Lessons learned from a sordid history

Published 6:34 pm Tuesday, May 4, 2010

In my last article, I wrote about the turbulent times of Stuart England, from King James I through the ascension of William and Mary.

Our Founding Fathers learned from that history, in the process developing a political philosophy grounded in such concepts as republicanism and checks and balances.

Englishman Thomas Paine, the author of “Common Sense” who sided with the American revolutionaries, wrote that “government even in its best state is but a necessary evil”—not exactly a ringing endorsement of any form of government.

Email newsletter signup

The Founders’ initial attempt at creating a government reflected this mistrust.

This first framework of government, The Articles of Confederation, limited the president to a one-year term. That president, moreover, could only run once every three years.

Other politicians were limited to serving three years in any six-year period. It is apparent that the Founders resisted the notion of “career politicians,” believing that politicians, if they had to return to private life, would be better servants if they had to be subject to the very laws they passed.

The Founders learned not only from the sordid history of Stuart England but also from the more immediate pre-Revolution years.

In the Declatory Act of 1766, the English Parliament declared that the colonies were subject to England’s political will “in all cases whatsoever.” Bristling at such domination, the Founders did not intend to recreate it.

The Articles, then, did not even have the ability to collect taxes. Nor could it pass any meaningful legislation without a super majority of the states agreeing to it. What decisions were made were hardly enforceable. It was a weak framework of government.

Nearly all of the power of the government in the Articles of Confederation, therefore, rested with the states.

Though this fact reflects the Founders’ great mistrust in a strong central government, the degree of decentralization in the Articles prevented the government from dealing with issues in both domestic and foreign affairs. Therefore, the Founders realized the need to tweak the Articles, eventually resulting in the Constitutional Convention.