Essay Read by Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner
The principle of limited government greatly inspired the drafting of the United States Constitution. Indeed, the framers’ desire to restrain the new federal government was one of the primary design features of the Constitution. Not only was the U.S. Constitution the first written constitution to govern a democratic republic, but it was also the first constitution to be structured according to the goal of limiting the new government it was creating. Consequently, the notion of limited government was a uniquely American contribution to the science of political governance.
The failure of the Articles of Confederation—the first form of national government adopted following the War of Independence—gave rise to calls for a constitutional convention to draft a new design for a federal government. A main reason the Articles failed so quickly was that the national government it created was too weak—a weakness that reflected the deep-seated mistrust of central governments harbored by Americans in the wake of their experience with a British government that had used its power to deprive the American colonists of their liberty.
Although the first goal of the constitutional framers was the creation of a republican form of government which included a stronger national government than had existed under the Articles, the immediately subsequent goal was to build into the new constitution various structural limitations, preventing the federal government from overstepping its proper role. This belief in limited government stemmed from the framers’ opposition to the patterns of statism, absolutism, and totalitarianism existing in the eighteenth-century world. Consequently, within the Constitution, the framers designed an array of checks on federal power. These checks included, for instance, a separation of powers creating three separate branches of government, each of which could help check and restrain abuses committed by the other branches, as well as a federal government possessing only enumerated powers.
Even though the U.S. Constitution establishes a strong and independent federal government, it does so through a scheme of enumerated powers. The federal government only possesses those powers specifically granted it by the Constitution. Unlike the state governments, which possess plenary power to begin with and which the state constitutions must then limit or restrain, the national government under the U.S. Constitution possesses only those powers specifically granted to it. If the Constitution does not grant a power, then the federal government does not possess that power.
The framers held a cautious and skeptical view toward concentrations of government power. The framers worried more about empowering a federal government that could use its power to deprive people of their liberty than about not giving that government enough powers to swiftly address any political or economic crisis that might arise. They were more concerned about a government doing something wrong than about a government with enough power to be able to always do what was right. Therefore, the scheme of limited government built into the Constitution served as a means of safeguarding liberty, since a government limited in power would be less able to exercise power in abusive or oppressive ways.
To the framers, the principle of limited government was an even greater protection for liberty than were the freedoms outlined in the Bill of Rights. This was because a limited government would be a general protection for all types of liberty, whereas the Bill of Rights protected only a few specified liberties. While individual rights protect against particular acts of government abuse, structural provisions like limited government protect against systemic and continuing government abuses resulting from a lack of effective limits on that power. Indeed, an impetus for passage of the Bill of Rights was the belief that the original Constitution did not do enough to limit the power of the new federal government.
For the first century and a half of the nation’s existence, limited government was widely supported as a constitutional principle. But in the 1930s, as President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal agenda greatly expanded the scope and authority of the federal government to fight the consequences of the Great Depression, a belief in limited government waned significantly, especially among liberal activists who wanted the federal government to assume a much larger role in shaping society. Although the Supreme Court initially opposed this contradiction to the limited government principle, it eventually caved to political pressure and nearly abandoned this principle. As a result, the federal government has grown substantially since the 1930s. With its vast array of administrative agencies, the present federal government hardly seems reflective of the limited government principle originally embodied within the Constitution.
Over the past century, political pressures have pushed the expansion of the federal government, to a size and scope far beyond what the framers foresaw. This pressure can be seen whenever some crisis arises that appears as if it can only be solved by a national government unrestrained in the amount of debt it can accumulate. But as the framers foresaw, and as is so often witnessed today, a larger and more powerful federal government is also more prone to abuses and deprivations of liberty.
Patrick M. Garry is professor of law at the University of South Dakota. He is author of Limited Government and the Bill of Rights and The False Promise of Big Government: How Washington Helps the Rich and Hurts the Poor.