One of the most remarkable observations in the study of history is the caution and warnings that are always given by founders of great civilizations. It seems that those who lay foundations for great civilizations are quite aware of the seeds of pride, selfishness, and contention in human nature which over time usually begin to manifest themselves in society–even good societies. These founders, realizing the tendency of human nature to degenerate, have always closed their public ministries with solemn warnings of the dire consequences of departing from the lofty ideals they established.
Moses gave the children of Israel the most sublime principles of government and human behavior, which would have led them to the most prosperous society ever. But he seemed to know that after his departure it would be difficult to hold. No doubt he knew from personal experiences that the Israelites would soon depart from his inspired counsel. He said: “For I know thy rebellion, and thy stiff neck: behold, while I am yet alive with you this day, ye have been rebellious against the Lord; and how much more after my death?” (Deuteronomy 31:27) He even predicted that they would eventually fall from being the most prosperous and blessed nation on earth into a state of slavery, devoured by other nations, and losing the great blessings of freedom.
The Savior’s Sermon on the Mount contained principles of human behavior which, if followed, would have created the highest level of prosperity and freedom ever seen on the face of the earth. But before His ministry was concluded, He gave direct warnings concerning the fate of those who would reject His teachings. As a result, few groups have seen more persecution in the history of the world than those who turned from His true gospel.
When the American Founders set up the first free people in modern times they knew it was risky business. They all realized that any man-made institution — even under the inspiration of the Almighty — would be subject to foibles and human weaknesses of those who worked under its canopy. Nevertheless, these men who master-minded the United States of America had the highest aspirations for the great nation they were founding. It was only in their quiet, more somber moments that their apprehensions concerning the future of America came out in concrete phrases and words.
Strong Warnings from the Founders and Early American Leaders
Many state constitutions include words similar to what is contained in the Arizona Constitution: “A frequent recurrence to fundamental principles is essential to the security of individual rights and the perpetuity of free government.” (Arizona State Constitution, Art. II, Sec. 1) Just as we need to periodically review the principles the Founders gave us, so should we periodically review the warnings they uttered about the temptation of a free people to use this freedom to give license to human weaknesses thus pulling down a great civilization.
Benjamin Franklin feared Americans would become corrupt and embrace masters
Franklin helped structure the Constitution as a member of the Constitutional Convention. While many of them were celebrating their accomplishment, Franklin was looking down the road many years, and with his understanding of human nature, feared what freedom would lead to if the people were not very careful:
“I agree to this Constitution … and I believe, further, that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.”
Another time he said that if the people lose their virtue they will actually come to a point of asking again for kingly government:
“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious they have more need of masters.”
George Washington warned against the corrupting influence of political parties
One of the most significant doctrines set forth in the Farewell Address was Washington’s extremely insightful warning concerning the peril of allowing candidates to be nominated and national policies to be promoted by competing political parties. In fact, he prophesied exactly what would happen if the American leaders ever fell into the seductive trap of trying to run the nation with opposing parties. He said:
“They serve to organize factions … to put in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority….
“Let me … warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party….”
Almost prophetically he anticipated the encroachment of one branch of government over the others. He said:
“It is important … that … those entrusted with its administration … confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department any encroachment upon another…. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create … a real despotism.”
Nothing aroused the wrath of Washington more than arrogant bureaucrats actually changing the fundamental structure of government by sheer despotic assertion of administrative power. He said:
“If, in the opinion of the people, the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpations; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.”
John Adams knew our Constitution would fail without a religious and moral base
Among the warning voices of the Founders none was more forceful in proclaiming the need for a virtuous people to make the Constitution function than John Adams. He said:
“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Thomas Jefferson foresaw the federal courts letting politicians consolidate power
While serving as President for eight years, Jefferson sensed there were powerful forces at work to destroy the Constitution, and he pointed the finger of blame right at the federal judiciary:
“Our government is now taking so steady a course as to show by what road it will pass to destruction, to wit, by consolidation first, and then corruption…. The engine of consolidation will be the federal judiciary; the two other branches the corrupting and corrupted instruments.”
Even in Jefferson’s own day, the Supreme Court, under the leadership of Jefferson’s distant cousin, John Marshall, began to claim authority to be the final arbiter on all constitutional issues. This gave the courts much more power than granted them in the Constitution. As a result, both the executive and legislative branches began to assume more power with the blessing of the courts and the whole balance of power between the federal government and the states was shattered. Jefferson described how this would gradually happen:
“The great object of my fear is the federal judiciary. That body, like gravity, ever acting with noiseless foot and unalarming advance, gaining ground step by step and holding what it gains, is engulfing insidiously the [state] governments into the jaws of that [federal government] which feeds them.”
James Madison foresaw the federal government controlling and regulating everything
Madison was as fearful of runaway federal power as was Jefferson. His prophetic insight into human nature could have been written today instead of 200 years ago. His comments reflect his fear that was far ahead of his time: He said:
“If Congress can employ money indefinitely, for the general welfare, and are the sole and supreme judges of the general welfare, they may take the care of religion into their own hands; they may appoint teachers in every state, county, and parish, and pay them out of the public treasury; they may take into their own hands the education of children, the establishing in like manner schools throughout the union; they may assume the provision of the poor…. Were the power of Congress to be established in the latitude contended for, it would subvert the very foundations, and transmute the very nature of the limited government established by the people of America.”
Abraham Lincoln feared that democratic Ideas would replace republican principles
Early in his life, Abraham Lincoln gave one of the greatest speeches of his life. It was in 1837. The place was the Young Men’s Lyceum at Springfield, the capital city of Illinois. He chose as his subject, “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” Even at this young age of 28, Lincoln sensed a change taking place. He would debate this change many years later with Stephen Douglas, a republic (the rule of law) vs. democracy (popular sovereignty). He would resist this change for the rest of his life. It would be the underlying basis for his speech at Gettysburg. Lincoln deplored the spirit of democracy that was increasing among the people. He said:
“There is even now something of ill omen amongst us. I mean that increasing disregard for law which pervades the country — the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passion in lieu of the sober judgment of courts, and the worse than savage mobs for the executive ministers of justice. The disposition is awfully fearful in any community; and that it now exists in ours … it would be a violation of truth to deny.”
He was not afraid of invasion from without, but he saw the ominous possibility of self-destruction from within. He said:
“At what point, then, is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reaches us, it must spring up among us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time or die by suicide.”
Alexis De Tocqueville warned against the creeping nature of regulation by government
In 1830 a young judge arrived in America from France. His name was Alexis de Tocqueville. He came to study the American penal system. He was so impressed with the whole culture that he expanded his observation to nearly every aspect of American life.
Upon returning to France, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote a two-volume work entitled, Democracy in America. It is perhaps the best and most complete description of early American culture. Because of their freedom and morality, De Tocqueville envisioned the American people becoming extremely prosperous. But he too understood human nature. He then described what he thought would happen as Americans passed through several distinct stages.
First of all, he saw the strength of character and moral integrity that would make them prosperous. Secondly, as they became self-sufficient in their prosperity, he saw that they would cease caring for one another and become much less concerned about the principles that brought them this incredible freedom, prosperity, and peace. Third, they would then become more susceptible to the manipulation of clever politicians who would begin to promise them cradle-to-grave security if they accepted certain schemes contrived by some of their leaders. Fourth, he then predicted that the people would actually vote for people who would give them more and more. They would take from those who have and give to those who have-not in exchange for votes to keep them in power. Modern students call this “democratic socialism.” Here is how he described it:
“That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in perpetual childhood; it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing.
“For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances — what remains, to spare them all the care of thinking and the trouble of living.”
“After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp, and fashioned them at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd.
“The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided — men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till [the] nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”
Are not these warnings sobering? Can we not see every one of them in fulfillment today? Yet in spite of all these dire predictions, the Founders assured us there is a divine destiny for America that would cause her to rise from the ashes. They believed truth would win in the end, and so committed all they had for the cause of liberty.
How grateful we are to them.
Earl Taylor, Jr.