The other day I was having a conversation with a person about the fundamental principles upon which our nation was founded. What surprised me was just how alien the vision of popular self-government, set forth in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, was to this obviously highly educated person. She was appalled at the idea that the people are greater than the government. Even scarier was the fact that our forefathers envisioned an armed populace as the bulwark of our liberties. How, thought I to myself, can I show this person the beauty of the vision our founding fathers had for this country and how they, in wisdom, crafted our Constitution and Bill of Rights to secure, in a most practical manner, the blessings of liberty for themselves and their posterity? In this article, I undertake to do just that.
Tyranny wars against liberty on two fronts. On one front, absolute government employs coercive (i.e. regulations and taxes) and frightful (i.e. armed force) means to impose its will on the people. On the other, absolute anarchy (while enjoying freedom from government and therefore a shade of liberty attractive to many) produces an environment where might makes right and the strong enjoy freedom at the expense of the weak (i.e. survival of the fittest). Our forefathers understood that liberty was that most narrow and difficult (perhaps inconvenient would be more appropriate) of all paths and yet they had the audacity to believe they just might be able to navigate it.
As with all problems, one always reasons from that which is known to that which is unknown. Our founding fathers were no different. They began by identifying three (3) fundamental truths that framed the issue:
- All men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.
- In order to secure their unalienable rights, men create governments which derive their just Powers from the consent of the governed.
- That whenever any government becomes destructive of these ends it is the right of the people (i.e. the creators) to alter or abolish it.
From these truths, they reasoned that a limited government of delegated powers, restrained by a Bill of Rights and various procedural checks and balances, was the most likely to secure man's unalienable rights and assure that the government operated with the consent of the governed. If the government failed at these tasks, our founding fathers recognized that the people retained the right to alter or abolish it.
With the establishment of our Constitutional Republic and the passage of the Bill of Rights, the battle between liberty and tyranny did not end, rather liberty (which is our birthright) became each generation's to defend or lose. The question is how can we keep it?
The Constitution provides many mechanisms for the people to exercise their sovereign authority. First, the Constitution left the ultimate legislative power in the hands of the people by empowering them to elect (i.e. hire or fire) their Representatives to the Congress, petition their government for a redress of grievances, and veto unjust laws through the institution of the jury. Second, the Constitution left the ultimate judicial power in the hands of the people by providing for a trial by a jury, having the power to judge both the law and the facts, of one's peers. Third, the Constitution left the ultimate executive authority in the hands of the people by requiring indictment by Grand Jury before any criminal charges could be brought and charging the militia with the responsibility to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions. Finally, in recognition that all authority, when challenged, ultimately relies upon power to enforce it, the Constitution provided for an individual right to keep and bear arms (i.e. military hardware).
In so crafting our Constitution, our forefathers apparently reasoned that while there was no sure repository for our freedoms, it was safest to leave the responsibility for defending them with the ones for whose benefit they were fashioned, namely the people. They recognized that this was not the most powerful tool for defending those liberties, as the people were frequently divided and difficult to organize while an absolute King or chief executive (i.e. the President) could marshall the necessary resources faster and employ them more efficiently. Moreover, they recognized that a ruling council or aristocracy (akin to Plato's philosopher kings) that was specially trained for carrying out affairs of state might exceed the people in wisdom in fashioning responses to threats on our liberties. Finally, they recognized that the people might tire of the responsibilities and inconveniences of sovereignty. Yet, despite all of these concerns, our forefathers believed (or at least hoped) that a free people, enjoying the blessings of liberty, would be motivated to preserve their freedom by daring to navigate that narrow, middle road to freedom.
Unfortunately, neither our forefathers nor our Constitution could guarantee that Americans would diligently follow that path nor that they would be wise, just, equitable, merciful and responsible sovereigns. In the 19th Century, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that America is great because America is good and he was right. What has become of America today?