The origins of American ideas of freedom go back to at least 1215 AD. In that year a group of English nobles forced King John to renounce the concept of the “Divine Right of Kings,” a doctrine under which medieval kings claimed the right to do literally anything they pleased, under the belief that their absolute power was bestowed upon them directly by God.
If recent events are a guide, most Americans don’t understand what a pernicious doctrine this was. If we understood the dangers of the Divine Rights doctrine we would react more strongly when our current President shows similar tendencies.
Absolute power is obviously useful in many ways. One trick that medieval rulers used to balance their books was to borrow money from bankers or businessmen, and then simply refuse to re-pay the debt, issuing a royal decree denouncing the debt as being contrary to the will of God.
Over centuries following King John’s reluctant acceptance of the Magna Carta, the Divine Right of Kings doctrine continued to be controversial, and monarchs were not the only people who defended it. Non-royal philosophers like Sir Robert Filmer were able to earn royal approval defending the concept.
Filmer’s Patriarcha, published in 1680, was a leading example of Divine Rights polemics. Sir Robert’s book actually played an important role in the foundation of our own nation, in that it prompted another seventeenth century philosopher to write a rebuttal that laid the ideological groundwork for the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, written to refute Flimer’s book, provided most of the ideals that informed America’s Founding Fathers as they were building what they hoped would be a free and just nation.
From Locke the Founders got the idea that God grants inalienable rights to all men, not just to kings. Central to this philosophy was the idea that no one man can be above the law. “The very definition of a republic, said John Adams, is ‘an empire of laws, not of men’.”
In their eagerness to protect the new republic from anything smacking of monarchy, the Founders built a carefully crafted balance-of-power structure into the Constitution. In addition to the power sharing requirements, Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution specifically forbade bills of attainder and ex-post-facto laws. (An ex-post-facto law is a law that governs behavior that took place before the law was written, e.g. a king renouncing the agreement under which he owes money to a lender.)
Unfortunately, left-leaning political power brokers have been known to reject John Adams’ definition of a republic, and put their own wishes above the sanctity of law.
In the 1930’s for example, President Franklin Roosevelt unilaterally renounced at least part of the government’s debt when he announced that the government would not honor the gold clause in the gold clause bonds that it had been selling to investors. There was no legal way to do this; a contract is a contract. Roosevelt simply declared that the government was going to change the contracts ex-post-facto. (Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man, page 158 et al)
President Obama showed similar contempt for the terms of legal contracts when he renounced the terms of the secured bonds that GM and Chrysler had issued to investors before the government take-over of those companies. A secured bond is a bond backed by the issuer’s tangible assets; the secured bond holders are, according to the law, entitled to full payment of their claims before other creditors. The Obama administration simply said that it would not honor these legal obligations.
Santayana said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” and he could have been talking about the American people. After the Founders fought so hard to give us a Constitution that could defend us from arbitrary government power, we refuse to defend that Constitution.