Spalding traces the roots of American progressives to German thinkers who believed in the "Administrative State." Here, government is controlled by administrators and "experts," rather than officials elected to represent the people. Spalding also notes that the Founders and the progressives differed in their view of the Constitution. Progressives believed in a "...
The United States Constitution has been the basis for America and its limited government since 1789. The document quite literally binds us together as a nation and sets the ground rules for what our federal government may or may not do. Without a doubt, it is an exceptionally unique document in history and has been an example to the world of successful self-government. The philosophical roots of the Constitution go back through Western Civilization to the times of the Ancient Romans, Greeks, and even Hebrews.
In this topic, the following topics are covered:
Federalists and Anti-Federalists
The Bill of Rights
Checks and Balances
Growth of Government vs. Constitutional Limits
The Constitution was written with a particular understanding of human nature, that all men are born with a dual nature, capable of both good and bad, and hence require social influences such as those from family, religion, and community to provide moral education and guidance. Therefore, society, and by extension government, is not only natural but necessary.
But, rather than try to remake human nature as many modern ideologies have tried, the Framers of the Constitution believed that it was better to build a government that recognized human nature as unchanging and simply harnessed the good and the bad innate in man for the betterment of society. As James Madison, chief author of the Constitution, wrote in 1788 in Federalist 51:
"Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. 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."
Part of counteracting ambition was to establish ways to both limit the overall power of the federal government over states and individuals, as well as the power of individuals or branches within the federal government. How to do so was hotly debated at the time by the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists.
The debate between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists is perhaps one of the most famous debates in American history. It was a debate over the principles and institutions by which the nation would be governed. The Federalists were in favor of a more powerful central government; the Anti-Federalists saw the proposed Constitution as flawed and lacking the ability to adequately check federal government encroachments on liberty. The fundamental argument between the two factions wasn't over whether the government was to be limited in its powers, but if the Constitution would be able to effectively keep government limited and protect liberty.
Both the Anti-Federalists and Federalists believed in Natural Rights that transcend the power of government, such as the rights to life, liberty, and property. While there were many compromises made to ratify the Constitution, perhaps the most notable is the Bill of Rights which attempted to protect some Natural Rights. Even the Bill of Rights, though, was debated as the Anti-Federalists were concerned that putting a "right" on paper could be interpreted to limit that right, or that the government would attempt to deny other natural rights that weren't listed. As a result of that concern, the 9th Amendment of the Constitution was added as an attempt to defend those unnamed rights.
As the debate over the Bill of Rights, individual freedom, and the extent of federal power still occurs today, it would seem that the Anti-Federalists were right to fear vague grants of power by the Constitution like the necessary and proper clause, the commerce clause, and general welfare clause, as those clauses have in fact been used to increase federal power over the states and individuals.
The Bill of Rights, included in the Constitution as a compromise to win Anti-Federalist votes for ratification, is rooted in Natural Law/Rights and Common Law traditions. The idea of Natural Law is that there are universal, objective truths (laws) that logically infer certain rights (Natural Rights) to each individual such as life, liberty, and property.
We can see the development of natural rights written into legal code quite early in Western Civilization. The framers were certainly aware of that history, and they looked to Common Law and English legal tradition in general, and the English Magna Carta of 1215 in particular, for guidance in creating our founding documents.
The Bill of Rights set out to codify the protection of individuals' natural rights against encroachment from the Federal Government that would be created by the Constitution. Some of the more popular rights or protections are as follows: 1st Amendment (protecting religion, speech, the press, and association); the 2nd Amendment (protecting gun ownership for personal defense); the 4th Amendment (protecting against warrantless searches); the 5th Amendment (protecting against government seizure of property and guaranteeing due process); and the 10th Amendment (reserving powers not granted to the federal government for the states).
Taking its lesson from the overreach of the British Crown, the first government of the United States, under the Articles of Confederation ratified in 1781, sought to ensure that "Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every Power, Jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled."
While the adoption of the Constitution in 1787 was motivated to remedy some of the ills that resulted from the weak national government the Articles had created, James Madison made it clear in Federalist 45 that,
"The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the Federal Government, are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State Governments are numerous and indefinite."
To this day, Madison's position is much debated. Those favoring a strong federal government argue that policy differences between the states often create obstacles to social and economic progress. Those desiring a very limited federal government observe that localization of powers is needed to effectively protect the liberties and meet the needs of a large and diverse population, and that leaving much of the governing power to individual states provides a unique opportunity for them to experiment and discover effective solutions to societal problems.
There are two main categories of constitutional interpretation: Originalism and Non-Originalism. These two categories are admittedly broad. But in general terms, the first seeks to interpret the Constitution by looking closely at the text, the influencing documents, and the historical context in which it was written. The second looks at the Constitution as a living document the interpretation of which needs to take into account changes in social norms, economic and political circumstances.
The first debates over proper constitutional interpretation arose among the Founders themselves. In 1788, while the Constitution was awaiting ratification, Alexander Hamilton stated that the interpretation of the Constitution was to be left in the hands of the courts. Nearly 30 years later, James Madison noted the bias that was possible in interpreting the Constitution, both for those present during its formation, like himself, and for those removed from the process, but eager "to find in its text an authority for a particular measure of great apparent Utility." Finally, Thomas Jefferson weighed in on constitutional interpretation methods with the following statement:
"On every question of construction, carry ourselves back to the time when the constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed."
In the years following the Founding generation, the courts and other constitutional scholars continued to approach constitutional interpretation with caution. For example, Joseph Story's Commentaries on the Constitution suggested that Americans interpret the Constitution in a straightforward, rational manner while cautiously appealing to the Founders' contemporary context in matters lacking clarity. Additionally, various court cases cited the need to look into the historical circumstances surrounding the Founding Fathers in order to make accurate judgments.
However, as the 20th century advanced, the idea that the Constitution needed to be interpreted in light of the nation's changing times and circumstances began to take precedence in the Court system. As a result, important clauses of the Constitution began to be applied much more broadly.
Since before the ratification of the Constitution there have been two schools of thought regarding the use of "General Welfare" in the constitution.
The first perspective, supported by James Madison in Federalist No. 41, interprets the language as a further restriction upon the enumerated powers. If Congress were to exercise a power, it would have to add to the general welfare of the entire nation, not just a narrow sector. For example, if the modern Congress were to pass legislation for a welfare program, it would have to benefit all Americans, not just one particular group. As Madison later noted in a private letter, interpreting the general welfare clause other than as a restriction on the enumerated powers would expand the Constitution far beyond what its writers intended:
"With respect to the words 'general welfare,' I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators."
The second perspective, supported by Alexander Hamilton, and feared by Anti-Federalists, is that it grants Congress powers beyond the twenty enumerated powers. Hamilton's interpretation was largely rejected during his time (why specify powers if the Constitution has already given blanket authorities?). However, given the past century's massive growth of government in the name of "the general welfare," it seems clear that Hamilton's interpretation has won the day--for now.
Another area of the Constitution where interpretations have differed significantly since the ratification of the Constitution is the Commerce Clause. Conservative and libertarian legal experts interpret this clause from an originalist viewpoint, arguing that the power to "regulate" is actually the power to "make regular." Under this interpretation, the Commerce Clause was put into the Constitution to give the federal government the power to prevent states from erecting barriers to commerce against each other, such as tariffs on goods from other states, or forbidding interstate exchange altogether. Essentially, the originalists argue that the Framers wanted to ensure domestic free trade in America.
Progressives (and many neo-conservatives) tend to rely on past Supreme Court interpretations of the Commerce Clause. One of the most cited cases is Wickard v. Filburn (1942), which followed closely after FDR threatened to "pack the Court" to make sure it didn't rule his new laws unconstitutional. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that the Commerce Clause gives Congress the right to regulate any economic activity that has substantial effect (in the aggregate) on interstate commerce.
Recently, the Commerce Clause has received revived attention in determining the constitutional basis for the "individual mandate" portion of the Obama Administration's new health care reform law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (colloquially known as "Obamacare"). The individual mandate would require all citizens to purchase health insurance, and those who do not purchase insurance would have to pay a penalty.
In designing the U.S. Constitution, the Framers sought to secure individual liberty against the encroachment of governmental power by not giving too much power to any one individual or branch in government. By doing so, they expected that ambitious men would keep each other in check as they jealously guarded their powers granted by the Constitution.
Examples of checks and balances in the U.S. Constitution include: the president can veto legislation passed by Congress, but Congress can override that veto with a 2/3 vote; the president commands the army but Congress declares war and appropriates funds; the president appoints justices to the Supreme Court, but only with the approval of the Senate; Congress and the president can pass laws, but the Supreme Court can strike those laws down as unconstitutional.
Critics argue that checks and balances tend to slow the process of governing thereby preventing urgently needed action from taking place. However, that is the intended effect. To guard against tyranny, human nature must be obliged.
Historically speaking, an overreaching and oppressive government was a main reason why the colonies rebelled. Generally, the Founders advocated for a limited government, which, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, could be described in the following way:
"[W]ith all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people? Still one thing more, fellow-citizens—a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities."
It was hoped that the Constitution and the limits on power it enumerated would secure personal and economic freedom for Americans, while allowing states to be the prime drivers of regulations.
With the dawn of the 20th century and the rise of the Progressive movement however, America's ideal of limited government began to change. The Progressives often desire that the Federal Government, rather than state or local government, play the major role in regulations and social welfare. As many charts show, federal expenditures – a key measure of government growth – rose steadily following the 1913 passage of the 16th Amendment, which officially implemented the income tax.
Apart from federal department creation, government growth is measured in a number of ways, including the expansion in government employment, the growth of the regulatory budget, and the size of the federal register. On all these measures, the trend has been upward.
The most noticeable part of a growing government is the money it spends. The spending increases in the U.S. defense, education, health care, transportation, and welfare budgets in recent decades have contributed significantly to the burden of debt the United States is accumulating.
Today, many from all sides of the partisan divide are concerned by the growth in centralized, government power. Often people want the federal government to provide various services, such as Social Security or Medicare, that are only possible by re-interpreting parts of the Constitution, such as the General Welfare and Commerce Clauses, to allow for such services. The problem is that when those interpretations happen, then the government is able to interfere in the lives of people in many other ways. It is a classic case of wanting one's cake, while trying to eat it, too.
As the powers of the Federal Government continue to be debated in the courts and on Facebook, it's important to go back to when the Constitution and the nation's "first principles" were founded and determine whether or not you believe the Framers set out to create a limited or unlimited federal government, and whether or not most of the regulating, taxing, and welfare powers should rest with local and state governments or a centralized government in Washington, D.C.
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