James Madison lived to the advanced age of 85 and helped birth our nation. He became known as the “Father of the Constitution” which was adopted when he was a young 36. He led the drafting of the Bill of Rights, and served as our fourth President.
To promote the adoption of the Constitution, Madison wrote a series of articles published as The Federalist Papers. In No. 51, while explaining the need for checks and balances in government, he makes a key observation. “But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” This reflects the Biblical view of the fallen human condition which makes government necessary.
It is worth noting that the Founders never believed that a constitution and laws are enough to make government successful. Madison wrote, “Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks – no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government can secure liberty or happiness without virtue in the people is a chimerical (illusory) idea.” George Washington said, “The foundations of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality.” Another Founder, John Witherspoon, was a Presbyterian minister and president of Princeton. He warned, “A good form of government may hold the rotten materials together for some time, but beyond a certain pitch, even the best constitution will be ineffectual, and slavery will ensue.”
What does this mean for today? Well, men are still not angels, and current events (and politics) reek of rotten materials. Many reject God as the source of virtue (morality), which reduces it to simply choices. Or, if it’s legal it’s moral, which is entirely backwards to Madison’s thinking. What a contrast with what French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1838! “Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”
America was founded on liberty, unalienable rights, and government only by the consent of the governed. These hopes stand on the twin pillars of constitutional government and personal morality. Morality must come from our Creator else it becomes entangled preferences, power struggles, and ugly arguments. Even Jefferson and Franklin, not known to be Christians, recognized the need for transcendent values.
On this Independence Day, join me in praying that America will return to our founding, mutually dependent principles of liberty, virtue, and faith. After all, men are not angels.