On page 243 of his compelling new book, Covenant of Liberty: The Ideological Origins of the Tea Party, Michael Patrick Leahy recalls the memorable exchange, at a July 24, 2010, town meeting in California, between Democratic congressman Pete Stark and a constituent who asked about the constitutionality of ObamaCare. “I think,” said Stark, “that there are very few constitutional limits that would prevent the federal government from rules that could affect your private life.” When the constituent followed up – asking, “if they can do this, what can’t they? Is your answer that they can do anything?” – Stark’s reply was clear and unhesitant: “The federal government, yes, can do most anything in this country.”
Stark’s candid acknowledgment of the well-nigh unlimited scale of federal authority in the twenty-first century comes toward the end of an extremely absorbing account of how, exactly, we got to this point. Leahy begins his story in 17th-century England, where heroes of individual liberty battled the tyranny of Stuart kings and Puritan theocrats alike. Never heard of John Lilburne? John Wise? The Levellers (“the first significant grassroots political movement in Anglo-American history”)? Leahy makes it clear that every American schoolchild should know these names. He illuminatingly identifies the different philosophical traditions that went into America’s founding documents, noting that the critical second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”) is “the perfect blend of Locke, Protestant covenant theology, and the Ancient Constitution.” However much history you may think you know, you may actually find Leahy deepening your understanding of the Founding Fathers’ ideas and of their historical roots.
At the center of this book is the U.S. Constitution – and, especially, Article I, Section 8, which includes three clauses that have been broadly interpreted in such a way as to expand government powers: the “general welfare” clause (“The Congress shall have power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common defence and general Welfare of the United States”); the “necessary and proper” clause (“[The Congress shall have power] To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof”); and the commerce clause (“[The Congress shall have power] To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes”).
It is remarkable to reflect upon the fact that immense government agencies and onerous, life-destroying regulations have been constructed on the fragile foundation of these few words.
In Leahy’s story, the hero is Thomas Jefferson, whom Leahy views as a supporter of “the plain meaning of the words of the Constitution.” (He chooses to overlook the fact that Jefferson, as president, was not quite the constitutional purist, buying the Louisiana Territory even though he believed himself that he had no constitutional authority to do so.) The villain is Alexander Hamilton, who, in establishing the National Bank, established “the precedent of federal powers far beyond those articulated in the Constitution,” thereby becoming the forefather of “modern expansionists of government power” who “support a meaning of the Constitution that can be expanded to justify virtually any action the federal government seeks to undertake.” (There are many good things to be said about Hamilton, but Leahy’s book is not the place to look for them.)
Until Woodrow Wilson and World War I, America swung back and forth between constitutional purism and overreach. Among the good guys: Andrew Jackson, who put the kibosh on the Second National Bank, and Grover Cleveland, “the last constitutional Democrat,” who “demonstrated greater fidelity to the constitutional principles of limited government” than any other president. Among the bad guys: John Adams, whose Alien and Sedition Acts represented an outrageous violation of the First Amendment; Abraham Lincoln, who dispersed federal funds to the companies that built the transcontinental railroad; Benjamin Harrison, who signed “the first massive entitlement program in American history”; and, of course, Wilson, who during the First World War implemented “massive intrusive and ubiquitous government regulations,” whetting federal bureaucrats’ appetite for power and accustoming American citizens to Washington’s exercise of unconstitutional power over their lives.
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