Checks and Balances Against Tyranny

Steve Farrell
Thursday, December 04, 2003

“History has informed us,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, “that bodies of men as well as of individuals, are susceptible of the spirit of tyranny.” (1)

An interesting peer into human nature. A principle we ignore at our peril.

Jefferson was restating the obvious but often-forgotten maxims that:

    * Men are not angels.
    * Power corrupts.
    * Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

But a fourth maxim was aimed at as well. Jefferson taught that not only monarchies, but also aristocracies and democracies, are susceptible to tyranny.

Didn´t he say, “bodies of men as well as individuals, are susceptible to the spirit of tyranny”?

Or did we miss that?

Representative government, Jefferson knew, still filled the Capitol with something less than a flock of saints, something more like a collection of men who, no matter how pure their motives at first, will be tempted to exercise unrighteous dominion at last.

Thus, the democratic form, in and of itself, is no security against tyranny.

“One hundred and seventy-three despots would surely be as oppressive as one. ... As little will it avail us that they are chosen by ourselves. An elective despotism was not the government we fought for,” he wrote. (2)

He was referring to the tyranny of the majority.

“The concentrating [of the legislative, executive and judicial powers] in the same hands is precisely the definition of despotic government. It will be no alleviation that these powers will be exercised by a plurality of hands, and not by a single one.” (3)

It is not good enough to say we are free, not good enough to merely have government by consent. The people need to understand “the principles of free government,” and a successful experiment in government by consent will abide by those principles. Near the top of the list is this principle:

“The powers of government should be so divided and balanced among several bodies of magistracy, as that no one could transcend their legal limits, without being effectually checked and restrained by the others.” (4)

Our Constitution embodies this principle. Separate are legislative, executive and judicial powers. Separate are the two branches of the legislature as well – each power, each branch, possessing checks and balances upon neighboring powers and branches.

Further, there is the federal principle, wherein all the powers not delegated specifically to the national government belong to the states or the people. (5)

The Bill of Rights provides yet another check, while the constitutional mandate that the states guarantee a republican form of government to their people (6) helps insure that government on the state level is similarly checked and balanced, and that city and county governments play a vital role in all this checking and balancing.

Nevertheless, this marvelous system in place, we return to Jefferson´s warning that bodies of men are susceptible to the spirit of tyranny, even under so perfect a form of government as ours. Two centuries since our founding, we find violations of this vital principle everywhere.

The Supreme Court has usurped the power to legislate. The executive branch has a host of regulatory agencies that legislate, execute and judge the law. The states have nearly lost all their rights. And the federal government has incrementally abandoned powers, delegated to it by the people, to unelected, unaccountable, un-American international bodies that have no such check-and-balance system in place.

If this is true – and it is true – shouldn´t we be alarmed?

Have men become angels, or doesn´t power still corrupt? Are we no longer in need of checks and balances, or is tyranny at our doorstep?

I think we know the answer. The question is what are we going to do about it?

Steve Farrell is associate professor of political economy at George Wythe University, and the author of “Dark Rose,” an inspirational read about faith and family. Get your autographed and discounted copy for the holidays now.


1. Bergh, Albert Ellery, ed. “Writings of Thomas Jefferson,” Volume I, p. 190.
2. Ibid, Volume II, pp. 162-163.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. U.S. Constitution, Amendments 9, 10.
6. Ibid., Article 4, Section 4.