Did America Ever Really Understand 'Limited' Federal Government?

But Trump is merely a symptom of a very serious condition.

No less an authority than Dwight David Eisenhower warned us against it, a warning which has never been properly understood, internalized, or applied. That was his famous warning against the military-industrial complex.

The military-industrial complex is nothing other than a metaphor for all of the ways in which the coercive power has come to be used, by both parties, in the name of the collective good, to oppress the citizenry in the form of this corrupt bargain in which votes are bought with everybody else's money. It was never meant to be this way, and it originally wasn't. The events of the last hundred years have caused the country to saddle itself, out of the best motives, with a permanent bureaucratic structure arrayed to a vast array of "private" enterprises which would not exist, or would be much smaller, were their principal, and often only, customer not the government.

The problem actually first surfaced very early in the history of the republic. The occasion was the War of 1812, in many ways an adjunct conflict to what may be considered the first “world war”: the struggle against Napoleon and the pernicious ideals of the French Revolution. It was the crying manpower need of the British Royal Navy in that protracted conflict -- which led to the British boarding American merchant vessels and impressing American sailors into naval service on the grounds that anyone born an English subject would always be one -- that precipitated the war. However, most of the major actions of the war took place along the frontier between the U.S. and Canada.

The bombardment of Fort McHenry just outside Baltimore preparatory to the landing of British troops and the burning of Washington, D.C. -- which inspired Francis Scott Key to compose what has become our national anthem -- also resulted from the same set of facts. The United States had no navy to speak of, and also did not have the financial resources to raise one.

Ground forces during the conflict were largely supplied by state militias, with the result being that the quality of the troops was uneven and command was often divided. The troops had a dismaying tendency to engage in plunder, because the federal government generally lacked funds to pay them and equip them. In the end the U.S. survived and negotiated a generous ending to the war. This was largely because the Congress of Vienna ending the Napoleonic era was taking place at the same time, and the Royal Navy, a terrible strain on Britain’s exchequer, was being rapidly downsized. It was not our country’s finest hour.

As any number of scholars have noted, the purpose of the U.S. Constitution is to create a small, limited, and relatively weak federal government with regard to the states. It has been a recurring theme for recent Republican candidates to insist that they wish to return to some simpler day when that was true. In order to ensure that it would be true, the Founding Fathers greatly restricted the fundraising capabilities of the federal government essentially to excise taxes, customs duties, and fees for services. They then promptly fell afoul of their own system when they encountered their first serious international crisis.

The American Civil War of 1861-65, apart from the appalling carnage and property damage it caused, generated another such financial crisis, one which Lincoln tried to meet by passing an income tax. This was a temporary tax which explicitly contained a sunset clause ending it in 1866, but Congress’ taste had been whetted.

They sought to re-impose income taxes in 1872 and again in 1894, until the Supreme Court stepped in and declared such a tax unconstitutional in 1895.

And so it remained until the first Progressive Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, was elected president in 1912. That led to passage of the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913, which made an income tax constitutional. That provided the funding mechanism for the massive expansions of government occasioned by the world wars, the New Deal in between, the Cold War, and all the subsequent entitlement programs over the last century.

To show how far we’ve gone, it is noteworthy that in 1887, after a drought had ruined crops in several Texas counties, Congress appropriated $10,000 to purchase seed grain for farmers there (a formidable sum in those days). President Cleveland vetoed the expenditure.

In his veto message, he espoused the theory of limited government:

I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the general government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit. A prevalent tendency to disregard the limited mission of this power and duty should, I think, be steadfastly resisted, to the end that the lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the government, the government should not support the people.

The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune. This has been repeatedly and quite lately demonstrated. Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood.

And Cleveland was a Democrat!