Discovering Ancient Principles
Thomas Jefferson may have been the first of our Founding Fathers to look deep into the past to search out the “ancient principles” that would serve as the foundation of our republican form of government. Several of the Founders soon joined in the pursuit including fellow Virginian James Madison, John Adams, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, George Wythe, James Wilson, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. These men not only became widely read but they shared their findings and ideas in letters and personal conversations. It took them 25 years of development before the “ancient principles” resulted in the Constitution of the United States.
No doubt, these great minds would be perplexed by how the modern assessment that incorrectly places communism at the extreme left and fascism at the extreme right – as if they were opposites. In truth, they are different names for comparable forms of despotism – the police state. The Founders would place them at the same end of the political spectrum – despotism.
The Founders used a much different scale when they measured forms of government: too much government or too little government were the extremes. In political terms, the extreme of too much government would be tyranny while the extreme of too little government equates to anarchy. These men loathed tyranny but they considered anarchy to be even more deleterious. The Founders felt their objective should be to discover the formula for a form of government that would be under the control of the people.
These men also understood how “the pendulum swings” between the political extremes over the course of history – between tyranny and anarchy. George Washington understood this process and refused to be made king while pleading with his unpaid army to be patient with Congress. Colonel Lewis Nicola brazenly proposed, in a letter to May 22, 1782, that Washington become King of the United States. The general found the suggestion abhorrent and admonished his subordinate:
“I am much at a loss to conceive what part of my conduct could have given encouragement to an address which to me seems big with the greatest mischiefs that can befall my Country. If I am not deceived in the knowledge of myself, you could not have found a person to whom your schemes are more disagreeable; at the same time in justice to my own feelings I must add, that no Man possesses a more sincere wish to see ample justice done to the Army than I do, and as far as my powers and influence, in a constitutional way extend, they shall be employed to the utmost of my abilities to effect it, should there be any occasion. Let me conjure you then, if you have any regard for your Country, concern for yourself or posterity, or respect for me, to banish these thoughts from your Mind, and never communicate, as from yourself, or any one else, a sentiment of the like Nature.”
Washington understood the goal of the other Founders and realized they must learn how to prevent the pendulum from swinging to monarchy. As he was preparing to disband the Continental Army at Newburgh, the general wrote to the governors of the states on June 8, 1783:
“It is only in our united Character as an Empire, that our Independence is acknowledged, that our power can be regarded, or our Credit supported among Foreign Nations. The Treaties of the European Powers with the United States of America, will have no validity on a dissolution of the Union. We shall be left nearly in a state of Nature, or we may find by our own unhappy experience, that there is a natural and necessary progression, from the extreme of anarchy to the extreme of Tyranny; and that arbitrary power is most easily established on the ruins of Liberty abused to licentiousness.”
Jefferson was watching the developments from Paris while acting as minister for the Confederation and was frustrated by the events. He wrote to William Stephens Smith from Paris on February 9, 1788:
“We are now vibrating between too much and too little government, & the pendulum will rest finally in the middle.”[iii]
James Iredell of North Carolina, destined to be one of the first Justices on the Supreme Court, was a strong supporter of independence. He also had a firm understanding of the scale used to measure forms of government. During debate at the North Carolina Ratifying Convention on July 30, 1788, Iredell stated:
“There are two extremes equally dangerous to liberty. These are tyranny and anarchy. The medium between these two is the true government to protect the people. In my opinion, this Constitution is well calculated to guard against both these extremes.”[iv]
James Wilson of Pennsylvania, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a driving force in the writing of the Constitution, was soon to join James Iredell on the Supreme Court. He also understood the yardstick used to measure forms of government:
“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.”
During debate at the Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention, Fayette delegate John Smilie, agreed with Wilson in this statement:
“I agree likewise with him, Sir, that it is, or ought to be, the object of all governments, to fix upon the intermediate point between tyranny and licentiousness; and therefore, it will be one of the great objects of our enquiry, to ascertain how far the proposed system deviates from that point of political happiness.”
During debate at the Virginia Ratifying Convention, Governor Edmund Jennings Randolph took issue with the proposed Constitution and spoke, on June 6, 1788, in favor of limiting the general government with a small number of powers. Delegate George Nicholas, a friend of James Madison, addressed the governor by warning about granting too much or too little power:
“I believe this, sir, is a new idea in politics: — powers, being given for some certain purpose, ought to be proportionate to that purpose, or else the end for which they are delegated will not be answered. It is necessary to give powers, to a certain extent, to any government. If a due medium be not observed in the delegation of such powers, one of two things must happen: if they be too small, the government must moulder and decay away; if too extensive, the people must be oppressed. As there can be no liberty without government, it must be as dangerous to make powers too limited as too great.”
Alexander Hamilton, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention from New York, would conspire with James Madison and John Jay on a series of essays to inform the people of that state about the proposed Constitution. Those 85 essays were eventually published in most of the states and are still studied today: The Federalist Papers. In Federalist 26, Hamilton wrote about restraining legislative authority:
“IT WAS a thing hardly to be expected that in a popular revolution the minds of men should stop at that happy mean which marks the salutary boundary between POWER and PRIVILEGE, and combines the energy of government with the security of private rights. A failure in this delicate and important point is the great source of the inconveniences we experience, and if we are not cautious to avoid a repetition of the error, in our future attempts to rectify and ameliorate our system, we may travel from one chimerical project to another; we may try change after change; but we shall never be likely to make any material change for the better.
As Hamilton intimated, the Founders understood they were trailblazers for a unique form of governance.