Government of the People: An Innovation of the Founders

Americans seem to be losing their grasp on the idea that the Founders did a work that was new and bold and different. Perhaps this is due to the "multiculturalism" thrust now so prevalent in the classrooms of America. This concept teaches that there was nothing really new in the Constitution, that the ideas were merely borrowed from other nations or even from some of the Native American tribes of North America. It also teaches that there is nothing really outstanding about these ideas, that they are just several of the many equally valuable ideas on the world political scene-ideas which the Founders of America just happened to like best because of their capitalist ideas. But, it is said, that doesn't mean they are better than other ideas out in the world, just different. And by the way, it is further said, don't try to impose American ideals on anyone else because American ideas are not any better, just different.

Over the next few months we will be discussing some of the concepts which came out of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 which the Founders called new and innovative. It will become abundantly clear that while the Founders studied and knew every political system which had existed in the world, they had not copied any of them. What they did was unique. Perhaps James Madison expressed their feelings best when he said:

"Is it not the glory of the people of America that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?

"To this manly spirit posterity will be indebted for the possession, and the world for the example, of the numerous innovations displayed on the American theater in favor of private rights and public happiness.

"Had no important step been taken by the leaders of the Revolution for which a precedent could not be discovered, no government established of which an exact model did not present itself, the people of the United States might at this moment have been numbered among the melancholy victims of misguided councils, must at best have been laboring under the weight of some of those forms which have crushed the liberties of the rest of mankind."

Then he concluded:

"Happily for America, happily we trust for the whole human race, they pursued a new and more noble course. They accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society. They reared the fabrics of governments which have no model on the face of the globe. They formed the design of a great Confederacy, which it is incumbent on their successors to improve and perpetuate." (W. Cleon Skousen,The Five Thousand Year Leap, pp. 309-310)

Dispelling the Idea of the "Divine Right of Kings"

The Founders first task was to confirm the ideas that there was no such thing as ruler or a ruling family having a "divine right" to rule over someone else and that the only authority to rule must come from the consent of the people because that is where authority exists-it is the only place where all authority originates. Algernon Sidney was beheaded by King Charles II in 1683 for saying that the idea of ruling by "divine right" is false. John Locke wrote the same thing but from a safer distance in Holland. Nearly a hundred years later the Founders would include the same teaching in their Declaration of Independence. They agreed with John Locke who explained that since all men are created by the same Being, with the same rights, and placed on this earth for the same purpose, no one of His creations has a right to rule over or injure another. Said he:

"The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which ... teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions; for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by His order and about His business; they are His property....

"And, being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of Nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us that may authorize us to destroy one another." (ibid., pp. 123-124)

Government Must Have Its Roots in the People

Having established the divine right of kings as a false political philosophy, the Founders wanted to make sure that any formation of government had its roots in the people themselves. This is the only place where authority exists. There is no inherent authority in any ruler or political official. The only authority to rule must come by the delegation of and consent from the people-the only place where authority exists.

Today, there seems to be the feeling that when a person is chosen to serve in public office he has a right to do whatever he feels like needs to be done and somehow there is the authority to do whatever he can negotiate or persuade others to agree to do. The Founders considered this faulty thinking, for if a person does not have the authority to perform and act himself, he cannot delegate authority to his agent, the government, to perform that act for him. If our legislators would learn this one basic principle of republican government, there would be noticeable decrease in the number of laws pouring out of our state and national legislative halls.

The Founders Rejected the British System

Several of the Founders, including Alexander Hamilton, proposed a type of republic similar to the British system, where the parliament would be the supreme authority in all matters. But the Founders had already discovered that "legislative supremacy" can be as tyrannical as a king; therefore they rejected this type of republic, because supremacy did not rest where authority originates-with the people.

The Founders Rejected the System of a Confederation of States

Under this system each state retains its independence and sovereign supremacy but confederates with other states for mutual defense or certain other advantages. This type of republic does not have legislative supremacy but rather "state supremacy." The Founders had used this second approach in setting up the Articles of Confederation, and it had almost caused them to lose the Revolutionary War. Therefore they rejected this type of republic as well.

The World Anxiously Waited For Americans to Find a Solution

It's as though the whole world was watching to see if America could really bring about a government that would reflect the kind of freedom and liberty the people had been preaching about in their speeches and sermons. It had never been done before.

King George certainly thought the Americans would never pull this off. He kept his troops on our northern border with Canada until 1796 (seven years after Washington had been inaugurated as president). He knew these rebels would never be able to govern themselves without him. And when they failed, British troops would be right there ready to go back in and take control.

One can imagine what others were thinking. Could the Americans really pull this off? Could they do this on their own?

As years passed after the Revolutionary War, it looked like it might not work. Things were worsening in the economy. The states were quarreling. Riots were beginning to break out in various places in the colonies. James Wilson described this predicament:

"On the glorious conclusion of our conflict with Britain, what high expectations were formed concerning us by others! What high expectations did we form concerning ourselves! Have those expectations been realized? No. What has been the cause? Did our citizens lose their perseverance and magnanimity? No. Did they become insensible of resentment and indignation at any high-handed attempt that might have been made to injure or enslave them? No. What, then, has been the cause? The truth is, we dreaded danger only on one side: this we manfully repelled. But, on another side, danger, not less formidable but more insidious, stole in upon us; and our unsuspicious tempers were not sufficiently attentive either to its approach or to its operations. Those, whom foreign strength could not overpower, have well nigh become the victims of internal anarchy...."

He then described the results of the Founders struggle for the best kind of government:

"We now see the great end which they proposed to accomplish. It was to frame, for the consideration of their constituents, one federal and national constitution -- a constitution that would produce the advantages of good, and prevent the inconveniences of bad government -- a constitution whose beneficence and energy would pervade the whole Union, and bind and embrace the interests of every part -- a constitution that would insure peace, freedom, and happiness, to the states and people of America." (Skousen, The Making of America, p. 174)

The American Invention Gradually Emerges

Dr. Skousen describes the Founders attempt to establish "government of the people."

"Great Britain had made her major contribution by reducing the autocratic powers of the king and forcing him to share his power with the Parliament. However, the people did not gain the advantages they had expected because the Parliament then became supreme and, to some extent, autocratic. The American Founders thereupon determined to drive the pilings for a firm and sound government clear down where they belonged -- among the people. To accomplish this they had to go through four steps:

  1. Clearly enunciate the fundamental principle that the power to govern rests in the people. (This was done in the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence.)

  2. Although serving as delegates appointed by the state legislatures, they had to propose a government that would not become operative unless approved by the people.

  3. To achieve this, they proposed to send the constitutional draft back to the Congress, and if it was approved by them, to have it submitted to the ratifying conventions elected by the people (not the legislatures) in each of the states.

  4. When ratified, the Constitution would become the voice of the people (not the confederated sovereign states), and would thereby make the voice of the people the supreme law of the land.

"The Founders structured the Constitution so that the doctrines of legislative supremacy (as applied in England) and state supremacy (as applied to the Netherlands, Germany, and the American Articles of Confederation) would be replaced by the doctrine of 'constitutional supremacy,' a brand new invention." (ibid., pp. 174-175)

For the first time in modern history, a government had been established which really did recognize that authority to govern is rooted in the people and that anyone serving in any office of public trust must only do so by the consent of those people. Furthermore, the public official's authority only extends to those powers which have been properly delegated from the people. Any attempt to exceed this delegated authority would be usurpation.

This is the remarkable innovation which the Founders achieved. It is an idea which continues to be challenged both intentionally and unintentionally in our day. It is the beautiful concept that Abraham Lincoln understood so well and saw challenged in his day. He described the task remaining for all living Americans:

"It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." ( The Gettysburg Address , November 19, 1863)

Of course, the Founders knew that having government rooted in the people brings responsibility as never before. No longer could they blame anyone else for problems. They knew that as long as the people were righteous and moral and built their government on "the law of Nature and of Nature's God" they would succeed and prosper. If they didn't, their experiment in self-government could turn into the worst disaster in the history of the world.



Earl Taylor, Jr.