Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

Women of Washington is an educational organization with a focus on understanding local, national, and global issues that are critical to our world today.


Judy Leithe, Contributing Editor 

A Government of Laws, Not of Men - Part I
by Ann Streit 

"If men were angels, no government would be necessary.  If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.  In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself."      James Madison, Federalist #51. 

Foremost in the thoughts of the Founding Fathers, as they gathered in Philadelphia, was how to provide a framework that would be strong enough to unite thirteen disparate colonies but limited enough to protect the rights of the people. 

Well-versed in the classics, the Founders were familiar with the writings of Polybius.  One of the greatest Greek historians, he was deported to Rome when Greece was conquered.  Through the writings of Polybius, the Founders recognized the strength and weaknesses of each of the primary forms of government: 
  •  A monarchy had the power to direct government, but could become tyrannical;
  • An aristocracy had the money and resources to build a powerful society, but could sink into an oligarchy;
  • democracy represented the masses but could turn into mob rule.
 Polybius hoped to see a synthesis of the three systems but soon after his death, Rome abandoned its principles as a republic, and embraced an emperor. 

Not until the 18th century, was the idea of separation of powers resurrected by Charles de Montesquieu.  Not a man to dabble in pseudo-intellectualism, Montesquieu spent 20 years doing painstaking research and devoted two solid years of uninterrupted work to write The Spirit of the Laws, considered one of the most important books ever written. 

It was Montesquieu who envisioned a system of government which encompassed three independent branches: Executive, Legislative and Judiciary.  As the predecessor of the Constitution, The Articles of Confederation had omitted both the executive and the judiciary and, as such, provided no enforcement mechanism for laws passed by the legislature nor a judiciary to check the overreach of the legislature. 

We have John Adams to thank for advancing these principles.  He succeeded, nearly single-handedly, in getting his state to adopt a constitution based on separation of powers.  For the first time in history, a constitution read: "In the government of the Commonwealth ofMassachusetts, the legislative, executive and judicial powers shall be placed in separate departments, to the end that it might be a government of laws and not of men..." 

The Founders purposely wrote a constitution that was designed, not to restrain the freedom of the people, but instead to divide power in order to restrain the actions of government. 

"It is hardly too strong to say that the Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intentions...There are men, in all ages...who mean to govern well; but they mean to govern.  They promise to be kind masters; but they mean to be masters."      - Daniel Webster

  Next week: "A Republic, if we can keep it."