All Commentary
Tuesday, October 1, 1974

A Theme for the Bicentennial: The Founding Fathers’ Fear of Power

Mr. Brownfeld of Alexandria, Virginia, is a freelance author, editor, and lecturer especially interested in political science.

Americans approach the Bicentennial celebration in the face of the Watergate scandal and subjected to a maze of rules and regulations inflicted upon them by what is becoming an increasingly powerful governmental apparatus.

Government now feels that it has the right and the power to tell us to buckle our automobile seat belts, what drugs we may and may not take, what race and sex a job applicant must be to be hired, what distant school our children will be bused to attend, what kind of gasoline we must use in our cars… and this is only the beginning. On the horizon are plans for governmentally controlled medical care, national zoning in the form of land use legislation, national data banks which will know everything about us and our personal lives, and a host of other interferences in what we once believed was meant to be a free society.

Watergate reveals the vast amount of power which has been centered in the executive branch, and the suspended jail sentences given to high officials who have pleaded guilty to serious crimes indicate that our idea of equal justice for all is far from reality. A President himself claims that his executive position virtually places him outside of the ordinary procedures of the law, and gives him the right to determine which kinds of evidence can and cannot be considered by the special prosecutor, the Congress, and the courts whose duty it is to investigate the charges against him.

If the Bicentennial causes us to reflect upon the meaning of our history, one essential element should be stressed. That is that the Founding Fathers were deeply suspicious of centralized governmental power. It was this fear of total government which caused them to rebel against the arbitrary rule of King George III. In the Constitution they tried their best to construct a form of government which, through a series of checks and balances and a clear division of powers, would protect the individual. They believed that government was a necessary evil, not a positive good. They would shudder at popular assumptions which regard government as the answer to all of our problems and which allow public officials to claim rights superior to those of the men and women who have elected them.

How Government Grows

In a letter to Edward Carrington, Thomas Jefferson wrote that, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” He noted that “one of the most profound preferences in human nature is for satisfying one’s needs and desires with the least possible exertion; for appropriating wealth produced by the labor of others, rather than producing it by one’s own labor… the stronger and more centralized the government, the safer would be the guarantee of such monopolies; in other words, the stronger the government, the weaker the producer, the less consideration need be given him and the more might be taken away from him.”

At the beginning of his Administration, Jefferson wrote a friend that, “The path we have to pursue is so quiet that we have nothing scarcely to propose to our Legislature. A noiseless course not meddling with the affairs of others, unattractive of notice, is a mark that society is going on in happiness.”

Today, of course, there is almost no aspect of our lives that some agency of government does not consider within the province of its authority and control.

That government should be clearly limited and that power was a corrupting force was the essential perception held by the men who made the nation. In The Federalist Papers, James Madison declared that, “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.”

They Were Not Utopians

The Founding Fathers were not utopians. They understood man’s nature and attempted to form a government which was consistent with — not contrary to — that nature. Alexander Hamilton pointed out that, “Here we have already seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, weaknesses, and evils incident to society in every shape. Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age, and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?”

Rather than viewing man and government in positive terms the Framers of the Constitution had almost precisely the opposite view. John Adams expressed the view that, “Whoever would found a state and make proper laws for the government of it must presume that all men are bad by nature.” As if speaking to those who place ultimate faith in egalitarian democracy, Adams attempted to learn something from the pages of past history:

“We may appeal to every page of history we have hitherto turned over, for proofs irrefragable, that the people, when they have been unchecked, have been as unjust, tyrannical, brutal, barbarous and cruel as any king or senate possessed of uncontrollable power…. All projects of government, formed upon a supposition of continual vigilance, sagacity, and virtue, firmness of the people, when possessed of the exercise of supreme power, are cheats and delusions… The fundamental article of my political creed is that despotism, or unlimited sovereignty, or absolute power, is the same in a majority of a popular assembly, an aristocratic council, an oligarchical junto, and a single emperor. Equally arbitrary, cruel, bloody, and in every respect diabolical.”

The political philosopher who had the most important impact upon the thinking of the Founding Fathers was John Locke. Locke repeatedly emphasized his suspicion of government power and believed that if the authorities violate their trust, the regime is to be dissolved.

Let the Legislative Branch Be Predominant

It was Locke’s view, in addition, that the legislative branch of government — that branch closest to the people and most subject to their control — should be the most powerful governmental branch. In his Second Treatise, Locke notes:

“Yet the legislative being only a fiduciary power to act for certain ends, there remains still in the people a supreme power to remove or alter the legislative, when they find the legislative act contrary to the trust reposed in them…. And thus the community perpetually retains a supreme power of saving themselves from the attempts and designs of any body, even of their legislators, whenever they shall be so foolish or so wicked as to lay and carry on designs against the liberties and properties of the subject.”

The political tradition out of which the U.S. Constitution grew repeatedly stressed the importance of limiting the sphere of government. One role which government was to have — and which many today seem not to understand — was that of the protection of private property.

Locke stresses this point:

“The great and chief end therefore, of man’s uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property…. Every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself. The labor of his body and the work of his hands, we may say are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that nature bath provided and left it in, he bath mixed his labor with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.”

Protection of Property

Those who argue that property should be equally divided are advocating a political philosophy sharply contrary to that held by the Founding Fathers. James Madison held that, “The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interest. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results.”

Property, it was believed at the time of the Revolution, was necessary because its protection insured that individual liberty and possibilities for achievement would survive. Professor Donald Devine, in his volume, The Political Culture of the United States, notes that, “Property is a basic liberal value because its protection allows the individual to be free and secure.”

During the colonial era, Americans became all too familiar with the dangers of unlimited and arbitrary government. The Revolution was fought to prevent such governmental abuses and to make certain that individual citizens might be secure in their lives and property. When the Articles of Confederation were being considered, fears of excessive concentration of authority were often expressed. The town of West Springfield, Massachusetts, to cite one example, reminded its representatives of the “weakness of human nature and growing thirst for power…. It is freedom, Gentlemen, it is freedom, and not a choice of the forms of servitude for which we contend, and we rely on your fidelity, that you will not consent to the present plan of Union, til after the most calm and dispassionate examination you are fully convinced that it is well calculated to secure so great and desirable an object.”

One of the early textbooks of the American patriots was Cato’s Letters, the joint product of Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard. Written during 1720-23, it was widely read in the colonies together with James Burgh’s Political Disquisitions. The basic concept stressed in both of these works is the evil effect of power. “The love of power is natural,” wrote Burgh, “it is insatiable; it is whetted, not cloyed by possession.”

Gordon and Trenchard observed that, “Power renders man wanton, insolent to others, and fond of themselves… All history affords but few instances of men trusted with great power without abusing it, when with security they could.” The people must retain power in their own hands, grant it sparingly, and then only under the strictest supervision. “The people can never be too jealous of their liberties,” warned Burgh. “Power is of an elastic nature, ever extending itself and encroaching on the liberties of the subjects.” Cato also believed that, “Political jealousy… in the people is a necessary and laudable passion.” Therefore, the people must select their rulers with care, and these must be “narrowly watched and checked with Restraints stronger than their Temptation to break them.”

Eternal Vigilance

The written and spoken words of the men who led the Revolution give us numerous examples of their fear and suspicion of power and the men who held it. Samuel Adams asserted that “there is a degree of watchfulness over all men possessed of power or influence upon which the liberties of mankind much depend. It is necessary to guard against the infirmities of the best as well as the wickedness of the worst of men.” Therefore, “Jealousy is the best security of public liberty.”

The corruption of power, the oppression of strong government —these were the vital, immediate dangers felt by those who waged the Revolution.

Today, unfortunately, government seems to be out of our control. Non-elected officials — bureaucrats — make rules which have the effect of law, controlling more and more aspects of our lives. Government is no longer viewed in negative terms, but is now viewed positively, as the answer to almost all of our social, economic, and political problems.

In 1800, Jefferson wrote of his belief that “a single consolidated government would become the most corrupt government on earth.” Twenty-one years later he remarked that, “Our government is now taking so steady a course as to show by what road it will pass to destruction, to wit: by consolidation first, and then corruption, its necessary consequence.”

Perhaps by reviewing the political perceptions of the Founding Fathers as an important element in the Bicentennial celebration we will gain some of the wisdom which we have lost in the years since 1776. Many have lamented that America is the only nation in the world’s history whose Golden Age was at the beginning. It is up to us to see that this lament does not become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

  • Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee. He is associate editor of The Lincoln Review and a contributing editor to such publications as Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.