The Founders' Vision Versus Ours

Over 200 years ago, the Founding Fathers of the United States fought a long and bloody war to preserve the laws and principles necessary for a free and prosperous society.  What happened?
Walter-williams

The celebration of our founders' 1776 revolt against King George III and the English Parliament is over. Let's reflect how the founders might judge today's Americans and how today's Americans might judge them.
       
In 1794, when Congress appropriated $15,000 to assist some French refugees, James Madison, the acknowledged father of our Constitution, stood on the floor of the House to object, saying, "I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents."

He later added, "(T)he government of the United States is a definite government, confined to specified objects. It is not like the state governments, whose powers are more general. Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the government." Two hundred years later, at least two-thirds of a multi-trillion-dollar federal budget is spent on charity or "objects of benevolence."
       
What would the founders think about our respect for democracy and majority rule? Here's what Thomas Jefferson said: "The majority, oppressing an individual, is guilty of a crime, abuses its strength, and by acting on the law of the strongest breaks up the foundations of society."

John Adams advised, "Remember democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide." The founders envisioned a republican form of government, but as Benjamin Franklin warned, "When the people find they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic."
       
What would the founders think about the U.S. Supreme Court's 2005 Kelo v. City of New London decision where the court sanctioned the taking of private property of one American to hand over to another American?

John Adams explained: "The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If 'Thou shalt not covet' and 'Thou shalt not steal' were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society before it can be civilized or made free."
       
Thomas Jefferson counseled us not to worship the U.S. Supreme Court: "(T)he opinion which gives to the judges the right to decide what laws are constitutional and what not, not only for themselves in their own sphere of action but for the Legislature and Executive also in their spheres, would make the Judiciary a despotic branch."
       
How might our founders have commented about last week's U.S. Supreme Court's decision upholding our rights to keep and bear arms? Justice Samuel Alito, in writing the majority opinion, said, "Individual self-defense is the central component of the Second Amendment." The founders would have responded "Balderdash!"

Jefferson said, "What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms."
       
George Mason explained, "(T)o disarm the people (is) the best and most effectual way to enslave them." Noah Webster elaborated: "Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed. ... The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword; because the whole body of the people are armed, and constitute a force superior to any band of regular troops that can be, on any pretense, raised in the United States. A military force, at the command of Congress, can execute no laws, but such as the people perceive to be just and constitutional; for they will possess the power, and jealousy will instantly inspire the inclination, to resist the execution of a law which appears to them unjust and oppressive."
       
Contrary to Alito's assertion, the central component of the Second Amendment is to protect ourselves from U.S. Congress, not street thugs.
       
Today's Americans have contempt for our founders' vision. I'm sure our founders would have contempt for ours.



Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He has authored more than 150 publications, including many in scholarly journals, and has frequently given expert testimony before Congressional committees on public policy issues ranging from labor policy to taxation and spending.

4 comments from readers  

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Small
Excellent analysis.

In my view, what undermines the intent of the Founders is a concept that was also present at America's conception: the religious view that Man's life can have no meaning if you remove the concepts of service to Society and to God.

Our leaders cannot find the moral footing to deny alms to the poor and foreign aid to the oppressed. Soon enough, it is no longer a question of "How to limit the redistribution of our citizens" but rather "Am I and my charities getting our fair share, and if not, how can we?"
Small
First of all, the terms "republic" and "democracy" are both so loosely defined as to be often interchangeable. To use them as you do here appears to be nothing more than grandstanding for one political party over the other. For example, if one Googles "republic," the first definition that crops up begins with the word "democracy." What we do have in the US (to actually be somewhat precise) is a representative democracy with checks and balances, not a direct one that can more easily oppress a minority. That was what the founders were worried about.

Furthermore, "to decide what laws are constitutional" is the entire job of the supreme court according to the constitution. Just because you don't agree with every decision the court has made, this does not make the judges despots.

As for the people rising up in some kind of armed revolt against the US government, and that being the purpose for which you believe the second amendment is still relevant and important today. What kind of fantasy world are you living in?
This didn't work in the Civil War roughly 150 years ago, and now the government controls a military and security force that has been specializing in counterinsurgency for decades with weapons technology far beyond that which the public possesses (in any state irrespective of gun control laws, most modern, military grade weapons tech is just too incredibly expensive for a private individual). There are no politicians shaking in fear that a few hicks with rifles present any real threat to their power (and to advocate change in this way, by threatening our elected officials with assassination when we don't agree with a ruling, is reprehensible behavior on your part). But that's not even the point, just a practical reality.

Politicians are not trying to take away people's guns to maintain some power base - that's a crackpot, conspiracy theorist idea. Those trying to advocate stronger gun control laws are doing so with the intention of preventing gun violence (whether or not this is practical or effective in doing so is another argument).
Small
Your point is well made, but the reality is that the federal government now has standing armies of immense power, which even the most concerted "militia" opposition cannot overcome. The only recourse is not to oppose oppression by arms, but by persuading the voting population of those validity and necessity of those founding principles.

The most intriguing aspect of your column is the reference to Jefferson's view of the Supreme Court. His argument is very nuanced and rests on both jury nullifcation and regular constitutional conventions:
http://etext.virginia.edu/jefferson/quotations/jeff1030.htm
Photo-not-provided
The most practical part of this article was not elaborated upon that much. This is my favorite paragraph:

"John Adams advised, "Remember democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide." The founders envisioned a republican form of government, but as Benjamin Franklin warned, "When the people find they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic."

This is the sum of what I feel the problem to be in Congress and the Senate...lobbyists, big money and back scratching. How do you logically confront our elected officials with their own dishonesty and treachery?
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