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The Founders and the Central Government

In a WaPo piece on the Tea Party (Tea party gatherings on the Fourth mix the educational and the patriotic) we have the following:

“The founding fathers were very afraid of a central government,” said Rick Buchanan, an organizer of the Fauquier County Tea Party who last started up a 12-week class on the Constitution and advertised it at “An American Event.”

No, no they weren’t.

I pick out this quote for discussion because this appears to be a theme running through some conservative circles of late, and especially the Tea Party movement.  It is the kind of incorrect, ahistorical thinking that leads people like Sharron Angle and Oklahoma State Senator Randy Brogdon to talk about “Second Amendment remedies” for states that don’t like policy coming out of Washington.

One can have legitimate arguments about the proper scope of the central government or about the correct interpretation of Article I, Section 8 or the Tenth Amendment.  However, what one cannot properly assert is that “The founding fathers were very afraid of a central government.”

If, in fact, the founders feared a central government, why did they form one?  The very purpose of the Philadelphia convention of 1787 that produced the Constitution of 1789 was to create a central government that could actually govern the United States.  It was a purposive transfer of power from states to the central government.  As such, claims like Mr. Buchanan’s make no sense.

As James Madison argued in a letter to George Washington in April of 1787:  “I would propose that…the national government should be armed with positive and compleat authority in all cases which require uniformity; such as the regulation of trade, including the right of taxing both exports and imports, the fixing the terms and forms of naturalization, etc. etc.”

Again, while one can debate the exact meanings of host of issues, one cannot read a sentence from one of the key founders which states that “the national government should be armed with positive and compleat authority” in a set of policy arenas and also state that the founders “were very afraid of a central government.”

Indeed, when we speak of “Founding Fathers” the “Founding” that we celebrate is the founding of a unified country known as the United States of America, which would not exist sans a central government.  Further, the crowning moment of that founding was the aforementioned Constitution of 1789, which, again as noted, substantially diminished the powers the state had under the Articles of Confederation.

There is also the rather inconvenient fact that most of the persons whom we confer the title “Founding Fathers” all served in prominent posts in the central government of the United States.

It is bad enough to go around with such a profound misunderstanding of basic politics and history, but it is enough to make one’s brain hurt when persons make such claims in the context of being promoters of a better understanding of the Constitution.

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About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor and Chair of Political Science at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. He is the author of Voting Amid Violence: Electoral Democracy in Colombia and is currently working on a comparative study of the US to 29 other democracies. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging at PoliBlog since 2003. Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Pete says:

    Steven, I shall presume that many of the Tea Party members speak like Yogi Berra while their hearts are in the right place. You are in a position to judge their statements from an academic high ground which will virtually always find inaccuracy and exaggeration. The Tea Party people I encounter sense something is wrong, but do not know how to communicate it in clear, unambiguous language. I would hope some well spoken, clear thinkers might rise to the top of the movement to clarify and simplify what the movement hopes to change.

    Don’t forget that most of our politicians don’t exhibit an advanced understanding of the Constitution either. Since they are generally regarded as self serving and easily manipulated by special interests, I’ll be more sympathetic towards the Tea Party people, with the presumption their hearts are in the right place.

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  2. [...] thoughts from me at OTB: The Founders and the Central Government. addthis_url = 'http%3A%2F%2Fwww.poliblogger.com%2F%3Fp%3D19204'; addthis_title = [...]

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  3. An Interested Party says:

    So naïveté and the inability to speak clearly are now legitimate excuses for people who espouse totally incorrect information? I knew that the bar was already set low for these folks, I just didn’t realize it was this low…

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  4. Pete says:

    Not an excuse, just a description of how I view them. As to whether the info they espouse is TOTALLY incorrect, what do you call the info espoused out of DC?

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  5. Far be it from me to defend the simplistic view of history that Glenn Beck is teaching the Tea Party movement, but a few comments………

    First, it is absolutely correct that the primary goal of Madison and others at the Philadelphia Convention was to create a stronger central government. The failures of the Articles of Confederation had become manifest very early after the American Revolution had ended, and it’s fair to say that the colonies probably would not have stayed united if the Articles had never been replaced.

    However, saying that the Founders wanted a stronger central government is a very different thing from saying that they were convinced of the benefits of such an institution.

    Reading through the notes from the Convention, The Federalist Papers, and other contemporary writings, one notes that the advocates of the Constitution were making two arguments. First, that a stronger Federal Government would benefit everyone. Second, that the Federal Government really wouldn’t be as strong as the Anti-Federalists feared, because it would be limited to the powers set forth in Article I, Section 8.

    Arguing, correctly, that the Founders wanted to create a stronger Federal Government is a far different thing from arguing that they ever intended to create the Federal behemoth we live with today.

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  6. sam says:

    They certainly did. Apropos of a current debate, one hears much of the tyranny of an “individual mandate,” yet there is historical precedent for such a mandate. Consider the Militia Act of 1792, which I’ve written about previously:

    1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, That each and every free able-bodied white male citizen of the respective States, resident therein, who is or shall be of age of eighteen years, and under the age of forty-five years (except as is herein after excepted) shall severally and respectively be enrolled in the militia, by the Captain or Commanding Officer of the company, within whose bounds such citizen shall reside, and that within twelve months after the passing of this Act. And it shall at all time hereafter be the duty of every such Captain or Commanding Officer of a company, to enroll every such citizen as aforesaid, and also those who shall, from time to time, arrive at the age of 18 years, or being at the age of 18 years, and under the age of 45 years (except as before excepted) shall come to reside within his bounds; and shall without delay notify such citizen of the said enrollment, by the proper non-commissioned Officer of the company, by whom such notice may be proved.

    That every citizen, so enrolled and notified, shall, within six months thereafter, provide himself with a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch, with a box therein, to contain not less than twenty four cartridges, suited to the bore of his musket or firelock, each cartridge to contain a proper quantity of powder and ball; or with a good rifle, knapsack, shot-pouch, and powder-horn, twenty balls suited to the bore of his rifle, and a quarter of a pound of powder; and shall appear so armed, accoutred and provided, when called out to exercise or into service, except, that when called out on company days to exercise only, he may appear without a knapsack. That the commissioned Officers shall severally be armed with a sword or hanger, and espontoon; and that from and after five years from the passing of this Act, all muskets from arming the militia as is herein required, shall be of bores sufficient for balls of the eighteenth part of a pound; and every citizen so enrolled, and providing himself with the arms, ammunition and accoutrements, required as aforesaid, shall hold the same exempted from all suits, distresses, executions or sales, for debt or for the payment of taxes.

    There’s two things to note about this. The first is that the act amounted to a national draft:

    “That each and every free able-bodied white male citizen of the respective States, resident therein, who is or shall be of age of eighteen years, and under the age of forty-five years (except as is herein after excepted) shall severally and respectively be enrolled in the militia”

    and two, the enrollees were required to purchase, on their own dime,

    “a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch, with a box therein, to contain not less than twenty four cartridges, suited to the bore of his musket or firelock, each cartridge to contain a proper quantity of powder and ball; or with a good rifle, knapsack, shot-pouch, and powder-horn, twenty balls suited to the bore of his rifle, and a quarter of a pound of powder”

    The act was used by President Washington to put down the Whiskey Rebellion. It’s impossible to square this act, and its employment in supressing an insurrection with “The founding fathers were very afraid of a central government.” The act, its mandates, and its employment were all in the service of a central government, and a strong one at that.

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  7. Doug,

    Like I said:

    One can have legitimate arguments about the proper scope of the central government or about the correct interpretation of Article I, Section 8 or the Tenth Amendment. However, what one cannot properly assert is that “The founding fathers were very afraid of a central government.”

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  8. sam says:

    Not to gainsay Doug’s point re Leviathan.

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  9. Steve,

    Yea I do believe we agree on this one.

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  10. Dave Schuler says:

    Judging by the text of the Federalist Papers the federalists were significantly more concerned about the baleful influence of partisan politics (“faction”) than they were about the government of which they were arguing in favor.

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  11. Judging by the text of the Federalist Papers the federalists were significantly more concerned about the baleful influence of partisan politics (“faction”) than they were about the government of which they were arguing in favor.

    Fair point, although I think a fair reading of Federalist 10 suggests that Madison (at least) believed factions were inevitable and that the trick was to create a government that would minimize the influence of one faction over another.

    That said. many of the Founders (Washington primary among them) seemed to have a naive faith that they could create a political system without political parties. That hope barely lasted through Washington’s first term.

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  12. An Interested Party says:

    “As to whether the info they espouse is TOTALLY incorrect…”

    When we see some of them saying things like, “Keep the government out of my Medicare!” or whining about high taxes when taxes are at their lowest levels in years or complaining about how the stimulus was just spending money we don’t have when a big part of the stimulus was tax cuts, well…

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  13. Steve Plunk says:

    So a Tea Party spokesman said something perhaps not quite correct and that’s enough to impugn the entire Tea Party movement? Please, that was not a student defending his thesis but a citizen speaking out and somewhat correctly.

    The Constitution clearly states the limits of the central government. It reserves rights to the states and citizens. There is no doubt mistrust of a large government played a part in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Splitting hairs with a few words from Madison doesn’t make it less so.

    Just as we can debate proper scope of government we can also debate just how much of a concern the founders had about a powerful central government. Cherry picking one statement is not a proper or fair debate.

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  14. @Dave: this is true, yes.

    @Doug: the interesting thing about Fed 10 and factions is that Madison was not talking about what we would consider political parties. Indeed, Madison did not foresee the idea that a faction would ever be large enough to control the legislature the way parties ended up doing. Indeed, perhaps the major failing of the political thinkers of the day was that they did not foresee political parties, which are ultimately a linchpin of representative democracies.

    @Steve: First, the sentiment he expresses is one that appears to be permeating a great deal of our politics of late (as noted in the post). And second: the statement isn’t just “not quite correct” and nor was it “somewhat correct” rather it was radically incorrect.

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  15. grampagravy says:

    “Arguing, correctly, that the Founders wanted to create a stronger Federal Government is a far different thing from arguing that they ever intended to create the Federal behemoth we live with today.”

    Aside from the problems I have with running back to late 18th century thinking to solve 21st century problems, there is the issue that not only is there no longer an entire continent just to our west ripe for the stealing, there are 100 times as many of us as there were in 1780. Wouldn’t ten times the federal government our founding WASPS envisioned fit if it was made up of public servants instead of self-servers?

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  16. John says:

    I believe it is safe to say that neither the founding father’s intentions in forming a central government, nor stating a central Tea Party thesis can be generalized concisely. However, I do think that we can agree that (a) the pre-constitutional era in our country’s history was less than ideal (every state with its own currency, trading or shipping made almost impossible, inner-state disputes) and that (b) there is a very large segment of the population under the “libertarian, conservative, tea party” tent that are very poorly informed about the exact things they are organizing about/against and represent the values and ideas of our founders in an odd Glen Beck style caricature.

    Just like today, there were two sides to the constitutional debate that involved the discussion on centralizing powers or rather how much power a central government should have. Even Madison was forced to change his mind (at least publicly) on this subject.

    Heck, this entire argument spurred the Bill of Rights, but that is another discussion entirely.

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  17. Dave Schuler says:

    Wouldn’t ten times the federal government our founding WASPS envisioned fit if it was made up of public servants instead of self-servers?

    Absolutely. Also, our energy problems would be solved if somebody could invent a perpetual motion machine.

    While much technology has changed since the late 18th century not a great deal has changed in human nature and the particular political technology that was invented back then recognized that self-servers weren’t a perversion of a political system but inherent in any political system.

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  18. anjin-san says:

    Steve P.

    Where do we start? This was not a “citizen” speaking out, it was a a party organizer of educational events. If one is going to hold himself forth as an educator, it is good to have some clue of what you are teaching about.

    Your defense of this nonsense we are seeing so much of seems to be “they are only kinda ignorant”…

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  19. floyd says:

    One major difference ….
    When the country was founded there was still a frontier [No, not a Nissan].
    I don’t think for a moment that the founding fathers espoused a tyranny of the majority.
    At the time it was not possible for those who were afraid of freedom and responsibility to round up all of those who dared support themselves and make a slave class out of them through taxation, They would simply disappear into the wilderness.
    Freedom loving people in this country today are soon to face an inevitable choice….
    “Stand” or “stand and deliver” .
    There is no longer a frontier.

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  20. grampagravy says:

    “Absolutely. Also, our energy problems would be solved if somebody could invent a perpetual motion machine.”

    “…the particular political technology that was invented back then recognized that self-servers weren’t a perversion of a political system but inherent in any political system.”

    Neither are good reasons to quit trying, and that requires attacking the status quo and imagining the impossible.

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  21. anjin-san says:

    Ok Floyd, I give up. You are more than just kinda ignorant.

    You should probably renounce use of the internet, since without taxation, it would not exist.

    Actually, I am curious. Since you apparently consider yourself to be a slave, how is it you are freely voicing your opinion and not off building pyramids or something under a taskmasters whip? I support myself (and a few other folks), when am I going to be “rounded up”?

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  22. sam says:

    @Plunk

    “The Constitution clearly states the limits of the central government. It reserves rights to the states and citizens.”

    Evidently, those limits did not prevent the central government from requiring every able-bodied male citizen between 18 and 45 to enlist in the militia and to arm themselves at their own expense, as my citation of the Militia Act of 1792 shows. How do you feel about that and the limits of the central government? What would your average Tea Partier say about that?

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  23. Gerry W. says:

    “There is no longer a frontier.”

    The new frontier is GLOBALIZATION, and if we don’t get it together, we are going to lose just about everything to China and other countries. While we can argue over the constitution and what it means, China, Mexico, and other countries do not care what it means. They just take our jobs away, and half the people today are not paying taxes because they are not working. So go ahead, talk about the constitution, right to bear arms, and abortion issues. In the meantime, we are giving up our middle class to cheap labor. And what is our central government or non-central government going to do about that? Isn’t it just lovely, that people make talking points on the constitution and China and other countries takes more and more from us.

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  24. Sam,

    Evidently, those limits did not prevent the central government from requiring every able-bodied male citizen between 18 and 45 to enlist in the militia and to arm themselves at their own expense, as my citation of the Militia Act of 1792 shows. How do you feel about that and the limits of the central government? What would your average Tea Partier say about that?

    Article I, Section 8 contains three provisions that would seem to cover your concerns about the militia act of 1792:

    To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

    and

    To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;

    and

    To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;

    Additional, Article II, Section 2 provides:

    The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States

    And, of course, there is the fact that laws similar to the Militia Act were a standard part of the laws of the several states.

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  25. sam says:

    Doug, right. The militia is certainly covered in the Art 1, sec 8 powers. But we should note, what I did not stress, that while enlistment in the army and navy was voluntary, enlistment in the militia was not under the act.( I guess a modern parallel would be if our (current) government were to say, all able-bodied citizens 18-45 are hereby enlisted in the National Guard, whether they want to or not.) Does not the militia act imply a strong central government if the government has the power to enlist citizens in a militia regardless of how the citizen feels about said enlistment?

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  26. A toughtful essay, and I think you overstate the “compleat” point, but what wrecks the post is your mention of the “Constitution of 1789.”

    Most folks refer to the U.S. Constitution as the “Constitution of 1787,” when the document was adopted. We could say the “Constitution of 1788,” when it was ratified, but we can’t speak of ’89, unless you’re confusing the U.S. with France.

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  27. Doug,

    Thanks for the note.

    Not to be argumentative, but “Constitution of 1789″ is the standard way to refer to the current constitution if one is going to use a date), as it went into force on March 4, 1789. It is true that the requisite number of states needed to approve the document was obtain in 1788 (and, indeed, the last state to ratify did not do so until 1790). In fairness, the date is often left off.

    The best book out there on ages of constitution is Elkins, et al, The Endurance of National Constitutions and it uses the 1789 date.

    Also, the French constitution was 1791, although the French National Assembly did issue the original Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789 (I think).

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  28. Miguel Madeira says:

    My humble opinion as a Portuguese is that don’t make much sense talking about “Founders wanted [X]” or “Founders were very afraid of [Y]” – the Founders of USA had very different opinions in many issues; in these issue, some were in favor of a very strong central government (perhaps even a dictatorship, by modern standards), and other were in favor of each county being almost independent; and yours Constitution was a compromise between these rival factions.

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  29. tom p says:

    @ floyd ***When the country was founded there was still a frontier [No, not a Nissan].
    I don’t think for a moment that the founding fathers espoused a tyranny of the majority.***

    A strange choice of words floyd, considering they left in place a “tyranny of the minority” )or did you forget about that whole slavery thing?)

    ***At the time it was not possible for those who were afraid of freedom and responsibility to round up all of those who _dared support themselves_ and make a slave class out of them through taxation, They would simply disappear into the wilderness.****

    Again, a wierd choice of words floyd, as some of “those” supported themselves by actually MAKING a slave class of others (I know, you have a short memory)

    ***Freedom loving people in this country today are soon to face an inevitable choice….***

    What… “Stand and get richest”? or just “stand and get richer”? Hell of a choice there…

    Tell you what floyd: The day comes when you are offered TOO MUCH MONEY for a job, you let me know. I’ll be happy to take that onerous tax burden (and the money that comes with it) off your hands.

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  30. tom p says:

    I forgot to point out that

    ***They would simply disappear into the wilderness.***

    No floyd, they would simply disappear… especially considering they weren’t even “people”.

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  31. Steve Plunk says:

    anjin,

    I’ve said it before, we could go around a cherry pick outrageous or incorrect statements all the time but it really doesn’t advance any argument or impugn any party. It’s not an excuse but merely recognizing reality and chilling out.

    Sam,

    The founders recognized foreign threats and accounted for a common defense. They also recognized the domestic threat of a tyrannical government and built in protections. There was some fear but to what degree is what the debate is about.

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  32. John says:

    @Steve – I think, like today, it ranged. Some favored a very strong, monarch-like structure, while some left the convention and tried to undermine the efforts of ratification. We can’t worry much with the outliers though. We have what we have as an end result and that is what was “meant” to be.

    The devil is always in the “necessary and proper” details though, isn’t it? That’s the rub; the frustrating yet genius part of the entire document is that the founders were smart enough, collectively, to know what they didn’t know and that there may be future events that called for a certain flexibility.

    Furthermore, that is what I hope we are accomplishing now…debate on topical issues that leads to informed decisions and pursuit of informed representatives who then take the metaphorical temperature of the nation and adjust laws and practices within the confines of the Constitution we hold so dear.

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  33. sam says:

    @Plunk

    “The founders recognized foreign threats and accounted for a common defense. They also recognized the domestic threat of a tyrannical government and built in protections. There was some fear but to what degree is what the debate is about.”

    Actually, Steve, the debate we’re having here is about the truth of this statement: “The founding fathers were very afraid of a central government.” And I think it’s been shown to be pretty much BS.

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  34. It is no doubt they supported a central gov. They made one. I don’t think that should be relevant in this day in age. My perspective is easily summed up by Lysander Spooner:

    The Constitution has no inherent authority or obligation. It has no authority or obligation at all, unless as a contract between man and man. And it does not so much as even purport to be a contract between persons now existing. It purports, at most, to be only a contract between persons living eighty years ago. And it can be supposed to have been a contract then only between persons who had already come to years of discretion, so as to be competent to make reasonable and obligatory contracts. Furthermore, we know, historically, that only a small portion even of the people then existing were consulted on the subject, or asked, or permitted to express either their consent or dissent in any formal manner. Those persons, if any, who did give their consent formally, are all dead now. Most of them have been dead forty, fifty, sixty, or seventy years. And the constitution, so far as it was their contract, died with them. They had no natural power or right to make it obligatory upon their children.

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  35. floyd says:

    tom p;
    It is obvious that you haven’t an ounce of comprehension of what I had to say.
    I can only assume that your response was intended to be quid pro quo!
    Good job![lol]

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  36. sam says:

    “we can’t speak of ’89, unless you’re confusing the U.S. with France”

    Heh. That reminded me: Guy goes into a library and says to the librarian at the help desk, “I’d like to see a copy of the French constitution.”

    Librarian: “Periodicals are on the third floor.”

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  37. @Sam: Yep–the version I am familiar with (and that is cited in the Elkins book I noted above) has the response: “I’m sorry, but we don’t stock periodicals.”

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  38. G.A.Phillips says:

    ****Far be it from me to defend the simplistic view of history that Glenn Beck is teaching the Tea Party movement, but a few comments………**** lol….yup, if it weren’t for Glenn Beck, most of us would have never even heard of history…

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  39. grampagravy says:

    G.A. good sarcasm has to be “unbelievable.”

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  40. sam says:

    “if it weren’t for Glenn Beck, most of us would have never even heard of history…”

    Most of you haven’t heard of it yet. BTW GA, do you watch the large print version of Beck?

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  41. tom p says:

    @ floyd:***It is obvious that you haven’t an ounce of comprehension of what I had to say.***

    You are absolutely right floyd… JUST EXACTLY WHAT IS IT YOU WERE TRYING TO SAY?????

    Because I read what you said, and I came away with the fact that you were a person who had absolutely ZERO comprehension of history.

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  42. Liandro says:

    Well, they did try to make a less powerful federal government first, and only “upgraded” to the Constitution because the Articles weren’t working. Then they promptly limited the already limited Constitution even further with the Bill of Rights. So I would say that, yes, the Founders were fearful of a central government: they made it as weak as they could possibly get it while still having a working gov’t.

    I think this is highly relevant to the current debate on size of government; I think many of the recent policies have been far beyond what is a desirable or even legal scope of federal power.

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  43. floyd says:

    Tom p.
    You “came away” only with that with which you went in…. Surprise!

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  44. [...] Steven Taylor has so eloquently penned: “…As James Madison argued in a letter to George Washington in April of 1787:  “I would propose that…the national [...]

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