Last week I visited the National Archives in Washington, D.C., a building that houses the most treasured historical documents of the United States government, including the original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Seeing these documents for the first time, after 21 years of living in the nation conceived in the ideals of their revered authors and born from the words carefully preserved in ink upon their surfaces, was a deeply moving experience for me, one that I will not soon forget.
When we take a look back through our nation's history, however, it becomes evident that many Americans have forgotten the principles that are enshrined by these faded pages of parchment. Perhaps the most sacred among these principles is the preservation of individual liberty through limited government. What the Founders feared above all was a distant, powerful, centralized government, and they took great care to ensure that the institutions that replaced the British crown would not revert back to the tyranny exemplified by their predecessor. In fact, their first attempt at establishing a government through the Articles of Confederation, while upholding states' rights and individual liberty, eventually proved too weak to enable the fledgling nation to survive. By writing the Constitution that endures today, the Founders managed to balance the need for more robust institutions with their desire to secure the freedom of its people.
Yet since the days of the Founding, the federal government has been allowed, at times even encouraged, to grow exponentially while interfering in aspects of our daily lives that the Founders never intended. At the best of times, the expansion of the government at the expense of liberty is so gradual, so craftily disguised, that its effects only become discernable with the clarity of hindsight. In times of crisis, however, mass hysteria and the desire for comfort enables the government, with the people's blessing, to take unprecedented measures that forever broaden its realm of authority.
Thomas Jefferson warned of this possible development, stating, "the true theory of our Constitution is surely the wisest and best . . . [for] when all government . . . shall be drawn to Washington as the centre of all power, it will render powerless the checks provided of one government on another, and will become as . . . oppressive as the government from which we separated." Indeed, we now have a government that more closely resembles the British monarchy, wielding its tremendous power from afar over the increasingly-weakened states and individuals, than the government of limited authority that the Founders envisioned.
As anyone who has studied American history can affirm, three of the most basic elements that the Founders wrote into the Constitution to oblige the limitation of government include the notions of the separation of powers, federalism, and checks and balances. Yet today, instead of separation of powers, we have activist judges rewriting legislation to suit their own political beliefs, and legislators trying to conduct warfare based on popular sentiment. Instead of federalism, we have the national government reaching beyond its enumerated powers and interfering in affairs that, according to the Tenth Amendment, should be left to the individual states. And instead of checks and balances, we have a newly-inaugurated president whose party holds overwhelming majorities in both Houses of Congress, making him more of a prime minister than the leader of an independent executive branch.
Furthermore, and perhaps most unsettling to defenders of liberty, our new president and the party he leads insist that all of the nation's problems can be solved as long as people put their faith in government. Universal healthcare, "tax cuts" meant to redistribute wealth, opposition to the privatization of social security, spending billions on a green-energy plan, and the like are all examples of how he plans to use the government to solve the nation's problems. And though his goals may seem worthy, his methods contradict the core principles of the Constitution. For all his talk of hope, he sure has very little in the American people.
At this moment, our nation is facing a crisis that, though dissimilar in magnitude to the Civil War or the Great Depression, nonetheless instills Americans with fear. This fear is a powerful tool that the federal government can capitalize on in its desire to become more expansive, more powerful, and more dangerous to liberty than the Founders could have ever imagined. A leader, especially one as charismatic as Obama, can make government intervention seem like the only method of dealing with crisis and assuaging the fear. Yet this fear, like Franklin Roosevelt once declared (ironically while presiding over one of the most egregious expansions of the federal government in American history), is the only thing we have to fear, for it cloaks the violation of liberty in terms that make it seem palatable, even necessary, to those who claim to defend it.
If we are to remain true to the principles of the Founding, it is imperative that we look beyond our immediate concerns and take great care to avoid falling prey to the temptation of relying on government, rather than the people, to ensure national prosperity.
Christie Pesavento is a junior and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not
necesarily those of The Observer.