Maintaining Government: Good Laws vs. Good Citizens

What does it take to make and establish a good government? Now, certainly today we hear a lot of complaints about government. We say we need something different in government. Well, the cry for maintaining a good government is nothing new in America. For at least 300 years there have been discussions on how to maintain good government. For you see, history has always taught that governments tend to corrupt themselves, they tend to degenerate. So how can you maintain a good government? The Founding Fathers had very specific ideas on how to maintain a good government. They communicated those ideas through their writings and that’s what we’ll examine in this segment.
Now, the Founding Fathers understood that good laws are not the key to good government. See, that was something that had been proposed by John Locke. John Locke early on was asked to write the constitution for South Carolina, 1663. The people came to him and said, “We want a righteous government. We want a government that will always stay right. Can you help us create that?” John Locke said, “I can.” And so he said the key is good laws, and he made a very specific, tedious constitution for South Carolina that gave law after law after law. He said, “With good laws, it doesn’t matter who gets in office, you’ll always have good government.”
Now, some 18 years later under William Penn, William Penn did not believe that. William Penn took a completely different approach. William Penn said, “The key to good government is not in good laws, it’s in good men.” And so when William Penn created the original frame of government for Pennsylvania in 1681 it was very simple. It had two laws. The first law said, “Whatever is Christian is legal.” The second law said, “Whatever is not Christian is illegal.” It’s a simple way to run a government.
For you see, Penn was convinced that laws were not the key to government, good men were. And this is what William Penn said in his writings. He said, “Governments, like clocks, go from the motion that men give them, wherefore governments rather depend upon men than men upon governments. Let men be good and the government cannot be bad. But if men be bad, the government will never be good.” He said, “I know some say, ‘Let us have good laws and it doesn’t matter who executes those laws.’” He said, “But let them consider that though good laws do well, good men do better. For good laws may lack good men, but good men will never lack good laws and they’ll never allow bad ones.”
And that is the truth of history. That is not only the truth of history, that is the truth of Scripture. In Proverbs 29:2, very simply the Bible says when the righteous rule, the people rejoice. When the wicked rule, the people groan. Again, the emphasis is on the right type of people, not the right type of laws.
Now, in the most famous political speech ever given by Benjamin Franklin, given on Thursday, June 28, 1787, Franklin talked about the fact that the Founding Fathers were students of history. He said, “We have gone through every record that exists of every government on the face of the earth. We have tried to find what makes governments work and what causes them to fail. We don’t want to repeat the same mistakes they’ve made.” And so they were students of history and so when our Founding Fathers had opportunity to establish their very first governments, it’s interesting that they again put the emphasis on the quality of people, not on the type of laws.


This excerpt is a quote from Dave Barton, taken from the program series “Was America Founded on Christian Principles?/Program 4“, by Dr. John Ankerberg and David Barton, © 1992.

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