When our foundation was set in the United States there were expectations by the framers. Among those expectations was governing at the lowest level with each person holding responsibility for themselves. Following original meaning, the path toward securing freedom and daily rights for future generations (a goal written into the Constitution Preamble) led from the individual, family, and towns to the state level. Beyond the state level there was, of necessity, a national government developed to care for the safety and stability of the union in general.
In 1908 Franklin Pierce wrote Federal Usurpation, a book attempting to warn the people of the growing intrusion into individual life by the national government. It was a time when Teddy Roosevelt was talking about walking softly while carrying a big stick, a time when major corporations and party machines were learning to cooperate, and a time when the people were far too taken by their national leaders to see the warning signs of growing paternalism. “Labor Unions, Boards of Trade, National Banks, and like bodies are constantly turning to the President of the United States, asking him to arbitrate strikes, coerce corporations, and deposit government surplus, and generally carry on the domestic affairs of the states.” (Pierce, p. 125 – 126) These activities were at the heart of his concern regarding the growing nature of paternalism in the federal government, especially in the executive branch.
Ringing in Pierce’s ear was the speech President Roosevelt gave in 1906. Roosevelt had pressed his “Square Deal” progressive agenda for 5 years, since taking office at the age of 42 after President McKinley was assassinated in 1901. The citizens of the country were embracing his idea of everyone getting a fair shake under his domestic policies. Even though he had sworn an oath to defend the Constitution his views were too clearly obvious for Pierce. Roosevelt believed his Federal Government powers needed to be increased by using executive action, judicial interpretation, and the construction of law. Amending the document was not an option he viewed as necessary to increase the authority over all matters of economic and governing importance. According to Pierce, “It is usurpation for the National Government to take over the powers of the states without employing proper means of acquiring them through amendments to the National Constitution.” (p. xi)
Pierce reminds his readers of the debates in New York during the ratification. It was there Hamilton made his strongest statement regarding the importance of states in connection with the federal government.
The state governments are essentially necessary to the form and spirit of the general system. As long, therefore, as Congress have a full conviction of this necessity, they must, even upon principles purely national, have a firm an attachment to the one as to the other. This conviction can never leave them, unless they become madmen. While the Constitution continues to be read, and its principles known, the states must, by every rational man, be considered as essential, component parts of the Union; and therefore the idea of sacrificing the former to the latter is wholly inadmissible.
Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary did not contain the word paternalism. He defined paternal as “1. Pertaining to a father; fatherly; as paternal care of affection; paternal favor or admonition.” Today Princeton’s WordNet defines paternalism as “the attitude (of a person or a government) that subordinates should be controlled in a fatherly way for their own good.” We can see this attitude more clearly than ever with the passage of recent legislation aimed at federal control over every aspect of daily living. Pierce warned if we did not awake to the dangers of this trend we would find ourselves controlled by a government people were meant to control. For over 100 years we have failed to heed his warning. We must ask ourselves if a national government’s control is truly for our own good or if we are ready to end federal paternalism, embracing state and personal responsibility.
Gary Wood is the Educational Advisor for the Utah Tenth Amendment Center. Co-founder of the Heritage Training Center, focused on helping end constitutional illiteracy. With 35 years of devoted study of our Constitution his desire is to help others rediscover the inspiring heritage of the United States. Radio show host, training officer, lifetime member of the VFW and most importantly Grandpa.
If you enjoyed this post:
Click Here to Get the Free Tenth Amendment Center Newsletter,