Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Tea Party doesn’t get a fundamental point
Tea Party patriots slant history when they equate “small” with “limited” federal government.
“Small” and “limited” aren’t synonymous. When a grocer advertises a limited supply of pumpkins, he’s not claiming those pumpkins are all small. By “limited,” the grocer means pumpkins are in short supply.
Similarly, when the Constitution’s framers designed our republic’s limited government, they weren’t advocating power and authority in Washington that’s down-sized. They meant the feds must respect limits so as to not diminish citizens’ decision-making rights.
Even the Imprimus newsletter of Hillsdale College rebuts the Tea Party. This school in Michigan prides itself for being free enterprise’s intellectual citadel.
“How did the framers understand limited government?” asks Imprimus. “In the first place, limited government was not for the framers identical with small government, as the Tea Party sometimes tends to believe. The identification of limited government with small government was the position of the anti-Federalists who opposed ratification of the Constitution. Limited government, for the anti-Federalists, meant government that was too weak to threaten the rights and liberties of the people. Small government was, therefore, both the necessary and sufficient condition of political freedom. Consequently, the anti-Federalists preferred a purely confederal form of government in which the states assumed priority.”
The Tea Party’s visage is cloudy when they use this small government perspective as the correct lens to peer through. The Constitution’s framers feared tyranny caused by top-heavy government and anarchy when citizens acted like vigilante lawmakers.
They didn’t want government controlled by a monarch nor by an oligarchy — a privileged few who rule the many. The framers didn’t reduce the federal government’s power so that it exclusively resided with citizens. John Adams abhorred unruly, undereducated masses running our nation into the ground.
The framers didn’t place sovereignty — the power and authority to rule –exclusively with the people. They lodged it within constraints of limited government. The framers split the government’s authority and power between Washington and its citizens. James Madison called this principle of divided sovereignty “partly national (of the people) and partly federal (of Washington).
Washington takes over responsibilities for national defense, for instance, because state militias can’t handle it. Sometimes we grow the federal government to meet military challenges.
Similarly, government is enlarged to help the poor, care for the elderly and enhance education so our republic prospers. Limited government sometimes must prime the fiscal pump when our nation teeters on economic collapse.
That is, the feds use deficit spending to compensate for a downward spiral of private investment and shrinking employment.
Imprimus crisply delineates the delicate balance of sovereignty between citizens and the state: “In order to form just government, the people delegate a portion of their sovereignty to government to be exercised for their benefit. The fact that only a portion of sovereignty is ceded by the people is the origin of the idea of limited government.”
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt agreed. He stated, “The only sure bulwark of continuing liberty is a government strong enough to protect the interests of the people, and a people strong enough and well enough informed to maintain its sovereign control over government.”
The Tea Party spreads a half-truth. It’s right that founding fathers built the Constitution on bedrock Judeo-Christian morality. But the Tea Party wrongly asserts that the Constitution is tilted toward small government in order to maximize individual liberty and free enterprise.
“As a general rule,” writes Ron Chernow, the Pulitzer prize-winning historian, “the founders favored limited government, reserving a special wariness for executive power, but they clashed sharply over those limits” (Op-Ed page of the New York Times, Sept. 23, 2010).
Chernow points out that President Washington’s treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, increased government’s power and scope. European nations clamored to have their debts paid that the U.S. ran up in the Revolutionary War. Some states carried severe financial liabilities because of the war’s cost, too. In December 1790, Hamilton wrote a state paper promoting our nation’s first national bank, which later matured into the Federal Reserve System.
Madison and Jefferson vigorously protested, arguing the federal government was overstepping its bounds. Jefferson predicted that if Hamilton got his way, “to take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specifically drawn (in the Constitution) … is to take possession of a boundless field of power.” Instituting a national bank would hand too much power and authority to the federal government.
The tea partiers shade the truth when they assert that all founding fathers believed in limited, that is, small government. They contradict constitutional history when they portray these founders as agreeing on the meaning of limited government. The Tea Party’s one-sided reading of history doesn’t square with what actually happened at the Constitutional Convention.
An accurate reading of constitutional history reveals the healthy balance the framers intended between the federal government’s power and the authority reserved for its citizens.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.