Today, much of the national political debate centers on the size and scope of the federal government. Whether the discussion is focused on federal spending, the debt, or the merits and demerits of a nationalized healthcare system, at its core, the debate is about how much power the federal government should properly wield.
This is not a new debate. More than 225 years ago, when the Constitution was written, debated and ratified, how best to limit the power and growth of the federal government was central. The Founders knew that if federal government grew in power, the people s liberty would necessarily shrink.
As part of that debate, James Madison, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton wrote under the pseudonym Publius and published a series of letters now famously known as the Federalist papers. They argued in support of ratifying the Constitution as written.
Those who argued on the other side of this debate became known as Anti-Federalists. But they did not oppose the Constitution per se. They, like the Federalists, wanted a federal system of government as provided in the Constitution. But the Anti-Federalists argued that the Constitution needed additional protections to ensure that the federal government would not concentrate political power in its hands and effectively reduce the states to mere geographical subdivisions.
One of the most articulate and persuasive voices for the Anti-Federalist view was the Federal Farmer, a pseudonym, it is believed for Virginia s Richard Henry Lee. The Federal Farmer wrote a series of letters arguing that America needed a federal form of government as contemplated in the Constitution but with greater, more effective limits on federal power. Otherwise, he argued the growth of the federal government would lead to the virtual annihilation of the states as sovereign political entities and the national government would consolidate power to itself.
The Anti-Federalists believed that as power was concentrated at the national level, government would become more distant from the people, less accountable to the people, and deleterious to their liberties. More specifically, the Anti-Federalists were concerned that future Congresses would abuse the necessary and proper clause of the Constitution to wield more and more power. They were also concerned that the executive branch held too much power. With the advantage of 225 years of history, it appears the Anti-Federalists had a good point.
Additionally, the Anti-Federalists wanted a Bill of Rights that would place further limits on federal power and enshrine such rights as free speech and press, freedom of religion, the right to bear arms, fair and speedy trials, and no unreasonable searches or seizures to name only a few. The addition of the Bill of Rights to the Constitution was the Anti-Federalists greatest victory. George Mason, a prominent Anti-Federalist, is credited with drafting our Bill of Rights.
Both Federalists and Anti-Federalists agreed that they did not want an all-powerful federal government that would erode the liberties of the people. The point of debate between them was whether the Constitution, as originally drafted, sufficiently limited the powers of the federal government.
Today, more than 225 years later, it is difficult to argue that the Federal Farmer was wrong. The federal government has grown in size and claimed powers that none of the Founders would have believed possible.
The national government is now demanding that people set aside their deeply held religious beliefs and participate in a nationally mandated healthcare program that requires abortion and contraception benefits a practice that is religiously offensive to many. When this issue was raised to those in power, they derided the concept of religious liberty.
As the federal government ramps up its regulatory power to take over the nation s private healthcare system, it will eventually control what healthcare is available, and mandate to both states and the people how and where healthcare money will be spent. Most of the promises made to reduce opposition you can keep your insurance and your doctor are now proven to be false. The federal government has grabbed the power it sought and is now exercising it with little regard for the people s rights or consent.
The federal government now provides food stamps to 46.37 million Americans. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, 55% of Americans receive federal entitlements. In the past five years, the federal government has used taxpayer dollars to bailout too big to fail banks, investment and brokerage firms, insurance companies, car manufactures, union retirement funds, etc. The federal government essentially runs the home mortgage market and clearly contributed to if not caused the housing bubble that triggered our recent economic troubles.
The national government has became so large and intrusive that in one recent year it spent 25% of the nation s total economic output. That means the federal government was spending one dollar of every four spent anywhere in the U.S. that is staggering.
One can always argue that some good is done by these programs and expenditures. But that, of course, ignores the good that would be done if the resources and liberty were left with the people, rather than taken from them.
The Federalists and to an even greater extent the Anti-Federalists feared precisely what has happened — an immense, unresponsive, unaccountable federal government that has a voracious appetite for the people s money and little regard for their liberties.
While the Anti-Federalist s greater concerns were justified, this author would argue that the primary reason the federal government has grown so large, become so distant and unresponsive, and at times become an adversary of the people s liberties, is because for more than 100 years there has been little regard for the limits on federal power provided under the Constitution.
Were James Madison here today, I suspect he would pen additional Federalist papers arguing that it is wholly improper for the federal government to do much of what it does today. He would ask why Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution which enumerates only eighteen specific and limited powers for Congress is almost entirely ignored today. He would also ask why the Tenth Amendment which provides that the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution … are reserved to the states … or to the people is so thoroughly ignored by all three branches of government.
Simply stated, Madison would argue that the provisions in the Constitution that protect against such abuses have been systematically ignored. He would be correct. For example, when then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was asked from what provision in the Constitution Congress derived its authority to pass President Obama s healthcare bill, she treated the question with contempt and asked sarcastically, Are you kidding?
The Federal Farmer would support Madison s conclusions, but would also argue that the national government s growth and consolidation of power were sadly predictable and that greater limits on federal power should have been included from the start.
The value today of both the Federalist Papers and Federal Farmer Letters is that they both highlight the need to limit the power of government. Government will always, if left to its own devices, grow itself and amass power without regard for the liberties of the people. That is an axiomatic truth. The Founders knew this and debated how best to limit government power with vigor.
Remembering the Federal Farmer Letters, we would do well to renew this debate and again capture the spirit of the Founders — both the Federalists and Anti-Federalists — who wisely wanted a national government strong enough to protect the nation from threats, but small enough to ensure that the people s liberties would not be infringed and that the States would be vibrant and innovative laboratories for freedom.
April 8, 2013 – Essay #36
Read Letters I and II by Federal Farmer here: https://constitutingamerica.org/?p=3975
George Landrith is the President of Frontiers of Freedom