The Founders’ gift does not demand much of us.
As citizen-sovereigns, we need to exercise common sense and hold dear the common good. Little more is required of us in the system America’s founders designed. That is remarkable, even astonishing because for most of us common sense and caring about the common good deeply shape our daily lives.
Because we take them for granted, it is easy to overlook common sense and love of the common good, but they leap to prominence when disaster strikes. On those occasions, we can count on heroic rescues and Americans spontaneously co-operating to deal effectively with the challenges they unexpectedly face.
In the same way, on those special occasions when we formally exercise our powers as citizen-sovereigns—when we vote to choose agents to carry out the work of government for us or when we serve on a jury—the Founders counted on our common sense and our love of the common good to carry us through.
And the most basic obligation of those in government is also to exercise common sense and love of the common good in what they do as our agents. Consequently, the soundness of the whole Constitutional system depends on us making good choices of those agents. James Wilson, one of only six signers of both the Declaration and the Constitution, wrote this about the Constitution in 1788:
If the people, at their elections, take care to choose none but representatives that are wise and good, their representatives will take care, in their turn, to choose or appoint none but such as are wise and good also.
It is our common sense and our love of the common good that equip us to recognize and to choose those who are “wise and good”—or in the instance of a choice narrowed down to two, the one who has the most common sense and the most love of the common good.
Just as we make mistakes in our daily lives, we will make mistakes about the representatives we choose. These mistakes matter. As a general rule, the people in government oppress and abuse the people over whom they rule. The world abounds in examples, today as in the Founders’ day.
The Founders’ design addressed this hard truth in two important ways.
First, those we elect are to be kept on a short leash by fixed terms in office. Once elected, they soon have to face the voters again, to be turned out of office if they show themselves lacking in common sense or in love of the common good.
Second, and more important, the Founders’ design limited the powers those representatives could wield. Here is Thomas Jefferson in his first inaugural address:
Still one thing more, fellow-citizens—a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government…
By now, I suppose you have grown impatient. “What about education?” you ask. The Founders were also counting on the people to understand the American idea. It is certainly true that as soon as the people forget how the system works, they lose their ability to operate the system as it was designed to be operated. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that it was only after the American educational system abandoned teaching the American idea that our government ran amok.
But the requirement to understand the American idea is also no great challenge for us. Though the American system of government is the most radical design for a system of liberty ever conceived, it is readily understood by means of common sense because it was designed by common sense realists who were also astonishingly “wise and good.” Their amazing stories model for us the glory of the American citizen-sovereign whose task is worthy and whose burden is light.
Our current emergency is in some ways like a natural disaster. It may require heroic actions and Americans coming together to solve the problems that have emerged so that once again the burden of government can be light, as the Founders intended.