Two essential questions that we face in our country are “What is the proper role of our government to the people?” And furthermore, “Should that role be constant or should it be allowed to change depending on the times?” They are challenging questions that have been around since 1776 or even 1620 for that matter; indeed they have provoked a continuous ongoing debate between people, groups, organizations and political parties. The answers to these two questions result in spirited conversations that every generation must have because said answers help shape public policy, general sentiment and future outlook. In essence, they define who we are and what we stand for as a nation.
Okay, having said all of that, what has increasing worn out my patience regarding these conversations is the cavalier way radio/television hosts, political pundits and/or print media invoke our Founding Fathers in defending contemporary stances on the proper role of government. It usually is based on the supposition that our Founding Fathers would be rolling over in their respective graves as to how big our federal government has gotten today. And moreover that our Founding Founders at the very least were eternally suspicious of a strong federal government. Now setting aside for a moment the counter argument of challenging our Founders infallibility these assertions too are woefully inaccurate.
For starters who are we referring to- Jefferson? Adams? Hamilton? Clarity matters on this one. And even before that question are we sure it’s the Founders and not the Framers? Again more clarity. The Founders were 1776 the Framers were 1787. A lot of stuff happened in those eleven years! You see the Founders were a bit suspicious of a strong federal government in 1776 because they were in the midst of fighting a war against England, against a country that denied our forbearers representation. Fortunately America got its independence in 1783 but by 1787 it became quite apparent to many of the Founders that a federal government with no power and beholden to the states as designed under our first constitution the Articles of Confederation was awful- no army, no unifying court system, no central bank, no honest currency, no revenues, no way to run a country. Just google Shays’ Rebellion if you still doubt me. It was at this point where many Founders became Framers (not all of them- trust me) and formed our current constitution. It all took place in Philadelphia and what took place there was nothing short than a peaceful coup. Remarkable really. Instead of revising the Articles which many delegates arrived believing they would only be doing they started from scratch. In doing so, they greatly, and I do mean greatly expanded the federal government under the U.S. Constitution. Put both constitutions side by side and compare them. The differences are startling. The Framers cranked out a constitution that was perceived at the time so “federal government heavy” that in order to assure its ratification a Bill of Rights was added to protect individual citizens’ rights and liberties against government. All of this of course was the right thing to do. Generally I am not a coup guy but this one is perhaps the exception to the rule.
Their actions in Philadelphia were right because they recognized that the first time through, their first constitution, our first constitution, the Article of Confederation got it wrong. The Founders therefore got it wrong (and that’s okay. . .a little secret. . .they were not infallible). They came to the realization that it was necessary and important to have a strong federal government on occasion. People today that invoke our Founders, er Framers usually fail in appreciating this fact. The role of the federal government envisioned in 1776 was not viable by 1787.
I think it is also important to recognize that it is extremely misleading to compare the federal government of our Founders’ era with our era today because although government may have been significantly smaller, actions taken by many of these men ridiculously expanded the role of the federal government at the time that are unparalleled by comparison in any time in American history.
For example, Thomas Jefferson, a Founder had the Embargo Act of 1807. Leading up to the passage of this act it became increasingly difficult for America to maintain its neutrality during the Napoleonic Wars. Jefferson refusing to allow America to be draw into its first war pushed legislation through Congress that placed an embargo on trade against the England and France. Yes an embargo. An economic version of the nuclear bomb that is all about expanding the role of the federal government. Think Cuba, well not anymore but you get the point. To not trade with England or France in 1807 was to pretty much not trade with the entire world. It would be like not trading with Canada, China and the European Union today. Some in New England, who’s economic livelihood was dependent on trade with the England even threatened to secede as a result. The whole thing was a total disaster and marred his presidency.
John Adams, a Founder as well signed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Together these series of acts made it easier for the federal government to deny or severely delay immigrants the ability to become citizens and also gave the federal government the authority to throw people in prison if they were critical of government policies. In their passage the federal government’s power grew significantly. They were passed at a time in our country’s history when the Federalists and Democrat-Republicans were competing for the hearts and minds of the American electorate.
Alexander Hamilton was both a Founder and Framer and a genius when it came to financial matters. It was Hamilton that created our country’s financial system and the national bank. It was Hamilton that said the way to get out of debt was to take on more debt; the federal government would take on any state debt left over from the Revolution. His debt plan expanded the role of federal government exponentially. And although his plan was extremely controversial it was this debt plan that gave foreign creditors confidence in investing and lending to America, as well as additionally settling once and for all the final location of our nation’s capital Washington, D.C..
I tend to lean, favor and argue for a smaller role of government when at all possible, and I try to do so without dragging in our Founders and Framers for what are now hopefully compelling reasons.