What Would the Framers Do?

Posted in: Politics

The U.S. is facing such a difficult choice between presidential candidates that voters are either depressed or disengaged, and/or exploring dual citizenship! On one hand, the Republican candidate is a bad man and authoritarian who operates like a cult leader who cannot tell the truth, because his own ascension to power is his only goal. He lies just to lie with his followers passively embracing the disinformation and destructive conspiracy theories he peddles. He has deviously silenced his party’s dissenters and co-opted the Supreme Court to deliver monarchical power to him. At 78 years old (meaning he would be 82 at the end of another term), he’s also too old to be President, as evidenced by, among other things, speeches that often wander in bizarre ways.

On the other hand, the Democrat is a good man, who has served the country for decades including presiding over the best post-pandemic economic recovery in the world and the passage and implementation of a historic national infrastructure bill, but who was never a superior orator, which is so often needed in Presidents, particularly in this difficult era. His age at 81 years old has led him to the same challenges faced by millions of the elderly: memory lapses, difficulty keeping his train of thought going, a need to go to bed earlier, and a propensity to fall. These are not the qualities of an effective President. And 82 is where he would start: he’d be 86 at the end of a second term.

Objectively speaking, neither should be President. Yet both have supporters, creating the need for a coherent narrative explaining their individual threats to the constitutional order. I think it’s time to consult the Framers of the Constitution.

First, the Framers would not have been surprised in the least. The Constitutional Convention was awash in a shared opinion about the men who would be in government: they expected all to seek to enlarge and expand whatever power they had, in conflict with the nation’s best interest. The project of the Convention was to “fix” the failed Articles of Confederation and construct a system that would deter these inevitable power grabs. It did not take long for them to toss out the Articles in toto and instead to turn to building a new order from the ground up. The educator at the time who taught the largest number of Framers was the Presbyterian, Rev. John Witherspoon at the College of New Jersey, now known as Princeton University. It was the first college in the United States that treated public service, as opposed to being a member of the clergy, as a goal of the highest order. In the words of his star student, James Madison, Witherspoon administered a “strong dose of Calvinism,” which meant that no human was infallible, and systems needed to be constructed to deter tyranny. These principles—without discussion of their religious roots—permeated all discussions at the Convention. The Framers debated what the temptations of power would be for each constitutional role and did their best to devise a system that would meet the inevitable overreach. Donald Trump and Joe Biden are following distinct paths to tyranny, though both would have been familiar to the Framers.

Why the Framers Would Not Embrace Joe Biden

As good a man as Joe Biden is, he is not immune from the Sirens’ seductive cry to serve his own ends first. As James Madison pointed out, “The truth was that all men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree.” Biden is unsuccessfully dealing with the temptation to tightly grasp power beyond his time as he declared that only the “Lord Almighty” can stop him from running. Framer Colonel George Mason of Virginia put it like this: “From the nature of man we may be sure, that those who have power in their hands will not give it up while they can retain it. On the contrary we know they will always when they can rather increase it.” No less would Biden’s family want to abandon their derivative benefits of the presidency. While his bid for a second term does not violate the letter of the Constitution, it violates the spirit. The Framers’ goal was to construct a governing structure that would turn the self-interested politician away from his immediate desires to the greater public good of the entire country. It is, in a word, selfish for Biden to insist he should be the candidate when he is exhibiting so many deficits that are utterly incompatible with being the leader of the free world. By all accounts, he appears to believe he is the only person who can beat Trump. That is plain old hubris. Yes, he beat him before, but things have changed, including his polling numbers and our knowledge of Trump’s dictatorial intent.

Pennsylvania Framer and the most brilliant man at the Convention, James Wilson, catalogued two types of tyranny in government: “Bad governments are of two sorts. First, that which does too little. Second, that which does too much; that which fails thro’ weakness and that which destroys through oppression.” Biden’s incapacities court the former. He has been such a successful public servant, in no small part because of his extraordinary capacity to negotiate between competing sides. Witness the infrastructure bill. But those are skills undermined by the infirmities listed above, which will take us to a government that does “too little,” or, worse, a government run by unelected aides. A proxy government is the definition of unaccountable; unchecked power for the Framers was an invitation to tyranny on a silver platter.

When the focus is on serving the country, and not individuals, as the Framers taught us, no one gets to rest on their laurels, not even the President. It’s all about who can save the country going forward, and unfortunately for Biden, the prospects are simply not good. It’s time to be the statesman he is capable of being and listen to the Framers: choose virtue over power.

Why the Framers Would Reject Donald Trump

Virginia’s Edmund Ralph introduced to the Convention what became known as the “Randolph Plan,” which set the agenda and outlined a bicameral legislature, national executive, judiciary, dual sovereignty between the federal and state governments, and a representative form of government. Each element built in a division of power, because the Framers harbored a deep-seated fear of centralized power, which, of course, is Trump’s ambition for himself.

After the oppression of King George III, there was a decidedly anti-monarchical bent to the Convention’s debates. The Framers’ feared a “hereditary monarchy” that would cancel out the power of the voters to choose the country’s leaders, and, apropos of Trump’s vision of a President who can operate without limits, Randolph worried that a one-man executive could be “the foetus of a monarchy.” South Carolina’s Pierce Butler also feared the executive’s veto power, because “in all countries the executive power is in a constant course of increase . . . . Why might not a Cataline or Cromwell arise in this Country as well as in others.” There has been no stretch in the Trump era when he has not sought to augment his power, with the willing support of his subjects, from pliant Republican lawmakers to the Supreme Court’s conservative Justices to the Heritage Foundation’s ridiculous Project 2025.

There was also widespread distrust of executive power as the states formed their post-Revolutionary governments, which led many to establish nearly omnipotent legislatures and weak executives, or Governors, under the Articles of Confederation. At the Convention, the Framers critiqued the states’ unaccountable, tyrannical legislatures and saw the need to strengthen the power of the executive, but not to monarchical heights. Pennsylvania’s Gouverneur Morris stated the fear directly when he criticized the notion that the states would choose the President, instead of the people, saying, “it will be like the election of a pope by a conclave of cardinals.” That would, of course, suit Trump just fine!

The Framers not only distrusted those who exercised government power but also the people, or the mob as many called them, which meant they firmly rejected direct democracy, in favor of the representative democracy system they selected. Direct democracy, with its selection of the law by individual citizens, conflicted with their belief in checks on power and the need for accountability to the public good, not simply one’s own interests. Connecticut Framer Roger Sherman expressed a concern that sounds fresh when it comes to Trump: “They want [i.e., lack] information and are constantly liable to be misled.” As true as that was in the late eighteenth century, it is emphatically true now that the Internet is in its wild west stage, and Trump has no compunction exploiting their ignorance to achieve maximum power. The Framers would be saying, “I told you so,” if they were alive today.

The Convention selected a representative system, which also meant that the people’s key role was to select the best leaders, who would then guide the country for the sake of the country. For the Framers, when voters are fed lies or left uneducated, their vital role in sniffing out and rejecting tyrants is tragically diminished. Trump’s allies’ attacks on education through book bans, imposition of their religion in the classroom, and revisionist American Black history, play right into his dream of absolute power through misinformation and mind control.

When the Framers presented their draft Constitution to Congress, there was no bragging or acting like demi-gods. They believed in human fallibility and knew this document by itself would not be able to fulfill their lofty vision alone. It was, after all, drafted by humans. Madison in particular was glum, because he feared there were not enough good men to fill the positions of power they had just embedded in this new American governing system.

If American voters let themselves be subjected to these two choices, Madison and his fellow Framers’ fears of ineffective or tyrannical government will be realized. What would the Framers do?  Turn away from both.

Comments are closed.