WASHINGTON: In recent days, American political life has taken many strange turns. Republicans, who previously supported limited executive power, free trade, and a balanced budget, not to mention international leaderships, seem to have abandoned these traditional positions. Democrats now have an increasingly vocal left-wing which views socialism as the proper path forward.
Each party views the other as an “enemy.”
None of this has any relationship with traditional American political philosophy. It is time that we rediscovered what the Founding Fathers believed about the role of government.
They understood that freedom was not man’s natural state. Their entire political philosophy was based on fear of government power and the need to limit and control such power very strictly. At the present time, too many Americans do not share that philosophy.
Unfortunately, many in present-day America are not even familiar with the hopes and fears of the Founding Fathers. It was their fear of total government which initially 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.
That government should be clearly limited and that power is a corrupting Force was the essential perception of the men who made 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 Founding Fathers were not utopians. They understood man’s nature. They attempted to form a government that was consistent with, not contrary to, that nature. Alexander Hamilton pointed out that,
“Here we have already seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, weaknesses, and evils incident to society in every shape. Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age, and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our critical conduct that we, as well as the other, inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?”
The written and spoken words of the men who led the Revolution give us numerous examples of their fear and suspicion of power and those who held it. Samuel Adams asserted that:
“There is a degree of watchfulness overall 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.”
For many years the belief in limited government, division of power and checks and balances has been eroding. This has taken place under both Republicans and Democrats. For example, the Constitution gives Congress the sole power to declare war.
The last time it did so was World War ll. Since then, we have fought a series of wars, in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and elsewhere, without a congressional declaration. Members of Congress of both parties have abdicated their responsibility as the executive expanded the power of the Oval Office.
For many years, whichever party was in power advocated the broad use of power.
After all, they had it. The party out of power wanted sharp limits on such power because they did not. When the party out of power came to power, it simply shifted philosophies. The result is the tremendous expansion of government and, in particular, executive power.
Today, we see an executive who claims there are few, if any, limits to executive power. The White House, it seems, rejects the Constitutional division of power and system of checks and balances. It regularly rejects subpoenas from Congress.
This writer worked in Congress for a number of years for Republicans such as Reps. Philip Crane and Jack Kemp. As a journalist, I have been editor of The New Guard, the journal of Young Americans Freedom, one of the earliest conservative organizations in the political arena. I have been a contributing editor of Human Events, the leading conservative publication of its day.
What we promoted was limited government, free enterprise, balanced budgets and respect for the Constitution.
Some who call themselves conservatives today have embraced a far different agenda. They have embraced the largest budget deficit in history, tariffs and trade wars, and almost unlimited executive power. It is an agenda that conservatives from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan would reject.
It is time to reclaim the American political philosophy. Whether governments are elected by a majority of citizens or are elected by no one, tells us simply how they are constituted, not how power is exercised or whether or not freedom of the individual is protected.
Those who seek to expand power and diminish freedom always have a variety of good reasons to set forth for their purposes. In the case of Olmstead vs. the United States (1927) , Justice Louis Brandeis warned that:
“ Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in the insidious encroachment of men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”
The Founding Fathers would be disappointed to see the current state of our political life. But they would not be surprised. In recent days, many have quoted Benjamin Franklin who, when leaving the Constitutional Convention, was asked,
“What kind of government have you created?” He replied, “A republic if you can keep it.”
That is still the question. Unless we rediscover the American political philosophy, the answer is in doubt.
Lead image composed of: