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Thursday, March 1, 2001

A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government by Garry Wills

Wills Expresses His Long-Standing Love of Government

Simon & Schuster • 1999 • 365 pages • $25.00

Professor Garry Wills loves government. Perhaps one day he will tell us if he believes in any substantive limitations on government at all. Wills’s long-standing love of government can be seen in “The Convenient State,” an essay he wrote when he was his own brand of conservative. Since the mid-sixties, when he was first traumatized by inland “rednecks,” he has expounded a unique brand of Tory socialism.

Wills is very unhappy about the rise of “anti-government” movements that claim part of the American tradition. The solution? Eviscerate the tradition! The result is a collection of scattered attacks on various ideological items that Wills sees as central to (mostly) “right-wing” distrust of government power. If the attacks succeed, then Wills will have cut the ground out from under these paranoid miscreants. Wills organizes his thoughts around Revolutionary Myths, Constitutional Myths, Nullifiers, Seceders, Insurrectionists, Vigilantes, Withdrawers, and Disobeyers. Like Firesign Theater, Wills asserts that everything we know is wrong. Among our delusions are the following: militias were important in the Revolution, the founders wanted divided and “inefficient” (his word) government, and the states were sovereign. Mythmakers include Jefferson, John Taylor, Calhoun, and contemporary academics who take the Second Amendment seriously.

Wills’s treatment of militias and arms depends heavily on the findings of Michael Bellesiles, and will fall as quickly—and as far—as those findings. It won’t be long. OED in hand, Wills takes an eighteenth-century philological field trip through the Second Amendment. The tour is very nearly as convincing as was the “psychic archeology” of the early 1980s. “Bear arms” in English echoes set Latin and Greek phrases and can only refer to organized, public war. And no one, I suppose, had ever read Blackstone.

Wills contrasts “anti-governmental values”—“provincial, amateur, authentic, spontaneous, populist, voluntary”—with “governmental values”—“cosmopolitan, expert, authoritative, efficient, elite, regulatory.” This is nothing more than his old song-and-dance that while the anti-federalist masses wallowed around in primitive republicanism, clever fellows like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton took up the modern ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Such far-seeing fellows could not have wanted government to be “inefficient” or weak; it follows that they didn’t really provide for checks and balances in the way we imagine they did. Here Wills is not exactly wrong, but Raoul Berger made a better case for this than Wills has done. Legislative supremacy—if that was the Founders’ plan—was less threatening than it sounds because the Constitution was thought to establish a system of enumerated powers. But Wills won’t put up with this and argues, rather implausibly, that there is only an enumeration of worthy projects, the powers to carry them out being, apparently, endless. Wills must also claim that the union preceded the states. This he does by unconvincing assertion and quotations from such authorities as Lincoln. Abe is even quoted as denying that Texas had ever been sovereign, an absurdity not worth refuting.

Despite impressive pyrotechnics and clever tropes, the case is not made. But Wills has a secret weapon: Little Jamie Madison’s secret opinions. Madison, it turns out, was so advanced that he anticipated the Fourteenth Amendment and sought to reduce the states to mere administrative expressions. Accordingly, he insinuated ambiguous language into every public document he drafted so that later emanationists and penumbra-sniffers could realize his program, long range.

But Madison did not get what he wanted. (On this, see the late M. E. Bradford’s essay on the Constitutional Convention “as comic action.”) Why Jamie’s secret agenda should have any weight is a mystery. For Wills, it derives from Madison’s moral superiority. After all, the hicks out in the states lacked a broader vision and would oppress anyone they could. Only federal power could prevent that and protect free speech and the like. I especially like the way Washington, D.C., protected free speech in 1917-18, but Wills somehow omits that period. There is, however, a discussion of mean old Joe McCarthy.

Scottishly enlightened, Madison brought social science into the fabric of government. Wills, who has never shown much appreciation for market economics, seems unable to tell if division of labor and efficiency work out differently in the so-called public and private sectors. He gives us little sermons on traffic lights and licensing, and commentary on Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, and David Hume. Throughout, he conflates society and state. Too bad he didn’t read his old colleague Frank Meyer’s In Defense of Freedom a bit more closely.

In the end, if it’s really a choice between giving up our received notions of freedom and giving up James Madison, there isn’t much of a contest, old chap. Framer overboard.

Joseph Stromberg is the JoAnn B. Rothbard historian-in-residence at the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

  • Joseph R. Stromberg is a Research Fellow at The Independent Institute and has held the JoAnn B. Rothbard Chair in History at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. A columnist for, his research interests include U.S. foreign policy and the "War on Terrorism". He received his B.A. and M.A. from Florida Atlantic University, and his further graduate work was completed at the University of Florida.