George Washington, commander-in-chief in the Revolutionary War and the first President of the United States.
A favorite line from the American Right -- both well-educated libertarians and know-nothing Tea Partiers -- is that the Founders believed in "limited government" and the United States must return to that constitutional principle. But the argument is both nonsensical and insulting.
Everyone believes in "limited government" -- unless you're a totalitarian or a fan of absolute monarchies. Liberals, conservatives, socialists, free-market ideologues and pretty much everyone in between believe in limitations of government power. The point of having a constitution is to set the limits and rules for a government.
Indeed, that's why the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution's precursor, has disappeared from the typical right-wing recitation of early U.S. history, which starts with the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and jumps to the Constitution in 1787 and the Bill of Rights in 1791. Left out of the chronology is what governed the country from 1777 to 1787, i.e., the Articles of Confederation.
The reason that the Articles of Confederation are an inconvenient truth for the Right is that the Articles represented what the Right pretends the Constitution stands for now, strong states' rights and a weak federal government. The Articles even made the 13 states "sovereign" and "independent" and left the central authority as only a "league of friendship" dependent on the states.
However, under that structure, the young nation was coming apart as states went off in their own directions, the economy struggled and European powers looked to exploit the divisions. Then, in 1786, when a populist uprising known as Shays' Rebellion rocked western Massachusetts, the federal government lacked the money and means to field a military force to restore order. The revolt was eventually put down by an army financed by wealthy Bostonians.
George Washington, reflecting on the worsening chaos, wrote in support of a plan by fellow Virginian James Madison to give the federal government control over national commerce, declaring: "We are either a united people, or we are not. If the former, let us, in all matters of a general concern act as a nation, which have national objects to promote, and a national character to support. If we are not, let us no longer act a farce by pretending it to be."
When it became clear that the Articles of Confederation could not be feasibly amended to address the country's problems, Washington and Madison led what amounted to a bloodless coup d'etat against the states' "sovereign" powers. This coup was known as the Constitutional Convention. It was conducted in secret in Philadelphia and resulted in the Constitution, which flipped the power relationships between the central government and the states, making federal law supreme and dramatically expanding the powers of the national government.
Today's Right doesn't want to acknowledge this history because it destroys the right-wing narrative by revealing the Framers to be advocates of a strong central government and opponents of states' rights. [For details, see Robert Parry's America's Stolen Narrative.]
Still "Limited Government"
Yet, as broad as the Constitution's federal powers were, the fact that they were spelled out -- mostly in Article I, Section 8 -- meant that the Framers were creating a "limited government," i.e., one that had to operate within a prescribed set of rules. Those rules were clarified in greater detail by the Bill of Rights in 1791 and have been updated periodically through various amendments.
So, since pretty much everyone agrees that the Constitution established a "limited government," why does the Right pretend that it's the only political grouping that recognizes this obvious fact? In many cases, liberals are even more ardent in rejecting government intrusion on privacy and other personal liberties than many conservatives are.
It seems the reason that the Right pretends that it alone stands for the Constitution's principle of "limited government" is that this argument exploits the national mythology around the country's founding, at least for the uninformed. The argument also plays to the notion that the federal government's use of its considerable powers, such as citing the Commerce Clause and the 14th Amendment to outlaw racial segregation in the South, has been somehow illegitimate.
Indeed, this current right-wing attack on "federal over-reach" has been around since the 1950s and the civil rights movement, which put an end to Jim Crow laws in the South. The Right's claim is essentially neo-Confederate and harkens back to the South's efforts prior to the Civil War to insist that slave-states had the right to nullify federal laws and ultimately to secede from the Union.
Though the Union was maintained by the Civil War, a neo-Confederate movement pushed back against federal efforts to "reconstruct" the South as a more egalitarian society. The neo-Confederates gained political allies among the new industrial elite in the North, "robber barons" who for their own reasons of self-interest wanted to block federal intervention on behalf of impoverished working men and women.
This alliance against federal activism prevailed though much of the late 19th Century and into the 20th Century but suffered severe setbacks when "free-market capitalism" drove the country into the Great Depression. That led to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal which imposed tighter regulation on Wall Street financiers and created new protections for the average American, whether in union rights or Social Security. Out of those and other efforts of the federal government grew the Great American Middle Class.
Meanwhile, Southern segregationists also lost out as the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s forced the country to finally confront its racist reality. The federal government, led by liberal Democrats and some liberal Republicans, took action to force integration of schools, restaurants and other public facilities. That intervention provoked a furious counter-reaction from many white Southerners who shifted their allegiance to the Republican Party.
A Revamped Movement