A Great Experiment: Balancing State Sovereignty and Human Liberty

by Derrick G. Jeter

Sitting at his executives desk in New York City, on January 9, 1790, president George Washington penned a letter to the famed British historian, Catherine Macaulay Graham. He told her that “the establishment of our new Government seemed to be the last great experiment for promoting human happiness.” [1] What Washington meant, of course, was the experiment in constitutional self-government. Could it stand the triple threat that seemed to undo all previous republics: the external pressures of other powers, and the two internal pressures of corruption and time? “The American experiment was designed to counteract all three,” in the opinion of Os Guinness. “[T]he ingenious American system of checks and balances is . . . half of the framer’s solution.” [2]
Almost seventy-five years later, president Abraham Lincoln stood on the battlefield of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and said, “we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived [in liberty] and so dedicated [to the proposition that all men are created equal], can long endure.” [3]
Some argue that the experiment in self-government failed in the 1860s; others argue that it succeeded. Regardless of the various scholarly opinions of the civil war and Abraham Lincoln, this one thing is true: every generation must test the experiment of self-government to see if it does promote human happiness. And our generation is no different.
But Americans have short memories. We don’t know our history. As time marched through the centuries, we’ve forgotten the other half of the founders’ solution—the Liberty Triangle. Think of our republic as a stool, supported by three equal legs: liberty, religion, and virtue. Our founding fathers believed in these three fundamental principles: no republic without liberty, no liberty without virtue, no virtue without religion. And if history has taught us anything about religion and morality, and its effect on liberty, it is this: when citizens abandon God, private virtue fails; when private virtue fails, public virtue fails; and with the lessening of public virtue more laws are required to govern a people no longer capable of governing themselves.
Cultural observer, Michael Novak put it this way: “A society of Americans which exalts virtue has [300] million policemen. A society that mocks virtue can’t hire enough.” [4] The result is loss of liberty.
The primary purpose of government is to promote, protect, and preserve the people’s liberty. It accomplishes this goal by accomplishing five purposes: 1) government should provide social order; 2) government should preserve human dignity; 3) government should punish evil and praise goodness; 4) government should promote justice; and 5) government should protect peace.
Along with those divine purposes, government also is has a divine ordination and a divine appointment. That is to say, God grated the state sovereignty. But this leads to a provocative question.
Sovereign over what? In what realms are we to govern ourselves, so we might be free? And in what realms is the state to govern, to protect and preserve our freedom—or in the words of Washington, to “promote human happiness”? In other words, where does our sovereignty end and the state’s begin? Is the state’s sovereignty limited? Should it be? And if so, how do we determine what limits are appropriate?
When Franklin D. Roosevelt was reelected to the presidency in 1936, in the midst of economic depression, he made a startling admission during his inaugural address—but one easily missed if you’re not listening closely.
Nearly all of us recognize that as intricacies of human relationships increase, so power to govern them also must increase—power to stop evil; power to do good. The essential democracy of our nation and the safety of our people depend not upon the absence of power, but upon lodging it with those whom the people can change or continue at stated intervals through an honest and free system of elections. . . . In these last four years, we have made the exercise of all power more democratic; for we have begun to bring private autocratic powers into their proper subordination to the public’s government. . . . We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics. Out of the collapse of a prosperity whose builders boasted their practicality has come the conviction that in the long run economic morality pays. We are beginning to wipe out the line that divides the practical from the ideal; and in so doing we are fashioning an instrument of unimagined power for the establishment of a morally better world. [5]
Roosevelt set forth a utopian vision—a wonderland of no place. Roosevelt saw no limits on state sovereignty. He made it clear, as human relationships become more complex—as business becomes more complex and global—so the government’s power over business must grow. Oh, the government’s motivation is righteous, as it seeks to fulfill one of its divine purposes, “to stop evil [and] to do good.” But is that the government’s responsibility, to grow more powerful to ensure that human interactions are for the good? And for who’s good? For Roosevelt it was for the government’s good, to “wipe out the line” dividing “the practical from the ideal” so that Roosevelt and the federal government might fashion “an instrument of unimagined power for the establishment of a morally better world.”
In the mid- and late 1930s the average American citizen was willing to accept any action over inaction, even if that action proved wrongheaded and increased the power of the federal government. This attitude prompted humorist Will Rogers to quip that if Franklin Roosevelt had “burned down the capital, we would cheer and say, ‘Well at least we got a fire started, anyhow.’”
Historically closer to our own time, we also get an admission of unlimited state sovereignty from U.S. Representative Fortney “Pete” Stark of California. At a townhall with the Congressman, in Hayward, California on July 24, 2010, a woman asked him if the Federal Government could make healthcare a right by simply voting, and then compel others to pay for another’s healthcare. If so, then can the Federal Government “do anything” it wishes? “The Federal Government,” Representative Stark said, “can do almost anything in this country.”
If the Federal Government can do almost anything then it can become a tyrant—and the worse kind of tyrant. It wields the sword of justice to punish evil doers, as Romans 13:4 makes clear—“[the government] does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil.” But what if it perverts justice and wields the sword against doers of good? Or perhaps worse, it sincerely believes that it is wielding the sword justly against evil but in fact unjustly strikes down the good? Good intentions are no guarantee against bad consequences. We often see this when the state assumes sovereignty over . . .
  1. The family and questions of marriage, birth (abortion) raising children, and even how and when you die.
  2. The church and questions of tax exemption and free speech.
  3. Our work and issues about the number of hours you can work, the number of paid leave days you can take, various regulations, paper work to start a business, or who you can do business with.
  4. Personal property and questions about the amount of money you can make, what and how you invest your money, what you can do with and on your real estate, and how you dispose of your inheritance.
  5. Education and questions about mandatory schooling, determining your child’s future by determining societal needs in the future, curriculum, what they can and can’t eat at school, and what they can and can’t say at school.
As we wrestle with this question concerning the limits of state sovereignty it’s important to keep this timeless truth at the forefront of our minds: the state is divinely ordained and appointed, with a divine purpose, but the state, itself, isn’t divine.
[1] George Washington to Catherine Macaulay Graham, January 9, 1790, as quoted in John Rhodehamel, The Great Experiment: George Washington and the American Republic (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998), 1.
[2] Os Guinness, Unspeakable: Facing Up to Evil in an Age of Genocide and Terror (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), 101.
[3] Abraham Lincoln, “Address Delivered at the Dedication of the Cemetery at Gettysburg,” in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 17.
[4] Michael Novak, quoted in Chuck Colson, “Personal Character: Does it Matter for a Civil Society?” http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/charleswcolsongeneva.htm (accessed October 2, 2008).