Pennsylvania, in 1776, was the most important of the original 13 states, with the most advanced theories of democratic government. The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, the most radical of the state Constitutions, is still worth consulting.
It is what that document has to tell us about how our 18th century forbears thought about government and about human nature which makes it so vitally significant.
The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 may have been too idealistic for the young republic, for it lasted less than 15 years, but it still expressed ideas worth our consideration today.
For their part, the Pennsylvanians strongly believed in self-government, imposed term limits on their elected representatives, and expressly provided that "if any officer shall take greater or other fees than the law allows him, either directly or indirectly, it shall ever after disqualify him from holding any office in this state."
Section 36 of the document recognized that every citizen "ought to have some profession, calling, trade or farm, whereby he may honestly subsist, [but] there can be no necessity for, nor use in establishing offices of profit, the usual effects of which are dependence and servility unbecoming freemen, in the possessors and expectants; faction, contention, corruption, and disorder among the people."
Accordingly, it went on to provide that "whenever an office, through increase of fees or otherwise, becomes so profitable as to occasion many to apply for it, the profits ought to be lessened by the legislature."
In other words, the 1776 Pennsylvanians wanted no class of professional politicians, and were appropriately wary of those who would seek government service for personal profit, instead of the good of the commonwealth.
The recent apparent revelations that the family of the Democratic candidate for President, Joe Biden, and quite possibly Biden himself, may have substantially profited from what could be interpreted as influence peddling and government contracts make clear that the worries of these Pennsylvanians are still with us.
Graft and corruption are a perennial plague in any political system. This is, perhaps quite obviously, due to the weaknesses of human nature itself, which thus help to explain the key concepts of our federal Constitution, of dispersing power and checking and balancing its exercise, to prevent arbitrary decisions of the sort that would favor particular persons or particular factions.
James Madison perhaps best expressed this very idea in Federalist No. 51:
"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 the government to control the governed; and the next place, oblige it to control itself."
Since the time of FDR's New Deal, increasing with World War II, and accelerating even more in recent years, our federal government has reached the point at which we routinely disperse trillions of dollars — both domestically and globally.
The opportunities for shady dealings of all sorts, for "crony capitalism," and for outright graft exist as never before, and while both Democratic and Republican politicians and their families have fed at this trough, some have corruptly acquired wealth that really does stagger the imagination.
Our premier chronicler of this corruption is Peter Schweizer, whose bestseller, "Clinton Cash," explained how Bill and Hillary Clinton, especially through their Clinton Foundation, have been able to turn government service, it might be argued, into nightmare visions for those who Framed the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776.
In a subsequent volume, Profiles in Corruption, Schweizer outlined the misadventures by other progressive politicians, including Mr. Biden, who may have enriched themselves and their families in precisely the manner the Pennsylvanians feared.
For some years Democrats have argued that the problem with our polity is inequality, and that racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination require massive federal governmental redistribution and expenditures, to right past wrongs.
Republicans, on the other hand — as Ronald Reagan very cogently declared durng his Inauguraton on January 21, 1981, "Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem," — believe that government itself may be a major problem, and that what the country needs is less regulation, lower taxes, and more individual freedom.
Some of us were originally supporters of Donald Trump because he favored the choice of judges and justices who would be likely to maintain the Constitution’s system of checks and balances and federalism; noteworhy indeed, because this was Madison’s scheme for controlling untrammeled power.
Donald Trump has rewarded our faith in him with his appointments to the judiciary, particularly the choice of Amy Coney Barrett for the United States Supreme Court.
As the antithesis of a professional politician, Trump, in 2020, offers the best hope of encouraging measures that will reform the federal Leviathan, that ought to herald the beginning of restraining federal agencies now out of control, diminishing the power of central government, offering economic opportunity, and returning governance to the states and the people.
Mr. Trump may not be perfect, but Madison well understood that no one is.
President Donald J. Trump’s ideals are actually those of the Pennsylvanians of 1776.
Stephen B. Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law, the Legal Affairs Editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and a contributor to The University Bookman. He graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and has taught at Rutgers University, the University of Virginia, and University College, London. He has often testified on constitutional issues before committees of the United States Congress, and is the author of "Recapturing the Constitution: Race, Religion, and Abortion Reconsidered" (Regnery, 1994) and "Law Professsors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law" (West Academic, 2017). Presser was a Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado's Boulder Campus for 2018-2019. Read Stephen B.Presser'sReports — More Here.
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