I have just finished a rather thorough book on the history of the ratification debates written by Pauline Maeir, titled Ratification: the People Debate the Constitution. The recurring theme throughout the debates from the Constitution’s opponents is concern that the Framers had created a centralized state that would, especially through its vast taxing powers, become corrupt and tyrannical. I have been over this to some extent in a previous post, and I once again highlight the words of the Anti-Federalist writer Brutus because it is one of the best expressions of anti-constitutional angst:
Exercised without limitation, it will introduce itself into every corner of the city and country. It [the national government] will wait upon the ladies at their toilett, and will not leave them in any of their domestic concerns; it will accompany them to the ball, the play, and the assembly; it will go with them when they visit, and will, on all occasions, sit beside them in their carriages, nor will it desert them even at church; it will enter the house of every gentleman, watch over his cellar, wait upon his cook in the kitchen, follow the servants into the parlour, preside over the table, and note down all he eats or drinks; it will attend him to his bed-chamber, and watch him while he sleeps; it will take the cognizance of the professional man in his office or his study; it will watch the merchant in the counting-house or in his store; it will follow the mechanic to his shop and in his work, and will haunt him in his family and in his bed; it will be a constant companion of the industrious farmer in all his labour, it will be with him in the house and in the field, observe the toil of his hands and the sweat of his brow; it will penetrate into the most obscure cottage; and finally, it will light upon the head of every person in the United States.
Fast forward 223 years later (or more than 100 years if you’re Ezra Klein), where we witness the Constitution being read aloud on the floor of the House of Representatives. Republicans have promised that in every proposed piece of legislation they will cite the constitutional authority for each provision – and contra what the New York Times may think, Congress, and not just the Judiciary, has the authority and ability to interpret the Constitution for itself as a body (as does the President). The reason for all this as that conservatives feel that a more filial observance of the powers – and limits to said powers – of the Constitution will reign in the federal government. In other words, we need to more faithfully interpret the Constitution if we want the federal government to become less centralized and less tyrannical.
So were the Ant-Federalists right? Reading Maier’s book, as well as any selection of the Anti-Federalist papers, one is almost tempted to label the constitution’s original critics as prophets as indeed many of their worst dreams came true. Perhaps the most prescient prediction is that the federal government would, in essence, swallow up the states as state and local governments have diminished in power and authority over the years.
It’s also worth remembering that the Constitution was intentionally designed to increase the power of the federal government. I cringe a little when conservatives claim that the Constitution was designed to limit the powers of the federal government. Well, in point of fact the Constitution was meant to improve upon the Articles of Confederation and make it easier for the federal government to act. Under the Articles of Confederation legislation required unanimous consent among the states. Further complicating matters, some states refused to furnish needed funds to keep the national government solvent. So the purpose of the Constitution was in fact to enhance federal authority.
But the story doesn’t end there. The delegated powers were few and well-defined. One of the principal Anti-Federalist arguments was that the Constitution lacked a Bill of Rights, to which the Federalists responded that the Constitution itself was a bill of rights. The people need not fear that the federal government would engage in actions that were clearly outside of its delegated authority. Eventually the first Congress would adopt a bill of rights, partially as a means to placate reluctant ratifiers.
And so now proponents of limited government turn to the Constitution in order to justify a more limited state. Are we simply wrong? Perhaps the Constitution’s grant of authority is as broad as the Anti-Federalists feared, and we are clinging to a mistaken notion of what the Constitution does and does not prohibit. I’m sure several people reading this would tend to agree with that notion. Anybody remotely familiar with my writing would not be surprised when I say that part of the crisis we face is due to a neglect of the original intent of the Constitution. The problem lies principally with a judiciary that has mis-interpreted the Constitution so overwhelmingly that they have rendered large parts of it – especially the Tenth Amendment – practically null, while expanding and twisting other elements – notably the commerce clause and 14th Amendment – to fit their needs. Personally I think the case of Wickard v. Filburn did more damage to the Constitution than any other decision other than Roe. If you’re not familiar with the case, do read the opinion of the Court as handed down by Justice Jackson, and see how the Court – unanimously – decreed that eating food that you grew on your farm somehow affected interstate commerce. Once such a tenuous connection was made between private activity and interstate commerce, the floodgates were opened, tempered only slightly by narrow Supreme Court decisions in the late 90s that did not fully reverse the reasoning behind Wickard.
At any rate, I find it mildly amusing that proponents of limited government have transformed from the most virulent opponents of the Constitution to its most vocal supporters. I suspect that conservatives and leftists will have wildly varying opinions as to what that signifies.
One of the most famous speeches in American history is FDR’s First Inaugural. The most memorable quote from this address occurs early on when he intones, “we have nothing to fear, but fear itself.” It is one of the most oft-quoted bits of political rhetoric. It is also one of the most profoundly silly.
Even if one grants that the line is not to be taken literally, it is wrong. Here is the entire first paragraph of the speech to provide some context.
I AM certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our Nation impels. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.
For a rundown of why this is an absurd sentiment, see this excellent blogpost by Keith Spillet. Keith delves into some of the philosophical problems with this line, and I largely concur with his assessment. Beyond that, I also find the line to be, somewhat ironically considering the subject matter, demagogic. Though it is ostensibly a call for optimism in the midst of dark economic times, it is a fairly cynical attempt to brush back criticisms of his program. It is a rhetorical device that is employed today, and it is one that I find highly insulting. Continue reading
The Cranky Conservative, Paul Zummo, is beginning a series on his blog on the Federalist Papers. His comments on Federalist 1 are here. The Founding Fathers created a system of government which has endured for over two centuries. That is a formidable achievement. The Federalist Papers, written in the heat of the ratification battles over the Constitution, are the primary text for understanding what motivated those who sought “a more perfect union”, how they expected the new government to function and their arguments in response to the anti-Federalists who opposed the Constitution. It is easy to draw up schemes of government; it is very difficult to make them function in reality. In the Federalist Papers we see at the beginning the drive to create one nation out of the disparate states. Paul has embarked upon an intellectual adventure in giving an exposition to these theoretical building blocks of our Republic and I urge you to join him for each installment.