After America successfully broke away from Great Britain and King George III, the Founding Fathers were tasked with building something entirely new. At that time, countries were governed by monarchs, and society was held together by a combination of patriarchy and a group known as the gentry.
The Founding Fathers were deeply aware that society was changing rapidly in the late 1780s and 1790s. There were a few things that concerned them the most. At the top of the list was government corruption. This is why the Constitution is littered with checks and balances through the separation of powers. Not just within itself but also between the federal government and the states.
At that time, conventional thought was that only those who were “disinterested” should serve in government. What did that mean? Simply, those with enough wealth that had no business or financial interest to attend to any longer were thought to be incorruptible. Many believed they would seek the common good over their personal interest since they had obtained a certain status in life.
Still, they learned quickly that wasn’t true as society was moving toward one that valued hard work and the pursuit of money-making — even among the gentry who had bought into the new cultural phenomenon. Those who came from Europe to America often commented about how different America was from their own countries, where the old system still reigned.
In Federalist 10, James Madison arrived at a new and novel concept. Instead of trying to control what he coined “factions,” he said the Constitution was designed to encourage it. Today, factions are similar to partisan politics, where one side has a particular interest and the other the opposite. Interests could be based on religion, manufacturing, retail business, banking, or whatever you can imagine. Today, lobbyists are involved in the process of “interestedness,” which I wrote about recently.
Madison theorized that creating a system that allowed for factions created another check and balance that would prohibit government excess and tyranny. Empowering factions, he said, would have several benefits. First, it would slow the legislative process as groups fought over their positions. In order to pass legislation, members of Congress would have to arrive at a consensus, which Madison said would be challenging to do on issues of passion.
Second, the eventual fourth president argued the smaller society became, the easier it was for a majority to oppress the minority. Yet, since each state had a different set of issues, he noted it would be more difficult for politicians to act in unity, and distrust would discourage unity from happening.
In creating the structure of the country, Madison said a Republic made of individual states would be the cure to the diseases that ailed most democracies.
So, at the top of the list, the Founding Fathers were deeply concerned about corruption. Thomas Jefferson feared it would only be a matter of time before the new system of government would devolve into “elective despotism.”
In the rest of the Civics series, we’ll dive into the structures the Founding Fathers created to combat corruption. Despite today’s challenges, they devised a system that has endured for over two centuries.
The question is, can we hold it together for two more?