It seems we never learn. Every now and then, the American people hand some poor soul, undeserving in many cases, the national levers of power. And in each and every instance, it has cost us dearly. There are several historical periods of note.
John Adams, himself a political giant, was imminently qualified for the presidency, at least on paper. But he had the most unenviable of tasks, perhaps in all of American history. He had to follow George Washington as president. And he did a lousy job.
Rather than reverse course from what Washington and Alexander Hamilton had begun, Adams built on it, continuing an oppressive system of taxation and top-down management of the nation’s affairs. A people who had just fought a war of independence over taxation now saw the imposition of an even more draconian system, one that included direct federal taxes on everything from whiskey and tobacco to land and homes.
But President Adams, already in hot water with the people, stepped over the line with passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, laws that suppressed civil liberties, even though the Bill of Rights was just six years old. Anyone could be imprisoned for criticizing the government, especially newspaper editors, and many were.
Yet the Federalist Era came to ignominious end, as the American people rose up in righteous indignation, snatching the government away from Adams and handing it to Thomas Jefferson and his Republican Party in a landslide that permanently crippled the Hamilton-Adams coalition.
President Jefferson did not just talk a good game, like conservatives do today; he did reverse course, abolishing all direct taxes, cutting spending, and repealing oppressive legislation. He even freed those convicted under the Sedition Act and returned fines they had paid. The people had realized their mistake and Jefferson’s election led to a six-decade era of limited government, before the Age of Lincoln and the beginnings of the Progressive movement.
The Progressives did eventually gain control of the government and roared ahead with Woodrow Wilson, elected in 1912. For that we received the Federal Reserve, a gift that keeps on giving; free trade; a peacetime income tax, supposedly to re-distribute wealth, for the very low rates touched only the very rich; and a foreign war, not to defend American shores, but to “make the world safe for democracy.”
What was Wilson’s legacy? The Federal Reserve gave us the Great Depression; an income tax that touched every single American, taking 77 percent from the top earners, those who create jobs; an economy in deep recession; civil liberties trampled, as Americans were arrested and jailed for simply reading aloud the Bill of Rights; and our once independent country poised for the new League of Nations.
Yet Americans stood up again and said no more, electing Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge in 1920 with a record majority. The duo returned the nation to normalcy, slashed federal spending, sliced income tax rates, protected American industry, restored civil liberties, and returned to an America First foreign policy. The Roaring Twenties was like nothing America has seen since.
But American did it again in 1976 with poor Jimmy Carter. He was in over his head deeper than any American president. True, the economy had been in the throes of stagnation for years but Carter’s plans only made it worse, much worse, with double-digit inflation, interest rates, and unemployment. The addition of a severe energy crisis placed the economy in the midst of a depression that Carter was powerless to correct.
As for the military, Carter inherited a force decimated from the long fight in Southeast Asia. But he did nothing of any significance to change it and, in many cases, reduced it further, cutting aircraft carriers and new bombers, at a time when the Soviet Union was on the move around the globe.
Historians and political pundits alike blame Ronald Reagan for adding more than $1.5 trillion to the national debt. Though it seems like peanuts now, it was a large increase for the 1980s. But Reagan had to inaugurate more than a trillion in defense spending because we stupidly picked a president who had gutted the US military. The Reagan Buildup, as it has been termed, gave us a first-class military machine no other nation dared trifle with.
In 2008 we just had to give him a shot. But Barack Obama has given us massive new debt that will total more than $6 trillion by the end of this presidential term. He took over the nation’s healthcare system, which, if not repealed, will strap us with trillions more over the next decade, some three times the original estimate. Civil liberties have been further eroded. The nation’s national defenses have been dangerously slashed. Our foreign policy is in shambles. The economy is in recession.
And for that, we will have to pay a high price yet again. Only now the pain will be much worse. Yet on this day, let us hope that our fellow citizens across this great land have learned a valuable lesson, one that we dare not repeat.