Sara's Column: Checks and balances enable 'Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness'

Just over 237 years ago, 56 men declared to the world things were about to change.
Jul 3, 2013

Just over 237 years ago, 56 men declared to the world things were about to change.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.

The move was bold.

Any one – and most likely all – of these 56 men faced execution as traitors to the British Crown had the Revolutionary War turned out differently. 

But they took that risk because they believed strongly enough in the words written by Jefferson and because it was the will of the majority of people they were selected to represent.

But not all the people.

Many colonists were quite happy to remain subjects to the Crown.

The Declaration’s extensive list of grievances against the British king either didn’t apply to or didn’t bother them.

But they were in the minority.

Since the United States’ beginning, one of its defining characteristics has been the consent to authority by majority vote.

Had the minority been appeased 237 years ago, we’d likely be singing “God Save the Queen” right now.

But as history has shown, sometimes the opinion of the majority is not necessarily the best.

Political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville warned of the “tyranny of the majority,” but he also said certain measures could help alleviate the risk of that.

“[If] a legislative power could be so constituted as to represent the majority without necessarily being the slave of its passions, an executive so as to retain a proper share of authority, and a judiciary so as to remain independent of the other two powers, a government would be formed which would still be democratic while incurring scarcely any risk of tyranny,” wrote de Tocqueville.

Sounds remarkably familiar, doesn’t it?

Sometimes the voices of the minority get drowned out by the clamor of the majority.

Sometimes the clamor of the majority seems to fall on deaf ears.

If there’s one overarching principle in our government, though, it’s the principle of checks and balances.

If one aspect fails, other controls function as safety nets to keep the system afloat.

Our government is by no means perfect.

Mechanisms break down.

But the nation’s founders were wise enough to expect that and prepare for it. They left room for the government to grow and change as needs required, while leaving the fundamental principles of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness intact.


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