Auxiliary Precautions

That gloomy minded Puritan, John Adams, would go through fits of pessimism about America. We can thank Adams for such “inspiring” missives as this one: “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.” 

The Virginians Jefferson and Madison were of a sunnier disposition, perhaps because they hailed from places with more sunshine. Yet even Madison knew that in order for the government to be just it must be structured so as to account for the fallen nature of men and women. In Federalist #51, Madison declares:

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 is this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself. 

Madison goes on to remark that the primary control of government depends on the consent of the people, but then notes the need for “auxiliary precautions.” It turns out that these auxiliary precautions involve checking one ambition against another, of balancing competing interests by having different branches of government with their own spheres of authority. Catholic teaching also recognizes the value of a division of power within government:

The Magisterium recognizes the validity of the principle concerning the division of powers in a State: ‘it is preferable that each power be balanced by other powers and by other spheres of responsibility which keep it within proper bounds. This is the principle of the ‘rule of law,’ in which the law is sovereign, and not the arbitrary will of individuals.’ (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, par. 408)

Our country now finds itself more politically polarized than at any time since the late 1960’s. This includes not only rising tensions on the streets, but bitter differences among those representing different branches of our government. In such an atmosphere, respect for the “rule of law,” of both the letter and spirit of the U.S. Constitution, is crucial. Without such respect, John Adams’ most dire forecasts may still come to pass.