In the heated, polarized and none too intelligent rhetoric of the midterm elections, the cry has been heard that we must return to the kind of government provided for in the Constitution and intended by the Founding Fathers: a limited government of limited powers. That brought to mind a couple of questions. How many of those who angrily call for a return to the Constitution have read the Constitution? How many know that the Founding Fathers hotly debated the proposed Constitution: some were in favor and some strongly opposed it? If those who desire that the intent of the Founding Fathers be honored mean the ones who favored the new Constitution, have they read what they wrote?
The pro Constitution party, the Federalists, found their voice through the Federalist Papers, a series of essays that were the cooperative effort of James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay written in the two years running up to the ratification of the Constitution in 1789. Most of us read about the Federalist Papers back in high school. We probably even read portions of them if we majored in history or political science in college. But reading all of them? Boring! So I took them with me on our trip. What fascinating reading. A bit tedious at times, but I was taken by two things. First, they had a clear and very modern understanding of political psychology, and an almost Calvinistic faith in the ability of human beings to screw up a good thing through their selfish shortsightedness. For that reason, what they envisioned to be the product of this new Constitution creating a republican form of democracy was a strong and active national government capable of enacting and enforcing laws for the general welfare of the nation as a whole as well as raising the necessary revenues to make that happen.
Dealing, as they did, with the dominant issues of the day, they saw the new federal government being concerned mostly with national defense, international relations, trade, and regulation of interstate commerce. They viewed each of these realms in broad, flexible terms, but admitted that they could not foresee what other demands might come before the federal government in the future, and so intended it to be able to adapt its powers as needed to meet any contingency. In other words, the advocates for the new Constitution did not envision the “limited government” that has become the shibboleth of today’s ultra-conservative political vocabulary. They envisioned a hearty, activist government operating within a Constitution that could and would allow it to confront the needs of the future, whatever they might be.
My local Tea Party types would be horrified if they knew that. What is this country coming to if you can’t even trust the Founding Fathers?