All Commentary
Monday, June 1, 1964

The American Tradition: 15. Building Upon the Tradition

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.

Deliberate Misconstruction

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.

Presidential Prerogatives

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.



Limited Government

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

  • Clarence Carson (1926-2003) was a historian who taught at Eaton College, Grove City College, and Hillsdale College. His primary publication venue was the Foundation for Economic Education. Among his many works is the six-volume A Basic History of the United States.