02 March 2010

Conservative Revolution

Something came up in a discussion a few days ago on another blog. Someone called the Constitution a "progressive" document. Now I may be wrong about what that person meant by the word "progressive". When I hear the word I think about the early 20th century movement by the same name. In this context the word does not mean "progress." It does not mean "to make things better." Progressive politicians of the early 20th century decided that the Founding Fathers were wrong. They decided that the Constitution was an archaic document that would not function in the modern world. They wanted to 'progress' away from the Constitution. They wanted an active and powerful federal government. This was the antithesis of the Constitution.

If you mean to say that the Constitution was divinely inspired, then I apologize. If you meant that the Constitution was the work of truly enlightened men, then I agree.

The commonly held perception about the American Revolution and the Constitution was that it demonstrated a radical and fundamental societal change. It did not. The American Revolution was nothing like the French Revolution. It was not like any other revolution in history. It was a Conservative Revolution. I don't mean that the Founders were all conservatives as the word is defined today.* Our nation's First Principles were Libertarian principles. Many of the Founders were Classical Liberals. Of course, liberal does not mean the same thing today in America. Classical Liberalism and modern American liberalism are essentially opposite philosophies. Classical Liberals were more in line with Libertarianism.

Anyway, the American Revolution was about preserving the traditional rights that the American colonists had enjoyed as British citizens. They were not radicals. Glenn Beck keeps calling George Washington and other Founders 'radicals'. He says that we must choose between radicals like Van Jones or radicals like George Washington. The Founders were not radicals. They protested the British Parliament's encroachments on colonial liberties. They were in favor of limited government. They thought that they should be protected by the unwritten English Constitution that solidified the rights of British citizens.

The action of the British parliament to enact the Stamp Act, and other taxation, was against the English Constitution in the colonists’ view. The American colonists thought that they could count on the Magna Carta of 1215, the Petition of Right established in 1628, and the British Bill of Rights written in 1689. These documents, along with some English common law, formed the basis of a British “constitution” that the Founders first appealed to in order to solve the dispute with the British. The colonists even appealed to the King of England to step in on their behalf against the British Parliament. It was decided, however, that parliament was sovereign. Sovereignty rested with the parliament and not the British people, and certainly not the American colonists. This outraged the colonists.

The British Constitution, because so much of it was unwritten, was very flexible (today the left calls this a ‘living’ constitution). Parliament used this to their advantage. When faced with crippling debt after the Seven Years War (also known as the French and Indian Wars) Parliament enacted a series of revenue generating policies aimed primarily at the American colonies. Now the American colonists had long enjoyed a large degree of self-governance. They were ruggedly independent. They did not like the encroachment on their self-rule. In 1765 American colonists issued a joint statement of grievances against the British Parliament and the Stamp Act. The colonists protested that their “ancient chartered rights” were being violated. The colonists held the position that their own colonial legislatures should be the only body with the power to tax them. The colonists were not seeking to completely transform their society. They were used to self-governance and felt that it was their right under the British Constitution. They simply wished to retain self-rule. Captain Preston, a veteran of the Battle of Concord in 1775 said it best. He was asked by Judge Mellen Chamberlain in 1842 why he fought the British. A 91 year old Captain Preston replied “Young man, what we meant in going for those redcoats was this: We always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.”

The American Constitution was written in the spirit of the American colonists’ desire for self-rule. The Constitution was written to prevent the federal government from ever taking too much power and encroaching on the rights of the states or that of the citizens. However, the Constitution distrusts the people almost as much as it distrusts the federal government. The people can be easily misled by a particularly capable orator or skillful politician. The Founders knew that democracy was a dangerous and temporary form of government that usually led to tyranny. Thus, the Founders intended the United States of America to be a Republic. That is why in the original Constitution the highest office that the people could vote for was the House of Representatives. Each state was a sovereign nation. When King George signed the Treaty of Paris ending the American War for Independence, he recognized 13 individual nations, not one big one. The Constitution was meant to set up a federation of nation-states. The states were to retain local control and were only agreeing to delegate certain powers to the federal government. Today our federal government is in direct violation to the principles spelled out in the Constitution. It has been so for about 100 years now to varying extents.

Like the American colonists before us those in the Tea Party movement, the 9-12 Project, and other grassroots movements based in Conservative-Libertarian ideology are not extremists. They are not radicals (though you can find a few nuts in every crowd.) They simply want a return to self-governance. I want to see a politician run on this platform: Low taxes, minimal regulation, and maximum freedom. I should throw local control in that mix as well. These are the principles of liberty the Founders meant for our country. This is what the Constitution was designed to preserve. The Founders were certainly not progressives. Progressives assume that mankind can be perfected. They assume that government can bring about this perfection and we can live in a fantasy utopia. The Founders understood that Man is flawed. People, governments, companies, etc. will always make mistakes. They will always fail to do the right thing at least some of the time. Government fails almost all of the time. The key is to strike a balance. The key is to limit the power of government, or individuals, to do damage to the rest of society. That is why we have are supposed to have a limited government with enumerated powers, rather than an omnipotent government with unlimited powers.

*Many of the Founders were Conservatives. Many were Classical Liberals, some may have been anarchists, most were deeply religious, one was an atheist (Paine), at least two were deists, some wanted a nationalist government, and some were monarchists (Alexander Hamilton gave a passionate speech at the Constitutional Convention in which he called for establishing a monarchy with George Washington as the first king.) That’s the greatness inherent in our Founding Fathers. They came from different backgrounds and believed in different ideologies, but they came together on the notion of liberty. They built the greatest bastion of freedom in human history.