The U.S. Constitution didn’t magically appear from a blank slate. Our early forms of government began with the First and Second continental congresses in 1774 and 1775, which consisted of delegates from the 13 colonies both before and after the Revolutionary War. These congresses conducted the war, wrote the Declaration of Independence and drafted the Articles of Confederation in 1781, which paved the way for the drafting of the Constitution.
No other nation had a written constitution. Great Britain, our mother country, still does not have a written constitutional document.
Colonial leaders thought a national government had to be formed to prevent the rise of an authoritarian government. These men personified the meaning of limited government.
It would be helpful to understand the thinking of the delegates and the flaws in the Articles of Confederation. It wasn’t long before the delegates had to come to grips with the need for a de jure national government rather than a confederation of sovereign states. Without such a document, it was impossible to formulate any coherent national policy.
Nevertheless, the concern over state sovereignty continued and was addressed in the language of the Constitution in Article 1, Section 8 (enumeration of powers granted to the federal government), and the 10th Amendment reserving all powers not delegated, to the states or the people.
It’s amazing how far we’ve come from the Federalists, who only wanted a limited but functional national government, to what we now have: A big government-centered economy in a big government culture. The founding Federalists would not recognize the massive federal government of the 21st century. Alexander Hamilton, one of the original Federalists and our first treasury secretary, proposed a central bank in order to create a national currency with the stable financial backing of a federal government for purposes of trade, and a system of tariffs to raise revenue. A progressive tax on income, which essentially is a modern innovation, was not even a gleam in his eye.
As it turned out, under the Articles we had a government with no powers of national taxation. Amazing. Now it’s the other way around. We have a national government whose primary focus is on taxation.
It would be useful to examine other flaws in the Articles of Confederation to get a sense of what the framers of the Constitution hoped to accomplish.
Under the Confederation, Congress had no powers of taxation. It had to request money from the states. George Washington had to beg for funds to prosecute the war and feed his bedraggled army. We all know how well that went; most states didn’t comply.
We had a government that couldn’t even finance itself. While the current administration is spending the country into oblivion, the Articles of Confederation went to the other extreme.
Congress had no power to regulate trade, and because the states were as sovereign as foreign countries, each state had its own trade policies! Congress could not even regulate interstate trade (commerce). The individual states could impose tariffs as if they were a nation. (Once again liberal courts have gone to the other extreme. For all practical purposes the federal government now can regulate any activity it deems as interstate commerce.)
There was no national authority. Congress had no power to enforce legislation, so the chief executive was a president in name only. In the modern progressive liberal era, this is difficult to comprehend. Back in the day, the Confederation was considered “a league of friendship.” The Confederation only recognized state authority. In a way it was a modern day libertarian’s dream, but well beyond the modern day conservative’s idea of limited government.
The federal government had no nexus to the people themselves; it was only to the states. There were no federal elections. Each state was a co-equal and had one vote. The political union of the United States under the Articles compares to some extent to those European counties in the Eurozone which have not adopted the euro as a common currency.
Each of the 13 states had its own militia, issued its own currency and collected its own taxes. The Congress under the Articles was as toothless as the European Parliament.
The Continental Congresses were simply a de facto government of necessity as we moved from being 13 colonies to being a country. The Confederation made the government more credible when negotiating the Treaty of Paris, which concluded the Revolutionary War. In fact its main function was to negotiate treaties and, similar to today, to conduct foreign policy.
We’ve come a long way since the Confederation Congress – which incidentally was the only federal institution (hard to believe) – to where we are today with an overabundance of federal bureaucracies. We’ve lost our way.
One historian observed that the anti-federalists were fearful of surrendering the local autonomy they just had won from the British. They feared what Patrick Henry termed the “consolidated government” proposed by the Constitution. They saw in Federalist hopes only the lust of ambitious men for a splendid empire that in the time-honored way of empires would oppress the people with taxes and military campaigns. Skeptical that a government consolidating a domain as vast as the United States could be controlled by the people, anti-federalists saw in the enlarged powers of the government the familiar threats to the rights and liberties of the people.
President Thomas Jefferson summed it up succinctly with this observation: “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and for government to gain ground.”
This is why I would argue in the long haul this country will continue moving farther left until we collapse under the weight of unlimited government.
This is the natural order of things.
John Reiniers is a retired attorney and regular columnist who lives in Spring Hill. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.