The Evolving View of Government


“The lesson should constantly be enforced,” wrote President Grover Cleveland in 1887, “that though the people support the Government the Government should not support the people.”

Cleveland made this pronouncement as he vetoed the Texas Seed Bill, a small $10,000 appropriation aimed at providing assistance to drought-stricken farmers in the Lone Star State.

The Constitution did not allow the federal government to spend money on public charity, the Jeffersonian Cleveland believed, and if Washington started down the road of paternalism, where would it end?

Such strict construction of the Constitution, a source of pride for true conservatives, drives leftwing scholars and pundits crazy, causing them to denigrate any President who had the temerity to believe in such “outdated” and “old fashioned” thinking.

For Jack Beatty, a senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly, an analyst on NPR, and author of The Age of Betrayal:  The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900, such views raise important questions:

“Why did the people support a government that on principle refused to support them, that wouldn’t spend pennies to save farmers from ruin?” he asked.  “Why return to office politicians like Cleveland, who vetoed three times as many bills in one term as all his predecessors combined?  What had gone wrong with the Republican experiment in positive government for the country to settle for negative government?”

Beatty believes, not in the conservative principles of Thomas Jefferson, but those of the more liberal Abraham Lincoln, a philosophy that is an antithesis to Cleveland’s.  Lincoln had broken the old Jeffersonian mold and provided a new view of the role of government in the every day lives of the people.  He once said, “The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not so well do, for themselves – in their separate, and individual capacities.”

Which begs another question:  Who decides what the people can or cannot do for themselves?  Or if they can do it good enough to suit the government?

Ultimately the people rejected the Lincoln line of thinking in favor of conservatism, at least for a while.  Nineteenth century Americans, and their early 20th century brethren, did not believe in an active, or positive, government.  The American Revolution, contrary to Beatty’s thinking, was not about creating an energetic government.  Our forebears held true to the Jeffersonian admonition, “That government is best which governs least.”

The Jeffersonian view carried over into the early 20th century.

In 1927, the Mississippi River overflowed its banks in one of the worst floods in the nation’s history.  Herbert Hoover, a great engineer and Commerce Secretary under President Calvin Coolidge, traveled to the South to offer his assistance.  But unlike the situation in New Orleans eight decades later with Hurricane Katrina, local people told Hoover to leave.  They did not trust the federal government and did not want out-of-town bureaucrats sticking their noses in local affairs.

People in those days had honor and pride, believing they could handle their own problems.  There were no shouts of “help” from stranded citizens who suffered from the severe flooding, as we saw around the Superdome.  They understood that with government aid also came government rules, regulation, oversight, and control.  Once the government got in, it might be next to impossible to get them out.

It was not until the horrible period of the Great Depression in the 1930s, when the economy nearly imploded, that Americans, for the first time, began to look to government for every day things.  FDR used massive government aid to help people affected by the depression, the first direct assistance in U.S. history.

From that point on, a dependence on government grew within the American people and has continued to increase.

Americans have evolved from a freedom-loving people that looked to themselves for their own livelihood to believing that government has a positive role to play in society.

The Constitution, earlier Americans correctly understood, does not contain any language that allows the government to spend money for public assistance.  It was always held to be unconstitutional to tax one group of citizens and give it to another.

But all that has changed now and the situation is much worse.  It has recently been reported that government handouts equal 35 percent of all wages in the United States.  In 1960 the figure was just 10 percent.  Forty-four million Americans are now on food stamps and fifty million receive Medicaid.  Today, fifty-eight percent of all government spending is on entitlement programs.

But what is even scarier is that it seems as if a majority of Americans believe the federal government should have at least some positive role in the lives of the people.  Many believe the government should take care of its citizens from cradle to grave.  Early Americans would have thought such thinking downright dangerous.

President Cleveland, in the late 19th century, could foresee a potential threat to limited government if Washington got in the handout business.  He took the opportunity in his second inaugural address to remind the people that the “lessons of paternalism ought to be unlearned,” he said.  “Every thoughtful American must realize the importance of checking at its beginning any tendency in public or private station to regard frugality and economy as virtues which we may safely outgrow. The toleration of this idea results in the waste of the people’s money by their chosen servants and encourages prodigality and extravagance in the home life of our countrymen.”

In our time of near-bankruptcy, America would do well to elect a president in the mold of Cleveland, one who will stop the wealth re-distribution scheme in full swing in Washington and return our nation to the ideals and values that made it great.

 

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