The challenge of self-government


Over the course of the famously hot summer of 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention hammered out a blueprint for American government: the Constitution of the United States.

The challenges these men faced were formidable. Many delegates were leery of handing over great power to a national government, preferring instead for states to retain final authority over their own affairs. There were sharp disagreements over innumerable issues. Through these difficulties, our founders persevered.

In designing the Constitution, our founders drew upon the ideas of great thinkers such as Locke, Montesquieu and others. They sought to create a government that would be powerful, yet restrained, strong enough to foster peace, prosperity and the "general Welfare," yet responsive to the wishes of the people and respectful of their liberties. The ideas of men such as Locke and Montesquieu gave our founders hope that this task could be accomplished. For Alexander Hamilton, "wholly new discoveries" in the "science of politics" - ideas such as "balances and checks" between the branches of government - meant that the American founders could do things that previous generations might have thought impossible.

But even with their faith in the "science of politics," our founders knew that they were not designing a machine that would run of itself. The structure they created was important, but they knew that our republic depended for its success on what Hamilton called "the portion of virtue and honor" to be found among the American people. Even the best-designed government depends, in the end, on the virtue of its citizens.

In this sense, our founders issued us a challenge: the challenge of self-government. They gave us a plan - a great plan - and they told us in no uncertain terms that we would have to live up to it. For James Madison, "Republican government" - the kind of government where, to quote a great Western movie, "the people are the boss" - depends more than any other form of government on the qualities in human nature that "justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence." In other words, we'd better be the best citizens we can be.

Damien K. Picariello is assistant professor of political science at USC Sumter. USC Sumter will be celebrating Constitution Day with a talk by Congressman James E. Clyburn on Tuesday at 7 p.m., in the Arts and Letters Lecture Hall on the USC Sumter campus. The event is free and open to the public.