When an American president threatens to govern by Executive Order, he has really declared he will govern by arbitrary power: his will instead of the will of the people. We are witnesses to the subversion of popular government when the consent of the governed is an afterthought. Our Founders rejected arbitrary power and sought to prevent its reign on American soil.
Resurrecting the founding political philosophy of America in a day of sound bites, tweets, and instant messaging may be beyond the attention span of our times, but considering the stakes — the survival of a free people in a self-governing republic, we need to rediscover our heritage of liberty, posthaste.
Thomas Jefferson’s words remind us that our destiny as a nation has been entrusted to us, the people:
I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.[i]
The upcoming Federalism Forum in Manchester, New Hampshire, this weekend comes none too soon. Federalism is not just a theoretical idea for political philosophers to discuss. Every American needs to understand why our Founders relied upon federalism as the organizing, central design of the Constitution and how they expected it to work to prevent the accumulation of power into the hands of the few.
Not only do we need to understand the original design, we also need to identify what has gone wrong and why federalism has eroded to the point that it is a mere shadow of its former self. It is time we face the fact that we, the people, have allowed our elected servants to slowly destroy the very bulwark of freedom that was intended to prevent the rise of an all-powerful centralized government. It takes little observation to know that the more we allow Leviathan to grow, the more it becomes a threat to our personal liberties, to self-government, and to the American way of life.
This nation, from its humble beginnings, became the greatest economic and military power in the history of the world while at the same time becoming a beacon of hope and freedom to the downtrodden and oppressed — all in less than 200 years, a feat unmatched throughout history. What has been the secret of America’s greatness? What did our Founders know that we should know? What guiding lights did they follow?
In our era, which looks to the past through the eyes of multiculturalism, feminism, racism, historicism, nihilism, radicalism, and all the other “isms,” we no longer appreciate our special place in history, nor our unique birthright as American citizens. Rather than disregarding our great heritage, along with its many flaws, or trying to understand it through the distorted lens of postmodernism, we need to simply rediscover those higher principles that allowed America to prosper and gave the world hope that “societies of men are really capable” of “establishing good government from reflection and choice.”
We have enjoyed a heritage of freedom because of the vision of our Founders. The time has come to set our feet back on that original path so that the torch of liberty can pass to the next generation. Federalism is, no doubt, one of those original principles that we must embrace and work to reestablish as a fortress against that age-old desire for absolute power.
[i] Thomas Jefferson, Writings, Vol. XV, 278, to William Charles Jarvis, September 28, 1820 in David Barton, Original Intent: The Courts, The Constitution, and Religion, 276.