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February 2017 Policy Study, Number 17-2


A Commentary on the American Founding


Part 14



We are a nation of extraordinarily fortunate people.  We live at a place and time in history the likes of which the world has never known.  The peace and prosperity we enjoy as a nation are unrivaled.  Most of us living in America today know of no other condition.  In fact, we take our present condition so much for granted that many give no thought that there could ever be any other condition.  Our actions as a people bespeak the fact that we are willing to abide the current condition in perpetuity.  In a word, we are complacent.


But we are not the first people with the ability to credibly make such claims, nor are we the first people to fall prey to the allure of complacency.  A quick review of the Athenian (Greek) and Roman civilizations will reveal that in their ascendancy, each passed through very equivalent phases as we, and at their apex they attained the condition we now enjoy.  That is, in their place and time in history they enjoyed the position we do today.  We will allow as that their condition wasn’t nearly as peaceful or as prosperous as ours; but relatively speaking, they held approximately the same station vis-à-vis other peoples that we do.  They were king of the hill.


They both functioned as republics using democratic principles.  They both promoted legislative policies similar to ours.  Both societies became complacent.  And both governments are nowhere in the world to be found today.  Their systems of government failed.  Their civilizations deteriorated and died.  And from my reading of either history, the inference to be drawn is that the failure of government and the deterioration and death of the respective civilizations were not two separate actions.  Government didn’t fail and then civilization just followed it.  On the contrary, the failure of government and the deterioration and death of the civilization were concomitant.


At the present time, most Americans, including this author, are not terribly well-versed in either Greek or Roman history; but I am firmly convinced that on these subjects the Founders of this nation were quite well-studied.  Our Founders knew and understood the principles on which these civilizations were established.  And even though the governments of these civilizations were quite advanced, they contained within them the seeds for their own destruction.  Our Founders knew and understood this as well.  And they applied this hard-won knowledge when they formulated the design for a new government “in such form, as to them shall [did] seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness.”  They were meticulous in their effort.  The new form of government they established was highly successful and revered by its loyal citizens.  The affection of the citizens for this new form of government, and for the peace and prosperity it engendered, goes without saying.  But the reverence they held for this new form of government was reserved for the liberty it fostered.


What was it our Founders knew and understood that, when applied to the new form of government, prompted such reverence and loyalty in the populace?  The key was Law.  We were to be “a nation of Law and not of men.”  We were to be a nation where true and consistent justice was to be the rule and not the exception.  But how does one accomplish such a feat?  That is the genius of the design for their new form of government.  It truly was an experiment in self-government, not an experiment in government, not an experiment in the mechanics of a republic; but as they called it, “the great experiment in self-government.”  The world had never seen anything like it before, save once, that being the Jewish civilization during the time of Judges:  “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what he thought best” (Holy Bible, Judges 21:25).


This is the true meaning of self-government.  We are indeed to govern ourselves, as individuals.  It’s true, this nation wanted to be out from under the thumb of England, and in that sense it wanted to govern itself.  But self-government is just that — individuals governing themselves.  This is what John Adams, our second President, meant when he stated the following in his address of October 11, 1798, to the military:


We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion.  Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net.  Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.  (Emphasis added).


Or consider the words of James Madison.  He is known as the father of the Constitution, and he was our fourth President.  He wrote:


We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it.  We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government; upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.”  (Emphasis added).  (Cited in America’s God And Country Encyclopedia Of Quotations by William J. Federer).


Now, one could argue that a civilization with no omnipotent civil leader, combined with everyone doing what he thinks best, is a prescription for anarchy, and indeed it can be.  But therein also lays the path to true liberty.  This would seem to be a conundrum — a paradox for the ages.  Yet neither the fear of anarchy nor the paradox which presents itself to us deterred our Founders from their chosen course of action.  Whatever were they thinking?  It is apparent that they weren’t thinking as we do today.  You can’t have a civil society without authority and order.  Without a king or a strong civil leader, where is this authority to be found?  To answer this question, we need to examine their understanding of authority then and our understanding of authority now.


When we envision authority, we see authority merely as that power exhibited by a fellow man.  To us, authority is that man, who once he has given the order, has the capacity to enforce it.  In truth, what we understand is power.  In this respect, we are very much reminiscent of the Greeks and Romans.  We seldom, if ever, question whence the authority for that power comes or if he truly possesses it.  We seemingly fail to understand that there even is a distinction between authority and power.  Thus it can, and does, happen that the man giving the order may be wielding what may not be authority at all, but power only.  The product of power exercised without rightful authority is injustice.  We chafe when this injustice is visited upon our self, but we can’t quite identify the source of our irritation.




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