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Founding fathers' big-government liberalism should get pompous pundits' ire

January 18, 2011 - Mike Maneval
Upon retaking the House of Representatives, Republicans read the Constitution - or parts of the Constitution, at least - from the House floor. The bit of theatrics gave pundits who support the same agenda a chance to philosophize about constitutional principles. One such "principle" of which much is written is the idea if a responsibility is not explicitly given to the federal government, the federal government has no authority to act. Talk show host Dennis Prager, in a Jan. 11 column, suggested a "belief ... is universally held on the Left that the Constitution is an 'evolving text,' meaning that it says what anyone (on the Left) wants it to say. Conservatives, on the other hand, do not share this view." Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas suggested for "some on the left, though, the Constitution doesn't mean what it says, but is to be interpreted by judges and politicians" in commentary published a day earlier. Also on Jan. 10, Charles Cooper of the Heritage Foundation sums this theory up well: "The federal government only possesses those powers which are delegated to it."

The most pithy response that I can pen: Take it up with Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton.

For modern liberals and progressives are not alone in the belief that the powers granted to the federal government are not limited to what is expressly spelt out in in the Constitution. Among other allies, they have President George Washington and his Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. In 1791, President Washington signed into law the establishment of a national bank, despite the Constitution's failure to provide him explicit authority to do so. Washington and Hamilton instead argued other enumerated responsibilities required the two to, in Thomas' words, "interpret" a need for such federal authority.

Not all of the founders agreed with the view of Washington and Hamilton that the Constitution is, in Prager's words, an "evolving" document - or at least, not then. In opposing the national bank, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson initially adopted the reasoning that a federal power had to be explicitly enumerated.

It would not be long, however, until Jefferson was in the presidency and the opportunity of the Louisiana Purchase left him reassessing his constrained view of federal powers and Constitutional literalism. As you can review for yourself, the Constitution does not authorize the executive branch to buy large tracts of land from foreign powers. It is a power not delegated to the national government, and so under Cooper's worldview the national government has no such authority. Under the "principles" espoused by Cooper, Thomas, Prager and their colleagues, any claim that the U.S. exists west of the Mississippi is itself unconstitutional overreaching.

The reality is that, as convenient as it may be for Prager and Thomas and Cooper to graft their perspectives on to long-dead leaders, our founding fathers' views of constitutionality were not monolithic - and for some, including our first president, included the idea the federal government could act without a specific constitutional mandate. An idea that, were Washington alive today, would lead to him being spotted at a tea party ... on the posters of modern "constitutional scholars" who read pundits like Prager or Thomas, with a Hitler moustache drawn on him.


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