Most people do not believe in prophets anymore. Our politicians and spiritual leaders have so disappointed us that we seriously doubt that they have any profound discernment about the direction our country is going in the twenty-first century. But many observers of early American history made statements that suggest that our forefathers had more prophetic insight then we see in today’s vision-less leaders. Is it possible that the early witnesses of our country’s birth had the insight to look forward into the future to our day as they provided prophetic warnings of the danger they saw coming?
Alexis de Tocqueville on the Danger of Being Carried Away by Affluence
Take Alexis de Tocqueville for example. In the 1830s, this French historian and writer came to America to see firsthand the amazing experiment in democracy that was taking place. In his Democracy in America, he expressed positive amazement at what he saw. The historian also saw a danger that he expressed quite candidly:
When the taste for physical pleasures in such a nation grows more speedily than education or the habit of liberty, a time occurs when men are carried away and lose self-control at the sight of the new possessions they are ready to grasp. … There is no need to wrench their rights from such citizens, they let them slip voluntarily through their fingers. The exercise of their political duties seems to them a tiresome nuisance.
Like a prophet, this great political thinker saw past the amazing new adventure in democracy as he visualized its potential disaster. His ominous, prophetic warnings of a time when the citizens of a free Republic may become “carried away and lose self-control” when the developing taste for physical pleasures overwhelms their commitment to participate in the democratic process. He saw this as a serious peril that citizens of a democracy must guard against. When one considers the anemic participation in most of our recent elections it appears that we have come to the precipice of that peril. People seem to be taking for granted what a free society has secured for them and mistakenly think that these things are guaranteed. The line between liberty and entitlement is quickly disappearing.
De Tocqueville was concerned that a citizenry could become overly concerned about the perks they can receive while forgetting the principles that made the country great. He feared that voting citizens would begin to elect leaders who would provide those perks. Is it possible that America has reached that point as a nation?
Ben Franklin on the Despotic End of Our Government
The prophetic Ben Franklin said something similar to de Tocqueville. On the occasion of the last day of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he said, “I agree to this Constitution … and I believe, further, that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.”
With what seems to be prophetic warnings, Franklin saw the Constitution working well for a period of time, but he also believed it could end in despotism when the people become so corrupt that they need a corrupt government. At that point, he predicted that despotism would prevail.
George Washington on the Danger of Amendment by Usurpation
George Washington was also somewhat prophetic as he foresaw a time when controlling leaders would bypass the Constitution for the sake of instituting what he called an “instrument of good.” He clearly believed and predicted that ignoring the Constitution would be the “weapon by which free governments are destroyed.” Here’s what he said in the parting words of his farewell address in 1796:
“If, in the opinion of the people, the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpations; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.”
He uses the old English word “usurpations” to describe a change to the Constitution effected by force or political power instead of through the amendment process designated in the document itself. We have seen our share of that in recent years. To many, the Constitution has become a “living document” that can be manipulated for the sake of political ideals and changes can come by political fiat. It is possible that America’s first president would be shocked at what is happening in the fulfillment of his biggest prophetic warning.
Thomas Jefferson on the Danger of an Out-of-Control Judicial Branch
Thomas Jefferson prophetic warnings were primarily associated with his fear of the judicial branch becoming too powerful. He claims to have seen its seizure of power even in his day. In a letter to Judge Spencer Roane in 1821 he wrote this unnerving prediction:
“The great object of my fear is the federal judiciary. That body, like gravity, ever acting with noiseless foot and unalarming advance, gaining ground step by step and holding what it gains, is engulfing insidiously the governments into the jaws of that which feeds them.”
To put it in more contemporary words, Jefferson was saying that the federal judiciary would gain more and more power as it slowly but gradually advanced its power and would never relinquish the power it gained. In so doing, it would take the power that belongs to states and give it to the federal government, “the jaws of that which feeds them.” Jefferson appears to have identified this potential problem we see arising today in the growing power of the Supreme Court and federal courts everywhere. Surely he recognized the federal courts as a primary means by which the national government can expand its power over the people.
James Madison on Welfare and Overreach by the Government
James Madison, referring to a bill to subsidize the cod fishing industry in 1792, sounds like he is describing the overreach of the federal government we are witnessing in the twenty-first century:
“If Congress can employ money indefinitely, for the general welfare, and are the sole and supreme judges of the general welfare, they may take the care of religion into their own hands; they may appoint teachers in every state, county, and parish, and pay them out of the public treasury; they may take into their own hands the education of children, the establishing in like manner schools throughout the union; they may assume the provision of the poor…. Were the power of Congress to be established in the latitude contended for, it would subvert the very foundations, and transmute the very nature of the limited government established by the people of America.”
This powerful statement was prophetically precise. In his prophetic warnings of the danger of subsidizing an industry, Madison is basically asking where the line would be drawn. He fears that such a policy would lead to government intrusion in religion, the educational system, and provision for the poor. His concern was over Congress providing money for “the general welfare” as a way of expanding the overreach of the federal government. The man often referred to as “the father of the Constitution” apparently felt that this would lead to a destructive transformation of the constitutional concept of limited government.
The controversy surrounding the amount of power to be granted to the government is the primary issue in modern American politics. How much power shall we grant the government to manage the welfare of its citizens? That is the question that divides the country into liberal and conservative camps. Madison saw it coming.
Abraham Lincoln on the Overthrow of Justice by a Disregard for the Law
Long before he became president, Abraham Lincoln saw a dangerous rising of lawlessness in society. Speaking in 1838 to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois he pondered how long our political institutions could survive the growing “disregard for law.” His prophetic warnings could “very well” apply to the growing violence in our modern cities and the rampant disregard for the institutions that guard our safety:
“There is even now something of ill omen among us. I mean that increasing disregard for law which pervades the country — the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passion in lieu of the sober judgment of courts, and the worse than savage mobs for the executive ministers of justice. The disposition is awfully fearful in any community; and that it now exists in ours … it would be a violation of truth to deny.”
Lincoln’s prophetic warnings referring to replacing “the sober judgment of courts” with “wild and furious passion,” reminds one of the violence in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri that erupted despite the facts supporting the actions of the accused police officer. The “furious passion” completely overrode the grand jury decision based on a very thorough investigation of the facts. Throughout our country, people are still chanting “hands up” in their protests as if the original accusations of the policeman were validated. Lincoln apparently saw a time when such passion would overtake sound judgment coming from the courts. It is happening across the country and undocumented passion is winning the battle. However, one point needs to be made. Perhaps the reason for this increased violence is because the people no longer believe that the legal system will rule justly. When the people believe that they can’t get justice from the courts, they will not trust the courts to protect them, this could be why they might resort to violence.
John Adams on the Danger of the Two-Party System
John Adams, in a letter to Jonathan Jackson in 1780, wrote these often quoted words about the two-party system:
“There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution. Nothing which I dread so much.”
Those are ominous words coming from our second president. Surely there were many things to fear as the American experiment was being entered into, but Adams feared the two-party system most of all. He called this “the greatest political evil under the Constitution.” Most voters today are completely fed up with the system of parties that seems to foment the vitriol and hate-mongering we see in our national elections. Adams saw the danger long before it developed into the putrid political mess we see today.
George Washington on the Danger of Party Dissension
George Washington saw the same danger and threw out a parting prophetic warning in his farewell address in 1790:
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.”
Keep in mind that our first president was speaking at a time when some people were crying out for him to be elected as king. He said at one point that he would not run for a third term because he feared that more time in office would increase the power of the executive. Washington carried this concern for growing power over into the argument against the party system. Putting it in modern terms, he saw the “party dissension” as a condition that would create an “us versus them” atmosphere that in turn would create a climate leading to the rise of a dominating individual into “absolute power.”
Today’s political scene is characterized by two polar opposite parties who cannot compromise on much of anything because the factionalism has widened the gap between them. This has created a vacuüm in which President Obama is using his phone and his pen to pass executive decisions without any consultation with Congress or concern about the Constitutional issues raised. Washington saw it coming and tried to warn us from the beginning.
Abraham Lincoln on the Way America Will be Destroyed
Abraham Lincoln in the Lyceum address may have inadvertently provided prophetic warnings predicting the means by which this once great country would be destroyed. The defeat, he predicted, would not come from some powerful outside source but from within:
“Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step over the ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! — All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a Thousand years. At what point, then, is the approach of danger to be expected?”
I answer, if it ever reached us, it must spring up among us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.
This comment should send chills down our spines. We have fought two world wars and several other crucial wars but the Great Emancipator was predicting that our destruction would not come from an invasion from abroad. Rather it would come from a cancer growing from within. We would be the authors of our own destruction, committing suicide by allowing internal decay. The divisiveness, hatemongering, out of control government, lawlessness, injustice and much more are feeding an internal cancer that may well be the cause of our ultimate destruction. Perhaps it is not too late to wake up and do something about it.
Written by Lloyd Gardner
Edited by DiMarkco Chandler
Online Library of Liberty: Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 1 ; Thomas Jefferson, The Works of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 12 (Correspondence and Papers 1816-1826) 
U.S. Constitution: Speech of Benjamin Franklin
Our Documents: Transcript of President George Washington’s Farewell Address (1796)
Constitution Society: On the Cod Fishery Bill, granting Bounties; Address before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois
The Federalist Papers: John Adams, Letter to Jonathan Jackson, October 1780
The Avalon Project: Washington’s Farewell Address 1796
Image Courtesy of Vatsa1708’s Wiki Page – Creative Commons License