Would the Founders Remake America?

I wrote the following article for Human Events.

“At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents…. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”

Barack Obama delivered these magnificently eloquent yet baneful and inaccurate statements during his first inaugural address. They are pregnant with historical fallacies and present Americans with a clear question that must be answered in the next four years: does America need to be “remade?” And, as a corollary, would Americans remain “true to our founding documents” by following Obama’s advice? It certainly is not, as he suggests, the tradition of our “forebears,” men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams or any other man from the founding generation, and they would not support “remaking” America by spitting on the Constitution or ignoring it entirely. The Constitution limits the power of government, and those limits cannot and should not be ignored by either the government or the American public.

The most troubling and damaging fallacy of his first inaugural rests in his apparent belief that the Founding Fathers were romantic, egalitarian, utopian, centralizers bent on “creating” something “new” in the founding documents of the United States. Many Americans have seemingly subscribed to this interpretation of history. They don’t realize that Jefferson copied much of the Declaration of Independence from fellow Virginians George Mason and Richard Henry Lee and his most famous phrase, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness…” was simply a shortened version of Mason’s “all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights…namely the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and maintaining happiness and safety.” And, of course, all Americans in the founding generation recognized the maxim that the right to “life, liberty, and property” originated in the ancient constitutions of England, including the Magna Carta of 1215 and the English Bill of Rights of 1689 and were best articulated by the British philosopher John Locke. Jefferson himself stated that the Declaration was not a statement of “new principles, or new arguments.” It was the English tradition applied to American circumstances.

Additionally, no one in the founding generation would have agreed to the idea that American can be “remade” through extensive centralization in the hands of one individual or even 535 members of Congress. To them, the state governments offered the best protection for the liberty and happiness of the people and were the keystone of the federal government. William Davie of North Carolina, a Revolutionary War hero, member of the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 and proponent of the Constitution, said during the state ratification convention that, “If there were any seeds in this Constitution which might, one day, produce a consolidation, it would, sir, with me, be an insuperable objection, I am so perfectly convinced that so extensive a country as this can never be managed by one consolidated government.” Samuel Huntingdon of Connecticut, a signatory to the Declaration of Independence and governor of his state, argued during the Connecticut ratification convention that, “The history of man clearly shows that it is dangerous to intrust [SIC] the supreme power in the hands of one man,” and he thought that the state governments would “not be endangered by the powers vested by the Constitution in the general government.” He believed in their necessity and rights as sovereign political entities.

The conviction that America can be “remade” through executive action and consolidation of government is damaging to the American tradition of limited government and jealous maintenance of state authority. Americans have a right to “life, liberty, and property” and, as the founding generation continually emphasized, these rights cannot be abridged by government, particularly a consolidated government in Washington, D.C. Taxes confiscate property, and the more government takes from the private sector the less liberty and independence individual Americans have, thus a violation of the founding documents and the founding principles of the United States. If Obama and the progressives in the modern federal government wish to “remake” America, and they do, they should not cloak their designs in the language of the founding generation. To a man, the Founders would have resisted everything the current government does in the name of the “general welfare” of the “people.” Rather than preserve the “ideas of our forebears,” nationalization, from health care to auto companies to “cap and trade,” destroys liberty, freedom, and independence.

Connecticut native and patriot Oliver Wolcott once said, “Mankind may become corrupt, and give up the cause of freedom; but I believe that love of liberty which prevails among the people of this country will prevent such a direful calamity.” Other members of the founding generation echoed this sentiment. Alexander Hamilton, considered by many to be the American architect of “big government,” thundered during the New York ratification convention: “Sir, can it be supposed that the state will become the oppressors of the people? Will they combine to destroy the liberties and happiness of their fellow citizens, for the sole purpose of involving themselves in ruin? God forbid! The idea, sir, is shocking. It outrages every feeling of humanity, and every dictate of common sense.” This generation could not foresee Americans willingly giving up their liberty or freedom for convenience and security in the name of what Franklin D. Roosevelt called the fear of fear.

The current mess in Washington can be resisted, but it depends on the willingness of the states and the people of the states to grow a backbone.

Comments are closed.