Excerpted from WRITTEN OUT OF HISTORY: The Forgotten Founders Who Fought Big Government by Senator Mike Lee, with permission from Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright (c) Mike Lee, 2017.
“The Hamilton Effect”
Washington. Adams. Jefferson. Madison.
These are the names of the first four presidents of the United States of America, but they are also the names of the men who were among the most prominent voices of our founding era. There are other founders, indeed, who, though they never attained our nation’s highest office, still live on in our history—Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, and, most notably, Alexander Hamilton among them.
However, other founders, as relevant but with names not as well known, are missing from our nation’s popular history. Some individuals whose words and ideas contributed much to the founding of the nation have been relegated to the footnotes of history. And even others have, as a practical matter, been expunged from history altogether. The familiar narrative many of us were taught as children about our founding—that great men came together to forge a constitution that set America on its present course—isn’t exactly true, either. At least it isn’t complete.
Most Americans can name only a few of the nearly sixty men who were sent to the 1787 convention that produced our Constitution; fewer still know about the sixteen attendees who, for various reasons, never signed the document, including the three who defiantly refused. A number of those who attended the convention even actively campaigned against its final product. Many men who had given everything they had for independence—pledging their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to resist a distant, remote government that recognized no limitations on its sovereign power—believed the Constitution would lead to the new nation’s ruin. And the delegates who did sign the Constitution, and fought vigorously for its adoption, had no intention of creating a sprawling, unaccountable federal bureaucracy like the one we have in Washington, DC, today. Why don’t we know more about these delegates?
There were others who, while not delegates, still had a profound effect on the development of the American Republic. There were women, Native Americans, and African Americans who played a significant role in the fight for independence and in the thinking that went into our Constitution. Why are those names absent from popular history?
To find the answers to these questions, we must take a journey back to the early days of our Republic.
During the debates surrounding the Constitution’s drafting and ratification, the doubts, skepticism, and outright fear of what the Constitution would bring ultimately made the document stronger and more just. That may sound strange to us in the twenty-first century, but remember: the founders, by declaring their independence from Great Britain and building their own system from scratch, had placed themselves in uncharted territory. The men—each in his own right, sometimes working together and often not—were unusually gifted, but they were still making this up as they went along. What became our governing document was the result of a brilliant compromise between the Anti-Federalists and the Federalists—between those who championed a divided and limited but strong central government, and those who feared that almost any central government would expand its authority at the expense of individual liberty and state autonomy.
We today are the beneficiaries of that Great Compromise, but too many of us don’t fully understand it. And that is because history, over time, has tended to remember only one side of the argument, crowding out dissenting voices and obscuring the full story of the American experiment. In the last century, in particular, historians and politicians who consider themselves more enlightened than the founders— and believe in the power of bureaucrats to manage the affairs of an entire country from a distant capital—have done special damage to the legacy of the founding generation, a legacy that warned against the dangers of a distant, centralized government.
Most of us, for example, are never presented with the arguments raised by the Anti-Federalists, who opposed the Constitution’s ratification based on concerns that it would vest too much power in the federal government and thereby imperil liberty. And just as disturbing, many of the Federalists have been mischaracterized as early advocates of big government. Some have tried to portray the founders as proto-progressives, even though the founders lived a full century before there was anything even resembling a “progressive.” Those perpetuating this mischaracterization have done so by erasing the truth that nearly every founder shared a healthy skepticism of a large federal bureaucracy—one that might eventually mimic some of the worst features of the very government they had just fought a revolution to escape.
No one living in America in the late eighteenth century—certainly none of the brilliant minds who forged our founding documents— could have contemplated just how strong, or how large, that government would become. Nor could they have imagined how much control the city named for George Washington would come to have over ordinary citizens.
Take Alexander Hamilton, for example, a brilliant man who spoke up during the debates over the Constitution as one of the most fervent advocates of a stronger national government. In 2016 Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign adopted Hamilton as something of a mascot—quoting the eponymous hit show written by Lin-Manuel Miranda in speeches and renting out the entirety of Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre, where the musical was performed for a fundraiser. A century earlier, Herbert Croly, one of the most influential progressive intellectuals of the period and cofounder of The New Republic, praised Hamilton for advocating a policy of “active interference with the natural course of American economic and political business and its regulation and guidance in the national direction.”
Many on the left who are staunch advocates of big government have expressed a kinship with Alexander Hamilton—but theirs is a perverted vision. It is true that Hamilton fought vigorously for ratification of the Constitution. It is true that he believed that a federal government should have the power to accomplish a number of things that it could not do under the Articles of Confederation. But what Hamilton’s fans on the left neglect to mention, or in some cases don’t even realize, is that Alexander Hamilton never envisioned—and certainly never favored—the sort of massive, intrusive, unaccountable federal government that today thrives in Washington, DC. More to the point, once the Constitution was in place, he scoffed at and ridiculed the idea that the federal government could be anything other than the modest, divided, and tightly constrained government outlined in that document.
In The Federalist Papers, a series of documents published throughout the colonies in support of the new Constitution, Hamilton responded to concerns articulated by many of our founders—including people you will meet in this book—that the Constitution could become a Trojan horse for oppressive government. Hamilton thought such a notion ludicrous, even paranoid. “Allowing the utmost latitude to the love of power which any reasonable man can require“—he wrote in Federalist number 17 under the name “Publius”—“I confess I am at a loss to discover what temptation the persons intrusted with the administration of the general government could ever feel to divest the States of the authorities of that description.” The “government of the Union” could never become “too powerful . . . to enable it to absorb those residuary authorities, which it might be judged proper to leave with the States for local purposes . . . it is therefore improbable that there should exist a disposition in the federal councils to usurp the powers with which they are connected; because the attempt to exercise those powers would be as troublesome as it would be nugatory [insignificant]; and the possession of them, for that reason, would contribute nothing to the dignity, to the importance, or to the splendor of the national government.”
Supposing that such a perversion of the Constitution was attempted, Hamilton wrote, the states and localities would always be more powerful than a central government. “It will always be far more easy for the State governments to encroach upon the national authorities than for the national government to encroach upon the State authorities,” he said.3 In Federalist number 32, Hamilton explained that “State governments would clearly retain all the rights of sovereignty which they before had” prior to the Constitution’s enactment, as long as those powers had not been “exclusively delegated” to the federal government—making the Constitution’s real goal, in Hamilton’s view “only . . . a partial union or consolidation.”
This was also a view shared by his colleague, and fellow advocate for the Constitution, James Madison, who wrote in Federalist number 45 that “the powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”
In short, their view of what the federal government—first in Philadelphia and then in Washington, DC—was meant to be, and what the Constitution clearly intended, is not at all what that government has become over the last eighty years. They did not envision a Congress that would take more and more power from states and localities, regulating nearly every aspect of human existence— education, agriculture, health care, commerce, transportation, among others. They did not envision a Supreme Court that would find thin justifications in the Constitution to support such a massive federal expansion. They did not envision a Congress so weak and willing to delegate its lawmaking power to unaccountable bureaucrats in the executive branch and judges in the judicial branch.
Even Alexander Hamilton, the most forceful advocate for a strong and active national government, believed deeply in checks and balances that would strictly limit the government’s power.
None of this, by the way, is the fault of the Constitution, which was and remains a masterpiece, the greatest governing document ever devised by human beings. This happened because we’ve lost any sense of what federal power the founders intended the Constitution to allow, and what it intended to limit. We’ve lost to history some of the most prescient warnings offered by our founders— especially those most fiercely resistant to the Constitution and skeptical of big government—because we’ve never been allowed to hear them in the first place.
Progressive, big-government advocates like to politicize their history. They twist history to suit their ends. They ignore and ultimately erase history when it stands in their way. They always seek more power, and part of that means changing the historical narrative to confer legitimacy. Call it the “Hamilton Effect.” But if we knew our history—the true and complete stories of how our nation came to be—we’d know how to fight back against the progressive agenda. We’d be a lot less likely to accept their overreach.
That’s why I’ve written this book. In my previous book, Our Lost Constitution: The Willful Subversion of America’s Founding Document, I demonstrated how various provisions of the Constitution had been deliberately distorted far beyond the founders’ intentions in order to increase power in Washington, DC. Indeed, in many, many cases that power has been diverted from the people’s representatives in Congress to unelected bureaucrats in a multitude of agencies and departments in the executive branch. To their credit, there were founders who warned us of this outcome. Why then is it that those who did so most presciently, vocally, and aggressively have been erased from our collective history? This presents something of a paradox: the more accurately a founder predicted the excessive accumulation of power under the Constitution, the less likely we are to celebrate (or even to mention) them in our history books.
This book seeks to remedy this imbalance—by highlighting the stories not only of those who helped to make the Constitution possible, but also of those who warned about its misapplication and misinterpretation. Their stories are important, especially today, because the battle in which these men and women were engaged more than two centuries ago is still being waged. Within these pages is a true, alternative history of our nation’s founding, populated with varied characters who foretold with great accuracy the dangers of a powerful federal government—one that I see every day in Washington’s halls of power. The process of rediscovering who these people were, what they did, what they fought for, and why they did so is one of the best ways of recovering the lost (but valuable) principles of limited government.
It is time to reintroduce to the American people the founders whose stories have been lost.
As we rediscover those stories and internalize the lessons they can teach us—making them once again part of our national historical and political conversation—we will become better equipped to restore key constitutional protections. Those protections are there for good reasons (many of which are discussed in this book) and, once restored, will bless the lives of all Americans.
Throughout this book, you will meet a number of Americans who are not household names but who should be. Some warned against the dangers of big government generally, while others fought to protect specific individual liberties. Let us introduce them here:
• Aaron Burr, an early victim of big government, whose “trial of the century” in the early 1800s against President Thomas Jefferson defined the limits of executive power and warned of its potential for abuse;
• Luther Martin, who refused to sign the Constitution based on what he perceived as its failure to protect individual rights;
• Mercy Otis Warren, one of America’s first female writers and a John Adams protégée, who spent her life warning against the encroachment of federal power;
• Canasatego, an Iroquois chief, who taught Benjamin Franklin the basic principles behind the separation of powers and confederate government;
• Elbridge Gerry, who argued strongly for what would become the Bill of Rights;
• Mum Bett, a slave in Massachusetts, who saw her country struggle for freedom and was inspired to seek her own in a landmark case in which she argued that certain natural rights superseded unjust laws;
• James Otis, whose fight against the British Crown led to the development of search-and-seizure laws, protecting private property from government intrusion; and
• George Mason, the founder who fought and warned against government intrusion into commerce between individuals and states.
How much do we know about any of these leaders? Most of us tragically know too little. Some of this knowledge deficit could certainly be attributed to benign neglect; for one reason or another, some stories that should be remembered nonetheless fade from a society’s historical understanding. At least some of it, however, likely stems from the well-understood fact that history is written by the winners. And in today’s America, those who are winning are champions of big government. Consequently, if you don’t fit a certain vision of history—if your story is inconvenient to the notion that we all benefit from a strong central government in which every aspect of human existence can be regulated by bureaucratic experts in Washington— then you run the risk of being written out of history.