4/06 Power Tends to Corrupt — Even Our Founders

Power Tends to Corrupt — Even Our Founders

Larry Pratt

Most conservatives tend to put the founders on a pedestal.

Based on what they wrote — both in the Constitution and in their public statements — much of that honor is deserved. What is surprising is how quickly the Founders themselves forgot their own words when in power.

Lord Acton is famous for his maxim that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We can be glad that the founders designed a government that made it hard to get absolute power. But some of the most eloquent defenders of limited government forgot all the talk when they had a chance to do the walk.

The biggest and earliest offender seems to have been Alexander Hamilton, the author of several of the essays in the Federalist Papers which argued for ratification of the new Constitution (in 1787).

In Federalist 48, Hamilton argued that, regarding freedom of the press, no powers had been given to the new government to restrain it. “For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do? Why for instance, should it be said that liberty of the press shall not be restrained, when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed?”

But the same Alexander Hamilton in 1798 (about a decade after writing the above words) supported the Sedition Act which made it a crime to criticize a federal official. Indeed, newspaper editors were clapped in jail for having had the temerity to question President John Adams.

Critics were alarmed at the claims of the Federalists, including Hamilton, that the Constitution had implied powers which let the new government do just about anything that Congress had a majority vote to support. A crisis demanded unanimity in the minds of the Federalists, and the danger they perceived from the French Revolution was seen as an immediate crisis.

When Virginia and Kentucky enacted resolutions of nullification of the Sedition Act (and its companion Alien Act), the Federalists proclaimed that only the Supreme Court could overturn an act of Congress. This was an entirely different view from that expressed by the Federalist writer Alexander Hamilton who had even justified using state militias to restrain federal tyranny!

The Alien and Sedition laws were subject to intense debate because of the initiatives of Virginia and Kentucky. The debate led to John Adams being a one-term president and the election of his arch-enemy, Thomas Jefferson. Did the Federalists see the tyrannical potential of their Sedition law? Probably so, since it had been set to expire just before Thomas Jefferson took office. What was okay in the hands of the Federalists was not going to be handed to their enemies — the Republicans led by Jefferson.

The New England states all decried the Virginia and Kentucky legislatures’ resolutions of nullification. But when the War of 1812 began, they strenuously objected to the war on the grounds that their trade with England and their livelihood were going down the drain. When attacks on the British in Canada were attempted, these states withdrew their militias from federal control. To many in Virginia and Kentucky, it seemed that the northern states were now supporting nullification!

What a difference a few years made when the tables had been turned! For that matter, states such as Virginia and Kentucky were among the biggest supporters of the War of 1812 and their citizens tended to think of the New Englanders as treasonous for withdrawing their militias from the war. Of course, they forgot that they had been viewed as traitors in 1798 when they tried to nullify the Alien and Sedition Acts.

It is striking how many of our current debates over what powers are authorized by the Constitution are but echoes of the heated arguments that fill the annals of our early Republic. The founders themselves had as much trouble restraining their own greed for power as we do today.

I seldom quote anything from France with approval, but they do have an excellent saying: “The more it changes, the more it stays the same.”

These events have been masterfully recorded in book by William Watkins entitled Reclaiming the American Revolution: The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions and Their Legacy. I had the privilege of interviewing Watkins on my radio show, Live Fire, which is archived on the Gun Owners of America web site at http://www.gunowners.org/radio.htm.