The last century has seen the unbridled growth of the federal government, both in size and scope. Most alarming is the federal government’s encroachment on the powers of the individual states, slowly but inexorably concentrating all power into what has morphed into a national, rather than federal, government. Some say it is the natural progression of things, or that the later writings of the Framers make clear that was the intent all along; others say that our Constitution does not permit what has happened. Obviously, there are varied opinions on just what the Constitution means, and it’s worth exploring that in more detail.
To start off, let’s ask a simple question. Is it conceivable that, having just fought a war to win their independence and freedom, the Framers would then turn right around and recreate the very same sort of government they fought so long and hard to throw off?
An interesting exercise is to put oneself in the shoes of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention. In deciding to replace the Articles of Confederation, they needed to create a new government, finding the right balance of power between that new government and their own states, states that were–and are–the equivalent of any other nation-state on the globe.
Would the delegates choose simply to erase the lines on the map and fold their states into a new nation, with a powerful central government? Or, recognizing and relishing their newfound freedom, would they choose instead to create a government of limited powers, reserving the majority of power to themselves? Would they have chosen to give the new government such broad commerce powers that it could regulate virtually any aspect of human activity? Would they have permitted the government itself to engage in commerce directly, in competition with business in their own states? Which of the states’ powers would they vest in that government, and would doing so render them impotent to reclaim them? How would the people be represented in the new government; how would the states’ interests be represented? Would they have thought to vest in the government the power to decide for itself the meaning of the Constitution? Did they believe that the meaning of the Constitution would evolve to fit a “maturing society,” or that, as George Washington himself wrote, “the Constitution which at any time exists, ’till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole People is sacredly obligatory upon all”?
These are but a few of the questions the Framers grappled with as they strove to create our Constitution and government. Putting ourselves in their places, imagining that we are part of that tremendous undertaking as representatives of our states, our homes, might just help us all understand what really went into creating what some have said is the “last, best hope of earth.” It might also help us understand what it really means.