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This Day in History: Washington on Human Nature

Could the man be trusted? “I always think it necessary to be very guarded, with those who are professedly acting as double characters. . . . Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder,” Washington mused.

The letter reflects something deeper that shaped our nation: Our Founders understood the imperfections of human nature. They knew that people are fallible, and that power corrupts. They knew that greed too often rules the day.

Our Founders reflected on these truths as they created our Constitution. Safeguards would be needed against these base tendencies of human nature.

Modern Americans idolize simple democracy, failing to understand that something better is needed. A simple democracy allows the worst instincts of human nature to take over. It allows bare or unreasonable majorities to tyrannize minority groups. Emotional mobs have too much power.

It’s sometimes said that democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner. The sheep in that scenario is not protected simply because it has the right to vote. Our Founders understood this and did not make the mistake of thinking that such a simple-minded approach to self-governance would do.

As a result, our Constitution contains many safeguards to protect our liberty: It separates power among three branches of government. It requires super-majorities to take some actions, such as to amend the Constitution or to override a presidential veto. Our Congress is bicameral, combining a Senate (one state, one vote representation) with a House (one person, one vote). Our Electoral College requires federal majorities to win.

Whatever would our Founders make of modern attempts to ignore or eliminate such constitutional safeguards? Would they think we are too easily dismissing everything they worked so hard for?

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