Part 1: What’s So Great About Our Constitution, Anyway?Essay 9 – Human Nature“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
– James Madison, Federalist 51
The above lines are part of a larger quote from Madison that is among my favorites of the Federalist Papers. In my view, it summarizes the entire concept of how the Constitution was created with human nature in mind so concisely, so precisely, and so elegantly.
Those who passionately debated and deliberated the Constitution during those days were great studies of history, political and otherwise.
After a hard-fought war with great loss of blood, life, and property in order to obtain our liberty, they were extremely leery about handing it over to yet another tyrannical power. They were developing something that had not ever been tried to this extent before…self-government.
They wanted a system that retained the maximum liberty for the individual and for each individual State. That meant that the federal government must be small and limited in its powers with its main objective to protect the natural rights of the individuals. They knew that some form of government was needed, because without it, each individual would have to personally protect all of his/her own rights, which would, of course, always lead to the strongest gaining everything.
Why? Because they knew and acknowledged that men are not angels.
Men are flawed with human nature, and a certain amount of human nature consists of depravity, corruption, and the hunger for power. Since we cannot trust that every person will act like an angel (actually we can trust that they will not), then we need a system (a government) that will put a check on that.
Human nature was the reason that the founders created all of the checks and balances in the system.
These checks and balances consist of such things as the separation of powers, limited government powers, federalism, and a representative republican form of government. We’ll talk about each of these things in more detail, but basically the idea is to ensure that power is not centralized under one entity.
Here is more from Madison’s Federalist 51 quote:
“Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
“Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” That, in a nutshell, is why we have all of the checks and balances.
Ambition is a part of human nature.
While it was incredibly wise to recognize and acknowledge the flaws in human nature and to create a system that accounts for them, it follows that if that system of checks and balances were to break down, then human nature would take over and corruption would fill the void.
Where we’ve gone wrong…
Too many people tend to discount the role of human nature when forming opinions about issues and policies. Instead of understanding how and why certain aspects of our system were implemented and working to fix those parts of the system that are now broken, they continue to believe that if we just elect the “right people”, then they’ll create the right laws and policies that we want.
They put their faith in the elected people rather than in the very carefully created system that protects us from those people. And because we are such a diverse people, nobody can agree on who the “right people” are, so we end up in a never-ending cycle of inconsistency and strife. One side gains power and implements their chosen policies, then the other side takes over and goes the other direction, and round and round it goes.
Nobody is ever happy, at least not for very long.