Securing fundamental individual rights, as well as the rights of the people as a whole to govern themselves through consent is the principal object of the republic envisioned by the Founders like James Madison, James Wilson, Alexander Hamilton, and George Mason. We find in Federalist No. 10 (1787), however, another characterization of what Madison calls the “first object” of government that is worthy of more consideration than it generally receives.
Capturing his vision of a defensible democratic republic perhaps better than a mere reference to securing fundamental rights, Madison invited the American people in the late 1780s to embrace a governmental arrangement that would protect them in the exercise of their “diverse faculties.”
The Role of Government
The Framers of the U.S. Constitution knew that the new government they crafted must be more powerful and effective than the government under the Articles of Confederation. They studied history and human nature to create a government strong enough to promote the public good, but not so strong that it would become a threat to individual liberties.
Separation of Powers with Checks and Balances
The Founders understood the principle expressed by the British historian, Lord Acton, “All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Through the complex system of checks and balances developed in the U.S. Constitution, they sought to assure that no person or branch of government could exercise unrestrained power. As James Madison advocated in Federalist No. 51, ambition should counteract ambition in a fashion that advances the public good.
While many people today use the terms “republic” and “democracy” interchangeably, America’s Founders saw important differences between the two forms of government. Distrustful of democracies, they were skeptical about the protection of individual rights in a system that functioned simply by majority rule. The Framers of the United States Constitution instead crafted a constitutional republic based on majority rule but included structures to curb its excesses and protect essential liberty interests.
Due Process of Law
The principle of due process of law means that the government must follow duly-enacted laws when it seeks to restrict or deny fundamental rights, including a person’s rights to life, liberty, or property. In essence, it means that the government must treat its citizens fairly, following laws and established procedures in everything it does. It is the commitment to this principle that makes the United States, as John Adams once noted, “a government of laws, and not of men.”
The Structure of the National Government
The Framers thought the best way to protect the rights of citizens would be through a government powerful enough to fulfill its constitutional obligations yet limited enough to prevent it from encroaching on the rights of individuals. A large national republic that divided power horizontally (within governments) and vertically (among different levels of government—local, state, and national) seemed the best way to achieve their goals.
National Government, Crisis, and Civil Liberties
In this lesson students attempt to balance civil liberties with security during a time of crisis. Students read and discuss President Lincoln’s proclamation suspending habeas corpus. Working in cooperative groups students hold a simulated trial in the case of Ex parte Milligan (1866). Following the simulation students debrief the case and compare their verdict with the actual verdict. Students reflect on President Lincoln’s attempt to balance the strength of the government with protection of individual civil liberties.
State and Local Government
From the Founding generation to the present day, controversy continues regarding the proper division of power between state and national government. What the Founders did not find debatable was the wisdom of dividing power both among and within governments. In short, they considered the federal system to be a critical part of the American constitutional order.
Though not always in the media spotlight, the communities with which a person interacts on a daily basis are important political units. It is citizens’ interaction with their communities that largely determines their happiness and safety.