One blogger’s personal bridge to nowhere

Governing like it’s 1789

George Will says that, because early American governments were based either in the woods or on a swamp (in a developing country, to boot), and couldn’t really do much, the Obama Administration should go back to the country’s roots (pun discovered!) and just get out of people’s way.

gwhorse1The first president was head of one branch, not yet the dominant one, of a federal government housed in a few buildings on the southern tip of mostly agricultural or forested Manhattan. In 1801, Jefferson in his address said that “the sum of good government” is not very much — to be “wise and frugal,” to “restrain men from injuring one another,” to “leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits” and to “not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.” The federal government had decamped to a Potomac River village, which, although unprepossessing, was commensurate with the federal government’s modest competencies.

This verges on Founderstalgia at its most literal — early American governments certainly had a different ideological perception of the world, but they also faced significant logistical limitations, having to do with, you know, living two hundred years ago.  To imply that the Washington Administration, for example, governed little primarily because it chose to govern little is — while proving the counterfactual is impossible — most probably disingenuous.  The development of advanced communication systems, of transportation infrastructure and new technology, not to mention an expanding roster of liberties and eligible citizens (“small government” here meaning government only for the white, the male, and the propertied) are as much responsible for the shift in America’s governing outlook as is any sort of drift from pure small government principles.

I agree with Eve Fairbanks that it’s about time to end the Right’s stranglehold on the legacy of Washington and, more broadly, on much of the mythology of “the Founding.”  Whether Washington was a small government conservative is a debatable premise — but doing so without taking into account the differences and limitations of government over two hundred years ago is not very intellectually honest.

(image from flick user wallyg under a Creative Commons license)

January 21, 2009 - Posted by | Conservatives, Washington DC | , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. I’m not convinced “wallyg” painted that picture.

    Comment by Kenny B. | January 21, 2009 | Reply

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