Over the past month, I’ve been noticing a strong anti-government strain to many of the protests in the recent town hall meetings to discuss health care reform. These strong anti-government feelings run very strong among conservatives, while liberals tend to be very strongly pro-government. This is something I’ve always been curious about. How did Progressives and Conservatives come about their positions on the role of government? How has the Left’s view of the role of the federal government evolved over time? I did a cartoon in the August 26, 2009 edition of the Tri-City Voice on the town hall protests.
The argument about the role of the federal government has been around since the beginning of our country, from the debates of the Federalists and Antifederalists over the ratification of the Constitution, to the early debates between Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Party and Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Party. The Constitution was created because of great dissatisfaction with the government that was formed from the Articles of Confederation. The Articles of Confederation was based on the idea that each state would remain sovereign. Article 2 of the Articles of Confederation stated clearly:
“Each State retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.”
Since each state was sovereign, states could ignore with impunity legislation that was passed by the Congress. The federal government had no way of forcing states to pay its fair share of taxes, of giving supplies and troops for battle, they could not control settlers interactions with the Native Americans, it could not enforce foreign treaties it signed on American citizens, it could not settle interstate commerce disputes, it could not settle claims on frontier land, and it couldn’t pay off the debts accrued during the war. Americans were increasingly despairing of the ineffectiveness of the American government under the Articles of Confederation.
In the chapter “Is There a ‘James Madison Problem’” from his book Revolutionary Characters, Gordon Woods notes that James Madison and many of the leaders wanted a constitution based on a stronger federal government because of their own bad experiences in state legislatures in the 1780s. Woods wrote:
“Madison’s experience with the populist politics of the state legislatures was especially important because of his extraordinary influence on the writing of the federal Constitution. But his experience was not unusual; indeed, the framers of the Constitution could not have done what they did if Madison’s experience had not bee widely shared. Many of the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention were ready to accept Madison’s Virginia Plan precisely because they shared his deep dislike of the localist and interest-ridden politics of state legislatures. ‘The vile State governments are sources of pollution which will contaminate the American name for ages… Smite them,’ Henry Knox ured Rufus King, sitting in the Philadelphia Convention, ‘smite them, in the name of God and the people.’
Not only Virginia but other states as well had been passing various inflationary paper money laws and other debtor relief legislation that were victimizing creditor minorities. All this experience during the 1780s sparked new thoughts, and Madison began working out for himself a new understanding of American politics, one that involved questioning conventional wisdom concerning majority rule, the proper size for a republic, and the role of factions in society. All these new ideas fed into the Virginia Plan, which became the working model for the Constitutional Convention that met in 1787. Crucial to this plan was the Congress’s power to negative or veto all state legislation that in its opinion violated the articles of the Union.”
Many people who argue for a weak central government have pointed to the 10th Amendment as justification for their views. I did some research on the 10th Amendment and found the book James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights by Richard Labunski. One particular debate on the wording of the 10th Amendment was of great importance. On page 230, Labunski wrote:
“Tucker of South Carolina introduced a motion that showed how a single word inserted into an important section of the Constitution could have changed the nature of the document and the nation’s history. Tucker wanted to place the word ‘expressly’ in what would become the Tenth Amendment to confirm that the federal government was one of limited powers. His proposed language would have read ‘The powers not expressly delegated by this constitution…’ The Tucker amendment would have greatly diminished congressional authority under the ‘necessary and proper’ clause, which had granted Congress substantial discretion to carry out the responsibilities assigned by the Constitution. It would become a major issue throughout the nation’s history- going to the heart of how a federal system should allocate power between the states and the central government- that has never been settled.
Madison vigorously objected, arguing that ‘it was impossible to confine a government to the exercise of express powers(;) there must necessarily be admitted powers by implication, unless the constitution descended to recount every minutiae.’ He told his colleagues that this subject had been raised, discussed, and rejected by the delegates at the Virginia ratifying convention. Tucker’s motion was defeated in the committee of the whole, but he would raise it again in the full House, only to see it defeated on a recorded vote by a margin of 32 to 17.”
During this time, most of the progressive American thinkers of the time, from Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Paine, were rebellling from the strong central governments model of the European monarchies. This lead many of them to embrace a relatively anti-government stance. Gordon Wood noted in his book Revolutionary Characters:
“Unlike liberals of the twenty-fist century, Paine and other liberal minded thinkers of the eighteenth century tended to see society as beneficient and government as malevolent. Social honors, social distinctions, perquisites of office, business contracts, legal privileges and monopolies, even excessive property and wealth of various sorts- indeed all social inequities and deprivations- seemed to flow from connections to government, in the end from connections to monarchical government. ‘Society,’ wrote Paine in a brilliant summary of this liberal view in the opening paragraph of Common Sense, ‘ is produced by our wants and government by our wickedness.’ Society ‘promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections,’ government ‘negatively by restraining our vices.’ Society ‘encourages intercourse;’ government ‘creates distinctions.’ The emerging liberal Jefferson view that the least government was the best was based on such a hopeful belief in the natural harmony of society.”
This view persisted among liberals into the 1850s. Henry David Thoreau wrote in his essay On the Duty of Civil Disobedience:
“I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least;’ and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe,- ‘That government is best which governs not at all;’ and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.”
While the American liberals of the 18th and early 19th century believed in a weak central government, this belief among liberals began to change after the Civil War. Two events brought this about. One of the things that caused a change in liberalism’s view of the government was the fight for equal rights of African Americans. After the Civil War, the Congress, through the leadership of Radical Republicans like Charles Sumner, passed a series of laws to help grant equal citizenship to the newly freed slaves, chief among them the 14th and 15th Amendments and the Civil Rights Bill of 1875. When Reconstruction ended and federal troops withdrew from the South, African Americans saw those rights taken away as the local and state governments began to pass segregation and Jim Crow laws and African American leaders began to be harassed by the local Klu Klux Klan. The culmination of the loss of rights was the Supreme Court decision Plessy versus Ferguson. From that time onwards, civil rights activists agitated to force the federal government to intervene in protecting the rights of the black community.
Another thing that forced a reevaluation among some portions of the Left is the growth of corporations and trusts and its expanding control over the lives of all aspects of America. As men like J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie worked to create industries that gained untold of profits and gained control of large control of large segments of the American economy, the average American felt less control over their own lives. Rebecca Zurrier’s book Art For the Masses describes the fears of many progressives towards the corporations and trusts:
“Since the late nineteenth century the suspicion had been growing among Americans from all walks of life that the democratic rights of economic and political equality could no longer be attained in a capitalist society.
…the left gained strength between 1871 and 1917 as part of the growing pains accompanying America’s transformation from an agrarian nation of small communities into an urban, industrial society. Growth brought hardship on a scale unimagined before: between one-third and one-half of the population lived in poverty during this period. The ideas of free competition and economic progress that had prevailed in the older society proved inadequate to guarantee the welfare of individuals working for wages in a factory. The doctrine of laissez-faire capitalism preached only the producer’s right to unlimited growth and the investor’s right to a profit, with no sense of obligation to those who might suffer in the process of making that growth and that profit possible.
…With a popularized version of ‘social Darwinism’ providing moral justification, employers not only paid men less than enough to live on but hired women and children for even lower wages to work twelve- hour days, eighty hour weeks, under conditions that resulted in more than 570,000 industrial accidents each year- and provided no compensation for injury or layoffs. Efforts to form unions met with violent resisteance from employers and ushered in an era of labor strife: nearly 10,000 strikes and lockouts occurred between 1881 and 1890. At the same time, the absence of any sort of government regulation enabled a few men to accumulate huge fortunes and permitted the consolidation of industry into a few powerful trusts. By 1910, 1 percent of the population controlled 47 percent of the nation’s wealth.”
The left during that time developed many different philosophies in response to those economic conditions. Progressive Republicans and Democrats worked within their parties to try to bring about reform to the capitalist system. Socialists and anarchists felt the capitalist system was beyond redeeming and worked to replace it with economic systems that promised to more equitably redistribute the nation’s wealth. The Populists share the goals of shifting the balance of economic power more towards the rural and farming interests. An encapsulation on these various modes of thought could be found in the philosophies of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Eugene Debs. David Traxel, in his book Crusader Nation, wrote about the differences in the progressivism of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson:
“Policy toward the enormous concentration of economic power in the trusts was one of the points of contention in their differing visions of America’s future. Roosevelt believed that this increase in size and power of corporations was inevitable under modern economic conditions; they were here to stay, and the way to control them was through an equally strong central government armed with clear regulatory powers. Wilson, advised by the brilliant Boston lawyer Louis Brandeis, argued that these huge entities should be dismantled, not regulated. Only then would small enterpreneurs and businessmen have a chance to make their own fortunes.”
Eugene Debs was of a different cloth than the progressivism of Roosevelt or Wilson. Disillusioned from the American economic system after a brutal breaking of a Pullman strike in 1894, Debs believed that the state should hold all the means of industry and that industries would be organized as worker co-operatives so that the average workers would be able to benefit from his or her own labor. Bored of the Marxist idealogy and opposed to the warfare of the classes, Debs hoped instead for a nonviolent change from the capitalist system through the ballot box, gaining over 900,000 votes in his run for the Presidency in 1912 and 1920. In an article that Debs wrote on October 15, 1908, he stated his philosophy on the ordering of the economy:
“The process of industrial evolution that has rendered the capitalist a useless functionary has at the same time evolved an organization, co-operative in character, whereby industry may be carried on without friction for the benefit of the whole people instead of for the profit of the individual capitalist. The conduct of industry will be entrusted to men who are technically familiar with all its processes, precisely as it is now entrusted to managers by the stockholders of a corporation; in short, the whole of industry will represent a giant corporation in which all citizens are stockholders, and the state will represent a board of directors acting for the whole people. Details of organization and performance may well be left to the experts to whose direction the matter will be given when the time comes.”
A last strand of the left had a very different opinion on the role of the government is the anarchists, as represented by Emma Goldman. The anarchists, according to wikipedia, believe the state and compulsory government to be unnecessary and harmful and instead wish for the absense of the state. Emma Goldman was a political activist who fought for worker rights and wrote several essays on the anarchist philosophy. In her book Anarchism and Other Essays Goldman wrote:
Anarchism, then, really stands for the liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion; the liberation of the human body from the dominion of property; liberation from the shackles and restraint of government. Anarchism stands for a social order based on the free grouping of individuals for the purpose of producing real social wealth; an order that will guarantee to every human being free access to the earth and full enjoyment of the necessities of life, according to individual desires, tastes, and inclinations.
These different strands of leftwing all address the faults of the capitalist system, yet each is distinct. The Progressive philosophies of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson have morphed into the liberalism of the New Deal and the Great Society. Barack Obama’s proposals bear the influence of Roosevelt’s and Wilson’s progressivism. In these recent health care reform debates, Obama is often unfairly accused of being a socialist. Obama’s actions of the past few months have been to prop up the banking system and reform health care as a means to preserve and buttress the existing free market system. A true socialist, like Eugene Debs, would’ve done away with the existing system and replace it with the society owning the means of production.
It seems to me that the conservatives at last month’s town hall meeting have been tapping into the 18th century progressive spirit of Thomas Paine when they express their displeasure of an encroaching federal government. In light of the last 40 years, of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, of Watergate and the Iran Contra scandals, I can understand some of their scepticism of the government, even if I disagree. Liberals who want the government to alleviate the problems that a for profit system of health care has caused have tapped into the spirit of government activism of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. James Chace wrote in his book 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs- the Election That Changed the Country:
“Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson invented the activist modern presidency. TR’s commitment to use Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends was not unlike Wilson’s use of executive power to promote free competition that would prevent big business from stifling local economies. Their legacy was the use of centralized power to create greater democracy. For TR, as for Wilson, Hamilton’s strong government had to be united with the ‘one great truth taught by Jefferson- that in America a statesman should trust the people, and should endeavor to secure each man all possible individual liberty, confident that he will use it right.’”