When There Is No Ham in the Ham Sandwich

Here is a post that illustrates, as few other things could, the need to read our political and historical narratives in a biblical way. In this post, the author, Jada Thacker, argues that the Constitution was not about limited government at all, and that Tea Partiers and their ilk (ilk is just a great word, as I am sure you agree) are simply demonstrating their thundering historical ignorance. Anyone who attempts to appeal to our founding principles of limited government is a simpleton. That original Gadsden flag was not a rattlesnake ready to bite a tyrant’s shin, but rather was a picture of the long-prophesied reptile of peace, come to lick the wounds and hurt feelings caused by a dearth of affordable housing.

But here is the missing narrative. Thacker, the author of this piece, clearly knows the historical details, dates, and such — but he doesn’t know the meaning of the story. Reading him is like watching a movie by an obscure Chinese director who made a film about some incomprehensible war in the fifth century B.C. between Kan Chiang and Mo Yeh, without any subtitles. Depending on the director’s research and abilities, we would know everything there was to know about that war — uniforms, tactics, weapons, etc. We would know everything except what it was about. Thacker knows his onions when it comes to the history of constitutional debate, except for the whole point. Other than that, he has it down.

So here is the real point, in bare bones form. The Articles of Confederation established a limited form of central government, unfortunately too limited to perform certain essential functions of a central government. If we wanted a central government at all, we needed a bit more than what we had. The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia approved a new Constitution in 1787, which was then presented to the states for ratification. After 9 states ratified, the Constitution took effect in 1788, when New Hampshire signed on. But an essential part of the ongoing debate throughout the entire process of ratification was the obvious need for some additional and explicit limiting principles.

The Federalists thought we were already good; the anti-Federalists wanted more protections. The Federalists lost that debate. Now looking at where we have actually wound up, buried under a rock pile of unlimited government, it appears that even the anti-Federalists were not nearly cynical enough — they were a gaggle of Pollyannas compared to what was needed. We needed many more men glaring at the whole thing, men with a disposition like Savonarola with stomach troubles.

So Thacker is exactly right that the Preamble to the Constitution, and Article I, and the other stuff in there like it, left a bunch of unlocked constitutional doors that would have gotten us unbridled statism long before we actually got it. That is why it was so controversial at the time, and that is why the debate (as represented by the mere existence of the Federalist and anti-Federalist papers) was all about how best to guarantee the protections afforded by limited government. That is what the central debate was about — how best to ensure limited government. The classic center of the debate was how — to paraphrase Madison — we could give the government enough power to govern the people and enough restrictions to compel it to govern itself.

Both sides agreed that this was a civic good. The Federalists were less cynical than the anti-Federalists, and both parties less cynical than they should have been, but their differences concerned how much rope was necessary to tie down the giant. They all agreed that tying down the giant was a good thing. And everybody was wrong about how much rope it would take.

For Thacker to act as though this was not the issue of that day is like reading a New Testament historian who thought that the Council of Jerusalem had nothing to do with circumcision, or a literary critic who thought that the prince of Denmark was a side character in Hamlet, or a short order deli sandwich maker who consistently leaves the ham out of the ham sandwich.

After the Constitution took effect in 1788, after New Hampshire ratified, one of the first things that happened was that twelve amendments (shown to be necessary by the ratification debate in all the states) were presented to the states for approval. Ten of these were eventually approved by the states, and they finally took effect when Virginia ratified them in 1791. This extraordinary process of immediate amendment showed the wariness that generation had toward centralized government, a wariness we would do well to recover.

Now here is the import of this narrative. If you take the Constitution as originally presented, the one that contains the heart of Thacker’s arguments, and allowed no amendments to it, that Constitution would never have been ratified. The Constitution as first presented was a pure Federalist document, and it richly deserved all the opposition it generated. The anti-Federalists, men like Patrick Henry, were quite right to smell a rat. Their opposition was cogent enough, and effective enough, to require the Bill of Rights be attached to the Constitution. That attachment made it a modified anti-Federalist document — not perfect, but serviceable and worthy of our respect and support. But even in that serviceable condition, the internal tensions were not removed (and power-hungry men never go far away, and they always have a genius for creative hermeneutics), and so a great civil war broke out within about seventy years over these very same issues.

So the rat-like smell is not gone, not by any stretch. We need to deal with this because the 21st century, just like the 18th century, will always have plenty of men who are ever willing to advance clever arguments in favor of slavery to the state. Object to a drone strike on citizen Smith, an individual? You will be accused of being in thrall to Enlightment individualism. Object to widow Smith having half her income taken away by the machinations of the central bank? You will be accused of perpetuating tired left/right dichotomies. Object to men with guns and letters on their jackets raiding small businesses in search of cash? You will be told that Jeremiah told the Israelites to seek the peace of Babylon.

In short, there will always be men like Thacker who believe that those who do not wish to crawl down into the maw of the state do not understand the nature of their own best interest. But they are probably reluctant — and this is merely a suggestion — because of that time they wore a tri-cornered hat to a rally held by some funny people, the one Glenn Beck spoke at.

Seriously, if you don’t understand the debate about limited government, a debate that has spanned our entire history as a people, down to the present, then you don’t understand our history at all. And the best thing to do, if you are in that sad plight, is to try to talk that Chinese director into putting in some subtitles.