Did the founding fathers believe in total depravity?

By Phillip G. Kayser · 2018-2-27

    Someone asked me by email recently: "did the founding fathers believe in total depravity? Did it made any difference in their politics?" This is my response.

    The first point is Total Depravity. Almost every founding father has written something that shows that their views on civil government were completely shaped by their belief in total depravity. I’ve already given some quotes from Madison, Adams, and others. But let’s look at James Madison.

    James Madison said, “depravity in mankind ... requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust”.[1] Whom did they distrust? Well, Madison said that they distrusted anyone from being totally unrestrained. In Federalist 51 he says, “But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself."[2]

    In other words, total depravity needs to be restrained in both the population and in the civil magistrates or things go very bad very quickly. Madison said that the Constitution they had crafted to meet this goal "presupposed the existence of these qualities [in other words, qualities of human depravity] in a higher degree than any other form [of government]."[3] And even secular scholars admit that this is true. We’ve quoted some.

    Let me give some additional quotes from founding fathers. George Washington said, “Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force! Like fire it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master."

    Even centralist Alexander Hamilton said, Because of human depravity, there is “little reason to expect that the persons entrusted with the administration of the affairs of the particular members of a confederacy will at all times be ready with perfect good humor and an unbiased regard to the public weal to execute the resolutions or decrees of the general authority.” He was saying that because of human depravity you can count on things going wrong. There have got to be checks and balances.

    Thomas Jefferson said, "Free government is founded on jealousy, not in confidence; it is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions, to bind those we are obliged to trust with power. In questions of power, let no more be heard of confidence in man but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the constitution."[1] That is John Calvin talking through Jefferson, even though Jefferson wasn’t himself a Calvinst. In fact, he wasn’t even an orthodox Christian. But everyone back then breathed this Calvinistic atmosphere.

    John Adams said, "Every man hates to have a superior, but no man is willing to have an equal; every man desires to be superior to all others... We may look as wise and moralize as gravely as we will; we may call this desire of distinction childish and silly; but we cannot alter the nature of men..."

    Samuel Adams said, "the depravity of mankind that ambition and lust of power above the law are... predominant passions in the breasts of most men."

    So what difference did it make that our founding fathers believed John Calvin on Total Depravity?

    1. It made them insist that there could not be concentration of power in any one department. They knew that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
    2. They put all kinds of checks and balances in place to slow down deliberations and to make one person’s depravity frustrate the depravity of another person. As Madison put it, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” (The Federalist, 51).
    3. They introduced numerous ways of enabling interposition to take place. Interposition is where one branch of government resists the tyranny of another branch of government. The Frenchman, Mornay, spoke of this a great deal, and he had an enormous influence on our founding father’s decision to declare independence from England.
    4. They gave government enough power to restrain the depravity of citizens, but also made sure that citizens kept enough power that they could restrain the depravity of office holders.
    5. They made sure that the ability to pass laws was slowed down by due deliberation and by requiring two branches of the house to pass it, and provisions for the President to vetoe it and for that veto to be overridden. And numerous other features of our Constitution make no sense whatsoever apart from the doctrine of Total Depravity. That’s why moderns are so frustrated with checks and balances and have done everything they could to get rid of them over the past 100 years. They don’t see the point. Such suspicion makes government less efficient. But our founding fathers didn’t want efficient government like modern people are clamoring for. Why? They didn’t trust too much power in the hands of men. That’s why they insisted on two houses in every state, and would have totally opposed the one house unicameral that we have in Nebraska. It’s one check and balance removed from tyranny.

    Now several scholars have pointed out that this same doctrine impacted America’s views on economics. It was this belief in depravity that led to distrusting mercantalism and any other form of involvement by the government in the free market. But it also distrusted individuals on economics. And to counteract the depravity of individuals, they put into place contract law, copyright law, and patent law.

    Now, I’m not sure that patent law should have been put in place, but that was their motivation. But certainly the enforcement of contract law is the foundation for a good economy. Furthermore, it was felt that without God changing the heart, men would naturally be selfish, but that the Free Market system was best suited for ambition tempering ambition, as one founding father worded it.

    In order for a businessman to prosper long term (that’s a kind of ambition), he had to be the best servant of others (that’s the ambition of the customer). So Free Market ambition forced him to serve where he might not otherwise have done so. As his reputation of good service spread, his profits would grow. And thus self-interest was tempered in the Free Market, whereas it would go completely unchecked if the government controlled the market on the one hand or if contract law was not enforced on the other hand. Now, I won’t be able to spend as much time on the other points, but hopefully going more in depth on this will show that Calvinistic doctrine had very practical ramifications.

    John Eidsmoe, after quoting a section of the Federalist Papers said that in response to Total Depravity, they came up with five conclusions. Here is his quote:

    Federalist #51: If men were angels government would not be needed. If angels were to govern men then no controls on government would be needed. But with human nature as it is, our rulers are no angels. The great difficulty lies in this, you must first enable the government to control the governed, and then oblige it to govern itself.

    The Founding Fathers Five Fold…

    • Government has limited, delegated powers
    • Separation of powers: the powers we delegate are divided vertically, some to the federal, some to the state, some to the local government. At the federal level it is divided horizontally among the three branches.
    • Checks and Balances
    • A concept of reserved individual rights.
    • Responsibility through religion. People need control. Either self control and self government, or either human government is going to have to enforce control through force. The founder’s solution to this dilemma is religion. Our government was designed to govern and moral people.

    Gary North (in Political Polytheism) stated that it was in the discussions of the ratifying conventions that it was realized that it wasn’t enough to have two branches agree on an issue. He said,

    The Constitution officially divides national judicial spokesmanship into three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. Each of these is a separate juridical sphere. Each has its own section in the document itself. For a law (piece of legislation) to be binding, all three branches must agree.

    Originally, this was not clear to the Framers. They believed that the agreement of the executive and the legislature would be sufficient. They divided the legislative branch into two sections, House of Representatives and Senate. Very little was said of the judicial branch. It was assumed that it would be by far the weakest of the three. Alexander Hamilton went so far as to say that “the judiciary is beyond comparison the weakest of the three departments of power,” and assured his readers that “it can never attack with success either of the other two; and that all possible care is requisite to enable it to defend itself against their attacks.” The Framers did not recognize that he who interprets the law authoritatively is in fact the true voice of sovereign majesty. They also did not fully understand that the implicitly vast powers of political centralization that the Constitution created on a national level would lead to the creation of a new hierarchy. The federal (national) government would steadily swallow up subordinate jurisdictions. Why? Because in any covenant, there must be a hierarchy, and the pinnacle of that hierarchy is the agent who possesses the authority to announce the law and therefore sanctify the law’s sanctions.

    So, there was initial confusion over hierarchy and representation, point two of the biblical covenant model. This had been the great political debate immediately prior to the Revolution: Which body had legitimate legislative sovereignty in the colonies, the English Parliament or the colonial legislatures? This was also the heart of the political debate over the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution. The voters, as represented by state ratifying conventions in 1788, had insisted on retaining numerous powers in the states. Any power not expressly transferred to the central government automatically resides in the states (Amendment 10). Thus, the debate became one of states’ rights vs. national power.[4]


    There are 6 ways in which the influence of this doctrine can be seen on our form of government. First of all, having a written Constitution itself was rather revolutionary. Up till this time the king was the law. Nothing was above him. But our form of government makes it very clear that the Constitution limits the actions of all governors.

    The second way in which they sought to guard against abuses or in which they showed distrust was in the separation of powers between the three branches of government. One of the books that I had to read at Covenant College was Carl N. Dagler’s book, Out of our Past, which is a history of thought. In that book he says, “This was an explicit rejection of English practice where the executive was simply a cabinet of ministers who were drawn from Parliament. In otherwords, the executive and legislative branches were simply different manifestations of the same body.”

    This aspect of America’s government was unique at its time. And John Adams, the second president of the United States, traced it to the Old Testament government of Israel. Another fascinating little book that was written in 1853, is the Roots of the American Republic, by E.C. Wines. It not only demonstrates the separation of powers doctrine as coming from the bible, but shows how many other unique features of American life were drawn from the Hebrew Republic, not the Roman Republic. But again, they all presupposes Biblical doctrines like Total Depravity.

    A third area where government tyranny was guarded against was the Jury system. Lysander Spooner wrote this essay, and shows marvelously how the jury system flowed out of a distrust of either the government or the popular vote being sufficient to prevent tyranny. He said that the jury was given the power to judge both the facts of a case as well as the law itself. It was truly the fourth branch of government. Apart from the doctrine of Total Depravity, the jury system doesn't even make sense. It is a waste of time and money.

    The fourth area where this is worked out is the separation of legislative powers into two branches. This was to make new laws harder to transact. Unfortunately, this system was hugely weakned when senators began to be elected by popular vote.

    The fourth area was appointment of Supreme Court nominees required both the President and the Senate to Act. Look at Thomas Jefferson's negative view of the Supreme Court. "[T]he opinion which gives to the judges the right to decide what laws are constitutional and what not... would make the judiciary a despotic branch... [T]o consider the judges as the ultimate arbiters of all constitutional questions [is] a very dangerous doctrine indeed, and one which would place us under the despotism of an oligarchy... The Constitution has erected no such single tribunal." They really distrusted every branch of government. Look at the second quote under Hamilton: " Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint... [T]he infamy of a bad action is to be divided among a number than... to fall singly upon one."

    Remember the big debate after Clinton's election on why we ought to abolish the electoral college as being antiquated and inequitable? Chalcedon Foundation published a marvelous essay showing how the electoral college was a very important protection of our liberties. CAPO.org also published something similar. And the arguments of our founding fathers flowed against out of the importance of this doctrine of depravity. The countryside balances out the cities, and delegates protect against pure democracy.

    Finally, the Bill of Rights was added. The arguments of Patrick Henry and various legislatures make it clear that they had a huge distrust in human nature. It is hinted at in the preamble that I quoted: "The conventions of a number of the States having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that futher declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added." (Emphasis added)


    Barton said that they feared the judicial branch more than the executive or legislative. That is why the specifically made it the weakest branch. It is ironic that it has turned into the strongest branch of government today.

    The Founders attempted to avoid the consolidation of power in one branch; and the single branch they most feared of abusing power was the judiciary. For that reason, the Constitution secured the Founders' specific design that the judiciary be the weakest branch.

    Weak by Design

    This intent is confirmed by the Founders' numerous writings, especially in The Federalist Papers (described by James Madison as "the most authentic exposition of the heart of the federal Constitution as understood by the body which prepared it and the authority which accepted it"). In that work, James Madison first declared that in our government "the legislative authority necessarily predominates"; and then Alexander Hamilton explained that "the judiciary is, beyond comparison, the weakest of the three departments of power... [and] the general liberty of the people can never be endangered from that quarter.

    The judiciary could not endanger the liberty of the people because the Founders specifically withheld all policy-making powers from the courts. Furthermore, at the Constitutional Convention, they explicitly rejected all proposals allowing the judiciary to strike down laws or policies passed by the other two branches. As Thomas Jefferson later explained:

    [T]he opinion which gives to the judges the right to decide what laws are constitutional and what not... would make the judiciary a despotic branch... [T]o consider the judges as the ultimate arbiters of all constitutional questions [is] a very dangerous doctrine indeed, and one which would place us under the despotism of an oligarchy... The Constitution has erected no such single tribunal.

    But look at the first principle. "It keeps us from being naïve in politics, or from putting undo trust in any one individual. "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely!" Apart from grace, Augustine said that governments are bandits and robbers." This doctrine is not to make us cynical. After all, we do believe in sanctifying power of grace. But it does argue why we should follow the Bible's commands that magistrates have godly characteristics.

    Another application of this doctrine is that it is not enough to have political solutions to the problems of racism, abortion, etc. Those will continue to be problems until men's hearts are changed. John Adams (the second president) said, "Our constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for any other." A person's morality and religious commitment is hugely relevant to good politics.

    The last area mentioned is that people emphasize rights, whereas it is much better to emphasize responsibility under the law.


    1. The Federalist #55

    2. The Federalist #51

    3. http://capo.org/dh111800.html

    4. Gary North, Political Polytheism, page 381. https://www.garynorth.com/freebooks/docs/pdf/political_polytheism.pdf


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