The Spirit of 76 vs. The Arc of History

Joseph Ellis has a thought-provoking op-ed in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times on the the founding fathers, the big vs. small government debate, and the arc of American history.

He shows that today’s small government, tea-party, libertarian types have Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence on their side, but those who defend active or “expansive” government can claim the framers of the Constitution, Lincoln and the Civil War unionists, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Ellis writes:

This brief tour of American history, which could be extended to include Lyndon B. Johnson‘s Great Society, reveals that modern-day conservatives have “the spirit of ’76” on their side, as well as the power of Jefferson’s original formulation of the American creed. Liberals, on the other hand, have the arc of American history on their side, which until the presidency of Ronald Reagan seemed to have the final word in the debate. After all, who could imagine a successful political movement requiring the revocation of two centuries of American history? Barry Goldwater, who campaigned for president in 1968 on just such a radical agenda, received only 38% of the vote.

While realistically this is still so — unless American voters are prepared to dispense with Medicare, Social Security, the Federal Reserve Board and even our existence as a sovereign nation-state — at least rhetorically conservatives have a narrative advantage. That is, their story of individual freedom and tyrannical government enjoys a privileged place in the lexicon because of its association with our political origins.

As a historian of those origins, I can tell you that there were dissenting voices back in the summer of 1776, most notably George Washington and John Adams, who regarded Jefferson’s dream of pure self-government as a preposterous illusion. Washington even thought that we almost lost the war for independence because of the refusal of the states to provide sufficient support for the Continental Army.

But the dream has proved remarkably resilient because it depicts any conspicuous expression of government power as an alien force and sanctifies the sovereign individual, standing tall against oppression. Even though that story line has been anachronistic for more than a century, it has levitated out of space and time to become a fixture in American mythology, never to be underestimated as a political weapon, especially when wielded by the party out of power….

If Ellis is correct (and I think he is), then libertarians should stop claiming the Constitutional framers, Washington, Adams, and Lincoln as their own.  Instead they should be claiming the libertarian vision of Thomas Jefferson.

Actually, if Jefferson did not have a God problem (he did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the inspiration of the Bible, the Trinity, etc…) he would be the perfect founding father for libertarian conservatives.

BUT WAIT!…it now appears that Jefferson actually did NOT have a God problem after all.  He has been officially baptized by David Barton!  As a result, the small-government conservative movement now has a patron founding saint–someone who was libertarian in politics and a supporter of government’s role in promoting religion.

BUT WAIT AGAIN!  How could Jefferson, a libertarian who wanted government to stay out of our business, have supported government’s active role in promoting religion in the public square?  Isn’t the promotion of religion an example of active government–a violation of the libertarian creed?

How do Christian libertarians balance their commitment to limited government with their desire for government to legislate morality and religion?

Dionne: Ideological Hypocrites

How can the GOP presidential candidates claim to be “free market virgins” when:

  • They have been drawing government paychecks for years?
  • They seek government “largesse” for their constituencies?
  • They promise senior citizens never to cut Medicare or Social Security?
  • They support large defense contracts that “are an enormous intrusion in the operation of the free market?”
  • They support government bailouts?  

Read all about it in today’s E.J. Dionne column.

Here is a taste:

Can conservatives finally face the fact that they actually want quite a lot from government, and that they are simply unwilling to raise taxes to pay for it?

This is why our political system is so broken. Conservatives keep pretending that they can keep anti-government promises that they know perfectly well they are destined to break. We won’t have sensible politics again until our friends on the right bring their rhetorical claims into closer alignment with what they do — and what it takes to make government work.

Douthat on the Role of Government

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat makes sense here.

A taste: 

…In this (liberal) worldview, the government is just the natural expression of our national community, and the place where we all join hands to pursue the common good. Or to borrow a line attributed to Representative Barney Frank, “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.”

Many conservatives would go this far with Frank: Government is one way we choose to work together, and there are certain things we need to do collectively that only government can do.

But there are trade-offs as well, which liberal communitarians don’t always like to acknowledge. When government expands, it’s often at the expense of alternative expressions of community, alternative groups that seek to serve the common good. Unlike most communal organizations, the government has coercive power — the power to regulate, to mandate and to tax. These advantages make it all too easy for the state to gradually crowd out its rivals. The more things we “do together” as a government, in many cases, the fewer things we’re allowed to do together in other spheres….

Thank Abraham Lincoln for Big Government

This piece by William Nichols, a doctoral candidate in political science at Wayne State University, is bound to ruffle some feathers.  Nichols compares the “big government” rhetoric of the 19th-century Whig party with the the “big government” liberalism of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Here, for example, is a quote from Daniel Webster:

But all these local advantages, and all this enlightened state policy, could never have made your city what it now is, without the aid and protection of a general government, extending over all the States, and establishing for all a common and uniform system of commercial regulation.  Without national character, without public credit, without systematic finance, without uniformity of commercial laws, all other advantages possessed by this city would have decayed and perished, like unripe fruit.

Here is Henry Clay:

Our American system, which was at once both to destroy foreign commerce, and to dry up the sources of the public income, has disappointed all the predictions of its foes, and assures us of the speedy arrival of the day when our national independence will be consummated.  The manufactures of our country have now struck such deep and strong root, that the hand of violence itself can scarcely tear up and destroy them.  Their twin – sister, internal improvements, has not been neglected.  Large and liberal appropriations, in every part of the union, have been made to that beneficent object.

And here is Lincoln:

The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves—in their separate, and individual capacities.
In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere.
The desirable things which the individuals of a people can not do, or can not well do, for themselves, fall into two classes:  those which have relation to wrongs, and those which have not.  Each of these branch off into an infinite variety of subdivisions.
The first—that in relation to wrongs—embraces all crimes, misdemeanors, and non-performance of contracts.  The other embraces all which, in its nature, and without wrong, requires combined action, as public roads and highways, public schools, charities, pauperism, orphanage, estates of the deceased, and the machinery of government itself.
From this it appears that if all men were just, there would still be some, though not so much, need of government.

We must be careful using quotes like this.  As historians know, the past is a “foreign country” where they do things differently.  As a result, we should be cautious when applying the 19th-century Whig understanding of active government to the 20th or 21st century understanding of active or “big” government.

Nevertheless, one cannot deny that the Whigs and Republicans believed that government had a very important role to play in economic life and in protecting the “welfare” of some of its citizens.  The Whigs were not “states-rights” anti-Federalist libertarians.  They were nationalists.  And their nationalism was partially built upon a strong and active federal government.

And some conservative politicians might be horrified to learn that it was Thomas Jefferson and his descendants in what would become the 19th-century Democratic Party who favored limited government.

Liberty University Receives More Federal Funding Than National Public Radio

While this piece in Salon is a bit of an angry screed against Liberty University, it does provide some very interesting information about just how much federal money Liberty is receiving.  Has anyone read a less biased account of this issue?

Is it fair to say that the federal government is supporting Liberty University?  If it is, I am sure that Liberty is very thankful for big-government spending!

Brooks on the Role of Government

David Brooks makes sense here. He wants to redirect our debate about the role of government in the United States from the issue of “size” to the issue of “influence.”  Here is a taste:

National destinies are not shaped by what percentage of G.D.P. federal spending consumes. They are shaped by the character and behavior of citizens. The crucial issue is not whether the federal government takes up 19 percent or 23 percent of national income. The crucial question is: How does government influence how people live?

There have been cases when big government has encouraged virtuous behavior (in the U.S. during World War II), and cases when big government has encouraged self-indulgence and irresponsibility (modern Greece). There have been cases when small government was accompanied by enterprise and development, and cases when small government has led to lawlessness, corruption and distrust.

The size of government doesn’t tell you what you need to know; the social and moral content of government action does. The budgeteers and the technicians may not like it, but it’s the values inculcated by policies that matter most.

The best way to measure government is not by volume, but by what you might call the Achievement Test. Does a given policy arouse energy, foster skills, spur social mobility and help people transform their lives? Over the years, America has benefited from policies that passed this test, like the Homestead Act and the G.I. Bill. Occasionally, the U.S. government has initiated programs that failed it. The welfare policies of the 1960s gave people money without asking for work and personal responsibility in return, and these had to be replaced. The welfare reforms of the 1990s involved big and intrusive government, but they did the job because they were in line with American values, linking effort to reward…

Read the rest.

Horace Greeley, Abraham Lincoln, and Active Government

History News Network has a short article by historian Johann N. Neem addressing the recent decision by the Maine Republican party to adopt a new platform “that challenges the principles of national sovereignty and active federal government.” What bother Neem the most, and rightly so, is that the platform “invokes the 1854 words of New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley that the then new Republicans were ‘united to restore the Union to its true mission of champion and promulgator of Liberty.”

Neem carefully shows how the Maine Republican party is engaging in some bad history: “Greeley, Abraham Lincoln, and other Republican founders would have been astonished at the policies that Maine’s Republicans are claiming as their inheritance.”

Here is a taste:

Both Greeley and Lincoln were ardent nationalists who supported the priority of the national Constitution and the national people (as in “we the people” not “we the peoples”) over those of the states. They did not reject federalism. Federalism was and is an entrenched part of the American political system, and states and the peoples of the states retain sovereignty in those places and spaces where the federal government is denied authority.

But to Greeley and Lincoln, there could be no doubt, as President Lincoln put it, that the nation preceded the Constitution and that the Constitution spoke for a single people united by Revolution and politics. “The Union is much older than the Constitution,” Lincoln reminded his audience in his 1861 inaugural address. Lincoln, of course, was challenging secessionists who believed the Constitution was a primarily federal rather than national document. The first Republican president, in contrast, was willing to use American troops to defend the sovereignty of a single, national people formed in the crucible of the war for independence.

And Neem concludes:

Greeley and Lincoln believed that capitalism promised all people the opportunity to work hard and to achieve—to be self-made. But they were equally aware that no one was self-made, that the promise of economic opportunity and economic freedom required government to step in by providing schools, economic infrastructure, ensuring the wide distribution of wealth, and ensuring that workers were not just formally but actually free. In short, whether or not the state Republican party’s principles are good for Maine and the nation, they are radically different from those that were espoused by the party’s founders.

Great piece.


Why Do Americans Hate Active Government?

A good portion of the students in my United States History survey class (before 1865) would consider themselves conservatives. When they label themselves “conservative” it usually means that they are against “big government” and are pro-life. Some of them, if they had the guts, would probably even consider participating in a “tea party” in opposition to Barack Obama’s “big government” agenda, particularly as it relates to health care.

These same students, however, would not bat an eyelash at the idea of government intervening to overturn Roe vs. Wade. Their families have benefited from “big government” programs such as Social Security or Medicare. What would they do without the FDA or government regulation of the airline industry?

Over the last couple of days I have been lecturing on the role of government in the early republic. Thomas Jefferson and Albert Gallatin used government funds to build the American infrastucture. On the other hand, John C. Calhoun and other southerners told the government not to mess with their property (slaves). The latter example make many of my libertarian students squirm.

Remember, it was an active government that forced the integration of schools in the libertarian south in the 1950s and 1960s. Would these students have opposed FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s?

As John Judis points out in an article which appeared today on the New Republic website, the fear of government is embedded in the American psyche. Judis rightly shows how Americans have always been skeptical of active government. Tom Paine called government a “necessary evil.” Patrick Henry “smelled a rat” in Philadelphia when the Constitutional Convention met in 1787 to revamp, and eventually discard, the Articles of Confederation. Thomas Jefferson favored little republics where democracy could flourish without the interference of a strong central government.

So what explains the schizophrenia of my students and the rest of Americans–both past and present? Why are Americans so distrustful of government yet, when polled, want government to solve their problems/ Why are they, to cite a 1967 study by Lloyd Free (that is Lloyd Free the pollster, not Lloyd “World B” Free, the former Philadelphia 76er who never met a jump shot he did not like) and Hadley Cantrill, “ideological conservative” and “operationally liberal?”

Judis does not answer these questions fully, but he does suggest that the American love of the free-market has something to do with their distrust of government. Americans seem to support government programs when they do not impinge upon their economic freedom. His essay is a worth a careful read.