Oct 112013

What IS Right With America? The Great Chain Created by Our Founders

Amazing! That is the only word for the chain that is featured in the attached image. These links, weighing more than 100 pounds each and measuring two feet in length, were forged by the Long Pond Iron Works and then chained together over a six week period at the Stirling Iron Works. The fact that such a chain could be constructed in 1778 is remarkable in and of itself. However, it is what was done with the chain that is astonishing. 

During the Revolutionary War, strategists for the Continental Army knew that the British forces would be crippled if supply ships could not pass along the Hudson River. Colonists sunk logs between New Jersey’s Fort Lee and New York’s Fort Washington to make the waterway impassable. However, the British learned of a safe passage route intended for Colonial ships, and the plan failed. Another attempt was made by placing a chain across the river near Fort Montgomery. However, the chain broke when pressured by the raging tidal currents of the mighty Hudson. A similar project began construction near Plum Point, but was never completed. Yet, the relentless efforts of those seeking liberty would not allow such a simple but brilliant plan to fail. Their efforts culminated in the Great Chain. The chain was strung across the Hudson from Constitution Island to West Point. Although Benedict Arnold sent word to the British that a “well loaded” ship could break the Chain, it was never challenged by the British Fleet. It remained in use for several years and was removed from the water only during winter.

The Great Chain across the Hudson was not the only protective barrier created by our Founding Fathers. In the Constitution, they created a separation of powers that, in effect, places a sturdy chain barrier between the branches of our federal government. As dysfunctional as the current interactions between the President and the Congress may appear, it is actually the doctrine of Separation of Powers in action. Neither of the Branches can unilaterally dictate how to resolve the matter. The two Branches are being forced to work together, or nothing will take place at all. 

Those who desire an Executive who can dictate legislation and funding decisions to the Congress often cite the work of Thomas Hobbs. Hobbs, a contemporary of John Locke, argued for the presence of a strong central government. Those who cite Hobbs often opine that a powerful Executive could demand Congress create laws and fund programs. Consequently, the government would be less conflictual and run smoothly. Of course, Hobbs also believed that society functions smoothly when the people are controlled by fear and power is unilaterally held by the sovereign. While Locke believed that government functioned with the consent of the people, Hobbs envisioned a government, which he called a Leviathan, that included a sovereign who ruled with an iron clad fist over his subjects. Rather than functioning by the Rule of Law, as Locke espoused, laws could be based upon the sovereign’s momentary whims. Hobbs believed that fear, as opposed to consent, creates a functional society, and all things including the life of an individual and his property are controlled by the state and ultimately by the despotic sovereign. 

It is clear that many of the Founders, despite differing views on the optimal size and strength of the central government, firmly believed in need for the separation of powers between the Branches. Here are just a few of the opinions that I found: 

James Madison in Federalist 47: “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, selfappointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny. Were the federal Constitution, therefore, really chargeable with the accumulation of power, or with a mixture of powers, having a dangerous tendency to such an accumulation, no further arguments would be necessary to inspire a universal reprobation of the system. I persuade myself, however, that it will be made apparent to every one, that the charge cannot be supported, and that the maxim on which it relies has been totally misconceived and misapplied. In order to form correct ideas on this important subject, it will be proper to investigate the sense in which the preservation of liberty requires that the three great departments of power should be separate and distinct.” In Federalist 58, Madison stated: “An elective despotism was not the government we fought for; but one in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among the several bodies of magistracy as that no one could transcend their legal limits without being effectually checked and restrained by the others.”

Thomas Jefferson wrote, in his “Notes on Virginia:” “The concentrating [all the powers of government, legislative, executive and judiciary] 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.” 

Section 5 of Virginia Declaration of Rights, primarily authored by George Mason, stated: “That the legislative and executive powers of the state should be separate and distinct from the judiciary; and that the members of the two first may be restrained from oppression, by feeling and participating the burdens of the people, they should, at fixed periods, be reduced to a private station, return into that body from which they were originally taken, and the vacancies be supplied by frequent, certain, and regular elections, in which all, or any part, of the former members, to be again eligible, or ineligible, as the laws shall direct.”

In his letter entitled: “Thoughts on Government,” John Adams wrote: “A question arises, whether all the powers of government, legislative, executive, and judicial, shall be left in this body? I think a people cannot be long free, nor ever happy, whose government is in one Assembly…. The dignity and stability of government in all its branches, the morals of the people, and every blessing of society depend so much upon an upright and skillful administration of justice, that the judicial power ought to be distinct from both the legislative and executive, and independent upon both, that so it may be a check upon both, as both should be checks upon that.”
In 1776, Thomas Paine wrote in “Four Letters on Interesting Sujects:” “No country can be called free which is governed by an absolute power; and it matters not whether it be an absolute royal power or an absolute legislative power, as the consequences will be the same to the people.”

George Washington commented upon the wisdom of the Separation of Powers in his Farewell Address: “It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism. A just estimate of that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart, is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position. The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositaries, and constituting each the guardian of the public weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern; some of them in our country and under our own eyes. To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them. If, in the opinion of the people, the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed. The precedent must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil any partial or transient benefit, which the use can at any time yield.”

Like the Great Chain on the Hudson, the Constitution our Founders wrote creates a separation of powers within our federal government specifically intended to prevent any of the Branches from tyrannically controlling the other Branches or the People. Please take a moment to consider the wisdom of a system in which the Branches of government must work together, or nothing can be done at all. 

Susan C. Rempel, Ph.D.
Read John Adams’ “Thoughts on Government” here:http://www.bingoforpatriots.com/american-history/founding-fathers/presidents-during-the-founding-period/john-adams/thoughts-on-government-2/
Read George Washington’s Farewell Address here:http://www.bingoforpatriots.com/american-history/founding-fathers/presidents-during-the-founding-period/george-washington/george-washingtons-farewell-address-2/


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