Guest Essayist: Adam Carrington
Independence Hall, Philadelphia

We don’t always get it right the first time. Sometimes, experimentation then leads to true success. Those statements prove true for many situations, professional and private. The Founders experienced both with their first forays into constitution-making in the 1770s and the 1780s. Those efforts included the Articles of Confederation, our first national constitution. Our current Constitution replaced it after a short, tumultuous time.

Here, though, we will focus on the efforts made at the state level. The former colonies needed their own governing documents to set the conditions for rule. These first efforts saw some success and some need for serious improvement.

First, these constitutions got the source of rule correct. The constitution for North Carolina (1776), opened by declaring, “That all political power is vested in and derived from the people only.” New Hampshire (1776) based its constitution’s power on the “free suffrages of the people of said colony.” This reasoning aligned with another document from 1776, the Declaration of Independence. That work of the Second Continental Congress declared that governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” This point itself derived from the Founders’ commitment to human equality, expressed by the fact that no person should rule another without pre-conditioned agreement.

Second, these constitutions in general got the purpose of government right. Massachusetts’ constitution (1780), penned by John Adams, said the purpose of government resided in the power “to furnish the individuals who compose it with the power of enjoying, in safety and tranquillity, their natural rights and the blessings of life.” This reasoning, too, aligned with the Declaration of Independence. It declared that all human beings possessed “unalienable rights,” meaning claims on others that no one else could infringe. It then said that “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” Government exists because we have these rights but cannot adequately enjoy them due to threats from others. Political society forms to offer protection of these rights for their better use by each person.

Third, however, these state constitutions tended to struggle to rightly structure their institutions. In particular, they correctly sought a government organized around the concept of separation of powers. WE must understand this point before saying how they struggled with it. This theory said that government power is based on the rule of laws. However, law requires three functions to rule properly.

First, one must make law—the legislative power. Some may say we could stop there. However, that would leave government inadequate to its task. We know that merely saying what someone should do does not always get obedience. Sometimes people will disobey the law even when they know it. Think of many of us on highways with speed limits. That brings in the second task of government under the rule of law. A government must enforce those made laws—the executive power. Executive power brings coercive force to bear in service of the laws, to make sure people obey them and thus do not infringe on rights. Third and finally, a tribunal must exist to interpret and apply the law when disputes arise regarding it—the judicial power. People may know the law but not agree on whether someone broke or followed it. That factual question is what juries often decide in trials. People may agree on what happened but disagree about the wording of the law in relation to what happened. Judges make these calls, trying to apply the law’s words faithfully to the actions in a case before him or her. Together, these three powers ensure the law rules, both our constitutions and the statutes made under them.

Most state constitutions affirmed separation of powers. Article VI of the Maryland constitution’s declaration of rights (1776) said, “That the legislative, executive and judicial powers of government, ought to be forever separate and distinct from each other.” However, many states structured their separation of powers to make the legislative power too strong and the other branches too weak. Doing so did not deny separation of powers on paper. But it did so in practice.

States such as Pennsylvania and Virginia in particular created very weak executives. They quickly came under the control of the state legislatures. James Madison saw this problem in the 1780s. Having seen what happened with state constitutions, Madison wrote in Federalist 48 that, “The legislative department is everywhere extending the sphere of its activity, and drawing all power into its impetuous vortex.” In some sense, legislative dominance was natural. Legislative power made the laws that other branches must then carry out. That gave it an advantage. Also, in a popular government, people would see themselves more in the numerous, lawmaking legislature than the much different executive or judicial branches.

We must not underestimate the problem with separation of powers failing in practice in these states. The Founders knew and said that any combination of legislative, executive, and judicial power together led to tyranny. It did so because it allowed one entity to take over the laws and start using them as it wished. The law then became a tool for human beings to oppress one another, not a guide and restraint to rule over them.

Thankfully, not all constitutions fell prey to this problem. New York’s 1778 constitution, for example, gave a strong executive that maintained independence from that state’s legislature. It became an example members of the Constitutional Convention looked to for constructing our American President. In other ways, our Founders learned from the other states’ mistakes in how they constructed the national Constitution. They put in a system of checks and balances to work alongside separation of powers. These checks gave each branch ways to limit the power of the other branch. Ambition would check ambition, as Madison would write in Federalist 51. Sometimes, these checks even meant giving a little of one branch’s power to another. Thus, the president’s veto power is a legislative power to make laws. But it helps protect that office against legislative encroachments. Even the powerful Congress possesses the impeachment power, lest a president or judges usurp their power or the Constitution’s.

Thus, we can be thankful we no longer have the state constitutions of the 1770s and 1780s. They needed improved upon. But we also should thank them for the good they did. They set out the proper origin and purpose of government, a commitment we only reinforced through our subsequent history. And they taught us how to structure our government better. They gave us the experience that showed how to separate governmental powers to support the rule of law and by it human equality and liberty.

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.

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Guest Essayist: Adam Carrington

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” He contrasts these persons with him who “hears these words of mine and does not do them.” This latter man built his house “on the sand.” When rain and storms come, the first house stands firm while the second, not only falls, “but great was the fall of it.”

Americans must ask upon what kind of foundation they built their political house. What first principles created us, define us, and thus should continue to guide us going forward? Some have posited that our rightful foundation rests on a literal rock—Plymouth Rock. By saying so, they mean that the Puritans who came to New England in 1620 defined our Founding and should prescribe our tomorrow.

These persons point to the Mayflower Compact, the charter those settlers signed as the basis for their political community. This document clearly displays the political ends which these Puritans pursued and the means they established in that pursuit. We must declare them and then assess them. We thereby must ask whether this foundation of Plymouth Rock in 1620 is in fact our own as Americans in 2022.

The Compact says that it seeks to “plant” a colony. More importantly, it states what it intends to do in establishing that political community. It first lists “the Glory of God.” It follows with the “advancement of the Christian Faith,” then the “honour of our King and Country,” and, finally, their “better ordering and preservation.” Together, these make up the ends of their political community.

We must see in the first purpose the overarching one, the final end to which all others in the Compact strive. The Puritans were defined by a faith that placed God’s glory the highest in priority and all-comprehensive in its pursuit. Thus, they must advance the Christian faith, increasing who glorified God. Their honoring king and country also assumed a religious element, since they saw King James as a Christian prince and England as a Christian nation. Their honor was a mere reflection of God’s glory. Even good ordering and preservation linked back to God’s glory, since the Compact says they will so do in “furtherance of the ends aforesaid.”

Clearly, the foundation laid on Plymouth Rock required a particular kind of religious subscription by all citizens and officers in the colony. To be a rightful citizen, one must be a rightful believer. Did Americans who wrote the Declaration of Independence and ratified the United States Constitution build on this foundation or on another?

The Founders did not deny the importance of God in general or the Christian faith in particular. The Declaration of Independence mentions God no less than four times. God authors the laws of nature. He is the Creator who “endows” human beings with equal rights. The Declaration also calls God the “Supreme Judge of the world,” to whom they make the ultimate appeal for the justice of their revolution. Finally, the document concludes by a “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.”

But the Founder’s God took a different approach to religious practice than did the one whose glory the Puritans pursued. The Puritans demanded as a political act of citizenship on earth uniform practice aligned with citizenship in Heaven. In other words, religious liberty as we understand they rejected as hostile to the proper ends of good government.

Our Constitution, while not contradicting the Declaration, made sure that religious liberty helped define the political implications of God. The Constitution denied all religious tests for holding national office. Its First Amendment rejected the establishment of a national church as well as protecting the free exercise of religion for all. The purpose of human life might be to glorify God. But our politics would leave wide sway for persons to come to that conclusion on their own. Our laws would let persons who so decided additional liberty to consider how exactly to glorify God. Our laws would not enforce the advancement of Christianity. But we would permit its spread and protect the right of its adherents to share, to persuade throughout the land. We must also say, then, that it protected the right of conscience for even those who rejected this view of God or the existence of God altogether.

Thus, we understand that our foundation owes some influence to Plymouth Rock. Yet we cannot call it our perfect and complete foundation. We did not follow its ends in the exact same way. Instead, the Mayflower Compact influenced the Founding even more in the additional means it posited to run its political community. To achieve their ends, they wrote they would “Covenant and Combine ourselves together in a Civil Body Politic.” They founded a political regime on the basis of consent, of the willing agreement of their citizens. No outside tyrant imposed their ends upon them. In the same way, our Constitution opens that “We, the People,” did “ordain and establish” the Constitution for the purposes written therein.

Moreover, they said this new political community would, “constitute and frame…just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices.” They committed themselves to the rule of law, not the fiat of human beings. These Puritans also declared that rightful laws should contain two qualities: justice and equality. They must pursue the good and do so equally for all. Our Founding agreed. The Constitution’s Preamble gives one of its purposes as “to establish justice.” The Declaration’s commitment to equality informs so much of the Constitution, but especially the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause, which says that no state shall deny any person the equal protection of the laws.

Thus, we see ourselves on a different foundation than that laid on Plymouth Rock. Ours did not deny God but recognized Him as one of political and religious liberty. At the same time, we took much in the means from Plymouth, especially consent of the governed and just as well as equal laws. Was this foundation on a true rock or did we build a sandy foundation doomed to a great fall? We find the answer in the experience of the last 250 years. America endured. More than endured, it thrived. It rose to become a beacon of human equality and liberty, the “last, best hope” as Abraham Lincoln once called it. Its true foundation rested on those commitments—human equality and liberty—as understood through the laws of nature and of nature’s God. Those principles still hold out the promise of provision, provision of a strong foundation against all storms, internal or external. It does; but only if we continue to build wisely and faithfully upon it.

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.

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Guest Essayist: Adam Carrington

In the last essay, we discussed the British political system of the 17th century. That system consisted of King and Parliament, supposed to share rule but really locked in a battle for supremacy. While the division of power between them originally consisted of their number—the one king as well as few Lords and the many Commons in Parliament, the division between legislative and executive power grew up in the midst of the English Civil War.

King and Parliament did not fight this war merely for which institution would wield more power. A religious dispute arose, lighting the fires of war as well. In this religious dispute, we see much with which to compare to the American Constitution and the Republic that operates through it.

Every society holds some things in common. Short of total communism, they do not hold everything communally, but divide everything between personal ownership and the common stock. This division includes more than land or stuff. It includes principles. By what a society holds in common, they thereby define who they are and what they should do as a people.

For 17th century English society, people considered religion an essential glue holding them together. They saw God and His commands as essential to right believing and right living. They saw those commands as stretching to public actions pertaining to law and custom. Therefore, they assumed as necessary some king of religious uniformity. A common God understood by a common theology and common church helped to make England one nation. The English Reformation, with King Henry VIII declaring a national church apart from Roman Catholicism, only bolstered the link between national identity and religious conformity. There was a Church of England with dissenters often punished and forced to attend the official state religious body.

This history also bolstered the position of the king within England’s national religion. The Act of Supremacy (1534) had named Henry VIII “Supreme Head of the Church.” Since then, for theological reasons, English monarchs have taken the slightly different title of “Supreme Governor of the Church of England.” Still, the monarch stands as the head of the church.

This view has a utopianism to it. It hopes for uniformity of practice religiously to create a kingdom that conforms to God’s rules here on earth. It sees a unity in the king that helps to bring about this conformity through his or her governing of the Church of England. We see in here some remnants of the old divine right of kings. As God set him on the throne, so the king must made sure right religion reigns so long as he does reign, too.

The civil war saw armies with competing theologies, even as they fought under the banner of Crown or Parliament. The Cavaliers and the Roundheads, as they were called, fought over issues such as religious rites and how to structure church government. So violent did this conflict go that, in 1649, King Charles I was beheaded after a questionable trial by a small portion of Parliament.

America took a different track, both regarding religion and the king’s role related to it. In the United States Constitution, our First Amendment had two clauses related to religion. The first protected its free exercise, the second forbade the national government from making any law regarding establishing a religion. There would be no “Church of America” like existed across the pond. Moreover, the Constitution forbade any religious test be required to hold federal office.

Taken together, these provisions set up a baseline of religious liberty for all. State establishments and tests did continue in some places, including an established Congregational church in Massachusetts as late as 1833. However, even most states quickly adopted similar provisions in their own laws and constitutions.

This position took an anti-utopian stance. It saw religion as something that cannot hold us together because we must leave the individual conscience free to worship or not worship God as that person sees fit. No coercion should fall on the dissenters from majority belief.

This point mattered for the president. He would never be head of a church. He would never protect doctrinal purity. This point, again, connected with the lack of divine right. The people set him up to rule, not his birth. He would rule for four-year terms, not for life.

But our presidents do take some role in religious expression. George Washington’s Farewell Address warned of the need for religious belief among the people. That belief would shore up national morality among the ultimate human rulers, We the People. It would aid in public and private happiness, in the ruling of self that is a prerequisite to running a popular government.

Moreover, since Washington, most presidents have published proclamations or given speeches that thank or make requests of God. John Adams warned in 1798 that our Constitution was made for a religious people and the need to cultivate those beliefs, consistent with human liberty. Perhaps the greatest speech ever given on American soil, Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, consisted of an extended meditation on God’s will in the American Civil War and an affirmation of God’s goodness in the midst of so much hardship and bloodshed.

These appeals to religion should be seen, not as coercions to make one believe, but as encouragements, as attempts at persuasion. In that, we have come a long way from the English Civil War. Much divides us that people think we must hold in common these days. But we continue to hold the right to believe as we see fit and to act on those beliefs within reason, within not hurting others. We can thank our Constitution for that and be thankful for a president who is chief executor of the laws, not governor of an American church.

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.

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Guest Essayist: Adam Carrington

When Americans speak of the Civil War, we of course have our own conflict (1861-1865) in mind. However, the term “civil war” does not name one conflict in world history. It categorizes a certain kind of conflict. Many political communities have suffered from civil wars. Such conflicts pit one portion of a country against another in armed battle.

Human beings often turn civil wars into the worst of conflicts. They do so because of why civil wars occur. People will invade other countries for money, for glory, for responding to a slight, perceived or real. Civil wars nearly always become conflicts about what a country is. Combatants spar over what principles truly define the country and who rightfully belongs as citizens within it. Our civil war centered those questions around the issue of slavery.

England had its own civil war two centuries before America’s. From 1642 to 1651, with little respite, Englishmen formed armies and killed each other in ugly, pitched battles. They did so over competing visions of England. These competing visions divided along two lines. The first was political, a battle over the English constitution regarding who should rule the country and through what kinds of institutions, especially the institutions of the king and the Parliament. The second was religious. Devoutly Christian persons on both sides, and those caught in-between, desired that England adhere in true fashion to the true God.  But, as with the constitution, they did not come to the same answers. In this essay, we will examine the political differences and compare them to America’s constitutional system. In the following, we will take up the religious question of the English Civil War in relation to the American experiment.

To understand the political question of England, we must delve into the history and development of how countries organized themselves politically. In ancient and medieval times, political thinkers divided all good forms of political rule into three camps: the rule of the one (monarchy), the rule of the few (aristocracy), and the rule of the many (polity). Many of the same men extolled the good of a fourth option they referred to as the “mixed regime.” This form of government involved sharing powers among some combination of the one, the few, and the many. They intended this mixture to ensure that a country would receive the good qualities of each pure governmental form and suppress potential vices that could turn monarchy to tyranny, aristocracy to a wealth-obsessed oligarchy, or a polity into a mob-terrorizing democracy (democracy was a negative term at the time).

The English system in the 17th century had developed into one that shared power between the king and the parliament. In so doing, it incorporated the rule of all three groups. The monarch represented the rule of one, Parliament’s House of Lords the rule of the few, and Parliament’s House of Commons the rule of the people.

Such a system is impossible under our form of government. It first is so because of our principles. Kingship and aristocracy, in their pure form, begin with human inequality as the basis for ordering a political society. So, the sharing of rule comes between equals and un-equals within the country. However, our Declaration of Independence states as a “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal.” This equality means no person can rule another without consent. No person can rule another unless the ruled can set limits on the ruler and even remove and replace him from time to time.

We legalized our commitment to equality in several places in the United States Constitution. Most notably for this issue, Article I, Sections 9 and 10 deny both the state and the national government from bestowing a “title of nobility.” The Constitution thus forbids the creation of a legal caste, a codified aristocracy who then receives special treatment by the law. Therefore, we cannot have a “House of Lords” because no lords, or dukes, or any other such legally titled persons reside among us. We cannot have a king because no hereditary right to such a position can exist for us. Our system of elections reinforced this point. Our Congress and our president both come into office by means of elections. These elections prove that “We, the People” exercise the ultimate or sovereign power through these officers, not act as subjects under their independent fiat. Our rejection of a king was of particular vehemence on this point, not wishing to elevate one man in such a way above his fellow citizens.

But the British system has evolved dramatically from this earlier setup. The English Civil War pitted Parliament against the English King, each with an army fighting for its claims. Instead of sharing power, both sought to rule outright, with the other subservient. They thus sought to make easier the exercise of the worst vices of each system. During this time, for example, we continued to see English monarchs claim their rule based in some form of divine right. God placed them on the throne and that meant something akin to absolute power in relation to parliament and English subjects.

America’s system, again, rejected these kinds of arguments. For one, we rejected the divine right of kings because of our commitment, discussed above, to human equality. Thomas Jefferson famously said that no person was born with spurs or with a saddle, the former then knowing he had a natural right to ride the latter. Human equality meant no legally born kings to subjects. Instead, the people, again, created offices to which they delegated their sovereign power to rule. That difference is why, in American history, persons often called presidents “kings” to disparage them (Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln are two examples).

For another, Americans intentionally divided power among its political institutions in a way different from that which enveloped the English in the 17th century. They did not divide by who ruled, since the people ruled entirely. They divided by governmental function. They divided these functions and thus institutions into three, not England’s two: a Congress to make laws, a president to enforce them, and a judicial system to decide disputes based on the law. This separation of powers has proven far more consistent and effective over its history.

The English system, in fact, partly followed America’s route even before America existed. Parliament more and more took the lead for making laws—the legislative power. The monarch still possessed the power to veto legislation parliament passed, keeping such bills from becoming law. However, the monarch took the lead on matters we now would call executive and judicial. The king enforced the laws. He did so through ministers and other officers who arrested and restrained persons or collected taxes. The king enforced the law through his judges. Thus, England has had one court named The King’s Bench. During the commonwealth period (1649-1660), England acted as a government without a king. But they failed to truly form a government of, by, and for the people, succumbing to a de facto king in Oliver Cromwell. By 1660, England returned to a mixed regime of sharing power between Parliament and monarchy.

Over time, our president fared much better than England’s monarch. Our president only has grown in power over the centuries. He has done so as each officeholder has cultivated his role as representative of the people. As the legitimacy of rule by kings faded, though, so did the real political powers of the monarch. Vetoing legislation, for instance, is now virtually unthinkable. The British courts occupy a firmly independence existence. Parliament eventually gained total supremacy, a fate made nearly certain by the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. Due to that dominance, the English system lacks a true separation of powers. The Prime Minister in the House of Commons occupies the real role of executive head. Meanwhile, the British king or queen now occupies a figurehead position. TV shows like “The Crown” argue for the virtues of this circumstance. They claim it allows for the monarchy to represent the country as a whole, to reside above partisanship, and to guide softly by manner, gesture, and example. But this mostly covers up a loss of political power near total in scope.

Thus, the modern British government has moved nearly all real political power, not just into Parliament, but into its House of Commons. Legislative and executive power both reside therein, with the Prime Minister doing both. Our system maintained its separation by keeping a strong executive with real powers distinguished firmly from the legislative branch. In doing so, we built a system both popular in basis and workable in execution. We maintained our independent executive power by making him not a creation of divine right but of the sovereign people. And that will continue, so long as the Constitution continues to rule the United States of America.

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.

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