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Could America’s Founders Have Imagined This?

Not according to Nancy Pelosi. But don't be so sure.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday invoked the nation’s birth in defending her decision to delay sending impeachment articles to the Senate. “Our Founders, when they wrote the Constitution, they suspected that there could be a rogue president,” she said. “I don’t think they suspected that we could have a rogue president and a rogue leader in the Senate at the same time.”

The accuracy of that observation depends on how one defines “the Founders.” The Anti-Federalist opponents of the Constitution certainly predicted that the new Constitution would encourage the sort of corrupt behavior of which President Trump is guilty. But the Anti-Federalists were the losers, not the winners, in the struggle over the Constitution. The Federalist victors likely would have agreed with Pelosi.

The Federalist framers of the Constitution understood that it was vital to endow the new government they created with broad powers, but they recognized that this grant itself posed great danger. It was for precisely this reason that the Constitution was built on a system of check and balances. By creating coequal branches of government, the Framers hoped that “ambition would be made to counter-act ambition.”

These words, quoted by Pelosi’s colleague Congressmen Adam Schiff, point to the Founding generation’s Enlightenment faith in the human capacity for rational self-interest. Each of the three coequal parts of our government, the Founders believed, would seek to preserve its powers and authority, and the new Constitution thus would offer a means of checking the designs of demagogues and the sycophants and rogues who followed their lead.

The Founders were not naïve; they expected politics to be contentious. Alexander Hamilton, hardly the most optimistic figure in the Founding generation, captured the minimal requirements for the nation to preserve its Constitution and freedom when he reminded Americans there was “a portion of virtue and honor among mankind, which may be a reasonable foundation of confidence.” Too much faith in humanity, Hamilton recognized, leads to anarchy; too little, to tyranny. In Hamilton’s view, “This supposition of universal venality in human nature is little less an error in political reasoning, than the supposition of universal rectitude.” In other words, the Founders didn’t believe in extraordinary virtue as a foundation for government, but they did put faith in reason and rational self-interest.

The one problem with the Founders’ vision is that they never anticipated the type of hyperpartisanship we see today. Recent statements from leading Republican senators were therefore particularly ominous. “I’m not an impartial juror,” said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “I have clearly made up my mind,” said Lindsey Graham. The notion that senators would abdicate their responsibility to check the presidency—indeed, even directly coordinate their efforts with an impeached president—would have shocked the Founding generation to its core. Who could have expected that a branch of government would willingly disempower itself?

History will not judge these senators well. The Founders looked to the history of Rome for lessons because they realized they were building a republic that would last for the ages. The Constitution they crafted was designed to endure beyond the next election cycle. Senators of both parties must think likewise—not only about how their actions will be portrayed in history books, but how their actions will preserve the republic that their predecessors so carefully—if imperfectly—created. This is the first step in reclaiming the legacy bequeathed to us by the Founders. The failure to do so will prove that the dire predictions of their Anti-Federalist opponents have come to pass.