From the beginning of the American Republic there has been a group of influential people who have devoted their lives and careers to putting more Power In Government (PIGs). As soon as the American Revolution ended Alexander Hamilton schemed to overthrow the first Constitution, the Articles of Confederation, and replace it with a document that would legitimize a permanent president who would appoint all the governors and have veto power over all state legislation. He wanted a king, in other words, who could force British-style mercantilism and an imperialistic foreign policy on America without any significant resistance by the citizens of the states. He failed during his lifetime, but that is essentially the system Americans live under today. We now live in "Hamilton’s republic," as his idolaters gleefully remind us.
As soon as Hamilton’s party, the Federalists, gained power, one of the first things they did was to rescind the First Amendment to the new Constitution with the Sedition Act during the presidency of John Adams. Hamilton authored several long-winded reports as Treasury Secretary in which he invented the insidious notions of "implied" powers in the Constitution along with such an expansive interpretation of the General Welfare and Commerce Clauses that the Constitution would become useless as a restraint on governmental tyranny.
Hamilton’s political compatriot, Chief Justice John Marshall, turned Hamilton’s legalistic mysticism into legal precedent during his long tenure on the Court, with many other PIG lawyers following suit over the succeeding generations. And of course Abraham Lincoln established a French Revolutionary/Stalinist-style regime that imprisoned tens of thousands of Northern political dissenters, employed an army of spies and informers (on Northern citizens), shut down hundreds of opposition newspapers, illegally suspended habeas corpus, deported an outspoken member of the opposition party, confiscated firearms, illegally created the state of West Virginia, censored all telegraph communication, and myriad other assaults on the Constitution, including waging war on his own country after promising to defend the lives and liberties of the very people he was waging war on.
The brilliant John C. Calhoun explained the inevitability of all of this — and more — in his Disquisition on Government, written in the late 1840s and published shortly after his death in 1850. Calhoun wrote that it is an error to think that "a written constitution, containing suitable restrictions on the powers of government, is sufficient, of itself, without the aid of any organism . . . to counteract the tendency of the numerical majority to oppression and the abuse of power."
All democracies are broken down into two basic groups — net taxpayers and net tax consumers, said Calhoun. And the latter group (PIGs) will inevitably prevail, as history teaches us. The party in favor of constitutional restrictions on governmental power at first "might command some respect" but "would be overpowered." It is mere folly, he argued, to suppose that "the party in possession of the ballot box and the physical force of the country [i.e., the military], could be successfully resisted by an appeal to reason, truth, justice, or the obligations imposed by the constitution." Moreover, "the end of the contest [between net taxpayers and tax consumers] would be the subversion of the constitution" whereby "the restrictions [on state power] would ultimately be annulled, and the government be converted into one of unlimited powers."
This is why Calhoun embraced the Jeffersonian idea of nullification during the sectional dispute over the 1828 "Tariff of Abominations." As explained by Ross Lence in the Foreword to Union and Liberty: The Political Philosophy of John C. Calhoun, the former vice president was "seeking a means by which [disunion] could be avoided," and so he "turned to the doctrine of interposition, which defended the right of a state to interpose its authority to overrule federal legislation. The seeds of this doctrine were introduced by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798 and 1799." Of course, such ideas as nullification, interposition, secession, and federalism were snuffed out by the Lincoln administration as a result of the War to Prevent Southern Independence.
Calhoun’s prediction of a government of unlimited powers eventually came true. The Jeffersonian strict constructionists did more or less prevail for a while, but were nearly wiped out by 1865, and were nowhere to be found by the turn of the twentieth century. At that point numerous notorious PIGs gleefully thumbed their noses at the Constitution and the freedoms it was supposed to protect. This story is told in great detail in the new book by Tom Woods and Kevin Gutzman entitled Who Killed the Constitution? The Fate of American Liberty from World War I to George W. Bush.
Woodrow Wilson resumed the totalitarian attacks on free speech that Adams and Lincoln had pioneered with the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918. These laws literally criminalized opposition to going to war in Europe, as Woods and Gutzman explain. In addition, the creepy-sounding "Committee on Public Information" portrayed Germans "as subhuman savages"; and sauerkraut even became known as "liberty cabbage," an early precedent for the moronic "freedom fries" language adopted by the Bush administration after its invasion of Iraq in 2003 when the French government refused to participate.
During the Lincoln administration roving gangs of Republican Party thugs destroyed printing presses, intimidated Democratic voters in the Northern states, and generally behaved like twentieth-century brownshirts. Woods and Gutzman write of how the exact same thuggish behavior was an integral part of the Wilson administration. A Christian minister was sentenced to 15 years for distributing a pamphlet to five people explaining that Jesus Christ was a pacifist (reminiscent of how Congressman Ron Paul was loudly booed by an audience of "evangelicals" when he reminded them in 2008 that Jesus was known as The Prince of Peace). Men were tarred and feathered for not spending enough of their income on "Liberty bonds" that helped fund the war; German language Bibles were burned; and the producers of a movie about the American Revolution that portrayed America’s "ally" Great Britain in an unflattering light were sentenced to ten years in prison.
By the 1950s American presidents clearly thought of themselves as dictators who were not constrained one iota by the Constitution. Consequently, Harry Truman felt justified in having the government seize and operate the steel mills so that he could better prosecute the undeclared war in Korea. Truman insisted that he had absolute, dictatorial power to "do whatever is for the best of the country." Constitution schmonstitution. The Supreme Court eventually ruled against this particular act of theft, but it had little effect in deterring future dictatorial behavior. Today, American presidents think of themselves not just as unrestrained dictators but as emperors of the world.
Woods and Gutzman provide a scholarly analysis of why Brown vs. Board of Education was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court "set itself above the Constitution" for what the majority believed was a good cause. Constitution schmonstitution.
There is no constitutional authority for the myriad pork-barrel spending projects that Congress funds year in and year out with tax dollars, but so what? Woods and Gutzman describe the evolution of this particular power grab, from the time when the "father of the Constitution," James Madison, vetoed an "internal improvements" bill as unconstitutional to today’s anything-goes mentality in Washington, D.C.
Then there is the theft of privately-held gold by FDR. The Supreme Court never even bothered to comment on this grossly unconstitutional act of thievery. Nor is there any constitutional basis for the government’s ban on prayer in public schools or military conscription. Not to mention the dictatorial implications of presidential "executive orders." Teddy Roosevelt receives special mention with regard to this latter authoritarian tool. He issued 1,006 executive orders compared to 51 and 71 for his two predecessors, write Woods and Gutzman. The "Bush Revolution," discussed in chapter 12, proves that modern American presidents and their advisors have nothing but absolute contempt for the Constitution.
Upon reading Who Killed the Constitution? the Jeffersonian wing of the founding fathers, were they alive today, would be reaching for their swords, preparing for another revolution. The Hamiltonians, on the other hand, would be popping champagne corks, high five-ing each other, and smiling very broadly. Calhoun would be deeply saddened that his dire predictions about the fate of an American democracy that is stripped of its Jeffersonian, states’ rights moorings have all come true in spades.
Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is professor of economics at Loyola College in Maryland and the author of The Real Lincoln; Lincoln Unmasked: What You’re Not Supposed To Know about Dishonest Abe and How Capitalism Saved America. His latest book, Hamilton’s Curse, will be published on October 21.