The French Lesson
Checks and balances-federalism-safeguards our liberties and illuminates hope to the world.
When our democratic, constitutional republic was launched in 1789 with sovereignty held by the People, it was an audacious, bold step in the evolution of governmental forms. Attempts at self-government by a people had not been attempted before on such a broad scale, and the more limited attempts that were tried in the past did not survive. Because it was an untested form and its success was far from assured, it became known as the “American Experiment."
Our revolution for independence likely inspired the French people to also rise up and take down their monarchy in a revolution in 1789, and the sharply divergent experiences of the American and French people in the years that followed offer us important lessons: The American system has survived for 230 years, allowing its people to prosper and continue to build a society that is characterized by personal freedom supported by moral values, while the French experiment, in contrast, ended quickly in chaotic, murderous mob rule that suffocated all attempts at rational discourse. The French monarchy was reinstated and it took many decades of turmoil before a democracy finally emerged in France.
As we contemplate our future, we should not lose sight of the French tragedy. Why did our democracy succeed while the contemporaneous French effort failed? We suggest that three salient features of the American system made the difference:
Adoption of the rule of law that governs the behavior of all citizens, without exception
The adoption of a written Constitution as the foundation of this law
The distribution of power among states and the three branches of the central (federal) government – executive, legislative, and judicial
Inherent in any democracy is the threat that demagogues will appear that will encourage mob rule to replace the rule of law and usher in a despotic autocracy. Our distribution of power has been a bulwark against this existential threat, protecting our freedoms. But this distribution was not accidental: the founders debated ways to block the threat of mob rule (sometimes referred to as “the tyranny of the majority”), and their solution was to create multiple centers of power, with each acting as a check on the others. This produced a balance of power in a structure that we refer to as “federalism.”
The basic design of our system has proven to be a brilliant solution for a sustainable democracy and the “checks and balances” designed by the founders have worked well for us.
These reforms should not be viewed with suspicion or alarm; we should celebrate the process as reaffirmation of the founders’ faith in us. We must demonstrate that we, as a people, are capable of effective and efficient self-government that preserves our personal freedoms in a just society on a sustained basis. The founders saw that adjustments would likely be needed in the future, and added Article V to the Constitution to provide a clear path to effect the needed reforms.
If we summon the political will to do so, we have the power to transform the dysfunctional mess in Washington into an effective government that honors the sovereignty of the people. We can ensure the transparency of government operations and the accountability of federal officials; we must accept nothing less. If we take these steps, the American Experiment will endure and will once again be the beacon of hope for people around the world.