Written by Josh Mistry, a student fellow of the Young Citizens' Club, and presented at the 2020 Bill of Rights Day Colloquium To support students like Josh, donate here Only 11 years after Thomas Jefferson composed the Declaration of Independence the newly freed America was already buckling under the weight of lawlessness under the weak federal government of the Articles of Confederation. When James Madison penned the document which would become the Constitution of the United States of America in the summer of 1787, the main concern of many Founders was that the pendulum would swing too far back to a large tyrannical government such as the one from which America had recently gained independence. Abraham Lincoln would later call the Constitution a frame of silver around the Declaration of Independence, an apple of gold. The main way the Constitution of the United States prevents tyranny is by harnessing the inherent selfish desires of mankind for the good of the society as a whole.
As James Madison wrote in Federalist 51, “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.” The Founders, in following the Judeo-Christian Western view of human nature, knew that humanity is corrupted by its own sinful inclinations. Government must be structured in a way that takes into account the shortcomings of men so that there is not an assumption that those in power will be perfect. Madison continues, “ 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.” The Founders of our exceptional American system understood, as the esteemed economist Thomas Sowell explains, “Instead of regarding man’s nature as something that could or should be changed...determine how the moral and social benefits desired could be produced in the most efficient way, within that constraint” (Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions). Rather than adopting the elitist mentality that by changing human nature utopia can be achieved, the Founders understood the most effective way to achieve societal good was by working within the limitations of humanity. In the widely read pamphlet, Common Sense, Thomas Paine warns of this elitist mindset, “Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent; selected from the rest of mankind their minds are early poisoned by importance.” The Founders knew the system of government created by the Constitution must not rely on the assumption of man’s inherent goodness. Rather, government must channel the selfish desire of those in power to improve society. Further, Thomas Paine wrote: “government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer.” Government cannot be viewed as the savior, for, as Madison wrote “what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” As Alexander Hamilton put it, “It is the lot of all human institutions, even those of the most perfect kind, to have defects as well as excellencies—ill as well as good propensities. This results from the imperfection of the Institutor.” There can never be a perfect government as there can never be a perfect governor to run the government. Thus, relying on government to be perfect will never solve any of societies’ problems.
The unconstrained vision of the universe, as Sowell described it, believes there is a “yet untapped moral potential of human beings,” to rule justly and promote prosperity (Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions). Those who believe this view would say if only government was given power over everything then utopia could be achieved, humanity perfected and all injustice extinguished. The Founders placed safeguards in the Constitution: clearly enumerated powers, checks and balances, and a system in which competition and collaboration among the branches of government are vital. Those in authority desire to keep their power and by directing their selfishness and channeling it into solving the problems of society, the Founders created a system which can stand the test of time.
Another way the Founders successfully molded a system resistant to tyranny was by ensuring the different branches of government were elected in different ways so no one faction could control the entire federal government. James Madison said that “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many... may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” Rather than all the branches of the government being elected by popular elections, the president is chosen by electors selected by the state legislatures, senators are appointed by the state legislatures, and the members of the house of representatives are elected by the constituents in their district. By dividing both the authority and manner for electing the federal government among the states and the people, the Constitution subverts any attempts at a tyrannical takeover.
For the last 233 years the Constitution of the United States has prevented a regime of tyranny from overthrowing our republic by accepting and then utilizing the self-seeking desires of our leaders against each other to improve society. The exceptionalism of the American experiment lies in its embrace of a clear-eyed view of human nature. Humanity can progress but can never perfect its institutions as it can never perfect its nature. In our current age where the unconstrained vision of elite experts reigns supreme and threatens to encroach upon more and more of our common sense and liberty, we must hold firm to the Constitutional safeguards that protect us from tyranny.