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Angels to Govern Us

"If men were angels," James Madison wrote, "no government would be necessary." Or, "if angels were to govern men, no controls on government would be necessary." Madison believed that men are about as good as they can ever be, and since no angels are available to rule, we need checks and balances.

Thomas Jefferson added the idea that "man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him?" The Supreme Court claims the ultimate say in the American legal system through the doctrine of judicial review, which allows the Court to nullify any state or federal law it considers inconsistent with the Constitution. Jefferson believed judicial review to be a dangerous assumption of power by the Court that "would place us under the despotism of an oligarchy." To Jefferson, rule by a Supreme Court is no better than rule by an English King. Maybe worse, since nobody even suggests that the Court rules by divine guidance.

For this reason and others, Jefferson and the Founders insisted on a written constitution. They believed this was the only safe way to institutionalize majority rule and to protect the people's liberties. The English constitution was unwritten, and Americans thought they suffered greatly under it. Their overriding fear was of a despotic central government—like...

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