My last article spoke of my belief that history, particularly that of your own country, is important in understanding the how and the why of our system of government was established, the principles it was established upon, and more importantly, how it has shifted over the two centuries America has been in existence.
Americans are fond of tossing the word tyrant around in regards to the leaders of other countries, yet they are unwilling to do the same in respect to their own leaders. The word tyrant has become a catch phrase used to describe anyone whose policies and rule we dislike. One of the first definitions found in Merriam Webster’s Dictionary for the word tyrant is, “a ruler who has complete power over a country and who is cruel and unfair.” Yet there is another definition, which may come from Plato and Aristotle, which states that a tyrant is, “an absolute ruler unrestrained by law or constitution.”
During the Age of Enlightenment, which produced a new way of viewing the power of rulers and subjects, many new beliefs were written down and which had a huge impact upon those who created our system of government. One of these philosophical writers was John Locke, who in his Second Treatise of Civil Government stated, “Tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right…” It is important that you understand what tyranny is before you begin hurling the name at others while refusing to consider that it may exist in our own back yard.
History is rife with examples of what people call tyrants. The Caesars’ were considered tyrants by many. Hitler was considered a tyrant as were the leaders of the former Soviet Union. There are many more, and although some were, in fact tyrants, others were not.
Remember, the definitions for tyrant are either one who leads cruelly or one who rules beyond the law. Of the Americans who could even tell you who Muammar Gaddafi was, how many would proclaim him a tyrant? By one definition he may be considered a tyrant, as he came into power via a coup d’état, yet was he really that cruel to the people he ruled under? Are you even aware that when Gaddafi seized power that Libya was among the poorest nations in Africa? Are you aware that under his leadership, and until NATO began interfering in the internal affairs of Libya, that Libya had the highest Gross Domestic Product per capita and that less people lived below the poverty line than in the Netherlands? Would you consider that cruel?
You may be saying but what about how he used the power of the military to keep the people in line. What about it? Do you have the courage to take that cutting perspective of yours and turn it upon your own government? If you do, what do you call our own government right now which has countless alphabet soup agencies who all enforce the will of the government, often with militarily armed teams against those who oppose the actions of their government? Hmmm, what do you have to say about that?!? What would you call Waco, Ruby Ridge, and the Bundy Ranch siege which recently took place in Nevada?
You see, on the flip side we have our own War for Independence? It began long before the first shot was fired at Lexington and Concord. In 1818 John Adams would write, “The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations. This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.”
In our country we had a group of men who stood up against what they considered to be the unjust use of power to control a people, while at the same time denying them what they believed were their rights under English law.
So you can look at tyranny from two different perspectives, but the point I’m trying to make in regards to America is that the people are completely comfortable with hurling that title at others, yet refuse to even consider that it may very well exist here in America as well.
And that is why history is so important.
If you do not know the history behind how our Constitution came into existence; the intricate way in which the Founders balanced powers between the various branches, the states, and the people; the limits it imposes upon the abovementioned categories, and the way in which that balance of power has shifted, you will be unable to see that we are indeed living under a government that no longer rules according to law.
Like it or not, the Constitution, once ratified, became the Supreme Law of the Land. In 1866 the Supreme Court declared, “The Constitution of the United States is a law for rulers and people, equally in war and in peace, and covers with the shield of its protection all classes of men, at all times, and under all circumstances. No doctrine, involving more pernicious consequences, was ever invented by the wit of men than that any of its provisions can be suspended during any of the great exigencies of government. Such a doctrine leads directly to anarchy or despotism.”
I don’t know, I guess everyone has their own idea as to what defines tyranny. The way I see it is that tyranny is any system, any group of men who by acting outside establish laws seek to oppress people by restricting them from enjoying all their natural rights. That is my definition for tyranny and it has nothing to do with whether it is exercised by one man, or a group of men.
In the mid to late 1700’s a clergyman in Boston, Mather Byles, once posed the question, “Which is better―to be ruled by one tyrant three thousand miles away or by three thousand tyrants one mile away?” Byles stated this as an argument against the American uprising against the Crown, yet the question is valid.
When our Founders gathered together to amend the Articles of Confederation there were many there who wanted a weak central government with much of the power to remain in the states, and there were those who wanted to model our system upon that of England.
Chief among those was a little coterie led by Alexander Hamilton. I despise Hamilton for his views on governance, yet I have to give the man credit where credit is due. He was a brave and fearless soldier in the battle for our nation’s independence and for that he deserves the respect due to all who fought in that fight for our liberty. But his views on government are diametrically opposed to mine, who are more in line with those of Jefferson and Madison.
Hamilton’s proposal would have basically eliminated the sovereignty and authority of the states, making the federal government supreme in all things. I can see his reasoning for it after having lived through a war in which Congress was unable to meet the needs of the army due to the fact that the states would not support the war effort. But to replace the system they had just defeated with another quite similar I would have objected to as did many of the other delegates to the convention.
Under Hamilton’s proposal we would have a Supreme Governor instead of a president who served a life term. This governor had an absolute veto power over all bills submitted to him by the Congress as well as a veto power over any and all laws enacted by the state legislatures. In short Hamilton wanted a monarch. Fortunately wiser heads prevailed and we got the system we know now.
When the Constitution was being written there were no political parties, per se. There were only those who wanted a strong central government, and those who wanted a system which gave the government only the powers required to manage the basic affairs of a nation and the ability to provide adequate defense should the need arise. Later, after the Constitution was written and submitted to the states for ratification, there would arise the Federalists, who supported the document, and the anti-Federalists who opposed it saying it either gave too much power to the federal government, or was flawed and would lead to a tyrannical government.
Looking back, even with the addition of a Bill of Rights, I would have to say that the anti-Federalists had a valid concern. Not that our nation did not need a central government to manage things, it did. The Union was in disarray, the Congress could not raise the revenue it needed to operate and commerce was in ruin as the states imposed duties and tariffs that caused the flow of goods to come to a grinding halt. So something needed to be done.
I don’t think that anything our Founders could have added to the Constitution could have prevented our country from sliding back into a nation where the rulers passed laws which violates our rights and oppresses the people. I say that because the vital flaw in our system was human nature, our system relief upon the people first understanding the system, then holding those they elect accountable to it.
Human nature is such that most people are basically lazy and will do as little as possible to get what they require to survive. That is not always the case, but it is in large enough numbers to cause them to do the bare minimum for their own sustenance. Human nature also proves that people are a social people and often seek the help of others when they find themselves in a crisis of one sort or another. And if the government seeks to become the ‘protector and provider’ for all those in need, or undergoing some sort of a crisis, the people will willingly surrender a bit of their freedom for the things they need, or a bit of protection.
No Founding Father understood human nature as well as Thomas Jefferson. He spoke often of its flaws in his writings and his correspondence with others. In his Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge Jefferson declared, “Whereas it appeareth that however certain forms of government are better calculated than others to protect individuals in the free exercise of their natural rights, and are at the same time themselves better guarded against degeneracy, yet experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny; and it is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large…”
In his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia, he said, “It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor. A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution.”
In a letter to Edmund Carrington, Jefferson wrote, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.”
And in a letter to Spencer Roane he said, “Time indeed changes manners and notions, and so far we must expect institutions to bend to them. But time produces also corruption of principles, and against this it is the duty of good citizens to be ever on the watch, and if the gangrene is to prevail at last, let the day be kept off as long as possible.”
Our Founders did the best they could to create a system of government that would prevent America from becoming just as, if not more so, tyrannical than the one they had fought to seek independence from. As the modern day saying goes, “the ball was now in our court.” What that means that it was up to us to keep it that way for as long as possible.
There is one final quote from Jefferson that I’d like for you to think about. In a letter to C. Hammond in 1821 Jefferson wrote, “When all government, domestic and foreign, in little as well as in great things, shall be drawn to Washington as the centre of all power, it will render powerless the checks provided of one government on another, and will become as venal and oppressive from which we separated…”
In little as well as great things, does that not sound like the government we have today that can regulate how much water our toilets use to demanding that we wear a seat belt while driving our cars? Does it not sound like a government that tramples upon our rights by requiring us to submit to invasive searches without a warrant, and limiting our right to keep and bear arms?
Our government has become the tyrant that our Founders feared might arise should the people become inattentive to the affairs of their government, and ignorant as to the history and principles which led to its creation.
I wrote all this for one reason, and one reason alone. I want people to think twice before they call the leader of another nation a tyrant when tyranny is alive and well in our own country. If you can think about that then I have accomplished my goal in writing this. If not, then it will be nothing new, as I have yet been unable to get people to think about much of anything other than what’s on their TV’s.
Have a safe New Years, and I promise, you won’t hear from me again until 2015…