What is the best way to “make America great again?” By bringing Ford’s manufacturing jobs back from Mexico? Draining the swamp? Building a great wall?
The ascendance of the strong man presidency under Obama and Trump promises a grandiose renewal of American power and unity. But these promises have largely fallen flat: either becoming victims of Washington gridlock and compromise, or more often, collapsing under the weight of their own unrealistic expectations.
At a time when American voters expect the presidency to fix all societal and political ills, the best way to revive American greatness is by returning to our first principles. Four main ideas of the American founding merit revival: a proper understanding of human nature, a distrust of energetic government, the necessity of a virtuous citizenry for self-government, and the principles of federalism and subsidiarity.
1. Good Government Requires Understanding Human Nature
Our nation’s founders knew that political systems and institutions depend on understanding human nature. Since politics is the organization of persons into political entities, the machinery of government can never be fully separated from the desires and limits of human behavior. Is human nature totally depraved, perfectible, or somewhere in between?
Typically, human nature affects political institutions on a spectrum between two extremes: despotism and democracy. If human nature is essentially bad or evil, we drift towards Hobbes’ Leviathan, where a strong central government is required to impose order and restrain the destructive impulses of humanity. But if human nature is inherently good, perfectible, or positive, faith in the people results in democracy.
The American founders accepted the traditional view that human nature is fallen. But they did not let this stifle their hopes for self-government. They knew that human nature corrupts all political institutions. Though there are virtues in a strong government, it tends toward despotism. Democracy, though admirably fostering popular participation, tends toward anarchy and oppressive majorities. The founders instead took a balanced view of human nature.
“Federalist 10” and “Federalist 55” are illustrative examples. In “Federalist 10,” Madison wrote that “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” thus acknowledging that human nature is in essence corruptible. However, in “Federalist 55,” Madison responded to Antifederalists who argued that the federal government under the Constitution would collapse due to human frailty. Madison wrote that according to their view, “the inference would be, that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”
Madison believed that a negative view of human nature and republican self-government could coexist through a constitutional balancing act. Instead of representing the social orders (monarchy, aristocracy, democracy) per the example of antiquity, the new republic would balance the functions of government (executive, judicial, legislative). In this way, Madison and the Federalists sought to conform political institutions to a realistic view of human nature.
2. Distrusted in An Energetic Federal Government
The second neglected principle of the American founding is a distrust of energetic government. The founders were heavily influenced by the imperial crisis with Britain, and concluded that energetic government usually results in tyranny. Power is dangerous because it is wielded by man, and man is corruptible.
These views were widely held by the founders and derived from the Whig tradition of dissenters in England. For instance, Jefferson wrote to James Madison, “I own I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive.” He wrote a second letter to Edward Carrington in which he stated “The natural progress of things is for the government to gain ground and for liberty to yield.”
At the time Jefferson penned these letters, the ratification debates over the Constitution were raging, and the Federalists sought to enhance the power of the central government to correct the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. Though the founders did not like certain state laws—such as debtor relief, trade wars, and independent alliances with European nations—they were steeped in a tradition that feared central authority. After all, they had recently fought a lengthy and costly war to overthrow tyranny. Resistance to extensive governmental powers was deeply imprinted into American politics.
3. Citizens’ Virtue Is Crucial For Survival
The third principle of the founding that we have neglected—if not outright repudiated—is the belief that a virtuous, religious citizenry is essential for republican self-government. The emphasis on virtue harkened back to the Roman Republic and to Cicero, who argued that the fall of Rome was due to the loss of virtue. The founders turned to ancient Rome as the premier example of government without a monarch and drew heavily on its experience as they sought to create a new government.
Virtue was crucial if liberty were to endure. Most of the founders believed that religion, and Christianity in particular, was necessary to support a virtuous citizenry. In a society governed without coercion from a monarch, religion was the only way to restrain behavior and prevent mere majority rule. In short, religion placed limits on acceptable social and political behavior.
The early statesmen were obsessed with the maintenance of virtue in their republican experiment. In his 1796 Farewell Address, Washington stated that “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.” He also concluded that:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim tribute to patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness—these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens … reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principles.”
Benjamin Franklin wrote that “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” James Madison, in a speech at the Virginia Ratification Convention, asserted that “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.” Jefferson wrote to John Adams that the public should be “informed, by education, what is right & what wrong, to be encouraged in habits of virtue, and deterred from those of vice by the dread of punishments … these are the inculcations necessary to render the people a sure basis for the structure of order & good government.”
4. The Importance Of Federalism
The last intellectual legacy of the founders that merits reaffirmation today is the belief in federalism and subsidiarity. The founders believed that sovereignty was ultimately derived from the people. This meant that the essential duties of government are most effectively executed when concentrated at the most local level possible. Local governance was best precisely because it empowered people to conduct politics on a personal level with others, not via anonymous internet trolling. This belief was codified into the Ninth and Tenth Amendments of the Constitution. After enlarging the powers of the central government in several particular areas, the powers that were not specifically delegated to the government were to be reserved to the people and their states, and any rights not mentioned were still reserved to the people.
Furthermore, federalism was exemplified in the colonial period by county government in Virginia and by New England’s town meetings. In Virginia, low property requirements resulted in widespread suffrage. Voters would gather several times a year to administer justice and legislate at the county court, participate in the annual militia muster, and engage in political discussion at the taverns and coffeehouses. In New England, members of the colonial towns gathered at the town meetings. Both practices increased the people’s interest in the maintenance of their political system by encouraging popular participation. Citizens would gather to exercise their rights and fulfill their civic duties. This helped foster a vibrant political culture.
Federalism and subsidiarity have receded to a staggering degree, and the space for civil society and mediating institutions between the national government and the individual continues to dwindle.
It’s Time For Us To Revive These Principles
These four principles of the American Founding should once again become the basis for our political system. Instead of trusting centralized government, we should fear how human nature can corrupt government power and lead to despotism. Rather than attacking religion, we should realize the essential role it plays in upholding the foundations of self-government. Instead of turning to the federal government to fix all of society’s problems, we should turn to local government where people can implement policy solutions by personally engaging their neighbors.
Surprisingly, Obama called for us to engage at a personal, not a national level in his farewell speech. “If you are tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life. If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing.”
Perhaps there is still hope. If Obama can realize at the end of his term that politics is most effective at the personal and local level, maybe then the cause is not yet lost. A return to national greatness may yet still be possible.