Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Founders on Limited Government

Governments govern … which means they exercise power.

James Madison wrote, “The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.” 

Fear of an overly powerful government was a basic principle of the Founders. They firmly believed liberty could not exist with unrestrained government.  Many modern Americans find this belief odd or quaint. After all, a powerful government is needed to right all the wrongs in this world. And there are so many wrongs. Certainly benevolent rule is preferable to wrongs perpetuated on innocent people. Except all-powerful government has been the norm throughout history … and people have been duped, subjugated, robbed, imprisoned, and even murdered by governments.

The Founders weren’t paranoid; they came by their fear of power through personal experience and their study of history. They believed governments oppress and liberty depended on decentralized authority and potent restraints on the abuse of power.

To prevent the government from becoming overly powerful, the Founders used a number of techniques:
  • Enumerated powers
  • Three branches of government with power balanced between them
  • Each branch was given checks on the exercise of power by the other branches
  • A federal system with the states acting as a check on the national system
  • Different terms of office for elected and appointed officials
  • Limited taxing authority (Superseded by the 16th Amendment)
  • A list of things the government could not do ... commonly called the Bill of Rights

Monday, December 16, 2013

Commentary: How to Kill an Economy!

"I'm sure everyone feels sorry for the individual who has fallen by the wayside or who can't keep up in our competitive society, but my own compassion goes beyond that to the millions of unsung men and women who get up every morning, send the kids to school, go to work, try and keep up the payments on their house, pay exorbitant taxes to make possible compassion for the less fortunate, and as a result have to sacrifice many of their own desires and dreams and hopes. Government owes them something better than always finding a new way to make them share the fruit of their toils with others." --Ronald Reagan

When I was an economics major in college, I was taught that Franklin Roosevelt saved capitalism using Keynesian principles. The unchallenged assertion was that the sole reason the Great Depression lasted a decade was because New Dealers were too timid in spending borrowed money. In many economists’ minds, skyrocket spending to win World War II proved conclusively that huge deficits were the cure for slow growth. To a large extent, this is a rewriting of history. It didn’t happen this way.

Instead of spending our way back to wealth, two phenomena saved the American economy. Impending war forced Roosevelt to cease bashing business and the 80th Congress elected in 1946 balanced the budget and undid the worst aspects of the New Deal.

Freedom’s Forge, How American Business Produced Victory in World War II by Arthur Herman does an excellent job of describing the shift from an anti-business bias to acquiescence of capitalism during Roosevelt’s third term. The new tolerance of a profit motive had a huge impact on the production of war materials. The United States manufactured two-thirds of all weapons and supplies used by the Allies, “yet the output of consumer goods was larger every war year than it had been in 1939, despite the restrictions and rationing. In 1945 Americans ate more meat, bought more shoes and gasoline, and used more electricity than they had before Hitler invaded France … total economic production in the United States had doubled; wages rose by 70 percent.”

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Founders on Excessive Government Power

The Founders distrusted overly strong governments.  That’s why they engineered a limited republic. Today, Americans seem to turn to their government to validate and protect real and presumed rights, and increasingly rely on government to guarantee the substance of life.  Many modern Americans embrace national authority and fight to enlarge governmental powers.  The Founders would be appalled.

What would the Founders think about growing government power? Here is what they said in their own words.

In our governments the real power lies in the majority of the community, and the invasion of private rights is chiefly to be apprehended, not from acts of government contrary to the sense of its constituents, but from acts in which the government is the mere instrument of the major number of the constituents. Wherever there is an interest and power to do wrong, wrong will generally be done. – James Madison

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Most Americans confuse the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution

The Constitution means different things to different people. While there has been resurgence in the interest and study of the Constitution, most Americans remain ill-informed. Last Constitution Day, the James Madison’s Montpelier’s Center for the Constitution held a celebration that attracted nearly 300 people. Those who attended were asked questions that had already been answered in a national poll. Here are some of the results from the multiple choice quiz:

Only 35% of the general population identified “We the People” as the first words of the Constitution. 85% of attendees selected this answer. 
78% of attendees knew that James Madison was the “father of the Constitution.” In the national poll, only 20% answered correctly and 50% thought Thomas Jefferson fathered our Constitution. 
62% of attendees correctly identified 1787 as the year the Constitution was written. 55% of the national poll respondents thought the Constitution was written in 1776, and only 13% knew the correct answer.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

What happened in those secret meeting in 1787?

“Can it be of less consequence that the meaning of a Constitution should be fixed and known, than a meaning of a law should be so?”—James Madison

Fifty-five men came to Philadelphia in May of 1787 to secretly plot the overthrow of the United States government. At first, a coup was not subscribed to by all the participants, but most of them soon acquiesced to framing an entirely new form of government. At the time, this conclave was called the Federal Convention; today we refer to it as the Constitutional Convention.

Tempest at Dawn
James Madison, circa convention
One of the first acts of the convention was to declare the proceedings secret. There was a general fear that newspapers would excite Congress and the populace against abandoning the Articles of Confederation. The windows were nailed shut and guards posted at the doors. Delegates were lectured by George Washington never to whisper a word to anyone about what was happening inside the chamber. The official minutes are scanty, recording little beyond an official tally of the votes. A few delegates made private notes, but of those, only one attended every day and wrote everything down. James Madison purposely sat in front so he could take extensive notes of all the deliberations. He recorded the proceedings in his own shorthand, and then transcribed his daily notes into longhand. When finally published in 1840, Madison’s notes exceeded 230,000 words—all written with a quill pen.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Founders on the Economy

Many think the Founding Fathers were a bunch of old-fogies who lived way before iProducts, and have little to contribute in handling modern economic issues. Those people would be wrong. The post-war economy under the Articles of Confederation was in a tailspin. Alexander Hamilton under the leadership of George Washington saved this nation from economic collapse. (See The Man who saved America from financial ruin.)

What would the Founders think about our current economic problems? Here is what they said in their own words.

In framing a system which we wish to last for ages, we should not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce. An increase of population will of necessity increase the proportion of those who will labor under all the hardships of life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings. These may in time outnumber those who are placed above the feelings of indigence. According to the equal laws of suffrage, the power will slide into the hands of the former. No agrarian attempts have yet been made in this country, but symptoms of a leveling spirit, as we have understood, have sufficiently appeared in a certain quarters to give notice of the future danger. — James Madison, Federal Convention, June 26, 1787

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Commentary—Debating Jobs is Wrongheaded

“The circulation of confidence is better than the circulation of money.” James Madison

There has been endless debate and angst over the government’s failure to create jobs. This is a dangerous and highly inappropriate debate.

Goals are important. They can mean the difference between success and failure. Improper goals destroy people, organizations, or even nations. The most common error is to set goals based on effect, rather than cause. This is why the jobs debate is dangerous. The government cannot create jobs. It’s true government can hire a person, but the process only shifts money from the private sector to the public sector. Nothing was created.

The public sector has no innate growth potential. It doesn’t invent, innovate or drive productivity. This is because there is no profit motive to drive entrepreneurship. In fact, the only way to gain personal wealth in government service is through corruption.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Constitutional Dichotomy

“What is a Constitution? It is the form of government, delineated by the mighty hand of the people, in which certain first principles of fundamental law are established.” Constitutional delegate William Paterson, author of the New Jersey Plan

What does the Constitution mean? What is its purpose? Is it meant to be followed verbatim or is it a living document? With a few inconsequential exceptions, all Americans revere the Constitution. But people see it differently. Very differently.

Tempest at Dawn
National Constitution Center 

Perspectives on the Constitution generally fall into two classes.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Commentary—The Nightmare that is ObamaCare

“It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed?”—James Madison

Rube Goldberg’s cartoons illustrated insanely complex ways to do simple tasks.  He could have been a congressman. The Affordable Care Act may be the most convoluted and tortuous act ever passed by Congress. It is not a law to resolve an issue; it’s an odd conglomeration of features to garner support or stifle resistance. Political bribes to vote for the bill got stacked on top of each other until they built a leaning Tower of Babel.

The law is so complex that members of Congress didn’t read it, journalist didn’t read it, and even the major architects of the plan never read the complete bill. Nancy Pelosi famously said they had to pass the bill to find out what’s in it. There are nearly half a million words in the bill itself, and government agencies have already issued millions of words enacting regulations. And this doesn’t count the words written to delay, alter, or tweak the plan. And this is only a small fraction of ObamaCare’s 800+ directives to develop and issue regulations. Be prepared for chaos.

There is a reason few have read the law. It’s incomprehensible. Remember when the Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of the individual mandate. As most people understand the mandate, you either have the minimum allowed coverage or you pay a penalty or tax, depending on the day. Here is a snippet of the text for the individual mandate.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Commentary—Our Healthcare Quagmire

“It is a duty certainly to give our sparings to those who want; but to see also that they are faithfully distributed, and duly apportioned to the respective wants of those receivers.” Thomas Jefferson

There has never been a time in this country where the destitute were denied basic medical care. Doctors made allowances in their billing, and the poor could find hospital care when needed. Prior to 1986 that hospital might not be close by or provisioned with the best doctors and equipment. In those bad ol’ days, the poor were treated at county hospitals. This changed with passage of The Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) as part of a larger bill called the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, something many of us are familiar with by the name COBRA. (Some politician once muttered that Americans should be fearful of any bill that contained the word Omnibus.)

EMTALA mandated that hospitals provide emergency service to anyone who showed up at their door, regardless of citizenship, legal status, or ability to pay. Any hospital that had ever billed Medicare or Medicaid was required to comply. (Government-run Veteran Hospitals were excluded, of course.) There were no provisions in the bill for any payments to hospitals for these services.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Commentary—A Truly Ugly Precedent

“It has long, however, been my opinion, and I have never shrunk from its expression...that the germ of dissolution of our federal government is in the constitution of the federal Judiciary;...working like gravity by night and by day, gaining a little today and a little tomorrow, and advancing its noiseless step like a thief, over the field of jurisdiction, until all shall be usurped.” Thomas Jefferson

It’s actually very seldom that a Constitutional issue is pure black and white. Home Building & Loan Association v. Blaisdell (1934), was one of those rare cases. In an attempt to stem home and farm foreclosures, Minnesota passed a law which allowed a mortgagor to pay court determined rent that was set well below the contractual mortgage amount. The mortgage holder could take no foreclosure action while the rent was being paid.

The Constitution reads, “No state shall pass any law impairing the obligation of contracts.” During the Constitutional Convention in 1787, foreclosures were rampant, and several states had passed laws that impaired contracts by forcing debtors to accept purposely inflated state-generated paper money as legal tender. The result of these laws put a stranglehold on credit markets, deepening difficult economic times. The Framers didn't want this to happen again. Their intent—and the wording could not be clearer—was to preclude the exact type of action that was taken by Minnesota.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Learning about the Constitution

We often hear laments that our politicians no longer honor their pledge to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.  This is backward.  The Constitution was never written for politicians.  Our political leaders have no motivation to abide by a two hundred year old restraining order.  Americans must enforce the supreme law of the land. The first outsized words of the Constitution read We the People.  It’s our document. It was always meant to be ours, not the government’s.  It is each and every American’s obligation to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.

In order to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution, Americans need to understand it. Luckily, there are some great learning tools available. These include an online course at James Madison’s Montpelier Center for the Constitution, Hillsdale College Online Courses, Constitutional essays at Constituting America, and several good books, including The Heritage Guide to the Constitution, Tempest at Dawn, and Decision in Philadelphia.

The Center for the Constitution at Montpelier conducts a series of seminars on the Constitution. For those who cannot attend in person, the Center has created a free course on their website. The interactive online course includes text instructions, video discussions with constitutional scholars, and quizzes to test the student’s knowledge. I have taken the first of seven sessions and found it to be accurate, not politicized, and paced to keep the student’s interest. The seminars and online course were originally designed for teachers, but work well for any inquisitive student of the Constitution. Continuing Education Units (CEUs) are available after successful completion of the entire course. The course is free, but it cost $25 to claim CEUs.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Book Review: Mastermind

The many faces of the 9/11 architect, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed
by Richard Miniter

Some like to dismiss our Constitution by saying that it’s too old to deal with things like modern-day terrorism. The Founders had to handle unrest, political intrigue, and treason. Benedict Arnold almost turned over West Point to the enemy. The Newburgh Conspiracy tested Washington’s mettle as a military commander. Shay’s Rebellion is only the best known of the violent protests that spread throughout the newly formed states. James Wilson and about thirty armed friends held off a riot in Philadelphia that could have ended his life before he helped launch a constitutional republic. The Whiskey Rebellion threatened to upend the fledgling republic operating under the newly enacted Constitution. Barbary pirates kept our first three presidents awake at night. The Aaron Burr Conspiracy showed that political intrigue could undermine a budding republic.

These were only some of the more prominent violent protests and near insurrections. The Founders not only understood the frailties of man, they also had personal experience with a few that actually harbored evil intent. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed would not have been foreign to their experience.

The Founders on the Economy

Many think the Founding Fathers were a bunch of old-fogies that lived way before iProducts, and have little to contribute in handling modern economic issues. Those people would be wrong. Today’s biggest problem is a stumbling economy that is not generating jobs. This is only the second time that the American economy has not come roaring back after a downturn. The other time, of course, was the Great Depression, when we were following the same economic policies as we are today.

What would the Founders think about our current economic problems? Here is what they said in their own words.
“The pillars of our prosperity are the most thriving when left most free to individual enterprise.”—Thomas Jefferson 
“The circulation of confidence is better than the circulation of money.”—James Madison 
“A just security to property is not afforded by that government, under which unequal taxes oppress one species of property and reward another species.”—James Madison 

Monday, November 4, 2013

Commentary: One of the Founders of the Republican Party has some Advice

Elected and established politicians seem to be at loggerheads over the correct course of action. The country is in a dire state of affairs and it may get worse real fast. What to do? Here’s some advice from one of the Founders of the Republican Party and the first Republican president—Abraham Lincoln.
Matthew Brady Photograph
“Right and wrong is the precise fact upon which depends the whole controversy. Thinking it wrong, as we do, can we yield? Can we cast our votes with their view and against our own? In view of our moral, social, and political responsibilities, can we do this? 
Let us not grope for some middle ground between right and wrong. Let us not search in vain for a policy of don’t care on a question about which we do care. Nor let us be frightened by threats of destruction to the government. 
Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it!"
This is from a speech Lincoln gave well before his nomination. At the time, he was a little known regional politician from Springfield, Illinois. The Republican Party was new, and had failed running national hero John C. Frémont for president in 1856. Abraham Lincoln chances of ascending to the presidency under a Republican banner were slight. All that changed in New York City on February 27, 1860. That afternoon, Lincoln had his photograph taken by Mathew Brady, and in the evening, he gave this historic speech at the Cooper Union.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

How to protect our rights

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Declaration of Independence.

As reflected in the Declaration of Independence, and other writings of the period, the Founders believed that rights came from God, not the government. The Founders didn’t believe that governments bestowed rights, nor did they believe governments were an agent to protect rights.

When the Constitutional Convention convened in 1787, the delegates had to figure out how to protect rights and personal liberty from an oppressive government. They knew that rights were fragile. They can be suppressed by force, gradually eroded, or simply lost through neglect.

The original Constitution didn’t include a Bill of Rights. The delegates didn’t believe one was necessary. In their mind, rights were not protected by words, but by limiting governmental power. Montesquieu and Hume advocated separation of power into three equal branches, with each branch having potent checks on all of the other branches. Although this was a well-established theory at the time, no national government was designed along these principles, and existing state constitutions gave overwhelming advantage to the legislature.  Delegates to the convention believed that if they could architect a system consistent with the separation of powers doctrine, give the national government only enumerated powers, and effectively set up the states as checks on the national government, then the national government wouldn’t be able to trample rights or intrude into peoples’ lives.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Founders on Power

The Founders distrusted overly strong governments. That’s why they engineered a limited republic. Today, Americans seem to turn to their government to validate and protect real and presumed rights, and increasingly rely on government to guarantee the substance of life. Many modern Americans embrace national authority and fight to enlarge governmental powers.

The Founders would be appalled.

“In our governments the real power lies in the majority of the community, and the invasion of private rights is chiefly to be apprehended, not from acts of government contrary to the sense of its constituents, but from acts in which the government is the mere instrument of the major number of the constituents. Wherever there is an interest and power to do wrong, wrong will generally be done.”—James Madison

“A mere demarcation on parchment of the constitutional limits of the several departments, is not a sufficient guard against those encroachments which lead to a tyrannical concentration of all the powers of government in the same hands.”—James Madison

“No wall of words, that no mound of parchment can be so formed as to stand against the sweeping torrent of boundless ambition on the one side, aided by the sapping current of corrupted morals on the other.”—George Washington

“The great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”—James Madison

Friday, October 25, 2013

Constitutional Protection of Property

Government is instituted to protect property of every sort … This being the end of government, that alone is a just government which impartially secures to every man whatever is his own.” James Madison

Does the Constitution protect private property? All rights, not just property rights, appear to have received scant attention during the Constitutional Convention. Most of the delegates believed it would be far more effective to limit government with enumerated powers than to compose a list of rights because they feared an overly powerful government would trample those rights, despite written restrictions to the contrary. If the national government’s powers were held in check, then it was believed that common law and state declarations of rights provided sufficient safeguards to protect all rights. That is, until ratification. Several states unofficially conditioned their ratification on a Bill of Rights being added to the Constitution. The First Congress thus proposed the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

There were only a couple provisos in the base document that protected property rights. States were prohibited from impairing the obligation of contracts, and intellectual property was protected, giving “authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”

Surely the Bill of Rights rectified this absence of protection for private property. Not entirely. The takings clause in the Fifth Amendment is one of the few outright protections of property. It reads, “nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.’’ It would appear that this clause protects property owners from government confiscation, but cities and states became increasingly brazen in taking property for public domain purposes.  In 2005, Kelo v. City of New London defined public domain so broadly that it effectively included any action forecasted to increase the tax base. The takings issue is an illuminating object lesson that proves the Framers were right on the issue of protecting rights—unchecked power trumps protections written on a piece of parchment.  The clause is clear, yet it has proven a weak shield against the abusive exercise of determined power.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Commentary—Were The Framers Fears Justified?

"Wherever the real power in a Government lies, there is the danger of oppression." James Madison

An idea is powerful. It can change the world. A great leader may be able to alter the course of history, but without instilling new ideas, the world resumes its old course. When an idea or value is shared by the majority of a community, it becomes a cultural linchpin. That culture will not change until that idea is jerked out of the general consciousness and replace with a different idea.

Constitutionalists share an idea. At one time, most Americans subscribed to this idea, but no longer. What is this idea? Fear of overly powerful government. 

It sounds simple. But this fear was the overriding emotion that drove the Framers to design a republic with limited national powers. Inside the State House, which we now call Independence Hall, the delegates’ fear of government was strong and universal. Their entire focus was on constraining, checking, and decentralizing government power. This had never happened in world history.

Monday, October 21, 2013

American Exceptionalism

Throughout history, new nations have come into being because of conquering armies, internal rebellion, or the edict of a great power. Although the United States of America was conceived in revolt, our governing institutions were born in calm reason. Our Constitution comes from a convention and ratification process where reasoned debate eventually led to a decision by a large segment of the population to put a new government in place.

Our founding was unique, and the type of republic we formed was profoundly foreign to most of the world. With a few brief exceptions, world history until 1776 was written about kings and emperors. The American experiment in self-government rudely shook up a world used to rule by nobility. Not only did we break away from the biggest and most powerful empire in history, we took the musings of the brightest thinkers of the Enlightenment and implemented them in the New World. Our founding was simultaneously an armed rebellion against tyranny and a revolution of ideas—ideas that changed the course of world history.

It doesn’t take much study to conclude that early Americans held dear a few key principles, and risked their lives, families, fortunes, and honor to build a republic based on those very same principles. Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, and most of their contemporaries believed they had witnessed and participated in events that were more than merely unusual. Our forefathers repeatedly said that the founding of the United States of America was truly historic—a unique event in human history.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

"Mike Reads" reviews Tempest at Dawn

historical fiction
The "Mike Reads" blog has reviewed Tempest at Dawn. This is not exactly a New York Times book review, but I liked it because Mike took away from the book what I intended. I love writing Westerns and like the freedom to plot my own stories, but Tempest at Dawn was a five year labor of love. It was a huge responsibility to write about the founding fathers and such an important event in American history. I read or seriously scanned over 100 history books on the Constitutional Convention, and used at least 3 biographies for each of the major characters in the story. And yes, it was a story—a great story with great characters, intense conflict, and hopeful resolution.

Tempest at Dawn continues to be well received by readers and historians. At the time of this writing, and five years after publication, the Kindle version is still ranked #28 for books about the U.S. Constitution. 140 Amazon customers have reviewed the book for 4.4 stars, and 387 readers on Goodreads have given the book an average rating of 3.9.

I'll probably never again tackle a book as challenging as Tempest at Dawn, so it's gratifying that it still sells well and continues to receive attention from readers and reviewers. Thanks.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Difference Between Freedom and Liberty

Today, liberty and freedom are used almost interchangeably. In fact, a modern American hears the term freedom more frequently because liberty has become somewhat outmoded. The Founders viewed these two concepts as very different. In their minds, man granted freedom to his fellow man, but liberty came from a higher authority. Every human was endowed with natural rights and the free exercise of those rights was called liberty. On the other hand, a person released from slavery or indentured servitude became a free person.

The history of the world is not solely about rulers, it’s also about people striving and fighting for liberty. Our sense of natural rights is deep inside each of us. Even when rulers rule with an iron fist, liberty is kept alive through stories about heroes who fight against oppression and win. Stories often remind society of first principles and give hope until a leader comes along that can help them to recover their unalienable rights.

What did the Founders think about liberty? Here is what they said in their own words.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Founders on a Living Constitution

The Founders believed that the Constitution was a legally binding agreement between Americans and their government. What would the Founders think about a living Constitution? Here is what they said in their own words.

“On every question of construction carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.”—Thomas Jefferson 
“The first and governing maxim in the interpretation of a statute is to discover the meaning of those who made it.”—James Wilson, in Of the Study of Law in the United States 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Patriot Who Refused to Sign the Constitution

The eyes of the United States are turned upon this assembly and their expectations raised to a very anxious degree. May God grant that we may be able to gratify them, by establishing a wise and just government. George Mason, in a letter to his son.

Tempest at Dawn
George Mason
In the end, George Mason did not believe the Constitution established a wise and just government. He was one of only three delegates present in the final days of the convention who didn’t sign the document. The other two refused due to their personalities. Elbridge Gerry was mercurial and cantankerous by nature, and Edmond Randolph was afraid to be associated with something that might fail. George Mason, on the other hand, refused to sign based on his principles.

In early 1776, before the Declaration of Independence, Mason drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights and framed Virginia’s constitution. George Mason was rightfully proud of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and pleased that it became a model for other states.

SECTION I. That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

SEC. 2. That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants and at all times amenable to them.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

James Madison’s Worst Nightmare

“There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.”

Madison believed the greatest threat to democracy was factions, what we call special interests. This wasn’t a theory; it was an observation he made by studying the demise of democracies down through the ages.  If a faction, or a coalition of factions, gained control of the levers of government, then democracy would collapse on itselfusually sooner, rather than later.

To protect America from this threat, Madison and the other Framers devised a limited republic instead of a democracy. Elected officials would make laws, not the people at large. This put a buffer between unbridled passions and lawmaking. A republican form of government would help, but the true shield would be enumerated, balanced, and decentralized powers with potent checks on abuses. The Framers believed that if they could harness government powers, they would reduce the risk of tyranny. This design of the Framers worked effectively for over two hundred years.

A Danger Greater than Factions

As much as Madison wanted to protect the nation from factions, there was something he feared far more than factions—attempts to eliminate factions.

Factions cannot exist if people do not possess the freedom to form and express opinions. In the above quote, Madison was being facetious with his second method of removing factions. He wanted to emphasize his point that liberty is essential to the existence of factions, and factions are a natural byproduct of a free people.

Democracies can be destroyed by factions; but eliminating the threat requires the withdrawal of the freedom to hold an opinion contrary to the public mood. It may sound like a Catch-22, but the Framers had an answer: let factions thrive, but craft a government that would be enormously difficult to capture as a prize.

We have veered from the Framers design, and now there are few restrictions on federal powers. Constitutional checks and balances are tattered. It may now be possible for a group of determined activists to gain control of an unfettered national government.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration

"It can be lost, and it will be, if the time ever comes when these documents are regarded not as the supreme expression of our profound belief, but merely as curiosities in glass cases." Harry Truman

On June 11, 1776, the second Continental Congress appointed a committee to write a declaration of independence. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman were elected to the committee. One of these five was a renowned writer. For nearly thirty years, only the Bible outsold Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, and his articles made the Pennsylvania Gazette the most successful newspaper in the colonies. But Franklin declined to draft the declaration, supposedly due to poor health, so the committee asked the thirty-three year Thomas Jefferson to draft the document.

In less than three weeks, Jefferson presented the rest of the committee with this historic document. For the most part, the committee accepted the document as written; except that Franklin made some subtle, but important revisions.  For example, Jefferson had written “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable,” which Franklin revised to “self-evident.” Some have suggested that Franklin was pushing the text toward the analytic empiricism of David Hume, but it’s more likely that the master editor was wordsmithing for a more graceful rhythm to the words. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Constitutional Speed Bumps

“The powers of government should be so divided and balanced among several bodies of magistracy, as that no one could transcend their legal limits, without being effectually checked and restrained by the others.” Thomas Jefferson

To a degree, each branch of the national government operates in slight fear that another branch will chastise or even overrule its actions. This was an intended consequence of the design. Madison wrote in Federalist 51, “the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”

In Madison’s opinion, liberty can only be protected by power restraining power. The Constitution doesn’t contain any language preserving the boundaries of the three branches. It is up to the three branches to defend their independence with their assigned powers.

Let’s take a look at the checks between the three branches, starting with Congress.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Are the Founders Worthy of Our Admiration?

“Threading an idea into the slipstream of politics, then into government, then into history ... is a craft which I have since come to consider the most important in the world.”  Theodore White, In Search of History

The Founders of the United States lived over two hundred years ago in a completely different world. Some dismiss the Founders by saying that most were wealthy and many owned slaves. Let’s leave aside for a moment whether those are valid reasons to dismiss the Founders. These criticisms may be true for some of the more prominent Founders, but they are woefully misleading when applied to the great body of people who committed everything to the idea of self-government.

The Founding of this great nation was unique. Up until 1776, with a few brief exceptions, world history was about rulers and empires. The American experiment shook the world. Not only did we break away from the biggest and most powerful empire in history, we took the musings of the brightest thinkers of the Enlightenment and actually implemented them. Our Founding was simultaneously an armed rebellion against tyranny, and a revolution of ideas—ideas that changed the world.

For our purposes, let’s define the founding as extending from the Stamp Act through the first administration of George Washington. This would include the development of a revolutionary spirit, the revolution itself, a few non-war years under the Articles of Confederation, the adoption of the Constitution, and Washington’s first term, which set so many precedents. Who were the people involved in these events?

First off, it was a lot of people.

·         57   men committed treason by signing the Declaration of Independence
·         48   signed the Articles of Confederation
·         437 were members of Congress prior to the ratification of the Constitution
·         55   attended the Constitutional Convention
·         30   were members of the first Senate
·         67   were members of the first Congress
·         7     were Cabinet level or above in the First Executive
·         6     were members of the Supreme Court

Monday, October 7, 2013

John Adams, The Philosopher Rebel

“Let us dare to read, think, speak and write.”  John Adams

John Adams is best known today for a presidency cut short by the Alien and Sedition Acts. In truth, he was the greatest expert on government in the colonies ... at least until James Madison stepped to the forefront. Harvard educated, Adams was a champion of the founding principles, a firm proponent of Enlightenment teachings, and a scholar of constitutional government. He was a pious man of honor and character. Granted, he could be argumentative and self-righteous, but he was generally correct in his positions.

Adams was an early and fervent advocate for independence. He opposed the Stamp Act in speeches, articles, and a widely circulated dissertation (Essay on the Canon and Feudal Law). He served in the first and second Continental Congresses, where he was engaged in over ninety committees, many of which he chaired.  Adams nominated George Washington to be commander-in-chief, and headed the Board of War and Ordnance, which was responsible for supplying Washington’s army. He succeeded in getting an early resolution passed for independence that eventually led to the Declaration, and then served on the committee that wrote the Declaration of Independence. Twice during the war he served as an envoy in Europe. In later Years, Thomas Jefferson said that Adams was “the pillar of [the Declaration's] support on the floor of Congress, its ablest advocate and defender against the multifarious assaults it encountered.”

Sunday, October 6, 2013

A Most Audacious Letter

Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Declaration of Independence

In February of 1787, Congress sanctioned a convention in Philadelphia “for the sole and express purpose of revising the articles of confederation, and reporting to Congress and the several legislatures, such alterations and provisions therein as shall when agreed to in Congress, and confirmed by the States, render the federal constitution, adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the union.”

The instructions were clear. The convention was to recommend changes to the Articles of Confederation, and submit them to Congress and the state legislatures for approval. Instead, the Federal Convention wrote an entirely new constitution—one that would dissolve the existing Congress and take away some state power. How in the world would they get this thing approved? It threatened every political figure in the country. The answer was simple. As stated in the Declaration of Independence, the Founders believed that all political power emanated from the people. They would bypass Congress and the state legislatures, and go directly to the people for ratification of their work.

There was a problem, of course. Congress and the state legislatures to might not agree to being marginalized. The convention’s solution was to send Congress a letter. The first draft was a convoluted rationalization for their actions and a long winded declaration that their motives were pure. No one thought it was convincing, so in the end, they just told Congress what to do and how to do it.

Tempest at Dawn
Letter to Congress from Federal Convention

Friday, October 4, 2013

The United States Government vs. We the People

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”—Declaration of Independence
In 1776, the world was ruled by royalty. Then some upstart colonialists penned the most revolutionary document in the history of man. The Declaration of Independence flipped the world upside down. The Divine Right of Kings became the consent of the governed. The individual was now endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights. This was a world-shattering concept.

Like most revolutionary visions, this one didn't just suddenly spring onto the world stage. Ironically, the philosophical basis for self-governance came from subjects of the British Crown. John Locke, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Thomas Paine were among many who maintained that this new way of life was ordained by the laws of nature and of nature's God.

The Founders were steeped in this incendiary idea. They believed that all political power emanates from the people. This concept provides the rational for the Declaration of Independence which declared it is the right of the people to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Top Ten Reasons Government Can’t Cut Spending

“I have accepted a seat in the House of Representatives, and thereby have consented to my own ruin, to your ruin, and the ruin of our children. I give you this warning, that you may prepare your mind for your fate.” John Adams

Why is it so hard to cut government spending?

There are just so many reasons. Here're the top ten excuses carried on a 3x5 card by nearly every politician.