Monday’s Mtg: The Founding Fathers’ View of Government’s Powers.

This one was Bruce’s idea. I love it, but I would add a second part to it: Why should the Founders’ vision of the appropriate powers of government still matter to us? The latter is a very important question, IMO, not because I think their views no longer should matter but because I think they do. Conservatives often say we that (1) the Constitution strictly limits government to a size and scope far smaller than it is currently and that many of the federal government’s functions should be returned to the states as the Constitution “intended; and (2) we are bound to follow their recipe for government’s power and reach in perpetuity.

IMO, it’s a No or at best a highly-qualified Yes-but to both, for two big reasons.  First, the Founders clearly believed that future generations of Americans could and should be allowed to think for themselves. That’s why they created a republic in the first place.  Therefore, as some of the Founders said explicitly, the Constitution allows us to adapt governmental powers as long as doing so remains faithful to fulfilling the document’s purposes.  Second, 225 years of applying the Constitution provides us knowledge and perspectives the Founders just did not have.  So, of course we need to, for example, regulate interstate commerce and protect privacy in ways they did not foresee.

But, conservatives have an important point. The Founders created the Constitution to be above and a priori to law and politics. Under it, the people are sovereign and governments’ powers are limited. The Constitution also separates powers between different branches and levels of government in some cases.  The document binds government’s functions and reach and the Constitution cannot mean whatever today’s exigencies and show of hands say it means.

So, what are we to discuss exactly in this fascinating but broad topic? I don’t know about Bruce, but I think we should start by asking ourselves why the Founders wanted to limit government’s power and whether those reasons still make sense in the modern world.  That does not give us our topic’s answer, but it’s a good start.


  1. Why did the Founders create the Constitution? What problems were they most worried about?
  2. How did the Constitution expand and limit government’s powers? How revolutionary and democratic was it, really?
  3. Did they intend these limits on the size and scope of government to be permanent?
  4. To what extent should we in 2015 be bound by the Founders’ understanding of governments’ proper powers and organization?
  5. What rules should guide us on judging what is permitted change and what is not?  Is there a way to interpret the Constitution’s meaning that takes both original intent and the needs of a modern United States into account?


Next Week:  The Sermon On the Mount.


2 responses

  1. A number of points:

    1. Most countries have Constitutions far more recent than ours. The deference paid to an 18th century document here is quite unusual.

    2. Even if deference, or at least respect, should be given to the Founders, it is obvious that much has changed since their day.

    3. If we were writing a new Constitution from scratch, would we really want to do it the same way they did in 1787?

    Also, we should take into account the historical interpretations of the Constitution since Beard published his “Economic Interpretation” in 1913.

    Finally, we should remember that the Founders had very different ideas. Hamilton, for example, wanted a President for Life with expanded powers. He called the Constitution “a thing of milk and water, which cannot last.” And if we consider the Civil War, he was right.

  2. One of the problems, which I touched on in the last point, is that like the Bible, references to the Constitution and the Fathers can support almost any idea.
    Thomas Jefferson, for example, has been adduced by everyone from Stalin to Ho Chiminh, in support of their ideas; in fact, there is a considerable literature on the subject!

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