Thursday, October 16, 2008

Power in the Republic

The continuing challenge of any people and government is to maintain a balance of power with adequate controls to ensure the safety and felicity of the people. The entire treatise of the Federalist Papers serves as reference to the need to delegate and diffuse governmental powers in order to ensure our safety and felicity from potential external and internal harms.

James Wilson wrote: "Liberty and happiness have a powerful enemy on each hand; on the one hand tyranny, on the other licentiousness [anarchy]. To guard against the latter, it is necessary to give the proper powers to government; and to guard against the former, it is necessary that those powers should be properly distributed." Woodrow Wilson said: "The history of liberty is a history of the limitations of governmental power, not the increase of it." Both the limitation and balance of power lie at the heart of the Constitution.

More than any other form of government, the maintenance of our republic requires wise and virtuous leaders, who respect the Constitution and the principles of delegated power. James Madison said, “The aim of every political Constitution, is or ought to be first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust." Under the Constitution, "We the People" are the ultimate determinants of who will be our leaders ...

When the Constitution was signed by the members of the Constitutional Convention in September 1787, it then went to the several states for ratification. The states each held their own ratifying conventions wherein they debated its provisions. In one such convention held in North Carolina in July 1788, a representative named William Goudy (who may be a distant relative), spoke on the subject of tyranny:

“Mr. Chairman, I wonder that these gentlemen, learned in the law, should quibble upon words. I care not whether it be called a compact, agreement, covenant, bargain, or what. Its intent is a concession of power, on the part of the people, to their rulers. We know that private interest governs mankind generally. Power belongs originally to the people; but if rulers be not well guarded, that power may be usurped from them. People ought to be cautious in giving away power. These gentlemen say there is no occasion for general rules: every one has one for himself. Every one has an unalienable right of thinking for himself. There can be no inconvenience from laying down general rules. If we give away more power than we ought, we put ourselves in the situation of a man who puts on an iron glove, which he can never take off till he breaks his arm. Let us beware of the iron glove of tyranny. Power is generally taken from the people by imposing on their understanding, or by fetters [shackles].”

--William Goudy (July 21, 1788, “The Debates in the Several State Conventions, (North Carolina), on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution”, Elliot's Debates, Volume 4, page 10).

Just as our founding fathers, we as citizens “ought to be cautious in giving away power” or in allowing it to be "taken" from us.

By: J. David Gowdy

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions

On January 27, 1838, Abraham Lincoln gave an address before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, entitled “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner, describes the event this way: "we had a society in Springfield, which contained and commanded all the culture and talent of the place. Unlike the other one its meetings were public, and reflected great credit on the community ... The address was published in the Sangamon Journal and created for the young orator a reputation which soon extended beyond the limits of the locality in which he lived."

In his landmark address, Lincoln explores potential dangers to our Republic, and inquires of us:

"But, it may be asked, why suppose danger to our political institutions? Have we not preserved them for more than fifty years? And why may we not for fifty times as long?

“We hope there is no sufficient reason. We hope all dangers may be overcome; but to conclude that no danger may ever arise, would itself be extremely dangerous. There are now, and will hereafter be, many causes, dangerous in their tendency, which have not existed heretofore; and which are not too insignificant to merit attention. …

[T]he history of the world tells us … that men of ambition and talents will … continue to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have so done before them. The question then, is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot. Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would inspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle. What! think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon?--Never! Towering genius distains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.--It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction ... Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.” (italics in original)

In this election year, it would be wise for us to examine our candidates for public office -- those who seek to represent and to govern us, whether by "a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair" -- by this test suggested by Abraham Lincoln over 170 years ago.

By: J. David Gowdy