(This is intended to be a five-minute lesson that you can use in the monthly meeting of your book club, church group, scout group, or other group. Each of the lessons includes a souvenir or memento to help the participants remember the lesson.)
(Give each person a small piece of chain. The chain may be purchased at a hardware store and cut into short lengths.)
George Washington, the father of our country, once said, “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence – it is force. Like fire it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master…”
James Madison, the father of our Constitution, said, “The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.”
Washington, Madison, and the other founding fathers realized that the difference between the government and private enterprises was that only government had the legal right to use force against you. Private enterprises can offer you a product or a job and try to persuade you to accept, but they cannot force you to do anything.
On the other hand, government is all about force. Almost every law involves a command that you do something or refrain from doing something, and, if you do not obey the law, you are subject to punishment. For example, if you refuse to pay your taxes or to pay a fine, eventually a policeman will come, put handcuffs on you, and haul you off to jail. If you resist, you may be shot and killed. So when we pass laws, we are not just making suggestions or saying that we think something is a good idea. We are saying that you will be forced to do what the law says.
This piece of chain represents the government’s use of force. Think, for example, of handcuffs that include a length of chain or of a person being beaten with a chain.
Our founders were very familiar with the government’s abuse of its power. The Declaration of Independence lists many of the abuses suffered by the Americans at the hands of the King as the justification for the American revolution.
Unfortunately, the abuse of power in this country did not end with the American Revolution. For example, it was the government that enforced slavery, and it was the government that enacted and enforced the Jim Crow laws in the South, forcing private bus companies to make Blacks ride in the back of the bus, and forcing segregation in schools. The private bus companies wanted to cater to their Black customers but were prevented from doing so by the force of law. Black students wanted to go to better schools, but government officials stood in the school doorway and prevented them from entering.
In the 20th century, there have been horrible, tragic abuses of government power around the world. Governments have murdered millions of their own citizens, with bullets, gas chambers, and forced starvation.
Our founders understood that we have a dilemma. We need the government to have power in order to perform important functions, but, because governments wield such power and can be so dangerous, we need to be very careful to keep that power under control in order to limit its potential for abuse.
Thomas Jefferson described the problem this way: “Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history be the answer to this question.”
James Madison, the father of the Constitution, said: “It has been said that all Government is an evil. It would be more proper to say that the necessity of any Government is a misfortune. This necessity however exists; and the problem to be solved is, not what form of Government is perfect, but which of the forms is least imperfect.” Madison also said, “All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree.”
In order to limit the power of government, the founders established a written Constitution, which granted to the national government only a very few, specific powers that were listed or “enumerated” and establishing checks and balances within the government to try to prevent any part of the government from becoming too powerful and abusive.
Jefferson said, “In questions of power, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.” So that chain in your hand also represents the limits that the Constitution places on the government. Some of the chain is used to control the government, and some of the chain is used to control the people. As less of the chain is used to control the government, more of it is used to control the people.
People who want to seize more power than is allowed under the Constitution tend to ignore the Constitution or “reinterpret” it to avoid its limits. However, this destroys the very purpose of the Constitution and destroys the protections against the government’s abuse of power.
Jefferson said: ”Our peculiar security is in the possession of a written Constitution. Let us not make it a blank paper by construction.” In other words, we should not allow the meaning of the Constitution to be changed by reinterpretation or we will lose the security it provides.
Madison expressed his concern about the potential for “reinterpreting” the Constitution and escaping its limits, saying: “If Congress can employ money indefinitely to the general welfare, they may take the care of religion into their own hands; they may appoint teachers in every state, county, and parish, and pay them out of the public treasury; they may take into their own hands the education of children, establishing in like manner schools throughout the Union; they may seek the provision of the poor… (all of which) would subvert the very foundations, and transmute the very nature of the limited government established by the people of America.”
Our elected officials all swear an oath to uphold the Constitution, but many of them do not uphold that oath and seek to exercise as much power as they can. When Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, was asked where did the Constitution grant Congress the power to force us to buy health insurance, she answered, “You’re kidding, right?”
Ultimately, it is up to the people to elect representatives who respect constitutional limits and who will ensure that the government lives within the bounds of the Constitution.
(This lesson and others may be found at JeffersonReview.com. Permission is granted to reproduce these materials.)
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