Dane Smith: The Founding Federalists

  • Article by: DANE SMITH
  • Updated: July 2, 2011 - 8:38 PM

Photo: Baltimore Sun, MCT

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(Note to readers. The original essay below misstated the affiliations of Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform. Norquist is not associated with the Club for Growth. The commentary has been updated and corrected.)

As we wave our American flags this holiday weekend, we should give thanks to our forebears for the powerful and indivisible United States federal government -- national and state governments working together -- for which that flag stands.

And as we celebrate our origins amid coast-to-coast budget crises -- national and state, both -- it may be useful to remember that back in 1788 it was rabid antitax libertarians who almost prevented us from uniting and forming this "more perfect union."

The more farsighted American founders wanted the strong, effective and united national government we ended up with, and the broad new taxing powers that made it possible.

To create our U.S.A., these framers -- known as Federalists -- had to defeat opponents who were called anti-Federalists, and who essentially were saying no to new taxes and to bigger government when they tried to block ratification of the Constitution that has endured now for 223 years.

Come to think of it, anti-Federalist may actually be a more accurate historical label than "Tea Party" for the insurgents who are on the rampage once again, defaming our good governments, proposing to shrink them beyond recognition and promoting a self-centered individualist "liberty'' as the only important principle, with scant regard for the complementary values of equality, justice and community.

In 1788, it was Federalist Alexander Hamilton (and his mentor George Washington, in an above-it-all way) who pushed for unquestioned federal authority to tax and for a presidency and a Congress with supremacy in many policy areas over the states.

Often condemned as elitist, big-spending aristocrats, Hamilton and Washington wanted to create an ample national public treasury to support a bigger, stronger commonwealth that would be able to defend itself and pay for its wars (which we are failing to do now), borrow money and pay its debts, build interstate canals and roads, provide otherwise for the "General Welfare,'' and in the process promote both business interests and the common good.

Plenty of solid scholarship refutes the modern breed of antigovernment "originalists'' who claim the exclusive blessing of the long-dead framers of the Constitution.

Two of the better recent works on the subject are by Pauline Maier ("Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788") and Ron Chernow ("Alexander Hamilton").

Hamilton, a brilliant visionary with a penetrating grasp of both the emerging capitalist economy and the history of democratic theory in Europe, described taxes as "an indispensable ingredient in every constitution.''

He wanted a "general and elastic language to expand government power,'' Chernow writes. Hamilton fought for a strong presidency and a strong Treasury; for credit and debt, and taxes to pay it off; for a national bank, and for the power to promote trade and commerce.

As he left office as our first treasury secretary, Hamilton laid out a plan to eliminate national debt with "new taxes passed and old ones made permanent.'' (Exactly what we need this very month, actually.)

Maier's review of the debates in four key states over ratifying the Constitution unearths rhetoric strikingly familiar to today's.

In Massachusetts, the anti-Federalist William Symmes worried that the Constitution's language about "general welfare'' could apply to "any expenditure whatsoever'' and that "no free people'' could give such "universal, unbounded'' power to their government.

Federalists argued that this fear of government had been valid in the past, under the illegitimate abuses of the recently vanquished British rulers and "taxation without representation.''

But Federalist Theophilus Parsons said such fears were largely unfounded for a new government that would be "administered for the common good by the servants of the people, vested with delegated powers, by popular elections at stated periods.''

Keeping the government poor and underfunded, Parsons said, "must mean depriving the people themselves of their own resources.''

Rival claims to the true, original principles of America's framers is, of course, an old American tradition. To be fair, many anti-Federalists were honest, moderate patriots who also desired national unity.

Their concerns helped modify the Constitution for the better. In fact, their defense of inalienable human rights and protections against abusive majority rule resulted in a Bill of Rights that many Americans hold more sacred than the main body of the Constitution.

Those "enumerated'' rights have proven to be instruments of liberalizing progress for two centuries.

But it's also fair to ask whether some of the current Tea Party's rhetoric, with its claimed roots in America's founding ideals, might threaten the continued health and strength of our commonwealth and the prospect of the United States remaining the strong, fair and prosperous nation that Hamilton envisioned.

Grover Norquist, founder of the arch-conservative Americans for Tax Reform and the national genius behind the "no new taxes'' mania, has publicly stated that his long-term goal is to cut the size of our government in half, and then in half again by the middle of this century.

New heroes on the libertarian right, such as Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, openly acknowledge that they have been heavily influenced by Ayn Rand. This novelist and self-styled philosopher is the modern spiritual mother of an antigovernment extremism that sees no role for government beyond police departments and armies.

She dismissed democracy as mob rule and favored the dollar sign as a symbol of her movement, rejecting traditional American values and symbols.

Moderate Republicans, for years now, and lately some of the nation's leading conservative thinkers, are actually among those most frightened about this descent into virulent neo-anti-Federalism.

David Brooks, perhaps the leading moderate pundit in mainstream media and an advocate of a "Hamiltonian/National Greatness" brand of conservatism, recently dismissed the idea of minimalist government, or "tax cuts and nothing else," as "stupefyingly boring, fiscally irresponsible and politically impossible.''

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a staunch conservative, has described Norquist's extremism on taxes and he has dismissed a very similar anti-government advocacy group, the "Club for Growth," as the "Club for Greed.'' And every former Republican governor of Minnesota except for Tim Pawlenty has publicly broken with no-new-taxes and cuts-only as the solution to our chronic budget shortages.

The hopeful lesson from 1788 is that the original anti-Federalists rather quickly accepted the consensus among their fellow Americans for a stronger and more active government.

An early antitax "Whiskey Rebellion'' in the back woods of Pennsylvania withered when Washington and Hamilton raised (and personally led) a small army to put it down.

The anti-Federalists adapted to reasonably higher taxes and federal and state investments. Former anti-Federalists who became presidents extended federal power. Canals and roads and schools and other "public improvements'' were built with public-private partnerships.

Of course, the tragedy of Civil War still lay ahead for America -- inspired in part by "states rights" ideology and lingering resistance to central government power.

But over time, America prospered beyond any founder's dreams because it had a government that was strong enough to survive and become, in Washington's words, "a respectable nation'' in the world.

We eventually became the world's richest and most powerful nation and often led the way with expanded human rights and democratic reforms that served as world models.

"We the people of the United States" could not have done it without our governments, in Lincoln's words, "of the people, by the people and for the people.''

We have every right to wrap the flag patriotically around a profound respect for our governments -- which are us, after all -- and for the great good that we have done together.

Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a Minnesota-based policy research organization that advocates for public investments that broaden prosperity.

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