World history displays many instances of political rule by one person. We can point to ancient instances such as Julius Caesar or modern ones like Joseph Stalin. Napoleon Bonaparte ranks among the most famous of these men. He rose in the ranks of the French army during the 1790s by showcasing his brilliant military mind on the battlefield. He then expanded beyond a generalship to become France’s First Consul starting in 1799, then its Emperor beginning in 1804. Only his eventual defeat at Waterloo finally stopped his ever-increasing power.
Napoleon’s success in particular may tempt some to support the political rule of one. Unencumbered by others, this man first conquered France, then nearly did so to the rest of Europe. He instituted a legal code in his name that formed the basis for the modern French bureaucracy (and influenced many other governmental systems). One might see his example and think that one man can get much done if given the authority. We may not see Napoleon as acting justly. However, if the right man with the right principles got his power, then he could do much good.
We should resist this temptation. Our American system of government rejected rule by one man or even by one institution filled with men for a reason. Revisiting those reasons reminds us of the wisdom of that choice.
First, we must remember the famous quote of Lord Acton, a Nineteenth century British politician and historian. He declared, “All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The reason power tends to corrupt is not merely the enticement it holds to do ill. James Madison in Federalist #51 noted that men were not angels. He made sure to include in that appraisal those persons who hold governmental office. Power corrupts because human beings are fallible. They possess in themselves the temptation to abuse authority, to help themselves and their friends while hurting their enemies. The more power they can wield, the harder to resist the allure of using it for nefarious ends. Thus, one might better say that power reveals and nurtures corruption, a point the American Founders understood well and sought to address.
Our system of government does so by taking political power and dividing it in two ways. First, we divide government powers within a government. We call this mechanism separation of powers. We give one institution the power to make laws, another to enforce them, and still a third the authority to interpret and apply laws to legal disputes. The Founders hoped that this system would make for effective government that did good things. They also hoped the system would moderate the excesses of human nature. It would do so less by trying to remake human beings, something the Founders thought impossible and itself a temptation to exercise too much corrupting power. Instead, they hoped that they could channel human ambition, human love for power, in ways that offset one another. The branches would exercise checks and balances on their sister institutions. If one person or group gained too much authority, the others possessed means to keep us from falling into rule by one man or one group of persons.
But the rejection of one-man rule went beyond stopping moral vice from reigning. The Founders understood that brilliant humans come along from time to time. We were blessed during their time with a reservoir of such brilliance beyond a normal generation of human beings. Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison only scratch the surface of the number of great men who lived, thought, and acted in America’s fight for independence and her subsequent struggle to establish a lasting republic.
However, despite their best intentions, none of the Founders got everything right. They each had blind spots intellectually, as all humans do. Some even had moral ones to accompany the intellectual. However, we suffer little from those blind spots in our form of government. We do not because we do not have one founder. We have many. While some political communities had a first, sole lawgiver, we had the Continental Congresses and the delegates to the Convention of 1787. The Bible says that “iron sharpens iron.” So these men sharpened one another’s ideas, refining them in constructing our principles and our institutions. By that combined wisdom, they built a more just and a more lasting system of government. They did so in a way a Napoleon, ruling alone, could not.
That all said, we did have one man who towered above the rest during our Founding. That man was George Washington. He commanded our armies to victory in the Revolutionary War. He served as the unanimous choice of the country to be our first president. He could have been a Napoleon. He might have established himself as the only ruler of the country, making our system dependent on his person. He did not. Instead, he focused his mighty efforts always to build a system of government. He fought for principles that would outlive him and his generation. And, when he had finished his part of these tasks, he did what many found unthinkable: he gave up power. He returned to his home a citizen while the republic continued to operate without him.
This greatness we never saw in Napoleon. Upon his death, Napoleon is reputed to have said about France, “they wanted me to be their Washington.” In other words, they wanted him to exercise power, then willingly give it up for the country’s sake. This he did not do. It seems his own ambitions made such a choice impossible for him.
Each year, we celebrate our independence on the 4th of July. Let us express our thanks that we did not and do not live under a Napoleon, that we have and continue to reject rule by one person. And let us further celebrate our one indispensable man, the one who ruled and gave up that rule so his country would last. Let us celebrate our anti-Napoleon, our George Washington.
Adam M. Carrington is an Associate Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College. There, he teaches on matters of Constitutional law, American political institutions, and separation of powers. His writing has appeared in such popular forums as The Wall Street Journal, The Hill, National Review, and Washington Examiner. His book on the jurisprudence of Justice Stephen Field was published in 2017 by Lexington. Carrington received his B.A. from Ashland University and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Baylor University. He lives in Hillsdale with his wife and their two daughters.