The framers of our Constitution had a biblical understanding—well buttressed by their knowledge of history—of the fallen nature of man. They were not deceived by Lockean notions of man’s mind being a “blank slate” at birth and man a mere product of the influences of his environment. Nor were they gullible enough to believe Rousseau’s and the Romantics’ notion that man is naturally good. Hence—unlike our “liberals,” Marxists, and other kindred spirits, they did not want a constitution with no limits on the power of civil government, nor one which could rightly be “reinterpreted” to allow a supposed group of “wise men” in power to exercise total power in order to transform or perfect our society.
Although there are many indications of the Framers’ realistic comprehension of the fallen nature of all men—including civil government officials—in their writings, perhaps James Madison said it best in Federalist No. 51: “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.” Upon the foundation of this true view of man they gave themselves, and intended to give their posterity, a constitution which would create the greatest probability of preserving and protecting the people’s rights and liberty—not only against foreign powers but also against our own civil government officials.
Knowing the nature and history of man, they knew that they must design a civil government which would have the greatest probability of protecting the rights and liberty of both the majority and the minority. As Federalist No. 10 makes so clear, the Framers knew that both majorities and minorities can easily and naturally become factions, that factions can take many forms, and that factions violate the common good and others’ rights, threaten justice, menace liberty, and imperil popular government itself.
That is why they gave us a constitutional system with carefully allotted—and judiciously limited—powers, a system deliberately shaped to represent and protect both majorities and minorities against each other. Thus, as Paul Eidelberg has explained in The Philosophy of the American Constitution and A Discourse on Statesmanship; The Design and Transformation of the American Polity, the Framers gave us neither an oligarchy nor a democracy but a mixed regime (classically the best practical form of civil government), a civil government having democratic, aristocratic (or at worst oligarchic), and monarchial attributes to take advantage of the best features of each of the basic forms of civil government: to protect justice and liberty for all the people but also for majorities and minorities. Thus the House of Representatives was given democratic characteristics; the Senate was designed to be somewhat aristocratic; the judiciary was meant to be very aristocratic; and the Presidency was given certain monarchial features.
The Framers divided the basic functions of civil government—legislative, executive, and judicial— among the three branches of our central government because they knew what temptations to the abuse of power come upon men who have too much power, because their biblical heritage taught them the superiority of republican government with diverse governmental institutions, and because history taught them the value of divisions of authority and power among governmental institutions. Their knowledge of the history of political institutions combined with their knowledge of the nature of man to instruct them that a separation of powers had to be more than a paper protection for liberty.
They sought particularly to protect against a gradual concentration of powers in the hands of any one branch of government. To do this they designed our government’s three branches to keep each other “in their proper places.” They sought to give each department a will of its own, and so to make the members of each “have as little agency as possible in the appointment of the others.” Beyond this they tried to give those of each department “the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others,” making ambition counteract ambition, and connecting “the interest of the man” with “the constitutional rights of the place” so that “the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.”
They knew that it is impossible to give each branch of government an equal power of self-defense, but sought to give each department partial control over the others. Since in republican governments the legislature “necessarily predominates,” they divided our national legislature into two “houses,” giving each “different modes of election and different principles of action”: the House being more democratic, the Senate more aristocratic. They strengthened the executive by giving the President a veto over legislation passed by both houses but kept the President from having too much power by giving Congress the ability to override a president’s veto.
The separation of powers applied mainly to the legislature and the executive. The federal judiciary (intended to be “the least dangerous branch” of the national government) were partly exempted because of the particular qualifications required of judges and because of the essentially lifetime tenure of the judges. Yet they gave Congress checks on federal judges in Article III of the Constitution, which gives Congress the authority, for example, to limit the appellate jurisdiction of the federal courts.
The complex system of separation of powers in our national or central government was the Constitution’s first functional security to liberty, to the rights of the people. But it was only the first.
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For the Framers were well aware that the people of each state were minorities too, and that they needed—and demanded—protection against a faction composed of a national majority or a faction in control of the national government. They designed our governmental system to protect the rights and liberty of the people of the states. A fundamental part of that design was federalism. The preservation of the states made the American Union “a confederate republic,” a “compound republic,” a republic of republics, each of which had its own system of separation of powers and accompanying checks and balances among its branches of government. The Framers intended federalism to work for liberty in two basic ways. The “extended republic” of the United States, by including many republics and far more territory, would tend to make it harder for potential majority factions to work together to oppress minorities. As Madison explained in Federalist No. 51, “In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allotted to each subdivided among distinct and separate departments. Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people. The different governments will control each other, at the same time that each will be controlled by itself.”
The influence of federalism on the central government gave some protection to the states. For the states are represented according to their population in the House of Representatives, and the states’ legislatures originally controlled the election of U. S. senators and the states are equally represented as states in the Senate. And the Senate—originally elected by the states’ legislatures—has the power to block the President’s nominees to the federal courts and the various departments of the executive branch of our national government.
Even this sketch of our constitutional system makes it clear that federalism was, and was intended to be, absolutely fundamental and essential to the Framers’ reasoned and biblically legitimate desire to secure the blessings of liberty to themselves and their posterity—us—institutionally by designing our system of government to protect against the political manifestations of the sinful nature of man.
The ratifiers of our Constitution had an even more accurate understanding of the sinful nature of man, and of the lengths to which men will go to acquire power, usurp power, and amass ungodly degrees of power than the Framers did. That is why we have the Bill of Rights. And that is why we have the foundation of the Bill of Rights, the Tenth Amendment which makes it clear that the state governments and the people of each state have all the powers which they have not forbidden to themselves, nor delegated to the central government in the Constitution: to protect and preserve the “double security to the rights of the people” which federalism was meant to give us the means to defend.