Do you largely agree with these assertions about our natures?
“Give all power to the many, they will oppress the few. Give all power to the few, they will oppress the many.” – Alexander Hamilton.
“There are two passions which have a powerful influence on the affairs of men. These are ambition and avarice [greed]; the love of power and the love of money.” – Benjamin Franklin.
“From the nature of man, we may be sure that those who have power in their hands will always, when they can…increase it.” George Mason
These comments from the framers of the Constitution represent a rather negative but realistic view of human nature. Because of these attitudes, the framers worked very hard to create what 18th century French philosopher Baron de Montesquieu defined as separation of powers. Montesquieu recommended dividing governmental power into three branches: legislative, executive and judicial, so that no person or group could lord it over others.
Montesquieu deeply influenced the thinking of James Madison, who is considered the father of the U.S. Constitution.
American government, as created in the Constitution and as contrasted with other democracies like the British Parliament, is much more concerned with avoiding abuse described in the quotes above. Concern about the evil potential of humans is woven into our Constitution’s DNA.
Thomas Jefferson, the chief author of the Declaration of Independence, tended to be more optimistic about human nature in that he adhered more closely to the thinking of British philosopher, John Locke. Locke wrote his belief that all men are created equal. They are endowed through natural law with the natural rights of life, liberty and property. Locke believed that humans tend to be reasonable and good. It was environment that shaped a prince’s worldview opposed to that of a pauper who grew up in poverty and want. This was revolutionary thinking at that time.
But as you can see, Jefferson’s views differed from Hamilton, Franklin, Mason, and Madison. Jefferson did not attend the constitutional convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. He was living in Paris serving as the U.S. ambassador there and had no input into the writing of the Constitution.
These two philosophies about human nature, one found in the Declaration of Independence, the other in the Constitution have clashed ever since, although most Americans are oblivious to the contrasting perspectives in our two foundational government documents.
Hamilton took the lead of those deeply suspicious of the common people. He favored the wealthy and successful, especially people who had earned their wealth through trade, commerce and manufacturing. These people became prosperous through hard work and self-discipline. They learned how to control their selfish natures.
Jefferson, on the other hand, believed that the ownership of property affected the way people dealt with responsibility. Owning property tends to make people more responsible. That’s one major reason why Jefferson pushed so hard to purchase the Louisiana Territory from the French after he became president in 1801. It would create a nation of farmers, who, through land ownership, would become the bedrock core of American greatness.
Interestingly, though, those farmers living today in what was the Louisiana Purchase have followed more of the thinking of Hamilton, Franklin, Mason and Madison as modern-day Republicans who are deeply suspicious of human nature, especially if they are immigrants and largely landless and uneducated.
Ironically, those who have followed Jefferson’s more optimistic view of human nature now live predominantly along the coasts in urbanized areas, where few own much or any land. These are the 21st century Democrats who are sympathetic and solicitous of those whose bad environments and poverty have brought them to the United States.
Is human nature basically selfish, self-centered and self-seeking as the framers of the Constitution believed, or is human nature potentially good, given the right environment and education as Jefferson advocated? Your answer to this question reflects your political preferences and your political party today.