The Balance of Mixed Government

Alexander Hamilton, as Secretary of the Treasury. By: John Trumbull.

Conservatives and liberals during the Revolutionary years realized that democracy must have power distributed throughout various sources, known as a mixed government, so as to survive.

There were critics of a mixed government, however. The citizens of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina proposed “that Legislation be not a divided right, and that no man or body of men be invested with a negative on the voice of the People duly collected.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 224 quoting Instructions of Mecklenburg County, Aug. 1775, Saunders, ed., Col. Recs. of N.C., X, 239.

Alexander Hamilton told Gouverneur Morris that it was “very disputable that instability is inherent in the nature of popular governments.” Hamilton to Gouverneur Morris, May 19, 1777, Syrett and Cooke, eds., Hamilton Papers, I, 255. Hamilton continued stating that “‘unstable democracy’ was ‘an epithet frequently in the mouths of politicians’; yet he was sure that ‘a strict examination of history’ would show that all the fluctuations of excessively popular governments had flowed from their being mixed with other elements.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 224-25 quoting Hamilton to Gouverneur Morris, May 19, 1777, Syrett and Cooke, eds., Hamilton Papers, I, 255.

Hamilton also stated that “[c]ompound governments though they may be harmonious in the beginning, will introduce distinct interests; and these interests will clash, throw the state into convulsion and produce a change or dissolution.” Id. “If the whole body of the people were to govern directly, ‘error, confusion and instability,’ of course, must be expected, but not in a ‘representative democracy’ where the people’s power was vested in their elected delegates,” while a “complex legislature would only cause ‘delay and dilatoriness.'” Id.

While the states took into consideration all of these debates about mixed government, states took various approaches to how they would create their legislatures. The creation of a mixed government meant that Americans were taking the risk that Hamilton’s warnings would become true.

Hamilton’s generalization about the fluctuations of popular governments is a point worth analyzing. One of the most fundamental questions at the time of the Revolution and the framing of the states’ and the federal constitutions was what controls were necessary so as to prevent the population from doing irreparable harm to the government as a result of unjustified or unnecessary actions. One major risk was that the population would revolt in response to a less than worthy issue in government or society and that would bring the whole government to its knees, all of which was preventable strife.

The balance that the Founding Fathers struck, and the people ratified, was ideal for the preservation of both the people’s ability to have their voices heard and the government’s stability. Dealing with the difficult issue of mixed government was a fundamental part of striking that balance that has continued to the present day, despite the many fluctuations that inevitably happen.

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