people's dedication to liberty, the Constitution survived the trials and tribulations of the growing republic, including the brutal Civil War, which tested it to its limits. In 1861 President Abraham Lincoln commented on the foundational importance of the liberty principle expressed in the Declaration of Independence to the endurance of the Constitution. The Declaration's expression “liberty to all,” noted Lincoln, “was most happy and fortunate.” He said we could have declared our independence from Britain with or without it, “but without it, we could not have secured our free government and consequent prosperity.” Our forefathers wouldn't have pressed on if they'd had nothing more to fight for than “a mere change of masters.” The expression of the principle of liberty has proved an “apple of gold,” and “the Union and the Constitution, are the picture of silver subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple
but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple—not the apple for the picture.”
46

A few years later, in his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln might have had that metaphor in mind when he reaffirmed that the United States was “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” I noted above that in Federalist 1, Hamilton recognized that Americans saw themselves as having undertaken the responsibility of determining whether free people could establish a system of good government. Lincoln seemed to invoke that sentiment when he said, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and dedicated, can long endure.” In his conclusion Lincoln answered the question: “we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
47

Hamilton and the other framers believed that their designed structure of government would endure and that freedom would prosper under it. Lincoln was reporting that great Americans since the founding had vindicated the framers' vision. Now, in the midst of the Civil War, Americans and our Constitution were undergoing their greatest challenge yet, and we would meet the challenge by preserving our unique system of government and sparking a rebirth of the liberties it guaranteed. McClay summed it up nicely, saying that Lincoln redefined the war “not merely as a war for the preservation of the Union but as a war for the preservation of the democratic idea… which America exemplified in the world.”
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In assessing the United States Constitution in 1878, British prime minister William Gladstone declared, “The American Constitution is, so far as I can see, the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man. It has had a century of trial, under the pressure of exigencies caused by an expansion unexampled in point of rapidity and range; and its exemption from formal change, though not entire, has certainly proved the sagacity of the
constructors, and the stubborn strength of the fabric.”
49
Gladstone's point was that our Constitution had stood the test of time, surviving vast territorial expansion (with the Louisiana Purchase and territories acquired from Mexico) and deep internal conflicts.

Despite the myriad cautions the framers incorporated into the Constitution, they knew, as did Abraham Lincoln decades later, that political freedom would be difficult to sustain. Human nature being what it is, there would always be internal and external threats to our liberty. This is why, in his remarks to Kiwanis International in 1987, President Ronald Reagan said, “It is time that we ask ourselves if we still know the freedoms that were intended for us by the Founding Fathers and if we will pass on to these young people the freedoms we knew in our youth, because freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. It has to be fought for and defended by each generation.”
50

THE PROGRESSIVE ERA

Over time well-meaning but pernicious forces began chipping away at the pillars of our constitutional system. I have come to believe that the momentum against our founding principles crystallized in the Progressive Era, roughly during the first two decades of the twentieth century, though the movement's political and intellectual roots stretched back into the preceding decades among journalists, novelists, political scientists, and social scientists.
51
I would strongly urge you to familiarize yourself with this period of our history. It will give you a much clearer insight into today's left.

Concerned by societal disruptions and wealth inequalities they believed were caused by the industrial revolution and capitalism's excesses, Progressives targeted corrupt trusts and mercenary capitalists.
52
For example, Henry Demarest Lloyd demonized Standard Oil Company in his book
Wealth Against Commonwealth
, and economist Thorstein Veblen denounced the wealthy in his
The Theory of the Leisure Class
.
53

Socialists and social justice reformers focused on the problems of urbanization and advocated for the urban poor. Let me stress that I strongly believe in helping the poor, but I don't believe the answer is the government seizing control of the economy and suppressing individual freedom in the name of “equality.” Of course there should be a safety net for the needy, but socialists constantly exploit the poor as a pretext for accumulating more power for themselves and confiscating more of society's wealth for their own ends.

Progressive academics pressed for social justice reforms following the example of European socialists. Advocates of women's suffrage joined in the struggle for social justice.
54
Progressives rejected the founders' belief in, and the biblical teachings on, the depravity of the human condition, believing instead that people are essentially good and perfectible, and that evil resulted from imperfect social systems and corrupt institutions that were impeding man from reaching his true potential.
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