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A revised version of this essay is included in the recently published, second edition of my (Freeway Flyer/Paul Swendson) American history book.
Problems With a Weak National Government
Why has the “Tea Party Movement” chosen that particular name? From what I can gather, “Tea Partiers” are trying to connect their movement to our nation’s historical roots. Just as those first patriots rebelled 235 years ago against a powerful central government that tried to tax, regulate, and control them too much, believers in this modern movement are fighting to restore our nation’s original ideals of freedom and limited government, ideals embodied in our nation’s Constitution. In their minds, the federal government has grown too large, taxes and spends too much, and has gotten involved with issues over which it has no Constitutional jurisdiction.
There is no doubt that those first American revolutionaries were generally afraid of a powerful central government. Given their experiences with Great Britain, these fears were understandable. So shortly before the Revolutionary War ended, the thirteen states agreed to a political system called the Articles of Confederation. In this system, the national government had the bare minimum of powers: forming a military, negotiating with foreign powers, establishing a postal service, and creating currency. Essentially, it dealt only with matters that concerned the nation as a whole, namely national defense and interstate trade. Most significant, however, were the powers it did not have. For one thing, the national government could not tax. It could merely request money from the states to fund its various activities. There was also no national court system. Instead, state and local courts handled all judicial matters. If interstate disputes arose, the national government was supposed to be the arbitrator. The system for doing this, however, was extremely complex and cumbersome, and there was no powerful executive to enforce much of anything anyway. You could make a good argument, in fact, that the European Union today is a more united body than the United States was under the Articles of Confederation. The United States was essentially a military and loose economic alliance of thirteen nation-states.
To people who believe in a limited federal government and states’ rights, this original political system must sound great. Because most of the power was at the state and local level, government was more responsive to people’s needs. Your vote carried more weight in this system because each individual citizen constituted a larger percentage of the population in the important state and town elections than they did in the mostly irrelevant national elections. A mayor of a town, after all, is more willing and able to meet with an individual constituent than the president of an entire nation. Also, because the size of the state and city bureaucracies would be smaller than with a powerful national government, there was less possibility of corruption and waste.
The only problem with the Articles of Confederation was that it did not work. States did not provide adequate funding when the federal government requested it, making it impossible to get much of anything done. Debts to foreign nations and to Revolutionary War soldiers remained unpaid. States sometimes created their own currencies and established tariffs on goods coming from other states, making it difficult for merchants to conduct any kind of interstate trade. Businessmen, in fact, were some of the biggest advocates for changing the system. Finally, the federal government under the Articles was unable to perform the most basic functions of government: defending the state and maintaining order. Spain and Great Britain encroached on American territory with no consequences, and in 1787, a man named Daniel Shays led a rebellion of indebted farmers that had to be put down by the Massachusetts state militia.
So in 1787, 55 men from 12 states got together with the official purpose of amending the Articles of Confederation. Very quickly, however, they agreed to go much further than that. The result was a system in which the federal government would be much stronger than before. It could now collect taxes to fund itself. A national court system was created that could override the decisions of state and local courts. Only the federal government could create currency, and tariff barriers between states were forbidden. A separate executive branch was set up, headed by a President, which would carry out the laws passed by a Congress, consisting of a House and a Senate. Interstate disputes could now be resolved by this new federal government that clearly had the final say.
Some historians, like many Americans in the late 1780’s, view the Constitution as a counterrevolutionary document. The Articles, based on the principles of democracy, personal freedom, and states’ rights, embodied the original revolutionary spirit. But the elites of society, in this thesis, felt threatened by the Articles. Shays Rebellion seemed like an indication of things to come, with poor people grabbing their guns and taking the law into their own hands. More future events like this were bound to happen in a society with too much democracy and a weak federal government. The next thing you knew, the poor would be pushing for the passage of laws or taking violent actions that would confiscate the property of the wealthy. Businessmen saw limited potential for profit in a system that had no consistent rules regarding currency, trade, and contracts.
So with the Constitution, these 55 men, who mostly represented the elite classes, created something that would protect their interests. This new government would be strong enough to maintain order, and it would not be overly democratic. In fact, the only officials in the Constitution as it was originally written who were directly elected by voters were the members of the House. Senators were selected by state legislators, the President was chosen using a strange Electoral College system (that we are still stuck with), and Supreme Court justices were nominated by the (non-democratically elected) President and approved by the (non-democratically elected) Senate.
So was this a conspiracy of elites, or were the framers of the Constitution merely creating a system that would compensate for the weaknesses of the Articles? There is no doubt, after all, that these so-called self-centered elites had their own suspicions about excessive government power. This was why power was divided into three branches, with each branch having the ability to check and balance the primary powers of the other two. Even the limits on democracy do not necessarily constitute a conspiracy. At the time, choosing leaders through elections was not exactly the norm around the world, so relative to other nations at the time, the Constitution allowed voters to participate a great deal.
Ratification of this new government was by no means a done deal. In the end, concessions had to be made in order to get majority support in the required nine of thirteen ratifying conventions. It was agreed that a Bill of Rights would be added to set limits on this new national government. So amendments one through ten were added two years after the Constitution went into effect, and to many Americans, some of the principles found in the Bill of Rights represent the crowning achievements of the Founding Fathers. The conspiracy theorists mentioned earlier, however, can point out that the Bill of Rights was not part of the original plan. They were only added in order to get the Constitution ratified, indicating that the original framers saw them as unnecessary and possibly even a threat to their plans. All of those individual protections, after all, could make it more difficult to keep order.
Whatever your point of view on the framers of the Constitution, it is fascinating that the Tea Party, a movement primarily focused on limiting federal government spending and power, views itself as being rooted in Constitutional principles. They are celebrating, after all, a document that greatly increased the power of the national government. (It makes you wonder if Tea Party people would have been among those Americans 220 years ago who were trying to block ratification of the Constitution.) Still, when they argue that the federal government is doing things today that go beyond the limits set in the Constitution, they definitely have a point. I plan to address some of those concerns in future hubs. But for now, I will finish with one important lesson learned from those eight years that the Articles of Confederation was our system of government: a federal government that is too weak can do a poor job of carrying out the two duties that Tea Party people and conservatives in general care about the most: defending the nation and encouraging business activity. Believe it or not, a powerful federal government is not necessarily bad for business. (To be continued.)
Books Related to Topic
Scott Belford from Keystone Heights, FL on June 11, 2013:
Perfectly said, @Ron
Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on June 10, 2013:
I think what your hub shows is that rather than being rooted in Constitutional principles, the Tea Party is more rooted in Confederation principles. And as you say, that didn't work.
Scott Belford from Keystone Heights, FL on June 09, 2012:
That is how my settings are set and they bust right through them. My choices are Accept or Delete Spam. I haven't checked back to see if they go away, but I see from yours, they do, good.
Paul Swendson (author) on June 08, 2012:
Apparently not. All I can do is change my settings so that I have to approve all comments. But I still have to go through the hassle of rejecting and deleting them.
Scott Belford from Keystone Heights, FL on June 08, 2012:
Too bad, is there any way hubpages is able to protect you?
Paul Swendson (author) on June 08, 2012:
Yes, I've been getting bombarded by spam lately.
Scott Belford from Keystone Heights, FL on June 08, 2012:
Freeway, I think your hub has been taken over by aliens.
Scott Belford from Keystone Heights, FL on April 17, 2012:
We didn't live in the 1800s when Conservatives ruled. I suspect you would answer your question with "looking out for #1" if you had lived then. It isn't an accident that we had to wait until America had elected its first non-war progressive Democrat where the words "Ask not for what your Country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your Country" were finally spoken and believed by the American people.
From the time John Adams left the Presidency and until that day, save for times of war, this nation has been more about the united States, rather than the United States; more about business success and the individual be damned, than about caring for your neighbor.
Paul Swendson (author) on April 17, 2012:
And unfortunately, in our increasingly individualistic society, I often wonder what people mean by the word nation today. Do people truly love America if they are primarily fixated on looking out for number one?
Civil War Bob from Glenside, Pennsylvania on April 17, 2012:
Good Hub, FF...voted up, useful, interesting. Here's a quote from my book that supports you:
John Quincy Adams stated in his Lives of Madison and Monroe, published in 1850, “A Confederation is not a country. There is no magnet of attraction in any league of Sovereign and Independent States which causes the heart-strings of the individual man to vibrate in unison with those of his neighbor. Confederates are not Countrymen, as the tie of affinity by convention can never be so close as the tie of kindred by blood. The Confederation of the North American States was an experiment of inestimable value, even by its failure.” Southern fire-eaters who created their own Confederacy apparently had not read Adams’ book, or ignored its conclusion.
Paul Swendson (author) on April 01, 2012:
Yes, My Esoteric, I have read through each of your comments. And your responses covered much of what I would try to say. But Wanna Bwriter, I'm not sure what you mean by repeating "Buzz Words." (I don't remember accusing Tea Party people of doing this.) I agree that it is important to constantly review what is meant by the term constitutional. I just find it ironic that so few people seem to realize that the Constitution represented an extension of federal power, not a contraction of it. The Constitution, of course, also sets limits, and I agree with you that there are probably many regulations out there that do more harm than good. The danger is that people might drift too far toward the other extreme and argue that all regulations are bad for business.
Scott Belford from Keystone Heights, FL on April 01, 2012:
Of course, I have to disagree with your basic premis, that the Supreme Court is "making law" when it declares a law unconstitutional. That would mean, of course, that you oppose the current court from striking down a lawful Act passed by Congress requiring an individual insurance mandate rather than deciding if that law exceeded Congresses law making power. What you said in your comment that IF Congress passes a law, it is ipso facto, Constitutional and the Supreme Court is not allowed to say otherwise.
What the truth of the matter is, the writers were silent on whether the Court had this power of "Judicial Review" or not. Chief Justice John Marshall's court decided it did in 1801 and 100 years of Conservative, tea party-like rule never appointed a court that would change it. That is not to say important founders didn't like it, Thomas Jefferson hated it (John Adams liked it), but he didn't change it when he had the opportunity. Go figure.
(I wonder if Freeway knows we have taken up his hub?)
Barbara Radisavljevic from Templeton, CA on April 01, 2012:
My Esoteric, I was talking about the writers of the Constitution trying to limit the powers given to the branches of the new government, not about limiting what existed under the Articles of Confederation.
I don't believe the Constitution gives the Court the power to "decide what the writers meant them to be in the context of the current world situation." We have a process for amending the Constitution if the world situation drastically changes -- a process involving both Congress and people. The framers never intended one deciding vote to drastically change the laws of the land. It was never intended anyone but Congress make the laws. Article One clearly states at the beginning that"All legislative powers shall be invested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and a House of Representatives. If the Congress oversteps its bounds and makes a law about something it has no power to make a law about, the Supreme Court can nullify it. The Courts, including the Supreme Court, have made pretzels out of the first two amendments when the states or Congress have made laws that try to abridge the rights they have granted. It was never intended that the judges apply any test but the Constitution itself, to decide if Congress has exceeded its power -- not international law, not the personal political opinions of the justices. Just the Constitution. If the Constitution needs amending, it is to be done by Congress and the people, and it has been, to fix such problems as slavery. It was not decided by the Supreme Court that slavery was unconstitutional because times had changed. It was changed by a constitutional amendment. I don't have time to review all the important rulings this afternoon, but it wasn't intended judges legislate from the bench.
Scott Belford from Keystone Heights, FL on March 31, 2012:
@WannaB, I am a bit confused by your comment "... there was also a lot of emphasis on restricting the powers of Congress and the executive branch..." I am confused because the Continental Congress had no real power -- there was nothing to "restrict"; further, there was no Executive Branch, that was created out of whole cloth at the Constitutional Convention. There was no federal judiciary either.
Consequently, the Constitution that came out of the Constitutional Convention was a huge expansion of Congressional, Executive, and Judicial power. That is not to say that the writers of the Constitution weren't quite aware of, as you say, the "power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely" syndrome. That is why you have three branches with counterveiling powers and two Houses of Congress which represent the common man and the aristrocracy; that is the true essence of your "limited" government.
Now, does Congress have a limited scope? Yes it does, but, it was been left to the Supreme Court to decide what the writers meant them to be in the context of the current world situation. While the Powers are "Enumerated" they are also vague because of the various clauses being debated today in the very activist Supreme Court regarding Obamacare.
As much as Conservatives and Tea Partyers want to believe Article III is black and white, it is not, it is very gray.
Barbara Radisavljevic from Templeton, CA on March 31, 2012:
I will address several of you at once. First, it's nonsense that tea party people are just repeating buzz words. The study the Constitution and its history and encourage others to do likewise. My group at the moment is concentrating trying to influence local government agencies.
Although you are right that the Constitution was needed to expand some powers of the federal government, so that the soldiers who fought the Revolution could get paid, etc, there was also a lot of emphasis on restricting the powers of Congress and the executive branch. No one ever dreamed that the justices of the Supreme Court would take it on themselves to use anything but the Constitution itself in determining if a law were constitutional. No one envisioned the Supreme Court being the final authority of government in those days.
The consensus of the framers was that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Limiting the powers of the branches of the federal government was a way to try to prevent that. But people know so little about the Constitution today, most don't realize the violations that occur and remain silent.
I will agree that the health care bill is not the only abuse of power where the Congress has taken a problem and created a solution worse than the original problem. The CPSIA law that was supposed to protect children from lead in children's jewelry made in China expanded to "protecting" children under the age of 13 from anything that did not go through expensive 3rd party testing for levels of lead and certain plastics, including organic cotton clothing, books, bicycles, you name it. Thrift stores were afraid to sell used products for children that were absolutely safe or risk a fine of $100,000 and jail time. This law caused several small businesses to go out of business that were doing nothing to harm children and it also caused the prices of children's products to go up. It exempted batteries, though, which a small child would be more likely to put in his mouth than a children's dictionary.
The problem is that Congress passes these laws that will leave small companies in economic shambles, and that have little relationship to common sense. Then they appoint bureaucrats to decide how they should be implemented, so no one is really accountable to the people for the decisions of these unelected regulators.
This is happening on the local level, as well, and people who have to actually go to work don't have time to go to all the meetings that happen during working hours to let their voices be heard. Even when they do, their voices are ignored. They just hope everyone will forget before the next election. Keeping an eye on our elected officials at all levels is practically a full time job. Of course, what happens on the local level isn't always directly related to an act of Congress, unless Congress is foisting unfunded mandates on them, as it often does.
Paul Swendson (author) on February 08, 2012:
Your statement about the federalists turning over in their graves is debatable. Like today, they did not all agree with one another about the proper extent of federal government power. The main point that I was trying to make in this article was that the Constitution primarily represented an extension of federal power, not a contraction of it. And since the items in the list of powers given to the national congress are often a bit vague, it leaves much open to interpretation.
It's also important to remember, as "My Esoteric" said, that state and local governments, like the federal government, have the capacity to make bad laws. I would describe, after all, Southern states during the Jim Crow era as tyrannical.
It's also important to remember that America was a fundamentally different place when our nation was founded. In a nation of mostly independent farmers, most issues could be handled locally. But in a nation of massive corporations operating across state lines, and a country where all of us are dependent on forces that are out of our control, some degree of federal regulation is necessary.
That said, I relate to your concerns about large bureaucracies implementing regulations that do more harm than good. The problem isn't the concept of regulation or of federal power. It's that the regulators and officials sometimes do a lousy job of creating and enforcing regulations that make sense. This is why people need to move beyond theoretical discussions about whether or not we should have a "laissez faire" society or one with strict regulations. There is, after all, a middle ground, and we should focus on specific policies rather than rhetoric, political party affiliation, and ideology.
Scott Belford from Keystone Heights, FL on February 08, 2012:
I have to disagree WBA. If you count up the number of laws passed by all of the state legislatures and signed by their respective governors in any given year, and compare it to the number signed by the President, you will find the federal government's number miniscule by comparison; that is just common sense.
The same is true for court decisions. Keep in mind, the court, especially the respective Supreme Courts, purpose is to keep the vagaries if a temporary majority decision by lawmakers or a wrong-headed decision by the citizenry in compliance with the State or U.S. Constitutions.
By your criteria, if California voters decided by a 50.1% majority that blacks and whites cannot marry, such as was the case in Mississippi in 1950, then neither the State nor Federal Courts should overturn that vote because that is what 50.1% of the people wanted. Is that what you are telling me?
firstname.lastname@example.org from upstate, NY on February 08, 2012:
No doubt that American's feared that the European powers would carve up the new American nation if a stronger federal government was not adopted. That being said,even the federalists would have turned over in their graves if they had witnessed the dramatic seizure of federal power and the trampling of the Constitution that paved the way for that power.
The fears of Jefferson and the anti-federalist's were not unfounded. The Constitution lays the blueprint for a self-governing nation where the vast majority of decisions were to be made at the state and local level and by the people themselves. Today the vast majority of decisions are made at the federal level.
The courts make more important policy decisions than the legislator which takes the descision making power away for our elected officials onto unelected judges. Many more of the powers of our three branches of government have been ceded to unelected beaurocrats in administrative agencies.This I feel is the defintion of approaching tyranny.
Scott Belford from Keystone Heights, FL on January 24, 2012:
An excellent hub Freeway Flyer, thanks for sending me here; very concise and even better, understandable!
OpinionDuck on January 09, 2011:
The Constitution means only what the Supreme Court decides it means. The objective of the Supreme Court was to prevent federal cases, as its decisions were the law. In recent times however the Supreme Court has engaged in too many decisions, and in my opiniion a five to four decision is not a real decision. The standard at the Supreme Court level should be set higher than a simple majority. If you got five answers right on a nine question test it would give you a failing grade.
Constitutional Amendments require 75% to pass, and in essence that is what the Supreme Court is actually doing in their decisions. So a 7 to 2 or at least a 6 to 3 vote should be necessary to pass on a Supreme Court Decision.
When the Supreme Court makes an interpretation of say the 4th or 5th Amendment, they are in essence amendmeding them.
Currently the Supreme Court is making decsions on the 14th Amendment based on 5 to 4 decsions.
My point is that the Suprem Court is taking on too many cases, and passing too many decisions on a simple majority of the court. That shouldn't be good enough for such important legal decisions.
Limited government was and is still a good idea, as government encroaches on the states and the public it is no longer responsive to the people, and this is evidence by the downturn of the country in the last two decades.
Christopher Antony Meade from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom on January 09, 2011:
Thanks for a very interesting article. Do you know that the best way to discover how government worked in eighteenth century Britain is to study how the american political system works in Washington today?
The system in Britain had a King that headed the executive, but depended on the votes in parliament to get taxes to carry out the policies of his government. He could appoint ministers, but he always had to try to manage the various factions in parliament, so money had to be spent to influence elections to get people who were favourable to the government into parliament. The King then had to do deals with the various factons in The House, if he wanted to get some of his policies approved.
The only real difference between King George III and Barack Obama is that the King reigned for sixty years, and President Obama will be lucky if he gets eight.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Howard Schneider from Parsippany, New Jersey on January 09, 2011:
Great Hub. It is quite ironic that the Tea Partiers revere the Constitution when it was villified in 1787 for expanding government too much. They feared a return to a monarchy. Unfortunately I think these people only know buzzwords they hear on TV regarding the Constitution and not its history or what is in it. Thanks for shining some light on its origins. I look forward to reading your future Hubs on this. I wrote one exposing the myth of Conservative judicial restraint.
Paul Swendson (author) on January 08, 2011:
In Alaska, the Tea Party guy lost to a write-in candidate who he had defeated in the Republican primary. Some of this was because the Democrat had no chance of winning so Democratic voters picked the person that they considered the lesser of two evils. Apparently, many independents did the same thing. Some Tea Party people lost some other general elections as well. So they might not be as strong as some think.
The next two years, unfortunately, will largely be about 2012. So expect to see a lot of begging for votes. Both parties, however, may have some incentive to get something done. Because the government is now divided, neither side can blame the other for everything that is going wrong.
OpinionDuck on January 07, 2011:
Well that may be true, but the republicans have lost their focus because of the TEA party, and the democrats don't know what to do.
The Tea Party has taken on its own narrow identity apart from the traditional republican party.
The fact of the matter is that the independent voters are more likely to go TEA party than to either Democrat or Republican. The independents account for over thirty percent of the voters.
Obama's people are abandoning the ship.
I just hope that it is not another two years of begging for votes and no actual work being done in Congress like 2007, and 2008.
Paul Swendson (author) on January 07, 2011:
The Founding Fathers did not envision the two party system. It evolved on its own, unfortunately.
At the moment, the Tea Party is working within the Republican Party. So technically, they are not competition (yet). Personally, I don't see the Tea Party as anything new. They are just conservatives who lean a bit further to the right than mainstream Republicans.
OpinionDuck on January 07, 2011:
The current government is not only too powerful, it is too pervasive, and it is obese and non functional. Thisis due in large part to the stagnant two political party system.
Whatever the reason or foundation of the TEA party it has been a catalyst for the stagnancy of the two dominant parties.
For the last seven decades the democrats and the republicans have swapped control in the house, and in the senate and also the presidency, but it always had a null effect. Nothing has been done for the people, it has always been party first.
The constitution as interpreted today is not even close to what the founders created.
So I think that the TEA party is good for the country, as this is the first time in the last hundred years that the tow dominant parties have any real competition.