U.S. Founding Fathers’ Thoughts on Government

During the recent very heated U.S. presidential campaign, I saw social media posts from several people who, feeling put upon by the “other” party, defended their opinion by stating words to the effect of, “I am not stupid. I am well-read.” But not one that I noticed ever said what it was they read that informed their opinions. Judging from how quickly they recommended the cheesy romances, cozy mysteries, vulgar comedies, or porn that they’d recently devoured, I rather doubt they’d read anything about government. (Go ahead, accuse me of literary profiling.) So, what have you read that you feel has enlightened you? Some of us genuinely, sincerely are interested to understand where you’re coming from.

I’ll go first. I have been reading two books that really explain things to me well and from which I think I’ve learned much of value: The 5000 Year Leap and The Making of America, both by W. Cleon Skousen. I can’t possibly encapsulize 1200 pages of reading adequately, but here are a few quotes that stood out to me.

Skousen on proper incentives for political service to one’s country:

“In the early history of the United States, community offices were looked upon as stations of honor granted to the recipients by an admiring community, state, or nation. These offices were therefore often filled by those who performed their services with little or no compensation. Even when an annual salary of $25,000 was provided in the Constitution for President Washington, he determined to somehow manage without it. Some might think that this was no sacrifice because he had a large plantation. However, the Mount Vernon plantation had been virtually ruined during the Revolutionary War, and he had not yet built it back into efficient production when he was called to be President. Washington declined his salary on principle. He did the same thing while serving as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces during the Revolutionary War. Not all could afford to do this, but it was considered the proper procedure when circumstances permitted it.”

Thomas Jefferson on the need for the voting populace to be educated:

“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.

Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone.  The people themselves, therefore, are its only safe depositories.  And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree.”

Skousen explaining a democracy:

“Theoretically, a democracy requires the full participation of the masses of the people in the legislative or decision making processes of government. This has never worked because the people become so occupied with their daily tasks that they will not properly study the issues, nor will they take the time to participate in extensive hearings before the vote is taken. The Greeks tried to use democratic mass participation in the government of their city-states, and each time it ended in tyranny.”

James Madison explaining a republic:

“We may define a republic to be … a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people and is administered by persons holding their offices during [the people’s] pleasure for a limited period, or during good behavior.”

At the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin, the oldest delegate at 81, was asked what kind of government the delegates had given them. He replied, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

And so it really is in our hands, the people’s hands, to keep our republic strong and safe, and we must all realize the importance of that and the responsibility that requires.

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