Robert Kennedy's United States History Class
Learning Objective One: Discuss the concerns of our Founding Fathers about political parties and the nature of man.
Under the American political system there is a constant testing of strength among the three branches of government and between the two major parties. It is a form of creative tension whose remarkable vitality over the years since 1787 would have delighted, but not surprised, the men who wrote the Constitution.
In forming the Constitution, the framers of the document tried to create a government that would discourage the formation of national parties . They knew conflict between organized groups was bound to occur as it had occurred during the drafting of the document itself.
Farmers could be pitted against merchants , slave holders against non-slave holders, the rich against the poor.
Such divisions in society were bound to lead to factions, which would struggle to gain control over state and federal governments .
These struggles would bring out people's worst failings: selfishness, ambition, and deceit. In order to gain the advantage, political parties and their leaders might stop at nothing.
They might mobilize their supporters by appeals to fear and greed.
People's loyalties would then be tied to their party and not to their country.
No governmental arrangement, of course, is perfect. Change imposes a constant stress, and from time to time the pieces get out of balance. Alternatively, perhaps the balance that worked well in another day no longer works.
The Founding Fathers were also in agreement on the question of human nature and on the exercise of political power. It was acknowledgement "wealth tends to corrupt the mind," and the rich .men, as well as. poor, would use power to their own advantage if given the opportunity.
Even though the need for a stronger centralized power was recognized, it was feared power might be misused if it were concentrated in the hands of only a few men. The Founding Fathers assumed from the very beginning that although power was necessary, it was also dangerous. They tried to write a constitution that would insure effective power for the government and yet also place reliable checks and safeguards on the use of that power.
In one of the greatest statements ever written on the nature of government and the need for constraints on governmental power , James Madison eloquently expressed the basic philosophy that guided the formulation and drafting of the Constitution.
"...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 t e government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself...."
Human nature, the believed was universally fallible; one can only rely upon built institutional safeguards. Therefore, the political activities or crimes that occurred from the time of J. Edgar Hoover in the 1950's and through the Watergate era should not be surprising, and in fact, were anticipated by our Founding Fathers.
A reason for a discussion of the Watergate Crisis, as it as come to be
called, is because it is a reflection of both the strengths and weaknesses of our political system.
Because of their view of human nature, the Founding Fathers incorporated the principle of shared power and separation power in order to prevent tranny . This principle set in motion a self-adjusting mechanism under which one branch checks the excesses of another or picks up initiatives avoided by another, with the interaction of the whole generally resulting in a force for moderation.
The final question is, does a republican form of government depend on the virtue of its people or on the formal political institutions that control the people and their rulers? In other words, is it the character of the people who are in office that will determine whether a representative form of government will continue in this country, or is it the nature of the political institutions (with the checks and balances and shared powers) themselves that protects us from our own human nature? The Founding Fathers placed their faith in the institutions they created; where do you place your faith?