Posts tagged with: founding fathers

Blog author: rnothstine
Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Last night, there was a moment at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte that may have alarmed some. The line from a video produced by the host city of Charlotte, declared, “government is the only thing we all belong to.” While some have simply used the line as a reference point for partisan purposes, it needs to be widely discussed. I have to admit I found the words profoundly disturbing. Not because I blame Democrats as a whole but rather whoever penned the script in the video really had no understanding that the line was troubling. I am sure we could say that of too many Americans regardless of political affiliation. In fact, partisans are more apt to embrace this message if their guy or gal is in power. It looks like the Obama political campaign at least felt uncomfortable with the language, as they wasted no time distancing themselves from the quote.

The line omits the whole notion in our Declaration of Independence that, “We our endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.” It flips the meaning on its head and posits that our rights and responsibilities flow out of government. The Constitutional message of “We the People” is becoming lost on a large segment of our population. The tentacles of D.C. now vastly stretch across the land acting more in a suffocating fashion rather than a partnering one. Truthfully, the amount of debt Americans now owe and the centralization that is crippling this nation makes the statement in the video accurate not in theory but certainly more so in reality. Many are now serfs in support of profligate spending and the entitlement culture. Sadly, the longer we delay our debt crisis the truth of the line from the convention becomes actualized. An email from Stephen Miller, a spokesmen for U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions, noted that the government “awarded a recruitment worker for overcoming the ‘mountain pride’ of people living in rural North Carolina” in order to expand enrollment for food stamps. Our government that is broke is aggressively recruiting more people for handouts.

It’s a sad reduction of the human person, when a worldview creeps in that you find a deeper community and deeper meaning in government.

The disconnect is deeply troubling and needs to be highlighted by deeper discussions and education about our civics. The whole idea of establishing an earthly kingdom is what the Founders rejected. Ownership belongs to the people. The government works for us and receives its direction from us. We are the ones who give the government its consent.

There is a clash of worldviews all around us, and unlike before in American history, they are not competing American worldviews. Language like this seems quite alien to our American experiment and ideals.

Marc Vander Maas and I just produced a podcast on Calvin Coolidge for Radio Free Acton. I have been doing a lot of research on the 30th president this year and have had the privilege of speaking about Coolidge in a few different settings. My recent Coolidge commentary for Acton is here.

One of the questions Marc asked me was about the ways in which Coolidge aligned with the thinking of the Acton Institute and in what ways he diverged from Acton thinking. I got so into the ways that he aligns with Acton in the interview but I neglected to address his divergence. Where Coolidge’s thinking parts with Acton is of course on trade. Coolidge, like many political leaders of his era, was a protectionist. He supported high tariffs on imports and advocated for government action to strengthen protectionist policies.

The podcast is a good introduction to Coolidge and his ideas. The 1920s era jazz music helps to set the tone. Listen below:

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I just read the introduction to Amity Shlaes’s forthcoming biography, Coolidge: Debt, Perseverance and the American Ideal. She has been very gracious in taking an interest in the work I have been doing on Coolidge and my recent Acton commentary on the 30th president.

Shlaes was interviewed in the Fall 2007 issue of Religion & Liberty about her book The Forgotten Man. I quickly realized in my own research there is no biography that captures Coolidge’s deep relevancy for today given the mammoth federal debt and the centralization of federal power. Coolidge took limiting federal power and its reach seriously.

Without naming names or titles, many of the Coolidge biographies in print are simply sub par. That will change with the release of her biography and this is a book that needs to be out now. There is no release date set in stone to my knowledge or I would offer it up to readers of the PowerBlog.

In the introduction, it is clear just how well Shlaes understands Coolidge’s leadership on economic issues and his emphasis on thrift. I love that she played off her title The Forgotten Man by calling Coolidge “The Forgotten President.” I’ve certainly noticed in my own talks when I go out and discuss Coolidge that so little is known about him.

In her introduction, Shlaes brilliantly draws out comparisons of Coolidge with George Washington, John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding, John F. kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan. Some of her insightful comparisons I would never have highlighted on my own. Shlaes is a gifted writer and I foresee this book being very influential with the ability to transform contemporary thinking about our national government.

One of the things that draws me to Coolidge is his appreciation for the past. He was a very modern president who oversaw great technological advances and an America that was modernizing at a rapid pace but he always reminded the people of who they were and the great heritage that gave birth to the American ideal. “If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it,” declared Coolidge.

One of my favorite books is The Word of Life by Thomas C. Oden. In the introduction to that book Oden quotes Henry Vaughan’s “Retreat:”

O How I long to travel back,
and tread against that ancient track! . . .
Some men a forward motion love,
But I by backward steps would move.

If Coolidge had heard those words, which is quite possible, I feel he would have loved them.

In this week’s commentary, I take a look at Calvin Coolidge and his views on government. Coolidge is important today for many reasons. Chiefly, he’s a striking contrast to our current culture of government and the bloated state.

Coolidge was sandwiched in between the progressive era and the rise of the New Dealers. And in his era of leadership, tyrannical leaders who preached the supremacy of the state rose to power abroad. Joseph Stalin and Benito Mussolini in Italy are two examples. Coolidge preached limited government and saw himself as a civic educator who wanted to remind America of its founding freedom.

In watching what just transpired with the recall election in Wisconsin and the debate over public sector unions, there is again a connection to Coolidge. His rise to national prominence came as governor of Massachusetts when he took on a public union. Coolidge’s firm stand against the Boston Police Strike of 1919 later led him to reflect saying, “The people will respond to the truth.” Coolidge famously declared during the strike that, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.” Ronald Reagan would find inspiration from Coolidge’s hardline when he terminated the striking air traffic controllers in 1981 as president.

I have enjoyed reading through the speeches and biographies of Coolidge. I have read a lot of original sources such as Have Faith in Massachusetts, which is a collection of messages and speeches delivered by Coolidge during his political career in the Bay State. After reading through that, you get a picture of the depth of his conservative thought and how he was able to articulate it so well to the citizenry.

His most brilliant speech which is really a denunciation of the progressive era and a triumphant praise of America’s Founding is his remarkable address on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. If you don’t read anything else by Coolidge, that speech is a must read. Finally, keep the forthcoming Coolidge biography by Amity Shlaes on your radar.

Blog author: rnothstine
Monday, February 20, 2012

The HHS Mandate is troubling to so many simply because it’s a clear Constitutional violation. Any basic understanding of Constitutional rights and our religious freedom sees that this is primarily about religious liberty, and not solely an issue concerning contraceptives or Roman Catholics.

Last week we heard from James Madison on religious liberty in my post “Religious Liberty or Government Tolerance?”

In 1792, Madison wrote an essay titled “Property” in the National Gazette. This is a brilliant piece by Madison where he declares that government is instituted to protect the property of the person. “In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights,” says Madison. There is all sorts of property according to Madison. As Madison understands, property is not just material property, but also a property of conscience or religious opinions. Madison notes that man “has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them.” Furthermore, Madison declares this kind of property is “the most sacred.”

Madison said that those in government who violate that charge of protecting property “would be in his proper functions in Turkey or Indostan, under appellations proverbial of the most complete despotism.”

Below is an excerpt from Madison’s essay:

More sparingly should this praise be allowed to a government where a man’s religious rights are violated by penalties, or fettered by tests, or taxed by a hierarchy. Conscience is the most sacred of all property, other property depending in part on positive law [but] the exercise of that being a natural and unalienable right. To guard a man’s house as his castle, to pay public and enforce private debts with the most exact faith, can give no title to invade a man’s conscience, which is more sacred than his castle, or to withhold from it that debt of protection for which the public faith is pledged by the very nature and original conditions of the social pact.

The full essay is here.

Blog author: rnothstine
Friday, February 3, 2012

James Madison has rightfully been forever identified as father of the U.S. Constitution, author of the Bill of Rights and coauthor of the Federalist Papers. In his new biography of America’s fourth president, Richard Brookhiser introduces us to Madison the politician. In many ways, Madison is the father of modern American politics, with all its partisanship, wheeling and dealing, vote getting, partisan media, and popular opinion polling.

Brookhiser helps us to see the early framers as they were, brilliant men, who more often than not, waded into petty partisan squabbling. They were not afraid to roll up their sleeves and unleash a sharp pen to advance power and their party’s ideas. Madison, who was quick to understand that political contention would reign in the new Republic, organized political coalitions and allies for the purpose of power.

Madison is also the architect of hyper partisan newspapers like the National Gazette in New York City. A publication that soon begins to slam Federalists like Alexander Hamilton and even Madison’s fellow Virginian George Washington. Like Jefferson, he was a Francophile to the extreme. Hamilton would counter that Jefferson and Madison “had a womanly attachment to France.” Jefferson and Madison would often write letters to their revolutionary heroes in France, and by the time those letters crossed the Atlantic, the intended recipients were already victims of the guillotine.

Over his political life, Madison could also be quick to change course, especially when it benefited him and his presidential administration. Long an opponent of many Federalist policies, when the nation needed sound fiscal policy and a strong military because of war, he simply reversed course, and implemented ideas he had once fervently opposed. At times, he favored a strong centralized government, and especially when Federalists were in power, he favored strong state governments.

Because of poor health, Madison had a premonition that he would die as a young man, but he outlived almost all of his contemporaries (1751-1836). Madison as elder statesmen spoke out strongly against nullification, an issue that has been resurrected today because of ObamaCare and other federal power grabs. He did not believe a single state could nullify a federal law. At the same time, he also made strong arguments for strict constructionist views of constitutional interpretation. He vetoed a transportation bill that would have funded roads and canals because it was not specifically enumerated and did not fall under the commerce clause. The U.S. Supreme Court would later declare that it did fall under the clause within Madison’s lifetime. Madison believed such legislation “would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation.”

Later in life he also worried that political parties were becoming too regional. “Parties . . . must always be expected in a government as free as ours. When the individuals belonging to them are intermingled in every part of the whole country, they strengthen the union of the whole, while they divide every part,” said Madison. He easily foresaw that the Missouri Compromise was spiraling toward dangerous disunion. Madison owned over 100 slaves and Brookhiser points out that unlike Jefferson, he did not offer lofty rhetoric concerning the evils of slavery. And unlike Washington, he did not free his slaves upon death. Later in life, Madison declared the whole bible to be against slavery and toyed with the idea of moving slaves to Liberia or out West, but offered no real feasible solutions on the issue.

His strict interpretive views of the Constitution made him an early opponent of the need for a Bill of Rights. Madison feared that listing rights in the Constitution might ultimately void the rights that were not specifically mentioned. Ultimately, he would be a champion of the Bill of Rights and had already heavily influenced them in his previous work in drafting the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Madison challenged George Mason who wanted a clause about tolerating religion. Brookhiser wonderfully explains Madison’s contribution to religious liberty:

Madison, half Mason’s age, improved his language, proposing a crucial change to the clause on religious liberty. Mason’s draft, reflecting a hundred years of liberal thought going back to John Locke, called for “the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion.” Yet this did not seem liberal enough for Madison. Toleration implies those who tolerate: superiors who grant freedom to others. But who can be trusted to pass judgments, even if the judgment is to live and let live? Judges may change their minds. The Anglican establishment of Virginia, compared with established churches in other colonies, had been fairly tolerant – except when it hadn’t, and then it made water in Baptists’ faces. So Madison prepared an amendment. “All men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise” of religion. No one could be said to allow men to worship as they wished; they worshipped as they wished because it was their right as men. Madison’s language shifted the ground of religious liberty from a tolerant society or state, to human nature, and lifted the Declaration of Rights from an event in Virginia history to a landmark of world intellectual history (23, 24).

For much of Madison’s political career he plotted behind the scenes with his friend and mentor Thomas Jefferson to destroy their political rivals. Madison often carried out the dirtier work of politics so Jefferson could appear above the fray as a man of the people. He was instrumental in creating a young republic that was ruled by Virginians in Jefferson, Madison, and James Monroe. Republicans accused Federalists of trying to create a ruling faction, but the Virginian statesmen were even more adept in creating a political dynasty. But Brookhiser also helps to bring to life a snippet of the beautiful correspondence between two lifelong friends and Virginians in Jefferson and Madison. Jefferson also entrusted Madison as the guardian of his legacy in America and as an overseer of the continued flourishing of the University of Virginia.

While this book is a good introduction to Madison, it is perhaps woefully short at 250 pages for a complete study of the fourth president and founding statesmen. Brookhiser’s strength lies in deconstructing Madison and unveiling his flaws and partisanship, and his political genius as well.

Some on the political right or some classical liberals say we need to go back to the Founding period or we need to follow America’s Founders as if they were all of one accord. They forget even the Founders trampled on the constitution with measures like the Alien and Sedition Acts or the Louisiana Purchase when it suited them. Brookhiser concludes that while politics has changed, it has not to the degree that “would make it unrecognizable” to Madison.

“His intelligence and his knowledge of history showed him how this tension between different political spheres could be built into the Constitution as a bulwark of liberty, though he came to believe that appealing to popular opinion through the arts of argument and politics was a bulwark at least as strong.” says Brookhiser. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” said Madison. That we do have a government that has lasted for 225 years is a testament to this great man. And he would be the first to say it could be improved and fight for that improvement.

Blog author: rnothstine
Wednesday, October 5, 2011

My commentary this week addresses the demonstrations in New York and in other cities against free enterprise and business. One of the main points I make in this piece is that “lost in the debate is the fundamental purpose of American government and the importance of virtue and a benevolent society.” Here is the list of demands by the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. It is in essence a laundry list of devastating economic schemes and handouts. Additionally, the demands are counter to America’s founding principles. The commentary is printed below:

Class Warriors for Big Government

By Ray Nothstine

Acting as unofficial scorekeeper, Sojourners Founder and CEO Jim Wallis recently declared, “There really is a class war going on, and the upper class is winning.” However, many of the class warfare protesters who are taking to the streets to “occupy” Wall Street and American cities are the disgruntled children of well-to-do parents. A quick sampling of video clips from the protests shows students from elite universities like Harvard, George Washington, and Columbia. Such protestors are driven less by genuine economic hardship than by misguided animus toward the market system that has enabled the wealth from which they have benefited.

One such protestor, Robert Stephens, launched into a tantrum about a bank seizing his well-educated parents’ $500,000 home. The claim turned out to be bogus, but he managed to convince sympathetic media outlets that he was the victim of abuse and scorn at the hand of free enterprise. Stephens, a student at the prestigious George Washington School of Law in Washington, is just one of many out-of-touch protestors pointing simplistically to the market as the culprit in the current economic downturn while ignoring other sources of financial dysfunction, such as the crony capitalism of government subsidies to business or government fiscal irresponsibility.

Struggling to make ends meet, most Americans lack the time to tune into protestors who are just as distant from their problems as Washington bureaucratic elites. Ronald Reagan offered these poignant words as he called on his own political party in the 1970s to shed its big-business country club image and to embrace the factory worker, the farmer, and the cop on the beat:

Extreme taxation, excessive controls, oppressive government competition with business, frustrated minorities and forgotten Americans are not the products of free enterprise. They are the residue of centralized bureaucracy, of government by the self-anointed elite.

Excessive taxation, regulation, and centralization of power always save their most vicious bite for the middle class. They are the hardest hit, not the super wealthy, some of whom call for higher taxes and are fawned over by a bloated government with an insatiable appetite for revenue. If there is any class conflict, it will come from the taxpaying class as it tries to tame the avarice of the political class. Most Americans are not very sympathetic to radical protestors because they still believe in an American Dream of limitless potential and opportunity.

While some protestors call for more government—or even the use of force—to restore their version of social justice and utopian economic schemes, lost in the debate is the fundamental purpose of American government and the importance of virtue and a benevolent society.

This nation’s founders adopted a system of government emphasizing a separation of powers and federalism to protect private property and the harmony of the Republic. Protestors calling for a dismantling of these ideas, whether it is through the confiscation of another’s property or through massive, centralized power seem alien to most Americans. During his inauguration another American President, Bill Clinton, aptly declared, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”

The virtues and values that have shaped our Republic offer the best for America. One of the wealthiest men of America’s founding era was John Hancock. Yet the man who once quipped, “They [the Crown] have no right to put their hands in my pocket,” was no miser. Often a political foe of the founder known for his oversized signature on the Declaration of Independence, American President John Adams nonetheless wrote, “If benevolence, charity, generosity were ever personified in North America, they were in John Hancock.” Hancock supported churches, city improvements, the arts, assisted widows, and paid for the education of orphans. However, a much greater compliment was bestowed upon him. He was widely known for treating those of modest means with the same respect as those with wealth and power.

History too shows the consequences of regimes that wished to redistribute the wealth of others and make denunciations about greed, especially wrapped within a materialistic, secular worldview. That was class warfare, too, and it ended in blood and wretched poverty.