Updated: Jun 3, 2020
“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it” (George Santayana). Referring to the accession of Napoleon III, Karl Marx famously put the same idea a different way: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” The common thread is that we need to better understand history in order to make better-educated decisions today. While in his seminal 1992 work, The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama predicted that with the collapse of the Soviet Union the entire world become liberal, capitalist democracies, this future never came to bear. In fact, according to Freedom House, democracies around the world, including the United States, are backsliding. Therefore, it is more important than ever to learn about the creation of the world’s oldest living democracy and glean whatever lessons we can from the past.
As an example, let’s take one of the most pressing issues facing the Constitutional Convention: how to give the federal government enough power that it can effectively safeguard the sovereignty of the fledgling nation while preventing the democratic system from devolving back into monarchy or tyranny. First, it’s important to understand the context for the debate. The Articles of Confederation created a loose, toothless government, that didn’t even have the authority to tax its citizens. Consequently, the Continental Army was chronically underfunded. George Washington would frequently ask for additional resources only for his pleas to fall on deaf ears in Congress. It should thus come as no surprise that Washington’s soldiers were beholden to him personally, and not to the “fat cats” that left them without proper supplies. To the horror of both congressmen and Washington himself, the Continental Army even twice attempted to crown Washington king (which he rejected). Of course, the soldiers' actions should come as no surprise, as the only system of government in the world at the time was monarchy, and common folk simply could not conceive of anything else. Yet, the situation left many pro-democracy zealots in a bind. On the one hand, they wanted a powerful executive branch that could challenge British imperialism. On the other hand, they were afraid of what might happen if Washington changes his mind one day and accepts the crown. It is from this dilemma that the “checks and balances system” was born.
The beauty of the “checks and balances” is that it only makes one simple assumption: humans always crave more power for themselves. In other words, it takes people as they are and builds a political system around them, rather than establishing a utopian ideal and hoping that people live up to it. Under this system, the three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judiciary) are each delegated certain responsibilities, as well as the ability to keep the other two branches in check. For instance, the legislative branch (led by Congress) alone has the power to write laws. If the legislative branch drafts a law that is unconstitutional, the judiciary branch (led by the Supreme Court) has the right to overturn it. The executive branch (led by the president) appoints the Justices for life. However, if either a Justice or the President oversteps his/her authority, the legislative branch may impeach him/her. In this way, the three branches of government are in a constant power struggle – a zero-sum game. If one tries to get too much power, the others will prevent it because a given branch can only gain more power at the expense of the others. The simple elegance of this solution is what has allowed the United States to remain a bastion of democracy for nearly 250 years.
In the HermionaU course “The Birth of America,” we will explore this and many of the other key issues the Founding Fathers faced and the solutions they designed. Rather than focusing on rogue memorization of historical facts, the emphasis of this course will be on connecting past and present events, and teaching students how to think through problems as the Founding Fathers would have. If you are interested in politics, history, economics, or just want to become a better critical thinker, then this is the class for you. Register today!