We heard a lot this past week during the Republican National Convention about the evils of "Big Government" and how Washington has overstepped its bounds.
Like this is something foreign or unprecedented.
Two of the most controversial laws passed by the First Congress, 1789-1791, raised similar disputes: the establishment of the First Bank of the United States and the Whiskey Act.
Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton contended the bank was necessary to establish monetary stability and that excise taxes were essential to pay off the national debt accumulated during the Revolution, and that both were implied powers under the Constitution.
Opponents accused Hamilton of vastly exceeding federal authority and raised questions of the constitutionality of the new laws pointing to the Ninth and Tenth amendments, which declare that rights not enumerated and powers not delegated are retained by the states or the people.
Where have we heard that language before?
The Whiskey Act imposed a tax on grain sold in the form of whiskey and was strongly opposed by farmers and distillers on the frontier. It led to the short-lived Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania that was quickly quelled by troops led by President George Washington himself. The issue fueled support for the new Democratic-Republican Party, which repealed the tax when it came to power in Washington in 1801under President Thomas Jefferson.
As to the bank, Jefferson argued it violated private-property common law and overstepped the Constitution. James Madison insisted Congress had received no such power to incorporate a bank – or any other government agency – and that had the Founders wanted Congress to have such power they would have made it explicit. (Later as president he changed his mind and signed legislation authorizing the Second Bank of the United States.)
Clearly from the very beginning battles over the federal government's role in citizens' lives was front and center. Those principled arguments continue…as they should. The continuing challenge of American democracy is to find the elusive and ever-shifting balance between individual freedom and the social contract.
Those who claim the ability to precisely interpret the Founders' intentions are full of hooey. They were all over the board on a number of matters, as attested to by the major compromises incorporated into the Constitution, as well as early battles such as these over implied powers.
So the idea of an activist federal government is not new, "European" or socialist. I'm tired of conservatives claiming they alone speak for the Founders; of having to defend my view of America because I side with Washington, Hamilton and John Adams when it comes to the idea of a strong central government.