Our Founding Fathers were revolutionaries, not idealistic dreamers. They knew that to introduce and maintain a system of government that had never been tried before, its principles would have to be grounded in an unsparing assessment of human nature derived from careful study of political history and scripture. Man is no angel. Even the most revered figures in the Bible, from Moses and David to the apostles, were deeply flawed characters.
As we continue our exploration of The Federalist Papers, one of our great nation’s central texts, we address Federalist No. 51 in this week’s newsletter. Federalist No. 51 is among the most important of the collection of 85 articles and essays. It is here where likely author James Madison, the fourth president of the United States and known as the “Father of the Constitution,” lays out the rationale for one of the most distinctive features of our political system — the checks and balances inherent in a government divided into three independent and equally powerful branches, the executive, legislative, and judicial.
“If men were angels,” Madison writes in Federalist No. 51, “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.”
How could the government be counted on to “control itself?” After all, even a cursory knowledge of human nature shows that men will pursue their own interests as far as they can, and at the expense of their neighbors. The same holds for the institutions men build, like political bodies. There is no satisfying man’s thirst for power — but it is possible to check and balance their will to power by ensuring all are equally able. “Ambition,” wrote Madison, “must be made to counteract ambition.”
The Constitution did not seek to change human nature or, like communist regimes, build a new man. Rather, it institutionalized arrangements between political institutions that checked man’s most dangerous appetites and thereby created balance, the natural state of affairs for a polity based on the idea that all men are created equal.
As we have come to understand more forcefully of late, the threat to America’s peace and stability comes when one institution, one branch, or one faction becomes too powerful. Sometimes tyranny is one man alone, but the Founding Fathers also warned against the tyranny of small factions of wealthy elites. The latter is the tyranny we face today. Here at America’s Future, we urge you to keep bringing truth to light and fighting alongside us in our ongoing quest to protect and promote life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.