John Locke, Charles de Montesquieu, Republican Government, Separation of Powers, Enumerated Powers, Federalists and anti-Federalists

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 26th, 2012

Politics 101

Funny thing about the Americans is that they just didn’t Like Paying Taxes

United we stood.  For awhile.  Until we defeated the British at Yorktown.  And negotiated the Treaty of Paris where Great Britain recognized our independence from the British Crown.  But people grew weary of the war.  On both sides of the Atlantic.  And those in the once united states (small ‘u’ and small ‘s’) were eager to retreat to their states.  And forget about the Continental Congress.  The Continental Army.  And everything to do with the confederation.  Threatening to undo everything they fought for.  Because of their sectional interests.

Shays Rebellion nearly pushed the country into anarchy.  It was the tipping point.  They had to do something.  Because if they weren’t united they would surely fall.  They owed Europe a fortune that they had no hope of repaying.  Funny thing about the Americans.  They just didn’t like paying taxes.  Making it difficult to repay their debts.  The Europeans gave them little respect.  France tried to sell them out during the peace talks to rebalance the balance of power in their favor.  Spain wanted to keep them east of the Mississippi River.  And off of the Mississippi.  Even refused them passage through the Port of New Orleans.  Britain didn’t evacuate their western forts.  The Barbary pirates were capturing American shipping in the Mediterranean and selling their crews into slavery.  And Catherine the Great of Russia wouldn’t even meet the American ambassador.  So the Americans were the Rodney Dangerfield of nations.  They got no respect.

In 1787 delegates gathered in Philadelphia.  To revise the Articles of Confederation to address these problems.  Some enthusiastically.  Some begrudgingly.  While one state refused to attend.  Rhode Island.  For they were quite happy with the way things were.  As the smallest sate in the union they had the power to kill almost any legislation that didn’t benefit Rhode Island.  For some legislation the vote had to be unanimous.  And they enjoyed charging other states tariffs for their goods unloaded in Rhode Island ports.  Things were so nice in Rhode Island that they didn’t need much taxation.  Because they had other states funding their needs.  Thanks to those tariffs.  Of course, this did little to benefit the union.  While imposing taxes on their neighbors in the union.  Sort of like taxation without representation.  Funny thing about Americans, though.  They didn’t like paying taxes.

Montesquieu said a Republican Government must Separate Power into Three Branches

Thomas Jefferson was in Europe in 1787.  John Adams, too.  But just about every other “demi-god” (as Jefferson called those at that gathering) was in Philadelphia in 1787.  America’s patriarch Benjamin Franklin.  The indispensable George Washington.  The financially savvy Alexander Hamilton.  The studious James Madison.  The Framers of the Constitution.  Highly principled men.  Well read men.  Prosperous men.  Who were familiar with world history.  And read the great enlightenment philosophers.  Like John Locke.  Who especially influenced the writing of the Declaration of Independence.  With his inalienable rights.  Consent of the governed.  And property rights.

As they gathered in Philadelphia to revise the Articles it became clear that they needed something more.  A new constitution.  A stronger federal government.  With the power to tax so they could raise money.  For without money the union could not solve any of its problems.  So they set upon writing a new constitution for a new government.  A republican government of republican states.  As they began to frame this constitution they drew on the work of a French philosopher.  Charles de Montesquieu.  Who championed republican government.  The ideal government.  A government of the people who ruled at the consent of the governed.  With built-in safeguards to protect the people’s inalienable rights.  The key requirement being the separation of powers.

Montesquieu said a republican government must separate power into three branches.  The legislature, the executive and the judiciary.  A nation of laws requires a legislature to write the laws.  Because the laws must respect the inalienable rights of the people the people must elect the legislature from the general population.  So the legislature’s interests are the people’s interest.  However, if the legislature was also the executive they could easily write laws that represented their interests instead of the people.  Elevating the legislature into a dictatorship.  If the legislature was also the judiciary they could interpret law to favor their interests instead of the people.  Elevating the legislature into a dictatorship.  Likewise if the executive could write and interpret law the executive could elevate into a dictatorship.  Ditto for the judiciary if they could write the law they were interpreting.  So the separation of powers is the greatest protection the people have against a government’s oppression.

If a Power wasn’t Delegated to the New Federal Government it Remained with the States

During the Constitutional Convention they debated long and they debated hard.  The Federalists were in favor of a stronger central government.  The anti-Federalists were not.  The Federalists included those who served in the Army and the Congress.  The anti-Federalists were those who didn’t serve ‘nationally’ and favored states’ rights.  In general.  So one side wanted to increase the power of the central government while the other side wanted no central government.  For their fear was that a new federal government would consolidate power and subordinate the states to its rule.  As if the last war never happened.  And the states would still bow to a distant central power.  Only this time to one on this side of the Atlantic.

So the balance they struck was a two-house (i.e., bicameral) legislature.  A House of Representatives.  And a Senate.  The people in each state elected a number of representatives proportional to their state’s population.  So a large state had a large representation in the House.  So that house represented the will of the people.  To prevent the tyranny of the minority.  So a small privileged class couldn’t rule as they pleased.  Whereas the Senate prevented the tyranny of the majority.  By giving each state two senators.  So small states had the same say as big states.  Together they represented both the majority and the minority.  Further, states’ legislatures chose their senators (changed later by Constitutional amendment).  Providing the states a check on federal legislation.

To round things out there was an executive they called the president.  And a judiciary.  Providing the separation of powers per Montesquieu.  They further limited the central government’s powers by enumerating their powers.  The new federal government could only do what the Constitution said it could do.  Treat with foreign powers.  Coin a national currency.  Declare war.  Etc.  If a power wasn’t delegated to the new federal government it remained with the states.  To give the new federal government some power.  Including the power to tax.  While leaving most powers with the states.  Striking a compromise between the Federalists and the anti-Federalists.

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