Webster and “just rulers” – Does Webster make sense?

By Nathan Barton

Noah Webster, a genius in the early 19th Century, wrote much about government, politics, and society. He is best known for his dictionary, but his writings are extensive and thoughtful, and worth perusing nearly two centuries later. Here is something he wrote about civil rulers and government in 1832:

“[L]et it be impressed on your mind that God commands you to choose for rulers just men who will rule in the fear of God. The preservation of a republican government depends on the faithful discharge of this duty; if the citizens neglect their duty and place unprincipled men in office, the government will soon be corrupted; laws will be made, not for the public good, so much as for selfish or local purposes; corrupt or incompetent men will be appointed to execute; the public revenues will be squandered on unworthy men; and the rights of the citizens will be violated or disregarded. If a republican government fails to secure public prosperity and happiness, it must be because the citizens neglect the Divine commands and elect bad men to make and administer the laws.”

I respect Noah Webster mightily, but he is wrong that “God commands you to choose rulers…” for there is NOTHING in either the Old or New Testaments that says that christians have to have ANY rulers – save God Himself.  Some may say that Elders (Pastors, Shepherds, Bishops (all being different terms for the same office)) of churches may be “rulers” in a very limited sense, leading those who are willing to be placed under their authority voluntarily and at will. But there is nothing else that can be used to support the idea that God commands (demands) we choose rulers. The Bible treats rulers as a fact of life, like the existence of evil men in general, disease, and poverty.

At the same time, Mr. Webster was right about the decay (corruption) of a republic (arguably the least objectionable of any form of government) being the result of letting unprincipled, corrupt, incompetent, unworthy, bad men take power that God gave to individuals to rule themselves, either in obedience to Him OR disobedience to Him.

I dare say that if someone is elected to office – even in a republic – if they are principled, uncorrupted, competent, worthy and good men and women when they first are given power, it is merely a matter of time before they become the opposite of all these things.  The moral fiber of a man or woman is measured, perhaps, by the length of time it takes them to change from one to the other.  NO human is immune to the ravishment that power produces. I personally have seen this happen in local and state government to people I knew fairly well. But at the same time, especially in 21st Century America, those who get elected and appointed to office are already fairly corrupt and willing to barter away their principles for fame, wealth, and power.

Today, we see this on a daily – nay, hourly – basis:  the corruption, incompetence, betrayal of principle, unworthiness and general evil of “rulers” at local, district, county, state, tribal, national, and (sickeningly) international levels is better known today than at any other time in history.  It may not be WORSE than the great evil governments of yesteryear, but it is broader and more visible.  And because of our knowledge, our education, our ability to communicate, and our powers of technology, it is both more obvious and less tolerable to those who love liberty and freedom than ever before.

Sadly, the incentive to accept and dwell in “comfortable” slavery is also greater than ever.  The herder, the hunter-gatherer, the small freehold farmer dependent on the natural precipitation or his own family’s ability to dig and maintain irrigation ditches, lived a life full of insecurity and uncertainty.  Trading that for the security of a city-state or nation-state, where they gave up some, most or even ALL their individual liberties is the classic example of Maslov’s hierarchy of needs: and a danger that the Founding Fathers like Sam Adams, Ben Franklin, and Abigail Adams all recognized.  It is, today, the byword of an ever-increasing percentage of the population.

Webster was right in that the people “neglect the Divine commands.” But they do so NOT by electing “bad men to make and administer the laws.” Rather they do so by creating institutions which make and administer laws, and which therefore are attractive to bad men, and conducive to making good men bad by giving them power and control of money. Until men take responsibility for themselves, their actions, and the consequences of their actions – and stop creating government (or other institutions) to usurp that responsibility by force and threat of force, it matters not how good the people are, who are elected or appointed to those institutions: the result is bad.

Despite Mr. Webster (and many others), I think that there are few if ANY “just rulers” to be found in history, and we are highly unlikely to find any in America today. Even those rated by many historians as “good” and honest demonstrated Acton’s comment about power corrupting. No matter how they are chosen, by ancestry or vote or war, humans are incapable of governing other humans with any degree of fairness, justice, or honesty. We don’t need to try to find just rulers, we need to allow people to be self-governing, for that is more than enough of a challenge for 99.9999% of us.

About tpolnathan

Follower of Christ Jesus (christian), Pahasapan, Westerner, Lover of Liberty, Free-Market Anarchist, Engineer, Army Officer, Husband, Father, Historian, Writer.
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