I do occasionally write politically here but with this government shutdown, I tire of the nonsense that we are supposed to have a “small and limited” government. This essay is to show the historical roots of the “small and limited” government movement.
People forget that Republicans opposed Social Security, claiming it would cause the “end of the republic” and had similar dire claims about Medicare when it was passed as well. None of those “the sky is falling” claims ever came to pass. Yet they are all based on the erroneous belief that we are supposed to have a “small” and “limited” government.
That notion, of a small and limited government, is clearly refuted by the historical documents of that period itself. The anti-federalists were so alarmed at our constitution that they wrote things like this:
“This government is to possess absolute and uncontrollable power, legislative, executive and judicial, with respect to every object to which it extends. … The government then, so far as it extends, is a complete one. … It has the authority to make laws which will affect the lives, the liberty, and the property of every man in the United States; nor can the constitution or the laws of any state, in any way prevent or impede the full and complete execution of every power given.” ~ New Yorker Robert Yates.
Some state delegates from Pennsylvania said this:
“We dissent … because the powers vested in Congress by this constitution, must necessarily annihilate and absorb the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of the several states, and produce from their ruins one consolidated government. …
“The new government will not be a confederacy of states, as it ought, but one consolidated government, founded upon the destruction of the several governments of the states. … The powers of Congress under the new constitution, are complete and unlimited over the purse and the sword, and are perfectly independent of, and supreme over, the state governments; whose intervention in these great points is entirely destroyed.”
So very clearly, from the beginning, the constitution that was mandated by federalists like George Washington, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton was intended to be a powerful central government.
In Article 1, Section 8, the Framers included language giving Congress the authority to “provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States” and “to make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers.”
As historian Jada Thacker has written, “The Constitution was never intended to ‘provide limited government,’ and furthermore it did not do so. … This is not a matter of opinion, but of literacy. If we want to discover the truth about the scope of power granted to the federal government by the Constitution, all we have to do is read what it says.”
Given the malleable phrase “general Welfare” and the so-called “elastic clause” for passing all “necessary and proper” laws, Thacker notes that “the type, breadth and scope of federal legislation became unchained. … Taken together, these clauses – restated in the vernacular – flatly announce that ‘Congress can make any law it feels is necessary to provide for whatever it considers the general welfare of the country.’
“Lately there has been an embarrassingly naïve call from the Tea Party to require Congress to specify in each of its bills the Constitutional authority upon which the bill is grounded. Nothing could be easier: the first and last clauses of Article I, Section 8 gives Congress black-and-white authority to make any law it so desires. Nor was this authority lost on the Founders.”
That authority is what generated those anti-federalist responses! It did result in the Bill of Rights but it never, ever cut back on the power of the central federal government. So the calls for “limited government” are erroneous and not based on history itself.
Thus we find the entire tea party movement to be grounded in something other than respect for the constitution, which apparently they have not studied nor the circumstances surrounding its creation.
So what is the historical basis for this belief in limited government? It is none other than the South’s infatuation with slavery. And who most clearly proved this with his own words? What would such power do? It would bring about, said Patrick Henry, what “I have ever dreaded—subserviency of southern to northern interests.” By which he meant, as he had phrased it more succinctly three years earlier in opposing the Constitution, “They’ll free your niggers,” was what Patrick Henry told his fellow Virginia delegates when he saw the central power of the federal government.
It took decades but that is indeed exactly what happened. So the belief and the desire to return to limited government is rooted in a combination of historical Southern bigotry coupled more recently with Ayn Randian based greed, anarchism, and narcissism. That’s the true history of the movement to limit the central government.
As Elizabeth Warren recently said, “The threats may continue but they are not working. And they will never work. Because this is a democracy. And in a democracy, hostage tactics are the last resort for those who can’t otherwise win their fights through elections, can’t win their fights in Congress, can’t win their fights for the presidency, and can’t win their fights in courts. For this right-wing minority, hostage-taking is all they have left – a last gasp of those who cannot cope with the results of our democracy.”