Summary: The Founders created the United States as a gamble, a bet on hope rather than history. They warned us about the events we see today. If we listen, we can prevent America from mutating beyond recognition.
Please read this prescient warning in Notes on the State of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson (1781; text here). He feared an overly dominant legislature, but his analysis equally well describes our combination of a Caesar-like President and somnolent Congress and Courts.
An elective despotism was not the government we fought for; but one which should not only be founded on free principles, but in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among several bodies of magistracy, as that no one could transcend their legal limits, without being effectually checked and restrained by the others. For this reason that convention, which passed the ordinance of government, laid its foundation on this basis, that the legislative, executive and judiciary departments should be separate and distinct, so that no person should exercise the powers of more than one of them at the same time.
But no barrier was provided between these several powers. The judiciary and executive members were left dependant on the legislative, for their subsistence in office, and some of them for their continuance in it. … And this will probably be the case for some time to come. But it will not be a very long time.
Mankind soon learn to make interested uses of every right and power which they possess, or may assume. The public money and public liberty, intended to have been deposited with three branches of magistracy, but found inadvertently to be in the hands of one only, will soon be discovered to be sources of wealth and dominion to those who hold them; distinguished too by this tempting circumstance, that they are the instrument, as well as the object of acquisition.
With money we will get men, said Caesar, and with men we will get money.
Nor should our assembly be deluded by the integrity of their own purposes, and conclude that these unlimited powers will never be abused, because themselves are not disposed to abuse them. They should look forward to a time, and that not a distant one, when corruption in this, as in the country from which we derive our origin, will have seized the heads of government, and be spread by them through the body of the people; when they will purchase the voices of the people, and make them pay the price. Human nature is the same on every side of the Atlantic, and will be alike influenced by the same causes.
The time to guard against corruption and tyranny, is before they shall have gotten hold on us. It is better to keep the wolf out of the fold, than to trust to drawing his teeth and talons after he shall have entered.
Other notes from the past
- From the 3rd century BC, Polybius warns us about demographic collapse, 11 June 2008
- President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris, 1 July 2008
- de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile, 21 July 2008
- Dr. Gulliver explains why America has become so fearful of the future, 23 October 2008
- The King of Brobdingnag comments on America’s grand strategy, 18 November 2008
- Napoleon’s advice to President Obama about the financial crisis, 29 April 2009
- A warning from Alexis De Tocqueville about our military, 7 August 2009
- Another note from our past, helping us see our future, 16 September 2009 — by Daniel Ellsberg
- A great philosopher and statesman comments on the Bush-Obama tweaks to the Constitution, 10 October 2010 — by Edmond Burke
- Advice from one of the British Empire’s greatest Foreign Ministers, 18 November 2011 — by Lord Palmerston
- George Orwell sends us a note, giving some perspective on our situation, 22 January 2012