Happy Birthday, America!
In the interest of being non-partisan on this Independence Day, I decided not to repost my July 4th greeting from a year ago. But I was sorely tempted. Instead, in light of our heightened sense and awareness of the current assaults on reason, it occurred to me that Al Gore's words would place this day in its correct historical context and facilitate our reflecting upon our current circumstances.
Respect for our president is important. But even more important is respect for our Constitution. In that regard, it is crucial to emphasize that our ingrained American distrust of concentrated power has very little to do with the character or persona of the individual who wields that power; it is the power itself that must be constrained, checked, dispersed, and carefully balanced to ensure the survival of freedom. The limitations on the reach of executive power that are spelled out in the Constitution almost always take more specific form as laws enacted by Congress that Presidents bent on expanding their power are tempted to ignore or violate.
A President who breaks the law is a threat to the very structure of our government. Our Founding Fathers were adamant that they had established a government of laws and not men. Indeed, they recognized that the structure of government they had enshrined in our Constitution - our system of checks and balances - was designed with a central purpose of ensuring that it would govern through the rule of law. As John Adams said:
The executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them, to the end that it may be a government of laws and not of men.Our Founders were keenly aware that the history of the world proves that republics are fragile. In the very hour of America's birth in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin was asked, "Well, Doctor, what have we got? A Republic or a Monarchy?" He replied cautiously,
A Republic, if you can keep it.The survival of freedom depends on the rule of law. The rule of law depends in turn upon the respect each generation of Americans has for the integrity with which our laws are written, interpreted, and enforced. . . .
Once violated, the rule of law is in danger. Unless stopped, lawlessness grows. The greater the power of the the executive grows, the more difficult it becomes for the other branches to perform their constitutional roles. As the executive acts outside its constitutionally prescribed role and is able to control access to information that would expose its actions, it becomes increasingly difficult for the other branches to police it. Once that ability is lost, democracy itself is threatened and we become a government of men and not laws.
An executive who arrogates to himself the power to ignore the legitimate legislative directives of Congress or to act free of the check of the judiciary becomes the central threat that the Founders sought to nullify in the Constitution. In the words of James Madison,
The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.. . . . I think it is safe to say that our Founders would be genuinely concerned about these recent developments in American democracy and that they would feel that we, here, are now facing a clear and present danger with the potential to threaten the future of the American experiment. Shouldn't we be equally concerned, and shouldn't we ask ourselves how it is that we have come to this point?
Beware of my use of ellipsis. In the interest of being non-partisan on this patriotic day which celebrates our American unity, I have excluded some of The Goricle's words. I invite readers to open their own desk copy of Assault on Reason to inform themselves further.