As we embark on this New Year, we are continuing the struggle to regain control of our governments, and escape the fate predicted by our founders. Maintaining the limited form of government our Constitution demands is vital to the preservation of this nation. If we fail, the unfortunate reality will be that we will have failed to maintain the gift of the Republic that was bought for us by the sacrifice of ease, estate, pleasure, and blood of our forefathers.
The first step to correcting a problem is understanding that you have one. We The People seem to be very aware that there is a problem. Our government, on the other hand, seems completely clueless. The President of the United States is issuing executive orders for government pay raises. Congress is engaging in every mode of spending that can be conceived. Both “sides” arguing over how much to tax and no one discusses the profligate spending. Our founders and even their immediate successors warned that this perspective in government would subvert the very foundations, and transmute the very nature of the limited government established by the people of America.
It will take character and resolve to make the painful and difficult decisions to preserve the Republic, so that future generations will have an opportunity to enjoy the Liberty that has been purchased for us. As usual, the oracles of history have some lessons if we would simply listen.
Federal Government Out of Control
Apparently, things began to go awry for the federal government rather early on. An expansion of Congressional power through the forced construction of the General Welfare clause is one of the chief culprits. A great example of this can be found in the Congressional arguments surrounding the Cod Fishery Bill of 1792, a bill to subsidize the Cod Fishing industry. In this, James Madison defines the proper nature of government to a House wanting to unconstitutionally expand its power and reach.
Not an Indefinite Government but a Limited Government
Madison says, “I, sir, have always conceived -- I believe those who proposed the Constitution conceived -- it is still more fully known, and more material to observe, that those who ratified the Constitution conceived -- that this is not an indefinite government, deriving its powers from the general terms prefixed to the specified powers -- but a limited government, tied down to the specified powers, which explain and define the general terms.”
General Welfare Does Not Mean Generally Everything
Yes, we are supposed to have a limited and defined federal government. Madison was very simply explaining that the clause “common defense and general welfare” was not meant to expand the power of the government beyond its limitations, but to describe the purpose of the power delegated within strict confinement of those boundaries. In other words, this clause does not name a power; it simply describes the purpose for the powers named. Then with amazing foresight, Madison explains the consequence of allowing the federal government to turn these “clauses” into defined powers:
“If Congress can employ money indefinitely to the general welfare, and are the sole and supreme judges of the general welfare, they may take the care of religion into their Own hands; they may appoint teachers in every state, county, and parish, and pay them out of their public treasury; they may take into their own hands the education of children, establishing in like manner schools throughout the Union; they may assume the provision for the poor; they may undertake the regulation of all roads other than post-roads; in short, everything, from the highest object of state legislation down to the most minute object of police, would be thrown under the power of Congress; for every object I have mentioned would admit of the application of money, and might be called, if Congress pleased, provisions for the general welfare.”
Limitless Spending Changes the Very Nature of the Republic
Madison, in describing the consequences of this forced construction of the Constitution, prophesies for our day.
“…I venture to declare it as my opinion, that, were the power of Congress to be established in the latitude contended for, it would subvert the very foundations, and transmute the very nature of the limited government established by the people of America.”
Government Charity Dangerous Precedent
Yet, America did not listen. In 1831, Congress once again attempts to reconstruct its powers through the artifice of “charity.” This time, the argument is about supplying wood for the Poor of Georgetown. The Mayor of Georgetown sent a letter to the House of Representatives asking for relief of the poor of that city and soliciting the House to grant a donation of some wood in the vaults of the capitol for their use. This sparked a forgotten, yet a very relevant debate for this day.
Congress Cannot Give Public Property For Charity
The first to speak up was Congressman James Polk (D-TN), the future 11th President of the United States. In showing a moral character and commitment to the Constitution that is rarely seen today, Polk said he knew it would be viewed as being ungracious to oppose a resolution in behalf of the suffering poor of this District, or any other. However, he went on to oppose the resolution of the House to offer this support as “the precedent of appropriating the public funds for such a purpose was a bad one. He reasoned that if they allowed this seemingly small act of charity, then “every winter, when the snow fell, or the Potomac was frozen, applications would be made to Congress, and members would be engaged in the dignified object of buying and stowing wood, to give to the poor District of Columbia.” Polk opposed this spending on principle, as the House “had not the power to make the donation requested.” And what began with Georgetown would blossom into dependency throughout the nation. It was not the amount he objected to, but that the “representatives came to legislate on great concerns of the nation, not to give away the public property.” He made a final plea to the House, with their vote, to “put a check” on legislative power.
The next to argue was James Blair, Congressman from South Carolina. Blair gets right to the point; that it is not in the power of Congress to give out donations from the public treasury for the purposes of charity. He correctly reasons:
“If so, it would have power also to vote millions of the public money to feed and clothe the suffering poor. The House had no right to give away the public money for any such purpose; and if gentlemen were disposed to be liberal, let them be liberal out of their own money.”
Polk then moved the floor for the following substitute, by way of amendment:
“That the Sergeant-at-arms be required to deduct from the compensation of the members of this House on day’s pay, and deliver said sum to the Mayor of Georgetown, to be applied to purchase fuel for the paupers of that town: Provided, nevertheless, that such deduction shall be made from the compensation of such members only as vote in favor of the resolution.”
I believe our representatives could learn several lessons from this:
Let ours be the generation that listens from the framers and their experience. Let ours be the generation that avoids what others called the inevitable demise of a Republican government. Let ours be the generation that can claim the victory of Liberty for our future generations.
“Let history be consulted; let the man of experience reflect; nay, let the artificers of monarchy be asked what further materials they can need for building up their favorite system.” Address of the General Assembly to the People of the Commonwealth of Virginia, 1799