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July 1995
Volume 13, Number 7

The Founders on Government
Thomas J. DiLorenzo

When Bill Clinton and Al Gore stopped off at Monticello en route to Washington for their inauguration, Gore pointed to two portraits hanging in Mr. Jefferson's home and asked the guide, "who are those two guys?" "Jefferson and Madison," the stunned historian answered.

The president's description of talk radio hosts who advocate constitutional government as "purveyors of hatred and division, the promoters of paranoia" suggests that Clinton is as unaware of the political philosophies of Jefferson and Madison as his running mate was of their likenesses.

"You ought to see...some things that are regularly said over the airwaves in America today," the indignant president announced. "There is nothing patriotic," Clinton preached, about "pretending that you can love your country but despise your government."

Huh? This country was founded by people who loved country and nation, but despised their governmental rulers. In fact, they saw a centralized government like Mr. Clinton's as the enemy of nation, community, family, property, and civil order.

Consider Clinton's middle namesake, Thomas Jefferson, who believed that "on the tree of liberty must spill the blood of patriots and tyrants." And: "a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing," a "medicine necessary for the sound health of government." It was Jefferson who wrote that "whenever any form of government becomes destructive" of citizens procuring for themselves "inalienable rights" to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," then "it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it."

The next time Clinton contemplates raising taxes, hiring bureaucrats, socializing medicine, assaulting religious "fanatics" with tanks and poison gas, or confiscating private property under the guise of environmentalism, he ought to consider one of Jefferson's biggest complaints against the tyrannical King George III. "He has erected a multitude of New Offices," wrote Jefferson, "and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our People, and eat out their substance." To Jefferson, such behavior justified the American Revolution.

It was Jefferson who authored the Kentucky Resolution of 1798, a response to the Sedition Act. As the nation's first "hate speech" law, passed at the urging of the statist Hamiltonians, the Sedition Act outlawed "writing or publishing of any scandalous, malicious, or false statement against the president, or either house of Congress," and forbade any speech that would bring the government "into contempt or disrepute; or excite against them...the hatred of the good people of the United States."

Seeing this as a death blow to free speech, Jefferson in the Kentucky Resolution declared: "Resolved, that the United States of America are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their general government," and that the Sedition Act "does abridge the freedom of the press, is not law, but is altogether void, and of no force."

Where the powers are not specifically delegated by the Constitution, Jefferson wrote, "nullification of the act is the rightful remedy" which every state has a right to undertake. Since "the natural tendency of things is for government to gain ground and for liberty to yield," let "no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution."

Jefferson was unabashedly "for freedom of the press" and any attempt to silence "the complaints or criticism, just or unjust, of our citizens against the conduct of their agents."

It was Patrick Henry, one of the great American patriots, who spoke the famous words, "give me liberty or give me death" as he implored his fellow Virginians to take up arms "in the holy cause of liberty" against a despotic government whose purpose was "to force us to submission."

After the American Revolution, Henry remained a crusader against centralized governmental power, which he presciently warned "will destroy the state government, and swallow the liberties of the people."

George Washington too had a healthy disrespect for politics and politicians, viewing them as necessary evils whose powers must always be minimized. Special-interest politics, which is to say all politics, "are likely, in the course of become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the Power of the People, and to usurp for themselves the reins of Government."

To Washington, party politics meant "the alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which...has perpetrated the most horrid enormities...and leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism." "The common and continual mischief of the spirit of Party," the father of his country wrote, "are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it."

The other "guy" who Gore failed to recognize at Monticello was our third president, James Madison. He sounded equally "divisive" when he described democracy as consisting of measures that "are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority." "It is in vain," moreover, to hope that politicians will ever render these "clashing interests...subservient to the public good." Because of such beliefs, Madison and the other founders hoped to construct a constitution that would minimize the role of government in society, not maximize it, as has been the theme of the Clinton administration.

If talk radio were around in 1776, the G. Gordon Liddy of that era would have been Thomas Paine, whose anti-government pamphlet Common Sense sold an incredible 500,000 copies in 1776 alone. "Government even in its best state is but a necessary evil," Paine wrote, and "in its worst state an intolerable one." Like many Americans today, Paine believed that government added insult to injury by using tax dollars in ways that were actually harmful to the public.

"When we suffer," wrote Paine, "or are exposed to the same miseries by a government which we might expect in a country without government, our calamities are heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer." To Paine, "securing freedom and property to all men, and, above all things, freedom of religion," were the only legitimate functions of government. Americans generally agreed, and went to war to achieve this vision.

A healthy disrespect for politicians in particular and government in general is quintessentially American. President Clinton's remark that one cannot "love your country but despise your government" is itself un-American, and epitomizes the kind of despotic mindset the founding fathers were so aware of, and sought to shackle with "the chains of the Constitution."

In fact, the president's appalling attack on free speech is the kind of behavior George Washington must have had in mind when he spoke of "cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men" who will do anything to "subvert the Power of the People, and to usurp for themselves the reins of government."


Thomas J. DiLorenzo is an adjunct scholar with the Mises Institute and teaches Economics at Loyola College


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