A constitutional crisis may loom on the horizon if President Obama follows through on his threats of executive action on immigration reform.

So it might be a good time to revisit what the Founders had to say about protecting future generations from the kind of tyranny that could occur even in a democracy.

When the Founders set up our government the way they did, it was not because of any sort of naiveté or vague hopefulness about government or its leaders in general. They realized that there is no way to protect people who have lost their own wisdom and judgment about these things.

The Founders tried to put in all the built-in, automatic stops to tyranny they could devise, and they were tremendously clever and creative about it. But they also realized that the task of protecting people was impossible, and that the temptation to go the way of tyranny would be great. Perhaps even unstoppable.

But they tried their best. Maybe even the best anyone could have done.

Let’s hear John Adams:

I do not say that democracy has been more pernicious on the whole, and in the long run, than monarchy or aristocracy. Democracy has never been and never can be so durable as aristocracy or monarchy; but while it lasts, it is more bloody than either. … Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty. When clear prospects are opened before vanity, pride, avarice, or ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate philosophers and the most conscientious moralists to resist the temptation. Individuals have conquered themselves. Nations and large bodies of men, never.

From the same letter:

The jaws of power are always open to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing. Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the People, who have… a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean the characters and conduct of their rulers. There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free ‘government’ ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty. Liberty cannot be preserved without general knowledge among people.

That last sentence is perhaps the most important. But they’re all pretty important. Adams’ thoughts on this should be prominently displayed and taught in every classroom—as instruction, caution, and warning.

[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]


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