Among the many mistaken and, frankly, repellent notions of today’s Right is its nearly constant invocation of the nation’s origins and its founders as somehow ideologically ancestral only to them. Here is a very fine reminder that the truth is very different, from Ron Chernow’s op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times.
The truth is that the disputatious founders — who were revolutionaries, not choir boys — seldom agreed about anything. Never has the country produced a more brilliantly argumentative, individualistic or opinionated group of politicians. Far from being a soft-spoken epoch of genteel sages, the founding period was noisy and clamorous, rife with vitriolic polemics and partisan backbiting. Instead of bequeathing to posterity a set of universally shared opinions, engraved in marble, the founders shaped a series of fiercely fought debates that reverberate down to the present day. Right along with the rest of America, the Tea Party has inherited these open-ended feuds, which are profoundly embedded in our political culture.
As a general rule, the founders favored limited government, reserving a special wariness for executive power, but they clashed sharply over those limits.
The Constitution’s framers dedicated Article I to the legislature in the hope that, as the branch nearest the people, it would prove pre-eminent. But Washington, as our first president, quickly despaired of a large, diffuse Congress ever exercising coherent leadership. The first time he visited the Senate to heed its “advice and consent,” about a treaty with the Creek Indians, he was appalled by the disorder. “This defeats every purpose of my coming here,” he grumbled, then departed with what one senator branded an air of “sullen dignity.” Washington went back one more time before dispensing with the Senate’s advice altogether, henceforth seeking only its consent.
President Washington’s Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, wasted no time in testing constitutional limits as he launched a burst of government activism. In December 1790, he issued a state paper calling for the first central bank in the country’s history, the forerunner of the Federal Reserve System.
Because the Constitution didn’t include a syllable about such an institution, Hamilton, with his agile legal mind, pounced on Article I, Section 8, which endowed Congress with all powers “necessary and proper” to perform tasks assigned to it in the national charter. Because the Constitution empowered the government to collect taxes and borrow money, Hamilton argued, a central bank might usefully discharge such functions. In this way, he devised a legal doctrine of powers “implied” as well as enumerated in the Constitution.
Aghast at the bank bill, James Madison, then a congressman from Virginia, pored over the Constitution and could not “discover in it the power to incorporate a bank.” Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson was no less horrified by Hamilton’s legal legerdemain. He thought that only measures indispensable to the discharge of enumerated powers should be allowed, not merely those that might prove convenient. He spied how many programs the assertive Hamilton was prepared to drive through the glaring loophole of the “necessary and proper” clause. And he prophesied that for the federal government “to take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specifically drawn … is to take possession of a boundless field of power.”
After reviewing cogent legal arguments presented by Hamilton and Jefferson, President Washington came down squarely on Hamilton’s side, approving the first central bank.
John Marshall, the famed chief justice, traced the rise of the two-party system to that blistering episode, and American politics soon took on a nastily partisan tone. That the outstanding figures of the two main factions, Hamilton and Jefferson, both belonged to Washington’s cabinet attests to the fundamental disagreements within the country. Hamilton and his Federalist Party espoused a strong federal government, led by a powerful executive branch, and endorsed a liberal reading of the Constitution; although he resisted the label at first, Washington clearly belonged to this camp.
Jefferson and his Republicans (not related to today’s Republicans) advocated states’ rights, a weak federal government and strict construction of the Constitution. The Tea Party can claim legitimate descent from Jefferson and Madison, even though they founded what became the Democratic Party. On the other hand, Washington and Hamilton — founders of no mean stature — embraced an expansive view of the Constitution. That would scarcely sit well with Tea Party advocates, many of whom adhere to the judicial doctrine of originalism — i.e., that any interpretation of the Constitution must abide by the intent of those founders who crafted it.
Of course, had it really been the case that those who wrote the charter could best fathom its true meaning, one would have expected considerable agreement about constitutional matters among those former delegates in Philadelphia who participated in the first federal government. But Hamilton and Madison, the principal co-authors of “The Federalist,” sparred savagely over the Constitution’s provisions for years. Much in the manner of Republicans and Democrats today, Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians battled over exorbitant government debt, customs duties and excise taxes, and the federal aid to business recommended by Hamilton.
No single group should ever presume to claim special ownership of the founding fathers or the Constitution they wrought with such skill and ingenuity.
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