The American Founders foresaw the problem of abuse of power and the rise of a president who would cut the shackles of the Constitution, though they more feared sectionalism and an evil combination of the branches of government.
The abuse of power arose with a president who fomented war upon a State, which is treason under the Constitution, raised an army without the consent of Congress, and threatened to arrest and imprison all who defied him. With the formerly federal government afterward under absolute executive and congressional control, the schools educating young citizens on their fealty to national power.
James Louis Petrigu (1789-1863) was a South Carolina Unionist and served as that State’s attorney-general. His stated faith in education as the bulwark of a republic was unfortunately upset by government control of the schools.
“Who Shall Restrain the Will of the People?”
“As Petigru understood it, the United States Constitution confirmed what the Revolution had aimed to achieve. Reversing the Confederation’s dispersal of power was but a minor part of its accomplishment, for it had by its division of legitimate governmental power between the individual States and the federal union ensured the Revolution’s goals of restricting centralized public authority in the interests of individual liberty.
But individual freedom, as Petigru said in his 1844 Fourth of July oration, required positive government as well as restraints on legitimate power. This too the Constitution had accomplished with its system of checks and balances. Without both the powers allotted and the restraints imposed, “there would be no barrier between a dominant majority and the object they mean to effect.”
Thus, by creating a constitutional union that divided sovereignty between State and nation and checked the evil of concentrated power in any one branch of government, the American people had fulfilled the promise of their revolution.
But the problem of abuse of power was not obviated by the broadly democratic underpinning of the American experiment. Nowhere did Petigru more clearly address that dilemma than in the question he asked that Independence Day audience: “For who shall control where all are equal, or how shall the people restrain the will of the people?”
The best means to control the popular passions implied in his question was education. If a republic was to survive, he thought, its government must provide the schools necessary to cultivate in all its citizens the intellectual independence that was “the bright side of Democracy.”
Without access to knowledge, citizens would lack the ability to challenge their government, and individuals the means to protect their freedom . . . [and] withstand the force of majority opinion. And given Petigru’s opinion that “the Majority are wicked is a truth that passed long ago into a proverb,” republican government could not long survive unless it sponsored that learning, for “what hope is there for the human race when there is no minority?”
(James Louis Petigru: Southern Conservative, Southern Dissenter, William & Jane Pease, University of Georgia Press, 1995, excerpts pp. 149-150)