In America today a debate rages concerning the legitimate role of government. Currently the Federal Government is controlled by a group of politicians who consider themselves the ideological descendants of the Progressive Movement. Beginning in the 1890’s the Progressives led by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson championed the idea that it was time to progress past America’s old ways of doing things. They felt the traditions, forms, and style of American governance and society should break-out of the mold provided by the Constitution by casting it as a “living Breathing Document” that could be remolded to meet the desires of every generation.
They believed, and their descendants still believe, it is the behavior of men that defines who they are. This contrasts with our Founders who believed that it is instead the nature of men that provides this definition. Our Founders expressly stated that they believed humanity has been endowed by the Creator with rights. They felt that these rights are inalienable, meaning they are humanity’s by virtue of existence. In other words, these rights have not been earned by man they’ve been given by God and since they haven’t been given by government, government can’t legitimately take them away. Instead of existing for its own right, the reason for government is to protect these natural rights. It’s the need for the order, security and liberty for the pursuit of happiness, which justifies the establishment and continuation of government.
Thus, a government of the people, by the people and for the people should be one based upon the nature of man. It’s in this context that the voice of the people could almost be called the voice of God for if the Creator implanted this nature and these rights within humanity the collective expression freely arrived at and freely expressed should bring to the fore those who will respect and guard these rights.
If this is true then the will of the majority should always be the surest way to ensure the continued existence of man’s natural rights. If we had a nation of perfect people this would be true; however, in establishing and maintaining government we don’t deal with perfect people we deal with people as they are with all the imperfections and prejudices nurture superimposes upon nature. People who don’t educate themselves enough to exercise self-leadership become the pawns of demagogues and the voice of God is perverted into the voice of the world.
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Even the Founders, a grouping singular in the history of men concerning the brilliance of their intellects and the purity of their motives knew they couldn’t trust themselves to form or maintain a government of fallible men to rule over fallible men. They knew that history is filled with examples of charismatic leaders who’ve proven that while you can fool all of the people only some of the time it’s possible to fool enough people to take over a country. Then once you’ve fooled a plurality of voters to take over you can make fools of everyone doing whatever you like for as long as you like. This is why the protection of freedom is a limited government.
Power must be concentrated enough to provide order, security and liberty; however, if unrestrained power is given to a majority the opportunity exists for a faction to gain control and use it for purely partisan ends. Thus our Founders rejected direct democracy in favor of the federal model of divided sovereignty and the republican principle of both direct and in-direct representation. That the source of authority emanates from the people and the constituent States is demonstrated in several ways. The Constitution itself was referred to delegates chosen by the States. In the American government as initially designed the people were represented directly by the House of Representatives and the States by the Senate. The executive was elected indirectly by the people and the states through the Electoral College. The members of the judicial branch are appointed by the executive with the advice and consent of the Senate.
This process of allowing democratic choice within a framework of restraint was designed to create a government based upon the premise of inalienable rights yet cognizant of the fallible nature of mankind. A government powerful enough to ensure the security necessary to guarantee those rights, yet retrained enough not to trample them. Many of the Progressive innovations of the last 100 years have upset this delicate balance moving us from the government envisioned by the founders to the one we have today.
The Seventeenth Amendment mandates the direct election of the Senate. This left the States without any voice in the Federal Government. It also opened the door for a combination of factions acting as an unrestrained majority seeking the benefit of some at the expense of others. Often those who take the limits off government seek unlimited power for themselves. We must follow the guide of our ancestors for the good of our posterity. We must resist the temptation to seek security through government rather than security from government.
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Dr. Owens teaches History, Political Science, and Religion for Southside Virginia Community College and History for the American Public University System. http://drrobertowens.com © 2010 Robert R. Owens [email protected]