As schools across the state celebrate Constitution Day today, it seems especially appropriate to look more closely at the nation’s founding document, particularly because so much of today’s political debate concerns the powers and limits of the federal government.
Many who associate themselves with the tea party movement say their beliefs are rooted in the original principles of the Constitution. Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann describes herself a “constitutional conservative.”
Few have asked precisely what that means. A close inspection of Bachmann’s views, however, reveals a vision of government closer to the Articles of Confederation than the Constitution.
The Articles of Confederation created an extremely limited central government during and just after the Revolution. Under the Articles, the federal government had no power to tax, no national currency, no executive branch — hence, little real authority. The result was a government with extremely limited revenues and, therefore, with little power or relevance. The power to levy taxes was reserved to the states.
The Articles of Confederation made sense in the context of the American Revolution. It was exactly the type of government you would create in the midst of a revolt against a distant, external authority perceived as too powerful and out of touch.
Yet the Articles proved to be woefully deficient. Foreign creditors were unwilling to loan money to the fledgling nation — they could see that the government, lacking the authority to tax and dependent on contributions from the states, would struggle to pay back those loans.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, considered by many to be the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, has emphasized his refusal to accept federal money for some purposes, most notably education. His position highlights the perceived conflict between state and federal authority and the resurgent belief in returning power to the states. Fear of federal power was a key argument used by the Anti-Federalists who opposed ratification of the Constitution, preferring the weak national government of the Articles.
Fewer than four years after the end of the Revolution, a group of concerned founders met in Philadelphia, ostensibly to discuss ways to amend and improve the Articles of Confederation. Yet several delegates, chief among them James Madison of Virginia, recognized that the Articles were inadequate to the task of governing the new nation. The result of that convention in 1787 was, of course, the Constitution. It created an entirely new form of government intended to cure the ills of the Articles of Confederation. And chief among the cures was the power to levy taxes, not just on imports but internal taxes as well.
As Alexander Hamilton would later emphasize in the Federalist Papers — the famous series of essays held up by so many tea party members as the true embodiment of the Constitution — taxation was perhaps the most necessary power to be wielded by the new government in order for the United States to succeed.
During the first domestic crisis under the new Constitution, President George Washington led federal troops to the back country of Pennsylvania when farmers there refused to pay new excise taxes on whiskey. While today, the tea party crowd seeks every opportunity to “starve the beast,” Washington, the most famous founder of all, was willing to use the threat of force to compel citizens to pay their taxes, not just for defense, but for all of government’s costs.
As my eighth-grade social studies teacher taught us, the most important legacy of the Articles of Confederation is that it showed how not to run a government. Washington and the other founders quickly recognized that a government without revenue is no government at all. They knew from experience that a strong central government was essential for the new nation to survive and flourish.
While the debate over the appropriate role for the federal government has grown contentious, we would be wise to recall the failure of Articles of Confederation.