Energetic Government



Just as disagreements and divisions lay beneath the general consensus that there should be a federal union, so too was it with the great substantive ends of liberal government. One could hardly fault a political order dedicated to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty. But the means for achieving or promoting those ends were matters of great controversy. Even if one agreed with the maxim that the means ought to be proportioned to the end, that did not settle the question whether the end, common defence excepted, was altogether or even largely the responsibility of the national government. In fact the controversy embraced more than this "federal" aspect; not only the institutional arrangements of the proposed Constitution but its very tone or spirit were at issue. There is little doubt that in this respect, at least, proponents and opponents understood one another's intentions very well.

No matter to what level of government the people might ultimately turn in order to help secure those great ends, it was certain that their attainment lay beyond rational expectation unless and until the principal defects of the Confederation were remedied. Proponents of the Constitution insisted on this. In the plainest terms, there could be no grounds for expecting justice, tranquility, and the rest to prevail in America until there was a national government with energy enough to secure the preconditions for justice, tranquility, and the rest. If one had to err, Pelatiah Webster argued (no. 2), it was better--indeed safer--to err on the side of sufficient energy rather than too little. In the absence of a government capable of acting on the understanding that the "public business must in some way or other go forward," public business would languish and society itself totter on the edge of anarchy (Hamilton; see ch. 5, no. 23).

For Hamilton, of course, that public business was no crabbed or neatly contained affair. Its exact dimensions defied prediction, partly because "the extent and variety of national exigencies" exceeded any one country's ability to define. Where the potential dangers were infinitely variable, how could one think of precisely confined governmental powers (no. 5)? There was as well a domestic impetus for energetic government: "I believe it may be regarded as a position, warranted by the history of mankind, that in the usual progress of things, the necessities of a nation in every stage of its existence will be found at least equal to its resources" (no. 7). In a world of ever-receding horizons, political demands stood in no danger of withering away or of being sated.

All this argued for a government well mounted, a government able and willing to undertake enlarged plans for the public good. Yet energy was but one part of the definition of good government and arguably was in some tension with the requirements posed by the "genius of Republican liberty" (Madison, no. 9). To keep that tension within safe bounds, even while benefitting from the dynamism it imparts to the whole society, was among the greater challenges encountered by the Philadelphia Convention.

Critics of the Constitution were less certain that the Convention's response to that challenge was as safe as Oliver Ellsworth made it out to be (no. 3). Their starting point might well be put in Jefferson's terms (no. 1): it is better to err on the side of insufficient energy than to risk having a sovereign's bayonet pointed at every citizen's breast. Those critics were not moved by Federalist warnings that weak government leads to poverty, disdain, and finally acts of violence by a desperate and disheartened citizenry. Such accounts Anti-Federalists pronounced highly colored fictions, in no way descriptive of the Americans' present or likely future situation. The more credible and imminent danger was that the Federalists' impatience and contempt for the Confederation would persuade the people to abandon the means of home-bred happiness in pursuit of grander, but fatal, goals. In place of government that eschewed imperial glory--but could not harm its own people--the Federalists would instead erect a powerful, efficient, but all-devouring master (nos. 11, 12). The siren song of becoming a great and powerful nation was leading the people to jeopardize their most precious liberties. Thus the controversies over the need for greater energy in government and over the adequacy of the Constitution's safeguards for liberty stirred conflicting notions of what America might yet become. Ratification of the Constitution did not put that conflict to rest.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 9, Introduction
The University of Chicago Press

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