This is actually the very first Bosque Boys post, which appeared on March 9, 2006; it also appeared in the Waco Tribune, March 3, 2006.

Benjamin Franklin purportedly cautioned: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Although the provenance of that statement is not without questions, the quote accurately reflected the spirit of the Imperial Crisis and the American Revolution. When Franklin and his compatriots finally “pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor” to a War for Independence, they perceived themselves fighting to maintain their rights against a renegade government illegitimately accumulating power and threatening liberty.

Once liberty was defended and independence won, however, Americans found governing more problematic than many of the revolutionary slogans had implied. Motivated by the conviction that “power was the enemy of liberty, but too much liberty was also the enemy of liberty,” the convention in Philadelphia in 1787 yielded the Constitution, which created a more centralized government and traded some liberty for stability.

The framers created a federal system in which the national government shared sovereignty with the states, at the same time asserting the supremacy of the new consolidated government. Although the Constitution backed away from the rhetoric of 1776, the framers showed respect for their revolutionary experience and bowed to their political reality. They placed limits on the new government, and they divided power into three branches, charging each component with oversight of the other two in order to provide “proper checks and balances.”

The framers would be struck by the current form of their handiwork as it has evolved over the course of two centuries. Notwithstanding, the problem that they identified as the central dilemma of Republican government, the tension between power and liberty, has remained constant in American history. And the antidote that they prescribed, competing sources of power, “counteracting ambition with ambition,” creating institutional interests and pitting them against rival interests, has served remarkably well to protect liberty from power over time.

The ancient problem and the eighteenth-century curative speak to an important current question: how much power shall we allow the President to exercise in exchange for security in a hostile world? How much power is too much? When does the power of the presidency pose an unacceptable threat to our liberty? These questions are not unprecedented. Much of our present dilemma is systemic and historical. There is no place on Mount Rushmore for presidents who remained satisfied with the scope of their power. Generally, presidents attempt to enlarge the power of the presidency; it is an institutional instinct.

Having said that, no practiced student of American history would trust ruling presidents to determine wisely the limits of their own power. That role falls to the other branches. In addition to those provided in the founding document, extraconstitutional interests have emerged in contemporary America as powerful players in the oversight of presidential authority. These agents include the opposition party in our two-party system, the free press and the giant federal bureaucracy, all of whom have contributed to the current examination of presidential power. As a result of this healthy debate, the legislative and judicial branches, which remain potent and jealous interests, ultimately and rightly, will determine the extent of presidential authority in this latest chapter concerning power and liberty.

Of course, all of these institutions serve merely as surrogates for the people. The power undergirding all these branches (constitutional and otherwise) is rooted in popular sovereignty. Benjamin Franklin, commenting at the close of the Constitutional Convention, optimistically predicted that a well-administered Republican government could last indefinitely. But the pragmatic Franklin also worried that self rule could easily “end in despotism…when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.” The gravest threat to liberty comes when the people abdicate their crucial role in the process. May an enlightened debate with regard to the balance between liberty and power continue to flourish.