I’m not going to go into depth too far on this, as doing so would probably require writing a book. Regrettably I haven’t the time for that at the moment. Anyhow, I have been reading Joseph Ellis’ Pulitzer-winner Founding Brothers, which reviews some of the key conflicts that arose after the implementation of the Constitution. The conflicts stemmed primarily from ongoing disagreements about the role of the federal government. Sound familiar? The battle cries of today’s Tea Party movement come to mind, as do the boisterous arguments of the disciples of Ron Paul’s 2008 Campaign for Liberty. In Ellis’ book, he examines among other things how the Congress was at loggerheads in 1790 over the idea of the Federal government assuming the war debts of the states. Treasury Secretary Hamilton, a reasonably competent economist, recognized an urgent need to consolidate the national debt, get in good standing with the states’ debtors, nationalize the economy, and put the national debt to work. Anti-federalists, and the Southern states in general, saw this is a dastardly power-grab by the federal government. Virginia, for one, was apoplectic over the thought of the fact that assumption would leave it with a net loss–it would end up paying more for other states debts than it would hand over to the federal government. Furthermore, it directly challenged the independent Spirit of ’76. We fought the British to win freedom, they argued; not to have power centralized in a despotic federal government. The states were sovereign, not subservient to a central government.
And so the anti-federalist cry went then, and variations thereof were heard when other issues arose when the nation was in its infancy. According to Ellis, the assumption debate ended up being resolved behind closed doors through a deal wherein southern states gave in to assumption after securing the concession of some numerical voodoo regarding the debts and the establishing of the nation’s permanent capital in the south (in DC). As we can see, little has changed since then. Our debates over stimulus, healthcare, cap-and-trade, etc. occur along similar lines of division between competing schools of thought regarding the federal government’s role. It is highly illuminating to revisit the arguments of the early years of the United States not simply because they have so many similarities with our contemporary debates, but because they are simpler questions that are less removed from the core philosophies that drive the arguments. Getting down to the meat of those philosophies makes us I think better equipped to understand contemporary questions. Unfortunately, it seems as if the only people who take the time to understand the genesis of all this are academics and the hobbyists like myself–not the politicians and commentators who have a louder voice in the national debate.
I challenge you to go back to history and look at the debates going on then with regard to the role of government. Understand the core philosophies underlying these debates. The parallels with contemporary politics are fascinating. Big government was as big a concern then as it is now among conservatives. And the biggest problems of the days got solved back then in much the same way as they do now–not in open debate but with deals cut behind closed doors.