Preventing and Facilitating Tyranny

Virginia State Capitol. By: William Goodacre.

As the American Revolution became more and more inevitable, states began contemplating the role and responsibilities of their legislatures. Those contemplations centered around curing the perceived ills and shortcomings of the English constitution.

At the core of those contemplations was the prevention of tyranny. The Whigs closely held the belief that “where annual election ends, tyranny begins.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 166 quoting Colbourn, Lamp of Experience, 191. Consequently, in those years, every state “except South Carolina provided for the yearly election of their house of representatives,” which was a “radical departure from their previous experience for all except the New England charter colonies and Pennsylvania that it alone suggests the revolutionary power of their Whig ideology.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 166-67.

In conformance with traditional Whig opinion, many believed that “there must be some restriction as to the right of voting: otherwise the lowest and most ignorant of mankind must associate in this important business with those who it is to be presumed, from their property and other circumstances, are free from influence, and have some knowledge of the great consequence of their trust.” Id. at 168 quoting James Iredell, “To the Inhabitants of Great Britain,” (1774); McRee, Life of Iredell, I, 210. As backwards as these views may seem, it was seen as a protection against tyranny by the Whigs.

To be fair, some, including Samuel Adams, were concerned about the effect of rich men on those less fortunate, whose vote could easily be bought. Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 168.

Corruption and bribery were also contemplated in the state constitutions. Several constitutions “declared against undue interference in elections, by either military overawing or the bribing of electors.” Id. at 170. For example, Pennsylvania’s constitution prohibited candidates from receiving from voters gifts, including “meat, drink, money, or otherwise.” Id. Other states provided for “elections by secret ballot.” Pa. Cons. (1776), Sec. 32; Md. Cons. (1776), LIV; Ga. Cons. (1777), Art. X.

These noble acts of the early Americans ensured that government would be framed in such a way to prevent the plagues of corruption and other dysfunctional features of government. Ensuring that there are regularly administered elections and safeguards against blatant bribery are proactive steps to take in creating a clean government.

But those prophylactic measures are only a beginning. Tyranny and corruption take various forms, and preventing those various forms from pervading government requires vigilance by both elected officials and the population.

This is not to discount the actions of the early Americans in formulating a system that would best prevent tyranny and corruption. Rather, the blame mostly falls on subsequent generations of Americans who have relaxed that vigilance and have allowed systems to be created which facilitate, even encourage, tyrannical and corruptive practices in government.

Modern Americans would do well to remember how much of a drain on resources that tyranny and corruption can present for a society and to diagnose and treat those problems. Otherwise, those problems fester, leaving a massive revamp of government to be tempting.

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