It would surprise you, or at least should, if the Founding Fathers had not anticipated our day.
Indeed, they probably could not have conceived of the weapons we use in war. They probably could not conceive of the computers and the internet that tie us together. But they did perceive man’s propensity to accumulate wealth and power, and the attraction that government offers to such people.
They knew that governments do what governments do: grow. Government start off with a fair promise and a fair deal. You, the People, give us money, give us food, and give us your young men, and we will protect you so you can live in peace.
This was the deal that gave rise to the first kings of England, more general and less king, appointed by the local governments across the land, to a temporary term for the purpose of rallying the troops and expelling the invaders. Over time, the kings stayed kings beyond their terms, and could call the army when they thought it was necessary. By the time the Normans invaded in 1066, they had a full-fledged government, still with the purpose of protecting the people, but doing other things as well. The Normans brought their castles and knights and French words like beef and pork. They quickly learned that the English people were not subjects, but partners, and it wasn’t long before they resurrected the age-old promise of protection for products. And thus the English people remained, with much of the power focused in the local villages with lords and kings handling the affairs of state and calling upon the young men for the occasional war.
By the time the American Revolution occurred, England had already experienced several revolutions. It was not a few times that the kings asked too much, and it was not a few times that the lords or the people refused. There was even a period of time where there was no king, although that was abandoned when it was realized no king could be worse than a king.
The Americans were just another revolution in a long list of revolutions. Perhaps they saw it that way, and perhaps the English saw it that way too. Thus, the War of 1812, when the British said, “You have had your fun. It is time to get back together again.”
The Americans, however, had something new. They have perspective. They had wealth. They had a bit of time. And with these resources, they developed the modern statesman, an individual who, with his wealth and privilege, sacrificed so that his people could benefit. This was the era of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. It was also a time for George Washington, the man who refused a crown because he cared too much.
We suppose that the Founding Fathers did not expect that our government would grow too large or powerful only if we ignore that they lived under a government that grew too large and powerful. Their desire was not independence, no not at first. They wanted unity with their brothers and fathers in Great Britain. However, by that time they had grown too powerful and too pompous as to consider the colonies anything like one of their own villages. Perhaps they didn’t understand what was happening overseas, the “Little Britain” that was quickly developing, the intellectual Renaissance of the American independent spirit. Perhaps they saw men wielding hatchets and wearing buckskin as backwards and unrefined. Regardless, they did not accept the entreaties of the Americans, and in the end, the Americans decided they were better off alone.
Having lived under such a government, the Founding Fathers conceived a plan to prevent it from ever happening again. Or rather, a plan to recover balance when it does occur. That is, the constitution is not so much a roadmap as a fire escape. It is to be employed when things go wrong.
And who can say they haven’t gone wrong?
In Federalist 46, James Madison under the name Publius describes why things won’t go wrong easily, and how to remedy it. His chief concern was twofold: One, that the states would grow too powerful, one bullying the other. Two, that the federal government would overpower the states.
If a state grew too powerful, the federal government would be the device by which its power would be limited. We see this today as California and New York are rebuffed by senators from Wyoming and South Dakota. To them, they would prefer we had a national popular election to settle matters, while the smaller states insist on the power of the senate. We have not had a case where one state grew too large, and I don’t think it will ever happen if we insist on applying the constitution. Should we ever abandon the Senate and the Electoral College, that would spell the end of that.
If the federal government grew too powerful, then it would be limited by the states. On the one hand, the states are closer to the people. On the other hand, they deal with matters of greater concern to the people, and so the people are thus more interested in maintaining its power and are thus loyal to it. With its power it can reward its people with rewards that the federal government cannot afford.
The only cause for concern to Madison was the absurd notion that the federal government would build a military which would dwarf the states. He wondered aloud how it could possibly do that, and why the states would send the federal government the funds and the equipment and the bodies needed to build such a war machine. Nevertheless, he points out, should the federal government somehow manage to raise an army larger than any other, it would still be dwarfed by the people. Unlike Europe, Americans were heavily armed, and not just with anything, but with military equipment. And so it is simply impossible for a minority to use military force to compel the majority. Sure, in Europe this happens all the time, but, he says, imagine what a lord in Europe would do if he could actually access the sentiment of the common folk? What kind of army could he raise and who could stop him? In America, any man who can rally the people would be such a lord, and if he were sufficiently popular, all but unstoppable.
Madison asserts that ultimately, the power behind the state and federal government come from the people. The people, as a separate body, are the power that any official in either government wants to gain control over.
I doubt that Madison knew that one day, militaries would become so efficient. Our federal government now possesses the means to destroy entire cities at the push of a button. A crew of men can put a bomber in the sky to wipe out an entire army. With technology, I fear that the federal government has reached a point where it could possibly challenge the people and win. The only hope I have is that there are enough good people in the military who won’t push the button and won’t order the troops to do such a horrible thing.
This fear, I think, should translate into a general policy. The parts of our military should not be controlled by the federal government, except in times of war, and only for the purposes of that war. Every missile, every bomb, every member of the armed forces should make their oaths to their state, and then pledge their loyalty to the federal government only inasmuch as the state permits it. In this way, if we were to break down to the point where a group of people would like to use military force on another, they would have to negotiate an alliance among the several states — which would be what we wanted all along. We wanted people who have competing interests and ideas about how government should work to sit down and talk about their ideas and convince others of the validity of their ideas in the several realms. Only once you can gain a supermajority can you make significant changes.
Those of you who are fed up with the federal government: Take over your state governments, and use the state to poke the federal government in the eye. Tell the federal government to stick it when they ask for help or resources. If push comes to shove, the state governments should be quite capable of rallying the people to a righteous cause, even if it means rallying them to fight a war.
I am reminded of one thing. During the 80’s, there was a big push to lower taxes at the federal government level. Yes, they were lowered, but the states raised their taxes and the actual effect wasn’t that much on the average family because of it. Had we instead focused our efforts on making tax shelter states, and then prevented the federal government from collecting from the state’s people, we would never have had a need to limit taxes on the federal level. That is to say, if you really want to change things, change Olympia, not DC.