“The people of the United States are the rightful masters of both Congress and the Courts, not to overthrow the Constitution, but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution.”
-Abraham Lincoln (17 September 1859, speech in Cincinnati, OH)
“It is not the function of our government to keep the citizen from falling into error; it is the function of the citizen to keep the government from falling into error.”
-United States Supreme Court in American Communications Association v. Douds
The abandonment of first principles, established by the nation’s founders, is apparent with the stark choices before us this election season. Few times in U.S. history has such a wide chasm separated the factions contending for primacy at this level of enmity.
True enough, we have had citizens at odds with each other over the mechanisms of government from the beginning. The Anti-Federalists opposed ratification of the Constitution in 1787 because they argued that centralized power would become despotic. Mark this well, although the ratification of the 10th Amendment in 1791 addressed this concern, the centralization of power since the turn of the 20th century has rapidly progressed.
“…working like gravity by night and by day, gaining a little to-day and a little to-morrow, and advancing it’s noiseless step like a thief, over the field of jurisdiction, until all shall be usurped from the States, and the government of all be consolidated into one. … when all government … in little as in great things, shall be drawn to Washington as the centre of all power, it will render powerless the checks provided of one government on another and will become as venal and oppressive as the government from which we separated.” -Thomas Jefferson (1821)
Thomas Sowell, in Conflict of Visions, explains the basic philosophies that have been contending for primacy in society for centuries. The constrained vision and unconstrained vision he describes fuels our differences about what government is supposed to do. Those with the constrained vision (conservatives, classic liberals) see society as fallible, acknowledge trade-offs as necessary, and recognize humans are in need of incentives to appeal to their natural individuality. Those of the unconstrained vision (modern liberals, socialists, progressives) see society as perfectible, and work to mold it to their concept of perfection to the negation of individuality.
“Good intentions will always be pleaded for every assumption for authority. It is hardly too strong to say that the Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intentions. There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters.”
How did we get to this state of affairs? A lack of knowledge and application of first principles that are vital to the process I call Maintenance of the Republic. Just as a machine whose preventive maintenance has been deferred will eventually require a costly overhaul; the government of this republic now requires an overhaul to return it to the founder’s specifications. We conservatives generally have an idea what those specifications are; others either have no clue or are certainly determined to change them. If we educate and guide the clueless and refresh ourselves on these points, we can prevent our opponents from altering our republic beyond what the founders would recognize.
“There is no nation on earth powerful enough to accomplish our overthrow. Our destruction, should it ever come at all, will be from another quarter. From the inattention of the people to the concerns of their government, from their carelessness and negligence.”
Where, then is our owner’s manual? I submit that no one document fulfills that purpose. The Constitution forms the legal basis of our government. It is so central to U.S. citizens that the military, federal officials and employees pledge their loyalty to it. The Federalist Papers may be seen as the philosophical basis of our government and the Constitution itself. Certainly the Declaration of Independence is the ultimate philosophical basis of our nation. The statement that the moral basis of our government (and indeed our society) is The Holy Bible will cause dissent today, but the founders would find no fault with it.
“We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion…Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
“I am persuaded that no civil government of a republican form can exist and be durable, in which the principles of Christianity have not a controlling influence.”
– James Madison
“Do not let anyone claim to be a true American if they ever attempt to remove religion from politics.”
The founders based their morals in the belief of a Supreme Being, and likely had no inkling the day would come that masses of citizens have abandoned this concept. Can you doubt the strength of their faith in God when Deity is referenced four times in the Declaration of Independence and once even in the Constitution? Although being men of faith, they recognized the individual’s right to believe or not and worship as he sees fit. Thus the 1st Amendment prescriptions to neither establish nor prohibit free exercise of religion. For those among us who abstain from religion, or whose faith is based on other than The Holy Bible; I do not wish to impose it on you, but rather recommend it for its cultural and literary contribution to our nation. If for no other reason, so that when you see one of our members here at redstate refer in a reply to “Balaam’s Ass”, you will know he is not talking about a congressman’s posterior.
Are there other documents which guide us in maintaining the republic? I invite your response to this question. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and certainly his 2nd Inaugural Address bear scrutiny in this regard.
There are instances when we have succeeded in proper maintenance, such as when FDR was thwarted in packing the Supreme Court. I am sure you can list others of equal or greater import, and I invite you to do so.
As for failure to maintain, the instances that come readily to my mind this election season are those that occurred in the first half of the 20th Century, particularly in the Progressive Era. Three of the four amendments to the Constitution in this era are examples of egregious undermining of the concept of Federalism. I speak of the 16th Amendment, which gave us an income tax to enable further usurpations and depredations by the central government.
“To lay with one hand the power of government on the property of the citizen, and with the other to bestow it on favored individuals … is none the less robbery because it is … called taxation.”
– United States Supreme Court in Loan Association v. Topeka (1874)
“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largess from the public treasury. From that time on the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the results that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship.”
– Sir Alex Fraser Tytler (1742-1813 Edinburgh University)
I also refer you to the 17th Amendment, which further eroded the power of the states by removing the role of selection of U.S. Senators from the state legislatures. The 19th Amendment, which gave us Prohibition in an imposition of the good intentions of some upon all, contributed to the establishment of organized crime. There are many other unintended consequences which flowed from the excesses of Progressivism, chief of which is the Great Depression. The sin of Progressivism was not confined to one party; TR, Hoover, Wilson, and FDR all subscribed to its tenets. The Democrats like to blame Hoover as contributor to the Depression because of his Republicanism. His Progressivism was the real culprit, while FDR’s Progressivism deepened and prolonged the crisis.
Let me interject here that I have often heard moderates and proponents of the left fiercely deny they hold liberal or Socialist views. Those two labels have been used so often as epithets that they run from such characterization in order to hide their intentions. On the other hand, I have never heard one deny or shrink from the label of “progressive”. Perhaps because it seems so admirable, since the root word is “progress”. Who can be against progress, after all? Well fine, then! Let them embrace progress – the first definition of progress in my American Heritage Dictionary says: “movement toward a goal”. I will grant them their charming label as long as we get to scrutinize the goal they seek, and most importantly assign them the legacy of their forebears.
The Progressives of times past had an affinity to Fascism; if you doubt their connections I direct you to Three New Deals by Wolfgang Shivelbush and The Roosevelt Myth by John T. Flynn. Jonah Goldberg has further identified the Fascist strains in the modern Progressives with those of the past in Liberal Fascism. I don’t bring up Fascism in order to appeal to your prejudices or emotions, emotions are the province of the Progressives and those of the unconstrained vision. I appeal instead to your reason and discernment, to illustrate that the goals of our opponents are far removed from the goals of our founders and are incompatible with our goals as Conservatives. Emotion is a dangerous sentiment, and the unbridled emotion of the Progressives could well unleash excesses to rival the Jacobins of the French Revolution. I sense it in their rhetoric already.
I invite your comments, from all quarters. If you disagree or think me wrong, say so – and correct my error. If you agree, add to what little I have just contributed to our discourse and build up our brethren.
[Update: Starting today, Monday, 27 Oct, on NRO TV, the Hoover Institution presents a 5-part interview entitled “Thomas Sowell and a Conflict of Visions” on Uncommon Knowledge with Peter Robinson.]