This week’s Acton Commentary comes from Thomas S. Kidd, professor of history at Baylor University. Professor Kidd is the author of a new biography of Patrick Henry, and he sees in Henry’s anti-federalism a certain foresight that Madison and Jefferson lacked. The unlimited power to tax was what drove us from British rule in the first place, and Henry saw no reason to give that power back to a national government. In 220 years, the national government has turned that into an unlimited thirst for borrowing.
The utter travesty that was the congressional “Super Committee” has led us to even lower depths of skepticism about the government’s ability to control debt and spending. In this new era of malaise, lessons from the time of the Constitution’s adoption — and fears from those days about what the newly-framed government might become — seem more relevant than ever. Some key Patriot leaders predicted in the 1780s that a government with unlimited power to tax and spend would become an ever-growing monster.
Since the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, Americans have had a hard time taking the Antifederalists (opponents of the Constitution) seriously. How could anyone, we may wonder, not appreciate the wisdom of the Constitution? But remember that some of America’s greatest Founders, most notably Virginia’s Patrick Henry, opposed the Constitution. Having fought against the centralized, intrusive British government in 1776, the Antifederalists balked at placing such a government over themselves again. Many of them, including Henry, expressed fundamental doubts — concerns rooted in Christian principles — about politicians’ capacity to handle this kind of power.
Henry’s Antifederalism was rooted in a shrewder understanding of human nature than men like Jefferson possessed.
At the Virginia ratifying convention in 1788, Henry proclaimed that American liberty was at stake in the decision over the Constitution. He asked how Americans would bear the “enormous and extravagant expenses, which will certainly attend the support of this great consolidated government”? America would find “no reduction of the public burdens by this new system.” Taxes would just fuel the “uncontrolled demands” of bureaucrats not contemplated by the Constitution.
To Henry, these fears were rooted in his assumption that in the long term, officials would inevitably misappropriate and abuse the power granted to them. “Did we not know of the fallibility of human nature,” he told the Richmond delegates, “we might rely on the present structure of this government, … but the depraved nature of man is well known.” Henry’s Christian worldview made him acutely sensitive to the risks of placing expansive power in human hands. Hoping that only ethical, public-spirited people would serve in national office was foolish, he believed. Henry would “never depend on so slender a protection as the possibility of being represented by virtuous men.”
Read the full article and Kidd’s conclusions here.