The Constitution Enabled Big Government

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JONATHAN CHAIT DECEMBER 29, 2010

The Constitution Enabled Big Government

I realize I'm at risk of turning into an anti-libertarian blog, but Chris Beam falls for the conceit that the Founding fathers were libertarian:

“The Constitution was a libertarian document that limited the role of the state to society’s most basic needs, like a legislature to pass laws, a court system to interpret them, and a military to protect them."

John Vecchione corrects him:

George Washington belonged to the Established Church (Episcopalian) of the State of Virginia; he also was the chief vindicator of national power in the new republic.  Thomas Jefferson determined to wage war by simply denying foreigners the right to trade with the U.S.  So did Madison.  What libertarian has ever thought the government could cut off trade between free individuals?  Further, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine supported the French Revolution.  That revolution denied there was anything the state could not do in the name of the people.  Jefferson never repudiated his support for that tyranny and Thomas Paine was only slightly more dismissive even after it nearly killed him. ...

If ever there was a libertarian document it was the Articles of Confederation.  There was no national power.  The federal government could not tax.  Its laws were not supreme over state laws.  It was in fact, the hot mess that critics of libertarians believe their dream state would be… and it was recognized as such by the majority of the country and was why the Constitution was ratified.  The Articles of Confederation is the true libertarian founding document and this explains the failure of libertarianism.

Gordon Wood's review essay about the ratification of the Constitution adds a lot of historical depth to this point. The original debate over the Constitution bore eerie parallels to the current debate, with populists in the heartland distrustful of central authority pitted against coastal elites:

The great irony, of course, is that the Anti-Federalist ancestors of the Tea Partiers opposed the Constitution rather than revered it.

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posted in: jonathan chait, george washington, john vecchione, thomas jefferson, thomas paine, virginia

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