Dr. Carson is Professor of American History at Grove City College, Pennsylvania. This concludes his series on The American Tradition, which is now available as a book, 319 pp., $5.00 cloth. (See inside back cover.)
Thus far, I have touched but lightly upon changing circumstances in American history. Yet this point is the cornerstone of the "liberal" position. "Liberals" usually maintain something like this: Conditions have changed greatly since the time of the founding of the United States. America was largely an agricultural land then; now it is an industrial one. Technological innovations have been the means for changing the character of America. The mass media of communication, the developments in transportation, mass production and automation, the tremendous increase in industrial and white collar workers, have transformed the country. The position of America in relation to other countries has been radically altered. Once the ocean was a great barrier to travel between Europe and America; now it can be spanned in a few hours. The military exigencies of a world drawn close together by developments in transportation and communication and threatened by atomic bombs are much more pressing than those of the past. The number of people in America has vastly increased, and the way of life of Americans has undergone momentous changes.
From a cataloguing of these and other changes, the "liberal" (and, for that matter, almost all intellectuals and opinion makers) goes on to conclude certain things about American society and institutions. Not many years ago, reformers were arguing that the Constitution was all well and good for an agricultural society, but an industrial society requires vastly expanded governmental activity. County and other local units of government may have served very well for rural communities, but in the day of urban complexes they are outmoded. More "advanced" thinkers have argued that the separation of powers is positively dangerous in these days of split-second decisions. In short, they ascribe the alteration and discarding of the American tradition (without so denominating what they are talking about) to the pressure of changing circumstances.
Changes certainly have occurred since the time of the adoption of the Constitution. Certainly, some of these changes have bearing for the American tradition. On the surface, at least, it is doubtful that there has been another period of such rapid change to match that of the last 175 years.
The Meaning of Change
But the significance of any given change is not usually self-evident. Before changes result in altered institutions, they are winnowed through the minds of men; they are interpreted. From these interpretations come our understanding of the meaning of new conditions. In the nineteenth century, it was customary for thinkers to develop philosophies of history, i.e., comprehensive and all-embracing interpretations of change, how it came about, where it was headed, and what it signified at the time. G. W. F. Hegel constructed perhaps the most famous of these. Sometimes a philosophy of history was the centerpiece of an ideology. This was and is so in the case of Marxism. Philosophies of history, however, have fallen into disrepute in the twentieth century, along with philosophies of almost everything else. Most American historians today imagine that they make do with ad hoc interpretations, if they make any at all.
In fact, however, an ad hoc interpretation of history is almost as unsatisfactory as an ad hoc religion, and just about as unlikely. Let it be noted that there are many scholars today who gather their facts and arrange them in chronicles, interpreting only very narrowly, if at all. In such cases, they may well have dispensed with any philosophy of history. But before historical studies can be brought to bear upon social change, they must be interpreted by someone. Before an interpretation can have the coherence and consistency to support or advance social programs, it must have a philosophical or ideological framework. Many historians have not ceased to interpret American history, and these interpretations do say something about social change. It follows, then, that they must be based upon either implicit or explicit philosophies or ideologies.
An examination of the histories that are reckoned to have been important for social change would show that this has been the case. The works of such men as Frederick J. Turner, Charles A. Beard, and Vernon L. Parrington are filled with formulations drawn from philosophy or ideology. These works, and those popularizations which drew their sustenance from them, certainly did support and advance social change in certain directions.
My point is that the prevalent notions of the significance of change are not drawn simply from changes themselves, nor from histories of them. That governments must grow larger and larger, that industry must be ever more minutely regulated, that more and more activities must be done by collective compulsion, is the product of interpretation, not raw circumstances. The belief that the American tradition is outmoded belongs in the same category. In short, Americans have departed from their tradition and headed in new directions because some men have wanted to change America, or because they believed on the basis of untested assumptions that America must change. Circumstances do not tell us what to do; they are only mute conditions within which we operate.
Circumstances certainly have changed. The context of our lives has been altered by skyscrapers, atomic bombs, automobiles, jet airplanes, computers, and communists. But none of these, nor any others that could be named, have told us to change our goals or our ideals. Some of these may have made life more sweet, but none of them has made liberty less desirable. Independence and morality were not changed in the scale of human values by circumstances. The passage of time has not made politicians less likely to resort to oppression, and the invention of the jet airplane did not make it desirable to yield up national independence. The American tradition is outmoded if we want to use the government to look after the intimate needs of the population. It is not outmoded for those who still value liberty and independence.
The belief that changed circumstances have altered the direction of America is shielded from exposure and refutation by the failure to distinguish between the ephemeral and the enduring. Some things indubitably change, and will continue to change from time to time. Nations grow stronger or become weaker, and the power situation changes in the world. New tools for producing goods replace old ones, and men change their methods of producing the goods, though many of the products are as old as civilization. Beliefs, ideas, and values have been known to change from one time to another.
Some Values Endure
Other things endure and remain, unchanged so far as we can tell. So far as we can make out, man has a nature that is little altered, if at all, by the passage of millennia. All men are mortal, and all the medical advances have not made a dent in this fact of existence. Man lives his life against a stop watch, as it were. If his life is to have meaning, it must be gained in limited time. Men still eat food, sleep for a number of hours each day, get a sense of well-being from activity, take pleasure in the simple things of life—the smell of coffee brewing, the joy in the arrival of friends, the stimulation of conversation, the sense of achievement in a job well done—if they have not been entirely corrupted. Men are still torn between good and evil, as they have been so long as we have records of them, self-seeking on the one hand, and selfless on the other. The garments by which he shields both his physical and inner self from the world change, but the man remains much the same as he ever was.
Nor is there any evidence that the laws which govern the universe change. True, we may view them from different perspectives, gain new insights and lose sight of old ones, but the laws of gravity, of flight, of inertia, of human relations, of supply and demand, still operate. Jet flight may depend upon newly discovered principles, but older principles were not proved wrong by them. Theology and philosophy may be thrust aside, but there are no new discoveries which disprove the belief that this universe is sustained by an underlying metaphysical realm. Individual liberty is still the area within which the individual can operate free from restraint. Discoveries, developments, inventions, innovations, trends do not alter the fundamental and enduring character of reality, though they may hide us, temporarily, from it.
Let us assume that many Americans are still devoted to their traditions, that they have not knowingly consented to the departures from them, that they still value liberty, that they cherish national independence, that they are concerned to preserve the moral dimensions of life by allowing for choice, that they believe in private rights and individual responsibility. Let it be agreed that much endures, and that which does is the most important for human life, beneath the surface of the most drastic changes. When there is agreement on these things, it is possible to go on to the meaning of change for the American tradition.
Laws Build Obstacles
The fact of changing circumstances bears upon the traditions in these ways: First, it means that habits, customs, and ways of doing things should be alterable in order for people to deal effectively with new developments and conditions. The most formidable obstacles to such flexibility are the legalizing and institutionalizing of patterns of behavior. Governments are almost always the villains of this piece. This is so in part, for America anyhow, because governments are supposed to act by law. Thus, in any undertaking overseen by government, there will be numerous rules and regulations which have the force if not the form of law. Those who enforce the rules, those who live by them, become attached to them; and because government action is usually slow and apt to be circumvented, rules which were conceived as temporary expedients tend to become rigid and fixed.
Bureaucracies have long been notorious for their inflexibility. But any positive government action usually results in the construction of some rigidity. A good case in point is the railway labor unions. They were permitted to and supported by the United States government in drawing up and enforcing rigid work rules. New locomotives, new safety devices, new types of freight cars were introduced, but the unions clung to the established rules. It is not that private undertakings cannot tend to inflexibility also; the difference is that the consequences are much more immediately visited upon the inflexible in private affairs.
If changes are to be dealt with effectively, flexibly, and creatively, governments should be severely limited in the number of things that they do. I am aware that Americans have attempted to introduce flexibility in government by giving discretionary powers to boards, commissions, and government agents, but this has succeeded in making government action arbitrary and authoritarian without notably improving flexibility. It would appear, again, that individual freedom and responsibility are the best means for assuring adjustability to changing circumstances.
Second, the passage of time has provided us with experience with our institutional framework of liberty. The bent of some men to oppress others has not changed, but they have found ways over the years to usurp power and use innocent instrumentalities for oppressive purposes. To be more plain, certain shortcomings and weaknesses in the Constitution are now apparent. A Constitution which was conceived to limit the government it created is being circumvented. Analysis shows some of the particular ways this has been done.
The "General Welfare" Clause
Two innocent phrases in the original Constitution have been employed for the vast extension of the powers of the central government. One of these is the reference to the "general welfare." The phrase appears both in the Preamble and the body of the Constitution. We know with certainty that it was not interpreted at the time as a grant of power. If it had been, the Constitution would not have been adopted. It is quite possible that it was intended to limit governmental action. General welfare can be conceived as the welfare of everyone; and if legislation has to benefit every individual, there will not be very much of it. It was also a rhetorical device; its use suggested that the government was to be for everyone, not for special classes or interests among the people. It has now been misinterpreted, however, to give a plenary grant of power to Congress to do anything which congressmen can stretch their conception of the "general welfare" to cover, whether they do so by the route of the "greatest good for the greatest number" or by their personal feelings and inclinations. Far from limiting governmental action, it has opened the floodgates to unlimited action. In view of these developments, references to the "general welfare" should be removed from the Constitution by amendment. It would be profoundly in keeping with the American tradition to do so. Moreover, such action would be a constructive response to notions and circumstances which have changed.
The Power To Regulate Commerce
Another phrase which has been used to extend greatly the sway of the national government is the one which gives to Congress the power "to regulate Commerce… among the several States…" The records of the time indicate that it was intended "to facilitate" commerce among the states. Under the rubric of the "power to regulate interstate commerce," however, reformers have used it as an opening wedge to regulate and control any activities of Americans which they can bring under it by any stretch of their fertile imaginations. Moreover, it is not even being used very effectively to accomplish its original object, as states pile up rules and taxes which effectively obstruct the free movement of peoples and goods.
It is quite possible that the Founders put the phrase in the wrong place. Rather than granting power to Congress in this respect, the chances are good that the object could have been achieved by prohibiting the states from obstructing commerce. If law and order were then maintained by all governments, commerce should be effectively facilitated throughout the United States. This change could be made by constitutional amendment, felling a great complex of dubious or harmful regulation, and helping to restore the tradition.
Experience has shown, too, that the powers of the states, and of individuals, were not sufficiently safeguarded by the original Constitution. The defect lies in leaving the final decision as to constitutionality to the federal courts. In short, a branch of the government affected by the decision makes the decision as to its powers. It should not surprise us that they would frequently have a generous view of these powers. Something along the lines of the "Court of the Union" Amendment now under consideration should help to remedy this imbalance in the federal system.
The Role of the Judiciary
Even so, the jurisdiction and authority of the federal courts need to be more adequately defined and circumscribed. It needs to be made clear that the courts do not make law; they only apply the standing law to particular cases. The reason for having a written constitution was so that every literate person might have recourse to it, and see for himself what action was constitutional and what was not. This idea has been so badly subverted today that no one can be sure what the law is in many instances. John Marshall’s argument (in Marbury v. Madison) can stand, but his position was that when there is a conflict between the Constitution and acts of legislature, the court is bound by the Constitution. So are we all! Every officer of the government is bound to defend the Constitution. It is a written document. Where its language is vague, it should be made clear. Then when any public official acts contrary to its provision, he should be impeached. Indeed, the exceeding of authority granted there or the violation of its provisions should be considered so heinous an action that the person who did it would be effectively ostracized from the society, if not by law, at least by social consent. The Founders did not fully realize how much sanction must support constitutionalism for it to work effectively to limit government.
The powers and prerogatives of the President now exceed what was envisioned in the Constitution. The changes have occurred by precedents, usurpations, grants from Congress, and by the creation of the notion that the President is and must be the Leader. Peoples appear ever and again to drift toward monarchy, toward the charismatic leader, toward the single man who will rescue and save them. If this is a tendency of people in general, this tendency has been aided and abetted in America by reformist intellectuals who sense, if they are not fully aware of it, that their programs require a single mind to direct them. Note this pronouncement of a contemporary intellectual:
Concrete and timely assessments of specific complex questions will not of themselves combine to form "an image of national purpose." That can be done only by a man, and only one man can do it. Elements of a general policy can come from hundreds of sources…. But the national purpose in the world can be crystallized and communicated, at any given time, only by the President of the United States.1
When the growth of powers and prerogatives of the presidency are combined with the adulation of the leader, as they have today, the stage is set for caesarism.
Again, we can learn from experience how these departures from the constitutional tradition have taken place, and get some clues as to how they might be prevented in the future. A precedent can have no standing in constitutionalism. The fact that President Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock, and that this action was not effectively challenged, does not establish the legality of the action, though the action may have been legal in this case. To reason in such fashion is the same as for a thief to reason that because he was not caught and punished for robbing a store that this establishes the legality of the action. A President may guide his action by precedents, just as most of us tend to do, but this only indicates an expectation of legality, not a guarantee. Whether it is necessary to spell this out in the Constitution, I do not know. If there were a real return to constitutionalism, it should not be necessary.
Growth by Usurpation
A good example of the growth of presidential power by usurpation is the so-called "executive agreement." President Franklin D. Roosevelt apparently invented this "power." There is no grant of any such power in the Constitution; thus, there is no need for an amendment. The increasing grandeur of the office, with its helicopters, jet airplanes, limousines, Marine bands, numerous advisers, attaches, physicians, press agents, protocol, tax exemptions, contingent funds, indicates departures from republican simplicity rather than the Constitution. It might be well, however to place additional constitutional limits on the prerogatives of the office. To do so would certainly be in keeping with the American tradition. Those who serve in public office in this country are rewarded financially out of tax moneys taken from Americans by force, or the threat of force. In view of this rather hard fact, it behooves them to live in a rather austere fashion. What is more important, however, is that public officials not be allowed to shield their thrust to power behind the grandeur of the surroundings.
Congress, too, has made signal departures from the tradition. They have yielded up much of their prerogative for initiating legislation to the President. They have turned over lawmaking responsibilities to "independent" boards and commissions. Much of the increased power of the executive department has been granted by Congress. Many things might be done, but one thing appears essential to a return to government by law. There needs to be an amendment to this effect. No one shall be punished for the violation of any federal law except it shall have been specifically enacted by Congress in all its details. In one stroke, this would take away from the courts, tax collectors, boards, and commissions the arbitrary powers they now exercise over Americans.
Limited Power To Tax
Experience has shown, too, that there need to be limits upon the taxing power of governments in order to secure to the people the right to the fruits of their labor. To this end, the first step to be taken should be the repeal of the Sixteenth Amendment. There are many possible directions to take after that. One would be to require that all taxes upon income or property be levied in proportion to their amount or value. This would prohibit progressive taxation. It might be well, too, to prohibit any exceptions or exemptions from the rate. It might be useful, also, to establish some limits upon spending, but my guess is that if taxes are proportional the great lure of redistribution, which is the lure of the spending programs, would be effectively removed.
It is not my intention, however, to set forth a complete program, in all its particulars, for restoring and building upon the tradition. Rather, I have only wished to indicate the outline of such a program. My major purpose, however, was to demonstrate what constructive use can be made of experience gained from changing circumstances, from trends, and from particular events. These can be used creatively to indicate what action needs to be taken to preserve and build upon the tradition.
There is a third way in which changing conditions bear upon the American tradition. Inventions, discoveries, new ideas, and changes in situation pose new problems and offer new opportunities for liberty and progress. For example, there have been many inventions since the drawing up of the Constitution—radio, television, movies, automobiles, to name a few. At the time of the framing of the Constitution, the only general media of communication was the press. Thus, the First Amendment to the Constitution provided, among other things, that "Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom… of the press…." Why not include the other media—radio, television, movies—under this injunction? It would be in keeping with the American tradition to do so. Action could be taken to establish property rights in certain frequencies, and the full protections of property could be extended to them.
Government as Propagandist
New dangers from government have arisen, too, from the use of new inventions and from the development of new techniques. Propaganda, for example, is not new, but the extent to which it is used, the technological devices for spreading it, and the knowledge of psychology which is used in employing it have increased so much that governmental use of propaganda is a problem on a quite different scale from what it was in 1790. Surely, everyone should be aware in this day of the extent to which governments use the press, radio, television, movies, outdoor advertising, and public relations experts to manipulate people. Government controlled schools and universities extend this influence until it is virtually all pervasive.
Governmental agencies turn out reams of "information" to influence the public. The difficulty here is not that propaganda is being employed. The resort to propaganda by anyone is something that we might all deplore. But there is no way to prevent private individuals from using propaganda without destroying freedom. The case is different, however, with government officials. When governments employ propaganda, they are using moneys extracted by force or the threat of force for illegitimate purposes. That is, they are using our money to persuade us of what they want us to believe. The remedy for this should be found in constitutional amendments prohibiting all informational activity by appointed officers, and all use of tax moneys by elected officers for propaganda or informational purposes. Anyone who wants to use his own time and money to convince others of his way of thinking should be free to do so, but it does not follow that governments should be able to do so.
Liberty Still a Worthy Idea
Other examples could be given, but these should suffice to illustrate how a tradition may be sustained and built upon in view of changing circumstances. Conditions do not change the goals of a people, nor do they make them outmoded if these goals were of an enduring kind. So far as I can see, it is just as sensible to be devoted to liberty in 1964 as it was in 1776. Many of the difficulties in the way of preserving liberty and order are the same today as they were in 1776. To deal with these, the established tradition is relevant. New difficulties have arisen in the meanwhile, or have been caused by usurpation and intentional change. The American political tradition provided means for dealing with these, by constitutional amendment, by impeachment of usurpers, by defeat of politicians at the polls, by the separation and limitation of the powers of governmental officials. To build upon the tradition, it is necessary to keep the tradition in mind, to note dangers to it and departures from it, and to take note of what conditions have changed that require action. In short, history and experience can be constructively used within the framework of tradition.
The Case for Saying No!
Anyone familiar with the current "liberal orthodoxy" should be aware that my suggestions, if they were even entertained by "liberals," would be described as "negative." Let the charge be accepted. They are negative in that they attempt to prevent the use of force and violence upon the innocent. They are negative in that they are aimed to prohibit the use of arbitrary power by government officials, negative in that they would deny the use of tax money for political demagoguery, negative in that they would restrict the obstructive activities of state and local governments, negative in that they would reduce publicly financed grandeur, negative in that they would attempt to stop the forceful redistribution of the wealth.
But their positive side is as an ocean compared to a brook. They are aimed to protect and defend the life, liberty, and property of individuals, to extend and maintain the area of individual choice, restore individual responsibility, allow full room for the fulfillment and realization of the individual, open up our vision to a moral order in the universe, advance prosperity, restore charity and gratitude to human relations, and help to relight the beacon of liberty so that the light can go forth from America once more to the confused and oppressed peoples of the world.
All of this is what I understand to be THE AMERICAN TRADITION.
1 McGeorge Bundy, "Foreign Policy: From Innocence to Engagement," Paths of American Thought, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and Morton White, eds. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963), p. 308.
Snow me that age and country where the rights and liberties of the people were placed on the sole chance of their rulers being good men, without a consequent loss of liberty. I say that the loss of that dearest privilege has ever followed with absolute certainty, every such mad attempt.
PATRICK HENRY at the Virginia Convention, 1788