“It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices [checks and balances] should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
The Federalist Papers provide valuable insights into the thought processes and principles beneath the Constitution; an instruction manual as Charles Cooke at National Review commented. Federalist #51 illuminates two distinct features of the Consitution.
“..what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?”
Their political philosophy was based on an understanding of human nature that tempered the dignity of mankind that deserves the freedom of natural rights with a realistic understanding of man’s limitations and character flaws. It is the acceptance of these character flaws that distinguishes conservative thought from the variations of the social scientific outlook that believed these flaws could be corrected through the benevolent power of the state. The problem was that once this power was bestowed there is no guarantee that it would remain benevolent. Once freedom was defined in the collective as opposed to the individual, violence against the collective became an assault on freedom itself and thus deserving of the strongest and too often the most violent response.
The rise of socialist thought in Europe stood for the rights of the common man who needed to be freed from the chains of oppression of capitalism and the social Darwinism of modern democracy. Socialists, and other adherents to the social scientific outlook, emphasized that no man should be a slave; the founders emphasized that no man should be a master (even if it took another 75 years to fully realize.) Dispensing with the restrictions on central authority so valued by the founders, a new tyranny rose worse than any projected fears of modern representative democracy.
To the framers of the Constitution this imperfection of mankind meant that his access to political power should be limited. #51 clearly feared that mere democratic accountability was not enough:
“A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
While we needed to be realistic about man’s shortcomings as an individual, these shortcomings could become worse in a majoritarian democracy. From Federalist #55:
“In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever character composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”
Their design of government had a dual purpose:
“..you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
The failures of the Articles of Confederation were centered on the weakness of federal power in matters of defense, internal order, and government finance. After victory in the War for Independence there were still threatening forces on the continent from Britain, Spain and France. The resistance to taxation to fund the government was met by Shay’s Rebellion and caused concern that we were descending into anarchy.
In the need to maintain a national order they still understood the need to restrain central political power by dividing it, vertically through federalism and horizontally through checks and balances. Staggered terms made it difficult for a demagogue to seize power.
The rise of Progressivism minimized the second task of government “to control itself” as passe; no longer necessary in the modern world where modern expertise could solve our social problems if only unleashed from the restraints deemed so necessary in 1789. This faith in expertise rose from the historicism of Hegel that thought the precision of scientific thinking could be carried seamlessly to the social sphere.
Faith in benevolent expertise suffered a setback when the absence of restraints on power showed its results in WWII when scientific reasoning was separated from moral considerations. While the framers were concerned with the legitimacy of central political power, scholarship in the 20th century also challenged the competence of central power; the inability to control or mirror the dispersed knowledge of the marketplace.
The dignity and flawed nature of man and the need to restrain his access to central power, the necessary limits on democracy, and the need to view freedom in the individual rather than collective have become the defining tenets of modern conservatism. History has confirmed their value.