In his brilliant classic, A Disquisition on Government, John C. Calhoun warned that a written constitution would never be sufficient to restrain the governmental leviathan. The net tax consumers (those who received more in government benefits than they paid in taxes), especially government employees, would relentlessly argue away the effectiveness of constitutional restrictions on government, he predicted. The net tax payers would inevitably be overwhelmed and defeated. There was never a truer political prediction.
In his new book, 9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America – And Four Who Tried to Save Her, Brion McClanahan presents a masterful and superbly-scholarly discussion of how nine presidents, beginning with George Washington himself, effectively destroyed constitutional government. On the brighter side, he also explains how four presidents – Jefferson, Tyler, Cleveland, and Coolidge – did their best to preserve the Jeffersonian vision of limited constitutional government.
In a sense, the book demonstrates the futility of ‘limited constitutional government’ for precisely the reasons given by Calhoun. For example, even George Washington acted in ways that were destructive of constitutional government. McClanahan describes how slick political manipulators like Alexander Hamilton were able to talk Washington into things that were either of dubious constitutionality or plainly unconstitutional. Washington wanted America to stay out of foreign wars, so he issued a ‘Proclamation of Neutrality.’ That sounds fine, but there was no constitutional authority for the president to intervene in foreign policy in that way. Nor did Washington have the constitutional authority to call up the state militia (only Congress does) to invade Pennsylvania during the Whiskey rebellion – another one of Hamilton’s heavy-handed, tyrannical adventures.
This post was published at Lew Rockwell on December 30, 2015.