July 6, 2023

The Founders Were Right

Each passing day only reinforces the wisdom of the principles the Founders’ chose as the basis for our nation.

In our politically contentious era, it’s popular to claim that the Constitution is outdated; that it was drafted in a bygone era by men whose moral failings (like slave ownership) discredit every other contribution they made to the founding of our country. But each passing day only reinforces the wisdom of the principles the Founders’ chose as the basis for our nation. Here are a few to consider as we celebrate our 247th Independence Day:

No. 1: Yes, the United States is a “Christian nation”; no, it is not a theocracy.

The United States was founded on distinctly Judeo-Christian principles. The Declaration of Independence states that among other “self-evident” truths, all men are “endowed by their Creator” with “certain inalienable rights,” including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The Founders understood that the success of a country with limited government was dependent upon self-discipline born of personal virtue. John Adams wrote, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” James Madison echoed this statement when he stated self-government required “virtue among men.” Without that, he wrote, “nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”

To say that a country is founded upon principles drawn from one or more religious traditions is not the same thing as saying that the country’s leaders are gods, or are chosen by God, or that adherence to any given religion is mandated by the state. All these are characteristics of a theocracy, and none of them are among the founding principles of the United States.

Citizens who subscribe to other faiths, as well as those who adhere to no faith whatsoever, have all the rights of every other citizen. But they should not be permitted to demand that the nation reject or abandon its Judeo-Christian principles; to do so would cause the entire edifice to collapse.

No. 2: We are a democratic republic, not a democracy.

The popular accusation that any given person or public policy is “a threat to our democracy” is hyperbole and inaccurate. The United States is not a pure democracy. We are a democratic republic. Our elected representatives in the state and federal governments pass legislation and govern on our behalf. Relatedly …

No. 3: Ours is not a “majority rules” government.

Our legislative bodies were designed to avoid majoritarianism. In the U.S. Congress, for example, the composition of the House of Representatives is determined by population; the larger the population (as determined by the decennial census), the more representatives a state has. The Senate, however, provides equal representation regardless of population — two senators per state. The balance of this bicameral structure, in which legislation must pass with majority votes in both chambers, gives the citizens of smaller, more rural and less populated states a meaningful voice in legislative governance.

No. 4: The states, not the people, elect the president.

Even more frequent than complaints about the composition of the U.S. Senate are the demands that the president of the United States be elected by the so-called popular vote, instead of the Electoral College. But, like the U.S. Senate, the Electoral College is set up to temper the political power of states with larger populations.

An important point overlooked by those panting for raw majority rule is that the United States of America is not merely a country; it is also a federation — a voluntary aggregation of independent states that have ceded only certain limited powers to the federal government. Constitutional structures that give less populated states legitimate impact in all three branches of the federal government were necessary to bring the nation into existence in the first place. Without a real voice in governance, why become — or remain — part of the United States at all?

In many respects, this is the battle that the European Union is fighting now. The citizens of Great Britain voted to leave the European Union (“Brexit”) in 2014, tired of being saddled with unpopular policies imposed by Eurocrats they had no voice in choosing. Why give up national sovereignty for that?

Similarly, if less populated states find themselves bound by policies that they have little practical opportunity to influence, it will only be a matter of time before secession begins to look like a serious option.

No. 5: Limits on power are features, not bugs.

Perhaps the best evidence of the Founders’ wisdom was the way they incorporated their understanding of human nature into the structure of our government. In this important respect, the age of the Constitution is irrelevant. Human nature does not change.

The drafters of the Constitution sought to avoid the abuse and catastrophic errors that inevitably follow the acquisition of too much power. To prevent those eventualities, state governments act as constitutional restraints on the federal government’s power. Each branch of the federal government acts as a check and balance to the powers of the others. Smaller states’ representatives and votes matter as much as those from more populous states.

A system that requires the participation of political minorities not only requires that presidential candidates attract the votes of smaller states and ensures a broader consensus around laws and regulations, but also means that alternative ideas and approaches will be considered before a policy is implemented.

The disgruntled among us who push relentlessly for changes that would strengthen the power of raw majorities should know better. One need only look at the cities and states that have been under one-party rule for years — or decades — to see the results: increased crime and homelessness; collapsing educational standards; the departure of residents and businesses. Without the need to consider alternative political voices, parties in the majority rarely depart from their pet policies, even when those policies produce disastrous results.

The Founders knew better. We should heed their wisdom.


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