In the Founder’s Corner
Scott N. Bradley
Part Five of a Seven Part Series
The first four parts of this seven part series touched upon the fact that the Founding Fathers of this nation recognized that our rights come from God, that it is the purpose of government to preserve those rights, that the founders considered the United States Constitution to be a written, binding contract so sacred that all who hold office are required to take an oath to uphold, that the scope of the national government was limited to the specific powers enumerated in the United States Constitution (and no more), and that the Founding Fathers were careful to create checks and balances between all the different departments of the national government.
The sixth broad-brush point is Separation of Powers (divided powers)
The Legislative—has the power to make laws
The Executive—has the power to carry out and enforce laws
The Judicial—has the power to judge in situations where the laws have been broken, or when disagreements between citizens arise
The desire to obtain, and then, ultimately, to abuse power, has been almost universally recognized by thinking men throughout the ages. The great statesman Lord Acton observed that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” (Lord Acton, letter to Mandell Creighton, April 5, 1887.—Acton, Essays on Freedom and Power ed. Gertrude Himmelfarb, pp. 335-36 )
And Daniel Defoe noted: “All men would be tyrants if they could.” (Daniel Defoe, The Kentish Petition, addenda, 11 )
While the aforementioned men were not contemporary with the founders of this nation, the men who framed this nation’s government recognized this—had experienced this—and sought to control this almost universal tendency to seek, obtain, and then abuse power. Consequently, as they established this nation’s new government, in which liberty was to reign, they sought diligently to limit power to specific purposes, and to then divide and subdivide the granted power to prevent its accrual or consolidation into a focal point.
Thomas Jefferson said: “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.” (Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Kentucky Resolutions. Bergh 17:388. )
And James Madison observed:
“The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” (Federalist No. 47)
And Thomas Jefferson warned us of the dangers of the accumulation of power, particularly to the national government, saying:
“...working like gravity by night and by day, gaining a little today and a little tomorrow, and advancing its noiseless step like a thief over the field of jurisdiction, until all shall be usurped from the states, and the government of all be consolidated into one. To this I am opposed, because when all government, domestic and foreign, in little as in great things, shall be drawn to Washington as the center of all power, it will render powerless the checks provided of one government on another, and will become as venal and oppressive as the government from which we separated.” (Thomas Jefferson, Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Bergh 15:331. )
The division of power was so important to the American founders that they even carefully separated the SOURCES of power to assure that power could not be accumulated. Perhaps that will be a topic for another column.
Keeping the powers of government divided and subdivided is essential to the preservation of liberty. The founders would have been appalled at how this principle is almost universally violated in today’s government. The executive and the judiciary legislate at will, and impose their unconstitutionally created laws upon Americans while the legislature has ignored its responsibility to prevent this usurpation.