Today's Politicos vs The Words and Deeds of The Founders
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The Founders Believed in Limited Government

It is to be remembered that the general government is not to be charged with the whole power of making and administering laws.  Its jurisdiction is limited to certain enumerated objects.  James Madison, Federalist #14

The Founders distrusted strong governments.  Their own experience and study of history taught them that overly powerful governments turned oppressive.  But they also knew a government was necessary, in fact, a stronger one than what they had at the beginning of our nation.  By the time the Constitutional Convention convened in May of 1787, a consensus had developed that the Articles of Confederation were severely flawed, but there was uncertainty about what kind of government could sustain a republic through the ages.  They knew it couldn’t be too weak, but it also couldn’t be too strong.

The Founders did not seek a Goldilocks government.  Instead they designed an elaborate set of checks and balances so they could give the government enough power to govern, while harnessing it with multiple Lilliputian ropes that would hold it in place so it didn’t trample the little people.  From our high school civics class we all learned about the checks and balances between the three branches, but teachers seldom mention the intended check of the national government by the states.  Nor were we taught that the Founders wanted our national leaders selected and elected by different means as yet another check on a runaway government. Lastly, the Constitution ratified by the people was supposed to be the premier check to prevent our government from becoming oppressive.

gulliver's travels

Like Gulliver, our behemoth national government has shrugged off one constraint after another until there are no practical limits to its power.  All three branches regularly overstep their boundaries as if each were given unchecked authority.  The states are currently struggling to reassert their rightful place in a federal system. State legislatures no longer elect Senators, and the Electoral College is under attack.  The general welfare, commerce, and necessary and proper clauses have been use to circumvent the enumerated powers.  The Constitution itself has been made impotent by defining it as a living document.

As a result, the national government has few acknowledged constraints.  We have diverted from the intent of the Founders.  In 1791, James Madison told Washington that “to take a single step beyond the text would be to take possession of a boundless field of power.”  He then recommended that the government, “keep close to our chartered authorities.”

Today, Madison would be called a strict constructionist.  He wouldn’t disagree. His most strident belief was that all political power emanated from the people.  Thus, a constitution was a written contract between the people and its government.  At the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, he rejected approval of their work by Congress or the states, and convinced the other delegates that the constitution had to be sent directly to the people for ratification.  Beyond the initial approval, the Founders believed that only the people could change the Constitution.  If authority is assumed beyond the enumerated powers without an amendment, it is a usurpation of power—power that rightfully belongs to the people.

No lawyer believes in a living contract.  If something isn’t working properly, then the contract must be amended, and contracts are amended every day all over this country.  In fact, the United States Constitution has been amended twenty-seven times.

Many believe that the tenth amendment reserved to the states all power not enumerated in the Constitution for the national government.  This is an over-simplification.  The Tenth Amendment reads: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.  The people ratified the Constitution which gave the national government enumerated powers.  The people also delegated differing levels of power to the various state governments. All power not delegated to a component of this federal system, is reserved to the people.

We have meandered away from these basic tenants.  It has not been a successful trek.  The national debt deficit is an astonishing $14 trillion $18 trillion.  Interest costs are consuming an ever larger percentage of the national budget, and will skyrocket when interest rates return to historical norms.  These numbers represent real jeopardy.

This is why the lawsuit by the states against Obamacare is crucial.  This trend toward concentrated power must be reversed.  There is much else we need to do, but a Supreme Court ruling that put an outside boundary around the commerce clause is a necessary first step.

James D. Best is the author of Tempest at Dawn, a novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention.

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1 Marc { 03.15.11 at 8:05 am }

The Federalists were generally considered the big government advocates of their day. Their concerns grew out of the years between the end of the revolution and before the adoption of the Constitution. States were placing duties on goods from other states. There was no good way to raise taxes for the national defense. George Washington was forced to deploy Federal troops against tax rebels. Anarchy and disaster loomed. King George was licking his chops.


James D. Best Reply:

True, true. But what the federalist envision, even Alexander Hamilton, was far more constrained than today’s national government.


Kevin Reply:

No, the federalists were not considered the big government advocates of their day. There were very careful considerations relative to its size. Instead of me repeating the facts, just read the first few paragraphs here for starters.


2 Michael Newton { 03.15.11 at 6:06 pm }

Great piece. However, you meant to say that the debt is $14 trillion, not the deficit.


James D. Best Reply:



James D. Best Reply:

Thanks. you are obviously correct.


3 Sean { 05.12.11 at 9:35 am }

Hamilton’s views on the national government would surely be different if he were alive today. If we’re to read his opinions as unwavering in modern times, then the primary source of government revenue would be from imposts and excises on imported goods. Clearly, he would have to bend on his arguments offered in Federalist #12. Therefore, to assume he would not also bend on matters such as federal power in the face of so large a nation is a flawed argument.


4 Ib Heinisch { 07.13.11 at 8:43 pm }

Funny article, who needs facts when you have opinions.


5 Ib Heinisch { 07.13.11 at 8:49 pm }

“the Founders believed that only the people could change the Constitution”.
Not the people but Congress:
“The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments”.


6 nubwaxer { 08.12.14 at 2:14 pm }

and then society became more complex and people lived in great numbers in close proximity to others. the idea that people in such a society might want or even demand that government help organize and regulate society for the “general welfare” (constitution before the 2nd amendment) to insure equal rights and opportunities to all, not just the elite.


7 2maik7 { 08.09.15 at 1:58 pm }

Yes, ” All power not delegated to a component of this federal system, is reserved to the people.”, and how exactly do you think that the people manifest this power? Through local and state governments. One other thing that I must point out, and it is not a trivial mistake, is “The deficit is an astonishing $14 trillion.”, not true at all and it has never been that high, thankfully for our existence as an economic power. I shouldn’t have to explain this because someone who speaks about the Founders in the sense of economic terms should know it. The deficit right now, is $564 billion. Which means it has been more then cut in half in the past 6 or 7 years, thankfully. The deficit is the difference between what the government takes in compared to what it spends. You are speaking of the $14 trillion debt. Again, this is not a trivial mistake since it is purposely switched as propaganda very often by partisan hacks. The debt cannot begin to be paid off until the deficit becomes a surplus. A surplus like what was left at the end of the Clinton era. As much as I despise the corrupt Clintons, the surplus that was left at the end of his second term was projected to pay off the debt in a matter of 10 years. Which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your level of economic knowledge of the modern world. Stop mixing up debt and deficit, especially if you are doing it on purpose like many partisan hacks and fear mongers love to do.


Martin Reply:

Good catch. I’m sure James meant debt vs deficit. Strictly speaking, however, the debt is merely the accumulation of deficit spending. The debt has increased nearly 70% since Mr. Obama took office so I’m not sure what virtue you appear to be extolling by suggesting that this rate is an improvement. On top of that, the CBO has painted a pretty dire picture when the “so-called” Affordable Care Act really gets rolling.


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