Guarding Against an Evil

Benjamin Franklin. By: Joseph Siffred Duplessis.

Americans’ political beliefs were rapidly changing as the American Revolution progressed into the early years of the Republic. In fact, those beliefs were “constantly in flux, continually adapting and adjusting to ever-shifting political and social circumstances.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 438.

In the decade following 1776, Americans were debating “the changes in the character of representation, in the nature of the senate and the magistracy, in the conception of a constitution and the institution of a convention, in the growing discrepancy between the power of the people out-of-doors and their delegates in the legislatures.” Id.

Benjamin Franklin, in explaining one of the fundamental errors of Americans’ evolving political beliefs, stated: “We have been guarding against an evil that old States are most liable to, excess of power in the rulers.” Id. at 432 quoting Franklin to Charles Carroll, May 25, 1789, Smyth, ed., Writings of Franklin, X, 7. Franklin continued, stating “but our present danger seems to be defect of obedience in the subjects.” Id.

Franklin was advocating for policies that would lessen the liberty of the people and increase the “monarchical and aristocratical elements” in American government. See Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 432. As Franklin stated, “[a]t the commencement of the revolution, it was supposed that what is called the executive part of a government was the only dangerous part; but we now see that quite as much mischief, if not more, may be done, and as much arbitrary conduct acted, by a legislature.” Id. quoting Franklin to Charles Carroll, May 25, 1789, Smyth, ed., Writings of Franklin, X, 7.

Franklin’s beliefs about the state of the American government during the late 1770s and 1780s was informative of the problems and issues that plagued America during that time. In some ways, government was out of control. In other ways, the adjustments necessary were within reach.

James Madison, among others of the Founding Fathers, believed that the licentiousness of the people must be controlled, and Franklin was identifying the effect of that licentiousness: the legislatures going unchecked and infringing on liberties. To some extent, this must have been true, as Americans were increasingly embracing the election of populist candidates who were “Washington outsiders,” to borrow a contemporary term.

Many of the higher class, like the Founding Fathers, were threatened by this development, partly to protect themselves but also because they realized it would have an impact on the country as a whole. As this debate was unfolding, the Founding Fathers, and Americans generally, were honing in on crafting the best tailored government for them. These were fundamental discussions, all of which led the American government to be a more effective, more balanced government.

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