The unlimited blessings of limited government
By Dr. Robert Owens
The battles were over and the war won now the hardest task of all: how to secure the rights fought for while providing a government strong enough to endure. The Framers gathered in Philadelphia for the purpose of proposing amendments to the Articles of Confederation. Within days they decided instead to frame a new government launching an experiment in centralized but limited government.
That they believed the people to be the source of legitimate authority is exposed in the Preamble which begins, “We the People.” They based this belief upon the Enlightenment concept of Natural Law, that God endowed men with unalienable rights. Many people in Western Civilization believed in Natural Law realizing that these rights, though endowed by the Creator as inherent prerogatives, would not continue to exist in organized society unless protected by limitations on government power. The Framers believed Natural Law not only conferred rights it also established limits to the scope of government and man-made law. In their mind no legitimate law violated the possession and enjoyment of the rights of man. In declaring independence our ancestors proclaimed their purpose as assuming the station, "to which the laws of Nature and Nature's God entitle them."
Knowing all this was one thing, but devising a manner in which not only authority but also power could be conceded from society in general to a government which by the nature of organization consists of a much smaller number was quite another. How was this power to be limited? How were the rights of all to be protected from the power of the few? What was to stop the concentration of power into the hands of factions combined for their own benefit? How to provide a government with sufficient authority and power to ensure the security and order necessary for everyone to enjoy their natural rights, and yet restrained enough to allow them to do so? This was the problem which confronted those locked in Independence Hall in 1787 devising a government strong enough to do good, yet limited enough to do no harm.
The concept of a written Constitution was the first step. England had no written constitution. It was ruled by tradition and precedent. After the Revolution the Framers knew traditions and precedents can change. So they looked to a written Constitution to provide a framework and guide for the new government, thus setting boundaries and establishing them for all to see. They provided a means for change in the amendment process, but they made it difficult and cumbersome so that change would not be easy or readily accessible to the whim of a moment or the rulers of the day.
Beyond this primary recourse to a lasting written code the Framers sought to employ two vehicles for the limitation of government; a federal system wherein power is divided between the parts and the whole, and representation through which the voice of the people would speak. To accomplish these twin goals the States retain their sovereignty and provide a legislature made up of two houses: the House of Representatives and the Senate. The House of Representatives was and still is popularly elected by all eligible voters. Every two years these closest of all national leaders return to the people for affirmation and a renewed mandate. And the Senate, which was originally elected by the states through their legislatures who were all at least partially elected by the public thus, ensuring both: more input from the people and the federal nature of the government. The President and Vice President were and still are indirectly elected by the members of the Electoral College, which are chosen in accordance with procedures designated by the individual states, thus once again enhancing the federal nature of the government. The President, with the advice and consent of the Senate, chooses the judges of the Federal Courts.
This system, which we’ve come to call checks and balances, provides that no law can be enacted without a majority vote by representatives elected directly by the people, representatives chosen by the States and signed by the President, whose election is a result of a combination of the people and the States. Thus the authority of the people is employed, the voice of the people is heard, yet the indirect manner in which it is applied and the muted manner in which it is heard seeks to ensure a government insulated from the volatile passions of the day.
What the Framers sought was a government of reason. The Enlightenment thinkers believed through the use of reason people discover natural rights and natural law. They also believed reason is the source of a government capable of protecting those rights by enforcing that law. To this end they created a federal system to diffuse power and a representative republic to provide a voice for the people safeguarded from the emotions of the moment. They hoped that reasonable people working within a federal government divided between branches and surrounded by a written constitution would ensure the authority of the many would pass through the hands of the few for the blessings of all. At least that was the hope.
Dr. Robert Owens teaches History, Political Science, and Religion for Southside Virginia Community College and History for the American Public University System. © 2010 Robert R. Owens firstname.lastname@example.org