In recent years, whether Republicans or Democrats have been in office,
the size and power of government have grown steadily.
Under President Bush, what some have called a new “Imperial Presidency” has
emerged. In The Cult of the Presidency, (The Cato Institute),
Gene Healy notes that the administration’s broad assertions of
executive power include “the power to launch wars at will, to
tap phones and read e-mail without a warrant, and to seize American
citizens on American soil, and hold them for the duration of the war
on terror — in other words, perhaps forever — without ever having
to answer to a judge...”
He continues, “Neither Left nor Right sees the president as
the Framers saw him: a constitutionally constrained chief executive
with an important, but limited, job: to defend the country when attacked,
check Congress when it violates the Constitution, enforce the law —
and little else. Today, for conservatives as well as liberals, it is
the president's job to protect us from harm, to ‘grow the economy,’ to
spread democracy and American ideals abroad, and even to heal spiritual
Healy explains that during the l9l2 reelection campaign, the 27th
president, William Howard Taft, looked on with dread as his former
friend and mentor, Theodore Roosevelt, articulated a grandiose vision
of the presidency. Seeking to secure a third term by denying Taft a
second one, Roosevelt struck an apocalyptic note in his campaign. In
his address to the delegates at the Progressive Party convention, Roosevelt
declared: "You who strive in a spirit of brotherhood for the betterment
of our Nation, to you who gird yourselves for this great new fight
in the never-ending warfare for the good of humankind, I say in closing...
We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord."
Taft offered a more realistic account of the presidency's potential.
He insisted that the president was not responsible for solving every
major problem in American life and should not have the power to attempt
it. In one speech, Taft declared that the president "cannot create
good times... cannot make the rain to fall, the sun to shine, or the
crops to grow."
In his State of the Union address, George W. Bush promised, among
other things, to rescue America's children from gangs, fight steroids
in sports, ‘move (America) beyond a petroleum-based economy,” and “lead
freedom's advance” around the world.
In Gene Healy's view, the rhetoric of modern presidents reflects what
the office has become. “The constitutional presidency, as the
Framers conceived it, was designed to stand against the popular will
as often as not, with the president wielding the veto power to restrain
Congress when it transgressed its constitutional bounds. In contrast,
the modern president considers himself the tribune of the people,
promising transformative action and demanding the power to carry
it out. The result is what political scientist Theodore J. Lowi has
termed ‘the plebiscitary presidency’: ‘an office
of tremendous personal power drawn from people... and based on the
new democratic theory that the presidency with all powers is the
necessary condition for governing a large democratic nation.’”
If Men Were Angels...
This is all very far from the thinking of our Founding Fathers. Their
entire political philosophy was based on a fear of government power
and the need to limit and control that power very strictly. It was
their fear of total government that caused them to rebel against
the arbitrary rule of King George III. In the Constitution they tried
their best to construct a form of government which, through a series
of checks and balances and a clear division of powers, would protect
the individual. They believed that government was a necessary evil,
not a positive good. They would shudder at popular assumptions that
regard government as a force for the enhancement of individual freedom.
Yet, the Founding Fathers would not be surprised to see the many
limitations upon individual freedom that have come into existence.
In a letter to Edward Carrington, Thomas Jefferson wrote that, “One
of the most profound preferences in human nature is for satisfying
one's needs and desires with the least possible exertion; for appropriating
wealth produced by the labor of others, rather than producing it by
one's own labor... [T]he stronger and more centralized the government,
the safer would be the guarantee of such monopolies; in other words,
the stronger the government, the weaker the producer, the less consideration
need be given him and the more might be taken away from him.”
That government should be clearly limited and that power is a corrupting
force were essential convictions held by the men who founded the nation.
In The Federalist Papers, James Madison declared: “It may be
a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary
to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself
but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels,
no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither
external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In
framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the
great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government
to control the governed, and in the next place oblige it to control
The written and spoken words of the men who led the Revolution give
us numerous examples of their suspicion of power and those who hold
it. Samuel Adams asserted that, “There is a degree of watchfulness
over all men possessed of power or influence upon which the liberties
of mankind much depend. It is necessary to guard against the infirmities
of the best as well as the wickedness of the worst of men.” Therefore, “Jealousy
is the best security of public liberty.”
It is not only our political leaders — of both parties — who have
presided over the dramatic growth of government power. Too many Americans
want other things more than they want freedom and are no longer jealous
of freedom in the way men like
Samuel Adams argued they would have to be if it were to be maintained.
The Founding Fathers would not be happy with out increasingly powerful
government — and chief executive — but they would not be surprised.
Leaving the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked
what kind of government had been established. He replied: “A
Republic, if you can keep it.”
The Conservative Curmudgeon archives
The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2008
by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com.
All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information
Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which
is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has
been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and
the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.
He is associate editor of The Lincoln Reveiw and a contributing
editor to such publications as Human Events,
The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle
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