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The Conservative Curmudgeon
August 26, 2008

What Would the Founding Fathers Think About the
Explosive Growth of Government Power?

by Allan C. Brownfeld

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 malaise.”

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.

People’s Tribune
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 itself.”

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.”

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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 is included.

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 East Affairs.

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