I am often asked in interviews if the founding generation would recognize the modern government in Washington, D.C. I always answer yes, they would. They would recognize tyranny, the usurpation of power by the executive branch, the trampling of civil liberties and the endless wars of a government bent on empire. The several states seceded from a government like that in 1776 and they would probably advocate the same course today. Barack Obama has more power than George III ever had. That said, the next question is usually, “Well, what do we do about it and who among the current crop of presidential candidates would best adhere to the founding principles?”
The answer to the first part of that question is more complex than the answer to the second part. If Americans truly believed in limited government, then we would be following the prescription that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison made in 1798 by ignoring unconstitutional federal laws, participating in local and state government and using the powers of the states as a hedge against the general government. This is a long war that requires education and what Jefferson called “manly firmness.” Most important, the Constitution would not have been ratified had the founding generation believed that the states would become mere provinces of the general government or that what Patrick Henry called the “sweeping clauses” would be abused. The political class has to be held responsible.
As for the second part of that question, the answer is simple: Ron Paul. No one man can save the federal republic, but if the Founders, with perhaps an exception or two, had their choice, it would be the man who has the best understanding of the original construction of the executive branch, and among the four remaining Republicans, the best understanding of the Constitution and the original intent in general. Mitt Romney has conceded he knows little about the principles of federalism (with the exception of correctly insisting that Romneycare in Massachusetts is a state issue) and defers to Paul on the Constitution; Newt Gingrich believes that federal judges should be dragged before Congress to “answer” for their decisions (News flash, Newt! Federal judges can be impeached); Rick Santorum thinks that the phrase “pursuit of happiness” is in the Constitution, or perhaps the Declaration of Independence is a governing document, I couldn’t tell by his incoherent statements to Glenn Beck. All believe that the general government should be charged with finding “solutions” to societal ills. All believe that the president is a prime minister charged with initiating legislation and have a “progressive” view of executive powers, particularly in regard to foreign policy, the antithesis of the original intent. All, that is, except Ron Paul.
Paul’s foreign policy meshes perfectly with Washington’s Farewell Address, the Monroe Doctrine and the way the first five presidents conducted foreign affairs. “Non-intervention” is not isolation; like the Founders, Paul believes that peaceful trade is preferable to war. Paul’s views on domestic policy — low debt, low taxes, limited spending, sound money — were supported by most of the founding generation. Nathaniel Macon once argued that spending around $100,000 in 2012 dollars on a statue honoring Washington was too much. And even those who favored a more active central government would not have supported the modern micro-management of the domestic sphere by the general government. It must be noted that the general government was established for general concerns, meaning commerce and defense, and those powers not delegated to it by the states were reserved to the states and the people, as the Tenth Amendment made clear. Paul supports that premise, as did the founding generation who wrote and ratified that amendment.
If American “conservatives” held true to their respect of the founding generation and the founding principles of the United States, then the choice this primary season would be easy. Paul would be leading by double digits. Of course, to the Republican establishment, originalism and the founding principles are useful rhetorically, but both do little to advance endless foreign wars or their own political power. The Founders believed office was a duty rather than a station, presidential power should be feared most and the states, where political power could be more easily controlled (Madison’s fear of factions notwithstanding), should handle the domestic issues of the day. Americans need to relearn that lesson. Ron Paul’s success this election cycle has started the conversation, but it needs to be finished, at home, in local governments and in the states. If the founding generation did not secede, they would push for decentralization and a Paul presidency, the best current hope for the resurrection of the federal republic.
Brion McClanahan holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of South Carolina. He is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers (Regnery, 2009) and The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution (Regnery History, 2012), as well as the forthcoming Forgotten Conservatives in American History with Clyde Wilson (Pelican, 2012). You can find his Facebook fan page here.