On this day in 1787, the Constitutional Convention is underway. A small state delegate stands up and addresses the large state delegates in the room.
He didn't calmly address them, either. Gunning Bedford, Jr. *blasted* this statement at his fellow delegates! Can't you just imagine the tension in the room when he was done?
“I do not, gentlemen, trust you. If you possess the power, the abuse of it could not be checked; and what then would prevent you from exercising it to our destruction?”
The quote summarizes, so succinctly, the fears felt by small state citizens at that time.
How can America be self-governing, but also ensure that the large states do not constantly trample and abuse the small states? How can minority voices be free from the tyranny of emotional mobs? As you know, the Convention ultimately worked out many compromises. Our Constitution is full of many checks and balances that work as safeguards for our liberty.
These safeguards do more than protect small states from big states, of course. They also protect “We the People” from out-of-control government. Bedford could have just as easily blasted his statement at any number of government officials, couldn’t he?
Our Constitution steadfastly avoids placing too much power in a single individual or a single branch of government. Power is dispersed, spread across both state and federal governments. It is broken up so that executives, legislatures, and judges all have a portion of governmental power—but no one has all of it.
The Founders wouldn’t have had it any other way. They understood that too many are ambitious and greedy, inclined to act in their own self-interest first and foremost. They knew that power corrupts, humans are fallible, and even the best of people are susceptible to these influences.
“All power in human hands,” James Madison would say, “is liable to be abused.”
We’ve spent the past year watching as many of our Governors, Mayors, County Judges, and public health officials have completely ignored the checks and balances in our Constitution. They act as if an “emergency” gives them the ability to unilaterally dictate health solutions to us. They act as if a single person can decide which set of experts we are “allowed” to believe. They act as if a single person can dictate law.
There is no such thing as one-person, executive rule in America, even during a pandemic. A virus doesn't trump our Constitution and our system of checks and balances. If it does, then we are never free again.
This weekend is Independence Day. Perhaps a good time to take Gunning Bedford’s words to heart and to remember that we fought to be free from monarchs in this country.
God Bless America.
For more on separation of powers, checks and balances, and the importance of our constitutional structure, please check out Tara's books.