theodore M I R A L D I mpa ... editor, publisher, writer

Saturday, January 30, 2016

An empire of laws, and not men

 The 3 'passions' of the people on which gov't is based


I will continue with my series of essays on the Founders’ view of government, taken from clips from my latest book, “Liberty’s Secrets: The Lost Wisdom of America’s Founders”:
Since government had been tasked with protecting the rights to property of everyone under its jurisdiction, it could not then turn around and violate those property rights itself. After all, the power of government was bestowed by the people’s consent in order to protect their rights. “Hence,” observed Locke, “it is a mistake to think that the supreme legislative power of any commonwealth can do what it will, and dispose of the estates of the subject arbitrarily, or take any part of them at pleasure.” Referring to the natural rights of the citizen before the existence of government, Locke observed that “this is all he doth, or can give up to the commonwealth, and by it to the legislative power, so that the legislative can have no more than this. … It is a power that hath no other end but preservation, and therefore can never have a right to destroy, enslave, or designedly to impoverish the subjects.”
This naturally limited the extent and manner in which government could exercise power, “for,” as Locke observed, “wherever the power that is put in any hands for the government of the people, and the preservation of their properties is applied to other ends, and made use of to impoverish, harass, or subdue them to the arbitrary and irregular commands of those that have it, there it presently becomes tyranny, whether those that thus use it are one or many.” And since government did not endow rights, but was instead tasked with protecting them, it could by definition not bestow additional rights, except the right of equal justice under law (i.e., civil rights), which gets to the third principle, that government is accountable to the people.
Since government is delegated certain powers by the people, it is, as a trustee, accountable to the people for the manner in which it exercises those powers. Responding to the then-common charge from Europeans that America would never succeed because it did not have a monarch and allowed the people too much liberty, President Jefferson wrote, “Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern them? Let history answer this question.” For Jefferson, and the Founders as a whole, history had proven the exact opposite: the presumption that there was a semi-divine group of people, such as monarchs or dictators, who alone were fit to rule the people without being directly accountable to them had led to the greatest miseries in human history.
For the Founders, all human governments had been based on some “principle or passion in the minds of the people,” as Adams said: fear, honor, or virtue. Within these three categories could be many forms, but every form was derived from this primary passion of the people. Fear had been “the foundation of most governments,” and was so “sordid and brutal” by nature that “Americans will not be likely to approve of any political institution which is founded on it.” The Founders considered all despotic and tyrannical governments as rooted in fear. As an example of a fear-based government, they frequently referred to the Ottoman Empire, “the Turks,” or even to the absolute monarchy in France, in which the king was not controlled by any parliament or other political body. Honor, on the other hand, while “truly sacred,” was not as high a principle as virtue. Honor was what compelled a constitutional monarch, such as a king or queen, to maintain peace, order, and justice in his or her kingdom, not only because they were personally invested in the kingdom’s success (after all, it was “theirs”), but there were some mechanisms by which his or her power could be checked, such as by Parliament in Great Britain (which held the power of the purse and many other important legislative functions). But the highest principle of them all was virtue, which was the foundation of republics.
“Will not every sober man acknowledge it better calculated to promote the general happiness than any other form?” Adams asked. A republic is a form of government in which the people “depute [delegate] power from the many to a few of the most wise and good” for the purpose of making laws for the common good. And because ultimate sovereignty was in the people, not an institution, a king, or a dictator, those laws necessarily applied to everyone. “The very definition of a Republic,” Adams commented, “is ‘an Empire of Laws, and not men.'”


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