Can Americans Be Trusted to Govern Themselves?

Can Americans Be Trusted to Govern Themselves?
Drew A. Kelley/The Orange County Register via AP

America is often thought of as a test of the people's capacity to govern themselves. Our Founders spoke in those terms. George Washington, giving the country's first presidential inaugural address, said: “the destiny of the republican model of government” is “deeply . . . staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”

But the paragraph containing this famous phrase indicates the problem. In it, Washington refrains from recommending specific legislative measures in deference to “the talents, the rectitude, and the patriotism which adorn the characters selected to devise and adopt them”—by which characters he meant the members of Congress. In Congress, he declared,

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