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The Power and Jurisdiction: A History of Limited Government in America

Published in Blog on May 14, 2024 by Jakob Fay

Convention of States is a nationwide grassroots movement that aims to limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, impose fiscal restraints, and place term limits on federal officials through an Article V convention. While our efforts to enact fiscal restraints (i.e., a balanced budget amendment) and term limits are straightforward and self-explanatory, limiting the power and jurisdiction of the federal government is, admittedly, more vague. In this series, we will examine the history of limited government in America, beginning at the Founding Era, and how it translates to our need for limited government today.

The Dawn of an Empire

We must acknowledge from the outset: delving into America’s founding invariably highlights the Founders’ profound commitment to limited government. Their every action, from breaking away from Great Britain to formulating the new nation’s governing charter, appears to have been meticulously crafted with this principle in focus. Any interpretation of the Founding falls short if it fails to recognize that constraining and distributing principle as a cornerstone of the revolution.

This should clearly be seen in the text of the Declaration of Independence, which laid out “a long train of abuses and usurpations” that threatened to “reduce [the American colonies] under absolute Despotism.” This litany of grievances took aim at “the present King of Great Britain” and his egregious war on self-government: while King George held monarchical power, the colonists also laid claim to the “rights of Englishmen,” guaranteed to them by the Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights—rights which they claimed the king had suppressed. Moreover, they had grown used to governing themselves and begun to chafe at the distant elites’ obsessive drive for control. Time, space, and contemporary ideals about natural rights led them to question whether the antiquated monarchy still satisfied the needs of the increasingly self-reliant, self-made Americans.

They accused the Crown, among other indictments, of, “abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies,” of “taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments….” They censured him “For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever” and “declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.”

In other words, the king had overstepped his bounds—he had threatened the Americans’ prized propensity for governing themselves and, in so doing, incensed them to take action against him. Contrary to reductive allegations that the revolution was, ultimately, all about teas and taxes, it was, in reality, about what those teas and taxes represented: the monarch’s freedom-crushing quest for perfect supremacy. Therefore, it follows that the architects of the uprising against the king would not only be wary of any whiff of overly concentrated power but also enact deliberate measures to ensure that power remained within the hands of the people.

A century and a half later, in 1926, President Calvin Coolidge summarized the people-centric thrust of the revolution thusly:

“We are obliged to conclude that the Declaration of Independence represented the movement of a people. It was not, of course, a movement from the top. Revolutions do not come from that direction. It was not without the support of many of the most respectable people in the Colonies…. But the preponderance of all those who occupied a position which took on the aspect of aristocracy did not approve of the Revolution and held toward it an attitude either of neutrality or open hostility…. The American Revolution represented the informed and mature convictions of a great mass of independent, liberty loving, God-fearing people who knew their rights, and possessed the courage to dare to maintain them.”

He continued, noting that those who penned the Declaration were obedient “to the wishes of their constituents,” revealing “an orderly process of government in the first place; but more than that, it demonstrates that the Declaration of Independence was the result of the seasoned and deliberate thought of the dominant portion of the people of the Colonies. Adopted after long discussion and as the result of the duly authorized expression of the preponderance of public opinion, it did not partake of dark intrigue or hidden conspiracy. It was well advised. It had about it nothing of the lawless and disordered nature of a riotous insurrection. It was maintained on a plane which rises above the ordinary conception of rebellion. It was in no sense a radical movement but took on the dignity of a resistance to illegal usurpations. It was conservative and represented the action of the colonists to maintain their constitutional rights which from time immemorial had been guaranteed to them under the law of the land” [emphasis added].

Why did such a distinction matter? Notably, Coolidge's speech followed nine years on the heels of a certain October Revolution, which, under the alleged auspices of “the people,” seized power and control for a suspiciously unilateral cabal of comrades who wasted little time in unleashing acts of a questionable democratic nature (for example, the “Red Terror”). Although Communist propagandists would have us believe that the Russian Revolution, particularly, the Bolshevik Revolution, represented “the movement of a people,” history suggests it partook “of dark intrigue [and] hidden conspiracy.” Coolidge reassured his listeners that the American Revolution was not that kind of revolution.

Indeed, historically, revolutions have often gone awry. Perhaps the American iteration succeeded, among other factors, because it insisted that the rules of “limited government” apply to the revolutionaries themselves. Men like George Washington, the American Cincinnatus, would see to it that this happened—even if it meant refusing offers of power for himself.

It was the advent of a timeless American tradition—one in which not even the leaders, the so-called “elite,” were unshackled from the bounds of a limited government. Such ideas were imbued into the very fiber of our nation—present from July 4, 1776.

To be continued…

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