The prescient wisdom of Robert E. Lee

General Lee - portrait photograph

“I yet believe that the maintenance of the rights and authority reserved to the states and to the people, is not only essential to the adjustment and balance of the general system, but the safeguard to the continuance of a free government. I consider it as the chief source of stability to our political system, whereas the consolidation of the states into one vast republic, sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home, will be the certain precursor of that ruin which has overwhelmed all those that have preceded it.”

~ Robert E. Lee in correspondence with Lord Acton

As “Marse Robert” accurately perceived, our Founders carefully set up a detailed and intricate system of “checks and balances” to preserve our Constitutional liberties, and our status as not a pure democracy, but a representative Republic.

And that included not only a balance of power between and among the three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial), but between the Federal government and the States. Indeed, it it worth noting that the Preamble to the Constitution speaks of the establishment of a Constitution “for these United States.” Note that: “for these” States, as distinct, sovereign entities, not “for the” single entity called “the United States.” That is not accidental, or an infelicitous choice of words!

Unfortunately, since our Founding, the corruption that comes with the desire for power has been leading the Federal government to constantly accrue powers to itself, against the clear directive of the Constitution: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people” (the Tenth Amendment).

President Lincoln’s determination to preserve the Union even at the cost of the Constitution – against which Lee, at the head of the Army of Northern Virginia, so ably but ultimately unsuccessfully contended – was a body-blow to the Founders’ intentions, and the pace of Federal usurpation has been accelerating ever since. For many of us, “aggressive abroad and despotic at home” is not too strong an expression of the unfortunate result.