Updated: Feb 27
What were the ends of government for the Founding Fathers?
Kathleen Wells - The Founders were intent on creating a government that was the polar opposite of British despotism or the monarch. They wanted the opposite of a centralized government that deprived the colonies of self-government.
The American Forefathers spent considerable effort discussing nature's creator and natural rights that are impressed upon humans because every human has the creator's image impressed upon them. Natural rights originate from the creator and cannot be taken away by governments, human conventions, individuals, or even one's self as natural rights are inalienable rights.
We know from the Declaration of Independence, that the purpose of government was to secure the natural rights of the citizens. Jefferson tells us that the purpose of any government created for human beings is to secure those natural rights and prevent any attempts at suppressing natural rights. These are not rights the government decided to grant to the citizens. The only reason citizens would consent to the government is that the government is securing these rights. Humans created by God have these natural rights before the government comes into the picture.
The government could exercise powers. In order for those powers to be just, the effort must be dedicated to securing the natural rights of the citizens. This is the way the Forefathers framed the Declaration of Independence. About half the governments in the world do not operate under consent from their citizens. Too many Americans unfortunately do not understand this fact.
Consent is essential for a just government. However, consent is not a guarantee that secures that the natural rights of the minority will be protected. Since ancient times, the US Constitution was a contemporary attempt at republican government. With respect to the structure, there were two key lessons that informed how the Constitution should look. The first lesson is The Necessity For A Firmer Union discussed in Part 1 of this blog. The second lesson is The Necessity for Checks And Balances to be discussed in Part 2 of this blog.
The Tyranny of the Majority (Factions) (Federalist #10)
How was the government doing at the framing of the Constitution? The Articles of Confederation was America’s first attempt at establishing a national union. Under the Articles of Confederation, as organized, was a system set up to meet the standards of the Declaration of Independence.
There was a lot of debt recovering from the Revolutionary War. The economic situation was unstable. Many small landowners had taken out loans in hard currency, there was a considerable amount of inflation, and economic trouble in the states. But recovering from the massive trauma of the Revolutionary War went beyond the economic trouble and made things worse. From the viewpoint of the framers, the state governments had employed an extreme form of majority rule and legislative supremacy. For example, the states had a weak executive branch with a powerful legislature dependent upon changing public opinion. This was understandable that the states would employ a form of government that was the polar opposite of that which they had just been under with the British rule. What happened in the 1780s was a kind of sobriety check on human nature and the virtues of pure majority rule. There was a recognition that human nature is composed of both the good and the bad that have to be taken into account.
What the Founders learned from studying the state constitutions of each state in the former colonies was that legislatures were very dependent upon changing majority opinions and elections were too frequent. Laws with the state constitutions were very reactive to every modest change in public opinion, which in turn led to state governments enacting imprudent laws due to public overreaction and spikes in public opinion. Public opinion is fickle and goes through peaks and valleys.
A good example is laws regarding paper money enacted in many states by their legislature who were trying to print their way out of economic problems by monetizing debt. This was causing hyperinflation. Debtors would get control of the government and thus get short-term relief. Governments would allow themselves to vote their way to pay off debts with worthless fiat currency. Sort of similar to how lobbyists today are getting special favors to the detriment of the citizens. So, it wasn't only bad economics, but also, an injustice, violating the natural property rights of creditors. The majority using the power of the government to consume the wealth of the minority is not a government that is securing the equal natural rights of the citizens.
Another example that was exhibited with state constitutions in the former colonies not securing the natural rights of citizens pertained to religion. In this case, the disenfranchisement of religious minorities such as the Quakers in Pennsylvania. Again, violating the rights of the minority, by the majority that is in power.
In 1787, a few months before the Constitutional Convention, James Madison wrote an essay titled, Vices of the Political Systems of the United States and listed 11 vices of government that applied to the way things were going. 7 of these 11 vices applied to state governments. Madison remarked how the laws with the state constitutions in the former colonies were not just bad policies but were unjust. In vice 9, Madison talked about the multiplicity of laws in the states. The 10th vice is the mutability of the laws, ever-changing laws, wherein people don't know what the laws actually are, thus undermining stability. This is a form of lawlessness as unknowing citizens are violating laws. The final injustice of the state laws brings into question the viability of the republic form of Government. For example, if the majority keeps enacting laws that only benefit the majority to the detriment of the minority, it brings into question whether the majority is capable of ruling in a just way.
Even Jefferson, who was not a federalist, while serving as the governor of Virginia, from 1779-1781, came to recognize the tyranny of pure majority rule. When you have pure majority rule, one can have just as much injustice as one can have under a monarchy. For example, one can have a despotic government of 173 despots that are just as oppressive as a single despot. An elected despotism is not the government that we fought for, noted Jefferson.
The state legislatures kept enacting laws that harmed the minority of their citizens. George Washington wrote a letter to John Jay (August 15, 1786) in which he stated: we probably had too good of an opinion of human nature in forming our confederation.
A faction is a part, a number of citizens, whether they are the majority or minority, of the whole, who are animated, motivated by their passions, that are adverse to the rights of other citizens. Minority faction is not a problem because of the republic principle wherein the minority can be voted out. The majority faction is a problem. The Constitution was about controlling the effects of factions and the electoral college is a means to giving normalized representation to all factions. The primary check on the government is the people themselves. Thus, it is essential that the people possess the higher part of human nature. Therefore, the character of the people matter.
Lesson 1: The Necessity For A Firmer Union
During the Continental Congress, the Founding Fathers asked why isn’t a loose union of states sufficient? The Founders recognized that the union had to be firmer in order to deal with both, the high and low nature of humans.
The government under the Articles of Confederation, the national government, wasn't really a sovereign government, it was more like a diplomatic entity or a coming together of other sovereign nations similar to the United Nations. Under the Articles of Confederation, there was a Congress, but each individual state government decided whether or not they would abide by the laws passed by the Federal Congress.
A firmer union was necessary if one wanted to secure the rights that the Declaration sets up as a standard for just government. Why were the Articles insufficient? First, the government is supposed to protect your life, liberty, and property from foreign threats. The most basic function of the Federal Government is protecting their citizens from those outside the social compact that would want to deprive them of those things. Can a country defend itself from foreign attacks? In Federalist Number 3, the Founders argued that we are actually going to deserve to have a just war waged against us, because we can't, under our government, make the state governments abide by the agreements, that we are entering into. We don't even have a functioning central government, that can make commitments, on behalf of our country. So, other nations will have just cause to wage war against us. In Federalist Number 4, even where just cause doesn't exist, because of the way our government functions, other nations will see us as so weak and infirm, and therefore other nations will see us as a ripe target for attack. Thus, we are failing that first basic obligation: the protection of the rights of the citizens, from foreign powers.
The second basic problem, under the Articles, is that the government is failing to secure, not only for the protection of property but failing to provide the conditions where the acquisition of property and the building of prosperity can take place. That is to say, the country under the Articles was so infirm as the Federal Government was so incompetent that commerce could not thrive. Thus, we would end up being a mere dumping ground for European goods. Forming a firmer union makes us stronger and an equal partner in commercial arrangements and we can start to dictate some of the terms of commerce.
The third problem which the Founders thought was the biggest issue, for the necessity to establish a firmer union was to protect, life, liberty, and property from internal threats such as threats from faction, internal instability, and insurrection, which had taken place in Europe centuries before and was on the mind of the Founders. The Articles were not doing a very good job of mitigating that threat. The reason why the Founders believed that infighting, instability, and insurrection were a huge problem was because of a basic lesson that they had learned about human nature.
In Federalist Number 6, Alexander Hamilton (Publius), connects the lessons that he has learned about human nature, to a need for a firmer union. The question in Federalist 6, is: Why a loose union of states is not sufficient? Why is there a need for a federal referee? Hamilton remarks In Federalist Number 6:
A man must be far gone in Utopian speculations who can seriously doubt, that if these States should either be wholly disunited or only united in partial confederacies, the subdivisions into which they might be thrown would have frequent and violent contests with each other. To presume a want of motives for such contests, as an argument against their existence, would be to forget that men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious. To look for a continuation of harmony between a number of independent unconnected sovereignties, situated in the same neighborhood, would be to disregard the uniform course of human events, and to set at defiance the accumulated experience of ages.
Hamilton is criticizing the French part of the Enlightenment. The contemporary application of Hamilton's critical assessment is that the modern Political Left are ideologues who believe that human nature can be remade or remolded. The critical point in understanding the Federalists is that they understood looking across history that human nature is a constant throughout the ages, across centuries, and even millenniums. Hamilton even cited examples from the ancient paired with a contemporary example about human nature to make his point. Hamilton cites in the Federalist Papers 3 basic social and general causes of conflict throughout human history:
Man’s love of power and other men getting jealous.
Particular causes of conflict between man: e.g., borders that are not well settled, particular circumstances between countries or nation-states that will always cause conflict.
Private causes of conflict: the particular likes and dislikes, or petty reasons for the leaders of one republic, not liking the leaders of another republic
Federalist 51/Madison: What is government but the greatest of reflection on human nature.
There is a recognition that human nature is going to lead to conflict. And thus, we need a structure that understands that: A firmer union.
In the blog post Part 2, I will discuss lesson 2, the necessity for checks and balances, and the separation of powers.