The following is a chapter of “Your American Yardstick” by Hamilton A Long. It is out of copyright and in the public domain. I regard his work as seminal and extremely important for every American to understand. This entry deals with the second principle of the meaning and motivation of our Constitution.
A Principle of the Traditional American Philosophy
- FEAR OF GOVERNMENT-OVER-MAN
A main principle of the traditional American philosophy is expressed in the phrase: fear of Government-over-Man.
Cause of Fear
This fear is due to the ever-present, never-changing weaknesses of human nature in government which are conducive to “love of power and proneness to abuse it,” as Washington’s Farewell Address warned. This means public officials’ human weaknesses, especially as aggravated by the corresponding weaknesses among the self-governing people themselves. It is a truism that government’s power needs only to exist to be feared—to be dominant, over the fear-ridden, without ever needing to be exercised aggressively.
Man—Good and Evil, Mixed
This philosophy asserts that human nature is a mixture of good and evil, of strength and weakness, and is not perfectible during life on earth. There is “a portion of virtue and honor among Mankind” and the better side of Man, the Individual, can be strengthened and made more dependable through spiritual growth. The resulting moral development is conducive to sound conduct, in keeping with conscience in the light of a personal moral code based upon religious-moral considerations. Yet history teaches that the previously mentioned weaknesses of human nature provide just cause for never-ceasing fear of Government-over-Man.
Government Like a Fire
Americans of the period 1776-1787 firmly believed in the soundness of the accepted maxim that “government is like a fire: a dangerous servant and a fearful master;” that, to be useful, it must be strictly controlled for safety against its getting out of hand and doing great harm. Through the generations, the people have considered that this maxim expresses one of history’s most profoundly important lessons for Free Man. This maxim is based upon the knowledge that, in last analysis, government is force and must be feared and controlled accordingly. The great fear in 1787-1788 of the new, central government under the proposed Constitution was evidenced by the fact that the State Ratifying Conventions proposed scores of amendments, designed chiefly to keep under more rigid control what they considered to be this potential monster of power so dangerous to their liberties: the central, or Federal, government.
The Views of Jefferson and Madison and the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions
This fear was of abuse by government of power granted to it by the people, as well as of usurpation by it of power denied or prohibited to it by them, through the Constitution, to the injury if not doom of their liberties—of the God-given, unalienable rights of The Individual. Jefferson merely voiced the lesson of history—well known to, and accepted by, his fellow Americans—when he stated, in the “Diffusion of Knowledge” Bill in 1779, in the Virginia legislature:
“. . . experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms [of government], those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny …”
Jefferson also expressed this traditional, American viewpoint in his famous writing known as the Kentucky Resolutions, as adopted in 1798 by the Kentucky legislature, in these words in part:
“. . . it would be a dangerous delusion were a confidence in the men of our choice to silence our fears for the safety of our rights: that confidence is everywhere the parent of despotism: free government is founded in jealousy and not in confidence; it is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited Constitutions to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power: that our Constitution has accordingly fixed the limits to which and no further our confidence may go; . . . In questions of power then let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”
These Kentucky Resolutions are closely akin to the contemporaneous Virginia Resolutions of 1798 adopted soon afterward by the Virginia legislature—written mainly by Madison who was, as usual, in close touch with Jefferson in this period. Both sets of resolutions were protests against what were considered and denounced as abuses and usurpations of power by the Federal government—chiefly through the Alien and Sedition Laws adopted by Congress in 1798. Such protests by a State legislature were in keeping with the remedies available to the States in such a situation—remedies contemplated by The Framers as being within the constitutional system—as discussed, for example, by Madison in 1788 in The Federalist number 46. The Sedition Act was designed to restrict freedom of speech and of the Press so as to stifle criticism of Federal officials and therefore grossly violated the Constitution; and it was opposed, for example, by John Marshall, as a member of Congress, and by Alexander Hamilton—the latter stating: “Let us not establish a tyranny.” (These laws soon disappeared from the statute books, due to their widespread unpopularity which the above-mentioned 1798 resolutions had helped initially to foster.)
Precedents for Other States’ Protests Such As The Hartford Convention Resolutions
These 1798 protests by the Kentucky and Virginia legislatures were not the first such development in the life of the Republic. A predecessor resolution of protest, for example, had been adopted by the Virginia legislature in 1790: the “Protest and Remonstrance” against the assumption by the Federal government of the war-incurred debts of the States, as being unconstitutional. This protest set a precedent for the above-mentioned 1798 resolutions. They, in turn, set precedents for similar resolutions of protest adopted by various States—in New England, the North, the Midwest as well as in the South—during the following decades when they considered themselves to be victimized, potentially or actually, by either abuses or usurpations of power by the Federal government; such developments being the subject of comment, for example, by former President John Quincy Adams in his celebrated “Jubilee” address of April 30, 1839. (Some of these later resolutions even relied on the Virginia Resolutions of1798 as a precedent.) An example is the set of resolutions adopted in1815, during the war with England, by the Hartford Convention—representing Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, and New Hampshire—protesting against what were considered to be Federal usurpations, potential or actual, regarding use of the States’ Militia in war operations and other national defense matters.
The View of Patrick Henry
In the Virginia Ratifying Convention in 1788, Patrick Henry protested with vehemence against the proposed new Constitution’s lack of adequate limits on the central government’s power, lack of sufficient safeguards against governmental abuses due to human weaknesses among its officials, saying:
“Show me that age and country where the rights and liberties of the people were placed on the sole chance of their rulers being good men, without a consequent loss of liberty! I say that the loss of that dearest privilege has ever followed, with absolute certainty, every such mad attempt.”
The American People’s View Also Expressed in the Pittsfield Petition of 1776
These quoted sentiments were accepted as maxims by American leaders in general and by the American people as a whole in that generation of Free Men—free in spirit and willing to fight and die for their Freedom from Government-over-Man. This acceptance is illustrated by the below-quoted words of the Pittsfield, Massachusetts, town-meeting petition of a decade earlier, in May, 1776. It was penned by the Reverend Thomas Allen, ardent friend of American Independence and of Man’s Liberty against Government-over-Man. It stated why Massachusetts needed a new, basic law of the people, a Constitution to be adopted by the people only, in part as follows:
“That, knowing the strong bias of human nature to tyranny and despotism, we have nothing else in view but to provide for posterity against the wanton exercise of power, which cannot otherwise be done than by the formation of a fundamental constitution.”
This petition reflected the sentiments of the frontier, “backwoods” people of Berkshire County, led by this patriot as head of “The Berkshire Constitutionalists,” over a decade before the 1787 Federal Convention framed the United States Constitution. These were truly the sentiments of the American people at large. They are in harmony with the later phrasing of this idea as follows in The Federalist (number 55, by Madison):
“As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust: So there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.”
Never-changing Weaknesses of Human Nature Create Never-changing Need for Safeguards
The never-changing need for, and value of, constitutional safe-guards against abuse, or usurpation, of power by public servants—as contemplated, and as provided for, by The Framers and Adopters of the Constitution in 1787-1788 and by those who proposed, framed and adopted the first ten Amendments (including the Bill of Rights made applicable against the Federal, or central, government only)—are due to the never-changing weaknesses of human nature in government and among the self-governing people. These weaknesses never change; therefore the need for these safeguards can never change.
Fear of Government-over-Man was the dominant fear in that day of uncompromisingly individualistic Americans—Free Men, ever jealous of the safety of Individual Liberty, of the security of their God-given, unalienable rights against violation by government.