Misunderstanding our founding documents?

E. J. Dionne says that, contrary to what tea party conservatives are saying, our founding documents are not anti-government:

A reading of the Declaration of Independence makes clear that our forebears were not revolting against taxes as such — and most certainly not against government as such.

In the long list of “abuses and usurpations” the Declaration documents, taxes don’t come up until the 17th item, and that item is neither a complaint about tax rates nor an objection to the idea of taxation. Our Founders remonstrated against the British crown “for imposing taxes on us without our consent.” They were concerned about “consent,” i.e. popular rule, not taxes.

The very first item on their list condemned the king because he “refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.” Note that the signers wanted to pass laws, not repeal them, and they began by speaking of “the public good,” not about individuals or “the private sector.” They knew that it takes public action — including effective and responsive government — to secure “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Their second grievance reinforced the first, accusing the king of having “forbidden his governors to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance.” Again, our forebears wanted to enact laws; they were not anti-government zealots.

Abuses three through nine also referred in some way to how laws were passed or justice was administered. The document doesn’t really get to anything that looks like Big Government oppression (“He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance”) until grievance No. 10.

This misunderstanding of our founding document is paralleled by a misunderstanding of our Constitution. “The federal government was created by the states to be an agent for the states, not the other way around,” Gov. Rick Perry of Texas said recently.

No, our Constitution begins with the words “We the People” not “We the States.” The Constitution’s Preamble speaks of promoting “a more perfect Union,” “Justice,” “the common defense,” “the general Welfare” and “the Blessings of Liberty.” These were national goals.

via What our Declaration really said – The Washington Post.

No, the founding documents were not anti-government, since they were concerned with establishing a government.  But what do you think of Dionne’s point, that today’s conservatives are taking the limited government bit too far?  (Certainly, traditional conservatives, like those in Europe, tend to favor a strong government, whereas traditional liberals were the ones who opposed strong governmental authority so they could do what they want.)

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • David in Wuxi

    On a gut level I like the sound of “limited government,” insofar as it tends to conjure up Wendell Berry-esque images of townsfolk congregating in a church and electing the sheriff, the mayor, et al. But I do sometimes wonder what “limited government” folks are after when they protest that we have too much. What would you stop governing? Building permits, which serve a legitimate purpose in keeping people from making two-story fire hazards? Or EPA regulations, which are the reason new restaurants that open in a mall can’t pump paint chemicals into the air, the way they do in China? (I have had that experience for the past several months.) Or food regulations, which keep grocery store chicken from being as disgusting as it could be? Given how disgusting it already is now, think about what companies would do to cut corners without regulation.

    I understand that there are probably multiple counterexamples to my examples, but my point is that modern life isn’t the same horseshoes-and-homemade-butter life that it was 100 years ago: people need things like electricity, an emergency room, public transportation, etc. Most of the time, when people complain about government being too big, they’re complaining about things like taxes, which aren’t “big” ideologically, but literally and physically: why do we still need to send in mountains of paperwork to a few IRS locations in America at one time of the year? Why do we have to stand in line at the DMV when it would be just as easy to set up an online registration?

    Of course, if one complains about things like pork, one should remember that it takes two to tango on that one. It’s not like Washington, D.C. is filled with lobbyists in spite of big companies.

  • David in Wuxi

    On a gut level I like the sound of “limited government,” insofar as it tends to conjure up Wendell Berry-esque images of townsfolk congregating in a church and electing the sheriff, the mayor, et al. But I do sometimes wonder what “limited government” folks are after when they protest that we have too much. What would you stop governing? Building permits, which serve a legitimate purpose in keeping people from making two-story fire hazards? Or EPA regulations, which are the reason new restaurants that open in a mall can’t pump paint chemicals into the air, the way they do in China? (I have had that experience for the past several months.) Or food regulations, which keep grocery store chicken from being as disgusting as it could be? Given how disgusting it already is now, think about what companies would do to cut corners without regulation.

    I understand that there are probably multiple counterexamples to my examples, but my point is that modern life isn’t the same horseshoes-and-homemade-butter life that it was 100 years ago: people need things like electricity, an emergency room, public transportation, etc. Most of the time, when people complain about government being too big, they’re complaining about things like taxes, which aren’t “big” ideologically, but literally and physically: why do we still need to send in mountains of paperwork to a few IRS locations in America at one time of the year? Why do we have to stand in line at the DMV when it would be just as easy to set up an online registration?

    Of course, if one complains about things like pork, one should remember that it takes two to tango on that one. It’s not like Washington, D.C. is filled with lobbyists in spite of big companies.

  • SKPeterson

    It should probably be said that this article was from E.J. Dionne. That fact right there makes this article highly suspect. Dionne is such that even indisputable historic facts take on the patina of falsehood when shaped by his masterful hand. As a general rule of thumb, I take what Dionne says or recommends and conclude that the opposite is most likely true. 60% of the time, it works every time.

  • SKPeterson

    It should probably be said that this article was from E.J. Dionne. That fact right there makes this article highly suspect. Dionne is such that even indisputable historic facts take on the patina of falsehood when shaped by his masterful hand. As a general rule of thumb, I take what Dionne says or recommends and conclude that the opposite is most likely true. 60% of the time, it works every time.

  • Joe

    I would say that Dionne has not really studied what it was the founders thought they were doing when the wrote the Constitution. (The Declaration is actually pretty much irrelevant to our style of governance – it is not a binding document, it established nothing. It was simply an explanation given to the world – the first paragraph makes that pretty clear.)

    The structure of it, the limited nature of what the federal gov’t was allowed to do, is a pretty clear indication that the central government was not supposed to have anywhere near the power it does today. Madison and other founders even objected to the Bill of Rights because they could not conceive a reason it would be necessary. They thought they had designed enough structural safe guards that the federal gov’t simply did not have the ability to abridge those fundamental rights.

    The Constitution was designed to cure a the problems the founding generation ran into under the Articles of Confederation – so in that sense the Constitution did envision a stronger central government than under the Aof C but the specific powers they decided needed to be centralized were spelled out.

  • Joe

    I would say that Dionne has not really studied what it was the founders thought they were doing when the wrote the Constitution. (The Declaration is actually pretty much irrelevant to our style of governance – it is not a binding document, it established nothing. It was simply an explanation given to the world – the first paragraph makes that pretty clear.)

    The structure of it, the limited nature of what the federal gov’t was allowed to do, is a pretty clear indication that the central government was not supposed to have anywhere near the power it does today. Madison and other founders even objected to the Bill of Rights because they could not conceive a reason it would be necessary. They thought they had designed enough structural safe guards that the federal gov’t simply did not have the ability to abridge those fundamental rights.

    The Constitution was designed to cure a the problems the founding generation ran into under the Articles of Confederation – so in that sense the Constitution did envision a stronger central government than under the Aof C but the specific powers they decided needed to be centralized were spelled out.

  • Michael Z.

    @Joe 3.
    I was hoping someone would point that out.
    The Declaration of Independence was not about government, no duh! The Constitution is where you find a limited federal government spelled out.

  • Michael Z.

    @Joe 3.
    I was hoping someone would point that out.
    The Declaration of Independence was not about government, no duh! The Constitution is where you find a limited federal government spelled out.

  • Joe

    As for Rick Perry’s statement – he is not correct, but neither is the converse. Neither level of government was supposed to be the agent of the other. They were supposed to be competing gov’ts that would keep each other in check. Madison says it best in Federalist No. 51:

    “In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people, is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allotted to each, subdivided among distinct and separate departments. Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people. The different governments will control each other; at the same time that each will be controlled by itself.”

    Of course the election of US Senators by the legislatures of the States goes along way toward indicating that the States were intended to play a direct role in checking the federal power. We got rid of that fundamental safe guard in fit of populist stupidity. We no longer have any federal office holders for whom the preservation of the duel sovereign (i.e. federalist) system is a priority. We have neutered one of the intended checks on federal power.

    Again Madison in Federalist No. 51:

    “The remedy for this inconvenience, is to divide the legislature in different branches; and to render them by different modes of election, and different principles of action, as little connected with each other, as the nature of their common functions, and their common dependence on society, will admit.”

  • Joe

    As for Rick Perry’s statement – he is not correct, but neither is the converse. Neither level of government was supposed to be the agent of the other. They were supposed to be competing gov’ts that would keep each other in check. Madison says it best in Federalist No. 51:

    “In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people, is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allotted to each, subdivided among distinct and separate departments. Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people. The different governments will control each other; at the same time that each will be controlled by itself.”

    Of course the election of US Senators by the legislatures of the States goes along way toward indicating that the States were intended to play a direct role in checking the federal power. We got rid of that fundamental safe guard in fit of populist stupidity. We no longer have any federal office holders for whom the preservation of the duel sovereign (i.e. federalist) system is a priority. We have neutered one of the intended checks on federal power.

    Again Madison in Federalist No. 51:

    “The remedy for this inconvenience, is to divide the legislature in different branches; and to render them by different modes of election, and different principles of action, as little connected with each other, as the nature of their common functions, and their common dependence on society, will admit.”

  • Cincinnatus

    But the Founders didn’t mention taxes until item 17, so obviously they were thinking of 16 more important things at the time.

  • Cincinnatus

    But the Founders didn’t mention taxes until item 17, so obviously they were thinking of 16 more important things at the time.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com bike bubba

    OK, so the Founders were not anti-government. Fair enough. They also rebelled against a 2% tax called the Stamp Act, and anyone who has ever read the Federalist or anti-Federalist Papers knows that they had a deep suspicion of government getting too big for its britches.

    Sorry, EJ, but I’m Taxed Enough Already.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com bike bubba

    OK, so the Founders were not anti-government. Fair enough. They also rebelled against a 2% tax called the Stamp Act, and anyone who has ever read the Federalist or anti-Federalist Papers knows that they had a deep suspicion of government getting too big for its britches.

    Sorry, EJ, but I’m Taxed Enough Already.

  • SAL

    I’m not so much anti-government as democratic.

    A government that grows too large in scope and scale intrinsically loses democratic input.

    We vote in elections from time to time but more of the decision making and power in society shifts to bureaucrats who are unaccountable to individuals.

    This is why socialism taken to its extreme is no better than capitalism taken to its extreme. Both remove power from individuals and acrue power to large unaccountable institutions.

    The best governance is self-governance. Failing that an issue should be handled at the lowest practical level to maintain democratic control.

    The national government in Washington is incapable of responding to democratic control in a timely or responsive way so relatively few things ought to be governed from there.

  • SAL

    I’m not so much anti-government as democratic.

    A government that grows too large in scope and scale intrinsically loses democratic input.

    We vote in elections from time to time but more of the decision making and power in society shifts to bureaucrats who are unaccountable to individuals.

    This is why socialism taken to its extreme is no better than capitalism taken to its extreme. Both remove power from individuals and acrue power to large unaccountable institutions.

    The best governance is self-governance. Failing that an issue should be handled at the lowest practical level to maintain democratic control.

    The national government in Washington is incapable of responding to democratic control in a timely or responsive way so relatively few things ought to be governed from there.

  • States

    Actually, Perry is correct. The states would have never banded together if they were to be rendered the agents and not the principals. The 10th amendment and the Federalist papers in toto confirm this. It was not until the Civil War that the Federal government became the principal and the states the agents.

  • States

    Actually, Perry is correct. The states would have never banded together if they were to be rendered the agents and not the principals. The 10th amendment and the Federalist papers in toto confirm this. It was not until the Civil War that the Federal government became the principal and the states the agents.

  • Steve Billingsley

    Just a quick addition to the discussion.

    Joe @ 5 and bike bubba @7 mentioned the Federalist (and Anti-Federalist) Papers. These are the most neglected documents in our current political climate. Many of the political arguments that are part of the current discussion have already been hashed and rehashed in these writings and most of our pundits (I would include Dionne in this mix) seem woefully or willfully ignorant of them.

    Our founders weren’t anti-government, they were anti-tyranny. The were for an effective and limited government (obviously they had some disagreements on to the details of what that looked like). I don’t think the present day conservative (or Tea Partier) has taking the limited government thing too far. Government has grown to such an extent that it needs some pruning back. Again, the devil is always in the details.

  • Jerry

    Dionne is probably painting with too broad a brush. Strictly tea party conservatives are not conservatives at all, but libertarians. True constitutional conservatives were around for a long time. The tea party movement only arose after its members suddenly realized they had given up too many of their rights by inaction. Constitutional conservatives have been in it for the long run.

    Government was created to keep order and protect our rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” How could that happen if it were limited? However, a more pertinent question is also, how can that happen with a “progressive” government? The rights in the constitution were put there in anticipation of a government that would come to power in the democratic process that would take away those rights.

  • Steve Billingsley

    Just a quick addition to the discussion.

    Joe @ 5 and bike bubba @7 mentioned the Federalist (and Anti-Federalist) Papers. These are the most neglected documents in our current political climate. Many of the political arguments that are part of the current discussion have already been hashed and rehashed in these writings and most of our pundits (I would include Dionne in this mix) seem woefully or willfully ignorant of them.

    Our founders weren’t anti-government, they were anti-tyranny. The were for an effective and limited government (obviously they had some disagreements on to the details of what that looked like). I don’t think the present day conservative (or Tea Partier) has taking the limited government thing too far. Government has grown to such an extent that it needs some pruning back. Again, the devil is always in the details.

  • Jerry

    Dionne is probably painting with too broad a brush. Strictly tea party conservatives are not conservatives at all, but libertarians. True constitutional conservatives were around for a long time. The tea party movement only arose after its members suddenly realized they had given up too many of their rights by inaction. Constitutional conservatives have been in it for the long run.

    Government was created to keep order and protect our rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” How could that happen if it were limited? However, a more pertinent question is also, how can that happen with a “progressive” government? The rights in the constitution were put there in anticipation of a government that would come to power in the democratic process that would take away those rights.

  • Michael Z.

    States@9,
    Article VI, Paragraph 2 of the Constitution places the Federal government and her laws over those of the individual states. The Tenth Amendment doesn’t override this. Thus since the passage of the Constitution, the Federal government was made Principal, this was the reason that several of the Founders opposed the constitution (patrick henry being one).

  • Michael Z.

    States@9,
    Article VI, Paragraph 2 of the Constitution places the Federal government and her laws over those of the individual states. The Tenth Amendment doesn’t override this. Thus since the passage of the Constitution, the Federal government was made Principal, this was the reason that several of the Founders opposed the constitution (patrick henry being one).

  • Cincinnatus

    Damned Supremacy Clause. The Convention should have taken much more seriously the idea of confederacy rather than federation. Our situation is exacerbated by the fact that, not only did the Federalists win, but Alexander Hamilton in particular “won” all significant debates regarding federal power and prerogatives subsequent to the Constitution’s ratification. We have him to thank for our currently expansive understandings of executive, congressional, and plenary powers.

  • Cincinnatus

    Damned Supremacy Clause. The Convention should have taken much more seriously the idea of confederacy rather than federation. Our situation is exacerbated by the fact that, not only did the Federalists win, but Alexander Hamilton in particular “won” all significant debates regarding federal power and prerogatives subsequent to the Constitution’s ratification. We have him to thank for our currently expansive understandings of executive, congressional, and plenary powers.

  • DonS

    E.J. Dionne’s complaint evidences his lack of understanding of the real position of conservatives/libertarians/tea partiers. We tend to get caricatured by the left — it’s a straw man tactic — in order to marginalize and dismiss us without actually engaging the arguments. You can see the results of this in David’s comment @ 1. He actually believes that conservatives don’t want any regulation of meat, air emissions, or zoning and building codes. Where do people get ideas like that, other than through effective misinformation from establishment media outlets?

    The Declaration of Independence, as noted above, was not a statement of governance, but rather a declaration of independence from a foreign power. The Constitution set up a federal government which was supposed to do four main things. Create and administer a common currency, adjudicate issues arising between citizens of different states and the states themselves, administer a national foreign policy, and provide for the common defense of the several states. If the federal government had confined itself to those intended limited roles, then the supremacy clause would not be such a big deal.

  • DonS

    E.J. Dionne’s complaint evidences his lack of understanding of the real position of conservatives/libertarians/tea partiers. We tend to get caricatured by the left — it’s a straw man tactic — in order to marginalize and dismiss us without actually engaging the arguments. You can see the results of this in David’s comment @ 1. He actually believes that conservatives don’t want any regulation of meat, air emissions, or zoning and building codes. Where do people get ideas like that, other than through effective misinformation from establishment media outlets?

    The Declaration of Independence, as noted above, was not a statement of governance, but rather a declaration of independence from a foreign power. The Constitution set up a federal government which was supposed to do four main things. Create and administer a common currency, adjudicate issues arising between citizens of different states and the states themselves, administer a national foreign policy, and provide for the common defense of the several states. If the federal government had confined itself to those intended limited roles, then the supremacy clause would not be such a big deal.

  • Jonathan

    @14 Interesting, DonS, it’s you, not the “establishment media,” who give people the idea that Tea Partiers, if taken literally, don’t want government regulation of air, etc. See your second paragraph. Your list of ‘four main things’ leaves no room for sensible health and safety regs.

  • Jonathan

    @14 Interesting, DonS, it’s you, not the “establishment media,” who give people the idea that Tea Partiers, if taken literally, don’t want government regulation of air, etc. See your second paragraph. Your list of ‘four main things’ leaves no room for sensible health and safety regs.

  • DonS

    Jonathan @ 15: I don’t see how you derive that conclusion from my list. First, you apparently equate the federal government with all government. My list doesn’t touch at all on what state and local governments can properly do. Second, one of the items on my list allows for the regulation of issues arising between the states, i.e. interstate commerce. Many federal regulations are justifiable as regulating matters legitimately impacting multiple states.

  • DonS

    Jonathan @ 15: I don’t see how you derive that conclusion from my list. First, you apparently equate the federal government with all government. My list doesn’t touch at all on what state and local governments can properly do. Second, one of the items on my list allows for the regulation of issues arising between the states, i.e. interstate commerce. Many federal regulations are justifiable as regulating matters legitimately impacting multiple states.

  • Cincinnatus

    Jonathan@15: Try, if you can, to take a more nuanced view of the Constitution, if not the Tea Party. DonS’s outline of the primary purposes of the Constitution, which is more or less correct, applies to the federal government. However, the Constitution explicitly acknowledges that the states possess a vast reserve of implicit “police powers” to ensure public health, safety, and morality (among other things). Sure, if the people determine that health regulations are necessary, then they can establish such at the state level, where the potential for remote tyranny is lesser. The Constitution doesn’t provide for vast bureaucratic implements to impose massive regulatory regimes on all the states. On the other hand, certain health regulations, etc., are perfectly justified in relation to interstate commerce.

    As it is and in any case, though, constitutionalists and those who favor small government are always depicted in straw-man form.

  • Cincinnatus

    Jonathan@15: Try, if you can, to take a more nuanced view of the Constitution, if not the Tea Party. DonS’s outline of the primary purposes of the Constitution, which is more or less correct, applies to the federal government. However, the Constitution explicitly acknowledges that the states possess a vast reserve of implicit “police powers” to ensure public health, safety, and morality (among other things). Sure, if the people determine that health regulations are necessary, then they can establish such at the state level, where the potential for remote tyranny is lesser. The Constitution doesn’t provide for vast bureaucratic implements to impose massive regulatory regimes on all the states. On the other hand, certain health regulations, etc., are perfectly justified in relation to interstate commerce.

    As it is and in any case, though, constitutionalists and those who favor small government are always depicted in straw-man form.

  • Cincinnatus

    *sigh* You’re definitely misunderstanding Perry. Either that, or Congress has been in blatant violation since the very moment of ruling. Congress defunds programs all the time. I’ve mentioned several examples. In my opinion, your interpretation of Perry and the 14th Amendment is hopelessly untenable.

    Prove to me that government shutdowns, which have happened more than once, are illegal and unconstitutional. Try something other than Perry, as you interpretation is completely unconvincing to me.

  • Cincinnatus

    *sigh* You’re definitely misunderstanding Perry. Either that, or Congress has been in blatant violation since the very moment of ruling. Congress defunds programs all the time. I’ve mentioned several examples. In my opinion, your interpretation of Perry and the 14th Amendment is hopelessly untenable.

    Prove to me that government shutdowns, which have happened more than once, are illegal and unconstitutional. Try something other than Perry, as you interpretation is completely unconvincing to me.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    our Constitution begins with the words “We the People” not “We the States.” The Constitution’s Preamble speaks of promoting “a more perfect Union,” “Justice,” “the common defense,” “the general Welfare” and “the Blessings of Liberty.” These were national goals.

    Not exactly. He cut off the part he doesn’t like:

    “to ourselves and our posterity”

    Dang, I’d bet he hates those words. He hoped we wouldn’t notice.

    Unabridged version (probably sticks in his revisionist craw):

    We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, esablish Justice, insure domestic Tran- quility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    our Constitution begins with the words “We the People” not “We the States.” The Constitution’s Preamble speaks of promoting “a more perfect Union,” “Justice,” “the common defense,” “the general Welfare” and “the Blessings of Liberty.” These were national goals.

    Not exactly. He cut off the part he doesn’t like:

    “to ourselves and our posterity”

    Dang, I’d bet he hates those words. He hoped we wouldn’t notice.

    Unabridged version (probably sticks in his revisionist craw):

    We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, esablish Justice, insure domestic Tran- quility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

  • Cincinnatus

    sg@19: On that note, I love when ideologues–in this case, generally progressives–take the preamble to the Constitution as a normative statement justifying specific pieces of legislation.

    No, the Preamble doesn’t work that way.

  • Cincinnatus

    sg@19: On that note, I love when ideologues–in this case, generally progressives–take the preamble to the Constitution as a normative statement justifying specific pieces of legislation.

    No, the Preamble doesn’t work that way.

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