The Founding Fathers Correctly Analyzed Human Nature
Written for September 12, 2006
The Founding Fathers of the United States of America were entirely convinced that human beings lacked virtue. Therefore, they created a system of government in which vice would be checked by another vice. This government system turned out to be very effective, as a result of their very successful reading and understanding of human nature.
History proves that human beings have a tendency to forsake goodness for personal gain, or that they lack goodness altogether. People have always dominated over others without a thought about justice, fairness, or decency. A clear example of this in American history is the relationship of settlers with the Indians. The Americans invaded the natives’ territory and continued to oust them from their homes until there was barely any space left for them. Slavery illustrates an obvious lack of virtue as well. Whites cruelly forced blacks into harsh labor for centuries, all the work rewarding the whites with nothing in return for the blacks. These, among many other human acts – violence, racism, sexism – have demonstrated the dearth of virtue in humans.
Based upon their knowledge and evidence, the Founding Fathers made a decision about the character of humans overall, and they created a unique American system of government. They knew that they couldn’t rely on people to be wholeheartedly good. As James Madison wrote in his Federalist, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Men were and are not angels, and thus they made the governmental system in which vice was checked with vice. The Founding Fathers knew that if their republican government didn’t have set limits upon allowable actions, the people would surely create a society with a dominant class which would be dangerously more powerful than everyone else, and the interests of the dominant class would surely plunder all other interests. That type of society would not survive, and so the Founding Fathers founded a government system in which virtue in citizens would not be needed.
Madison continued, “[Y]ou must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” His statement shows that he and his fellow Founders understood both human nature and how to create an effective government. They recognized that there had to be certain rules and regulations to prevent people from destroying each other and the government, but there had to be enough freedom to prevent the citizens from being oppressed as they were by Britain before the Revolution. Living in a newly independent country was a foreign thing to all of the Americans, and the Founding Fathers framed a flexible government plan that would let the people learn what they can and cannot do until they were able to control themselves and, in turn, help the new nation and government run smoothly. The outstanding comprehension of human nature led the Founding Fathers to erect a successful, long-lasting government.
The Founding Fathers’ conviction that human beings lacked virtue was, although mildly offensive, a truly effective reading of human nature. With history and things they had seen supporting their opinion, they safely assumed that humans will likely be corrupt rather than virtuous if it will help them personally. They understood what a society of people could do without restraint, and they established the nation’s government system in which decency in humans was not required for it to be successful. America’s Founding Fathers made such an excellent analysis of human nature that they were able to create a system of government which would stand the long test of time.
Hofstadter, Richard. The American Political Tradition. New York: Vintage, 1989.