Acton Commentary

Patrick Henry Warned Us about Extravagant Government

The utter travesty that was the congressional “Super Committee” has led us to even lower depths of skepticism about the government’s ability to control debt and spending. In this new era of malaise, lessons from the time of the Constitution’s adoption -- and fears from those days about what the newly-framed government might become -- seem more relevant than ever. Some key Patriot leaders predicted in the 1780s that a government with unlimited power to tax and spend would become an ever-growing monster.

Since the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, Americans have had a hard time taking the Antifederalists (opponents of the Constitution) seriously. How could anyone, we may wonder, not appreciate the wisdom of the Constitution? But remember that some of America’s greatest Founders, most notably Virginia’s Patrick Henry, opposed the Constitution. Having fought against the centralized, intrusive British government in 1776, the Antifederalists balked at placing such a government over themselves again. Many of them, including Henry, expressed fundamental doubts -- concerns rooted in Christian principles -- about politicians’ capacity to handle this kind of power.

Henry was one of the most zealous opponents of British taxes, starting with his stand against the Stamp Act in 1765. He penned resolutions against the act which electrified the colonies and galvanized the growing American resistance movement. Henry, of course, is best known for his “Liberty or Death” oration in 1775, which convinced Virginians to take defensive measures against the British.

Henry served as Virginia’s governor for much of the Revolutionary War and watched as the Articles of Confederation government managed, with great difficulty, to defeat the British military. America struggled to supply George Washington’s army, and in the 1780s, the nation seemed unable to develop coherent policies on trade and diplomacy. Some, like Henry’s young colleague James Madison, thought the time had come for dramatic constitutional change in favor of national power.

Despite the government’s inefficiencies, Henry was convinced that creating a robust central government was not the answer. Henry was particularly concerned that his adversaries Madison and Alexander Hamilton were eager to give the government under the Constitution the authority to tax, a power the Articles government did not have (it depended instead on the state governments to provide operating funds). Taxes had driven the Patriots to revolt against the British. Why, Henry asked, would anyone wish to recreate the same conditions which had threatened the colonists’ rights in 1776?

At the Virginia ratifying convention in 1788, Henry proclaimed that American liberty was at stake in the decision over the Constitution. He asked how Americans would bear the “enormous and extravagant expenses, which will certainly attend the support of this great consolidated government”? America would find “no reduction of the public burdens by this new system.” Taxes would just fuel the “uncontrolled demands” of bureaucrats not contemplated by the Constitution.

To Henry, these fears were rooted in his assumption that in the long term, officials would inevitably misappropriate and abuse the power granted to them. “Did we not know of the fallibility of human nature,” he told the Richmond delegates, “we might rely on the present structure of this government,. . .but the depraved nature of man is well known.” Henry’s Christian worldview made him acutely sensitive to the risks of placing expansive power in human hands. Hoping that only ethical, public-spirited people would serve in national office was foolish, he believed. Henry would “never depend on so slender a protection as the possibility of being represented by virtuous men.”

Henry lost the argument. By a narrow margin, Madison and the Federalists ratified the Constitution in Virginia. Henry’s fears about the size of government did not come to pass in his lifetime, but during the Civil War, his predicted pattern of uncontrolled growth began. Massive new entitlements in the 1930s (Social Security) and the 1960s (Medicare), set the stage for the phenomenal increases in military and domestic spending under the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. In the long run, Henry’s forecast has proven true: if the government has the ability to do so, it will spend, and once spending is in place, it is nearly impossible to roll back.

The warnings of Patrick Henry remind us that our Constitution, wise and balanced as it may have been in 1787, cannot control politicians who have the unchecked power to tax and spend. As the Congress scrambles to reduce the debt, it is time for Americans to revisit the possibility of amendments to the Constitution that would really constrain the size and scope of the government -- for instance, by requiring a balanced budget. But as we are seeing in recent doomed congressional votes on a balanced budget amendment, getting the Congress to restrict its power presents its own challenges.

Thomas S. Kidd teaches history at Baylor University, and is Senior Fellow at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author of Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots.