Founding Fathers Would Have Opposed A Balanced Budget Amendment – The Purpose of National Government Was to Borrow

Both official Washington and the chattering political classes have spent most of the past 12 months debating how to cut the government budget, reduce deficits, and limit debt.  Key groups, and perhaps the most vocal and strident groups in the debate, have been the self-described “constitutional conservatives” and Tea Party types. They have staked out the position that government deficits, debt, and indeed any taxation except the most minimal taxation is un-American and antithetical to “first principles” of the Founding Fathers.  They maintain a myth that the U.S. Constitution was created to limit the U.S. government’s ability to tax or run a deficit.  Unfortunately for them, history and the constitution itself tell a different tale.

Historian William Hogeland punctures the myth that the Founding Fathers would have agreed with today’s Tea Party types using an historian’s favorite tools – the facts. The following originally appeared at New Deal 2.0. Besides the applicability to today’s debates, it makes fascinating reading about the historical situation that led to the Constitution after the Revolution.  (emphasis below in bold are mine)

Why Debt Ceilings and Balanced-Budget Requirements Violate the Original Intent of the Constitution

So-called “constitutional conservatives” ignore the realpolitik of our nation’s origins.

In a critical and entertaining portrait of the anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, the New York Times columnist Frank Bruni presented Norquist as an absolutist obsessed with forcing modern political life to conform to ideas that Norquist associates with the American founders’ first principles.  Of course, Norquist is by no means alone in taking that position. That the Constitution came into existence to keep taxes low, the federal government small, and national debt at zero is an article of faith among many who, like Michele Bachmann, have taken to calling themselves “constitutional conservatives.” And faith is required to believe it, as the Norquist interview shows. To make his supposedly constitutional argument, Norquist cites the first amendment on freedom of religion and the second on the right to keep and bear arms, and then goes on to cite absolutely nothing, in either the articles or the amendments, that so much as hints at a constitutional requirement to balance the federal budget, avoid debt, tax no more than people like Norquist deem appropriate, and keep government small.

He can’t cite anything to that effect because while balancing budgets, restraining borrowing, and keeping taxes low and government small might be good goals, depending on what you mean by them, it is impossible to locate in the founding national law any requirement to accomplish them. Indeed, the reality of founding history leads to the reverse conclusion.

The Constitution came about precisely to enable a newly large government — a national one — to tax all Americans for the specific purpose of funding a large public debt. Neither Alexander Hamilton nor his mentor the financier Robert Morris made any bones about that purpose; James Madison was among their closest allies; and Edmund Randolph of Virginia opened the Constitutional Convention by charging the delegates to redress the country’s failure to fund — not pay off, fund — the public debt, by creating a national government.

Beginning during the War of Independence, and continuing throughout the 1780s, American nationalists committed themselves to a small class of upscale high financiers (largely identical with the American nationalists), who had bought bonds from the confederation Congress in hopes of earning regular, tax-free, 6% interest payments — not in the Congress’s crashing paper currency but in hard, cold metal or its equivalent, stable bills of exchange. Morris, Hamilton, Madison, and others believed that swelling the debt to immense proportions would make a coherent nation out of thirteen squabbling states and make that nation a player on the world economic stage. Their plan to do so depended partly on making military-officer pay a pension, thus turning the entire officer class into public bondholders — and giving Congress new power to tax all Americans to support that debt.

Hamilton is often reflexively presented as finding inventive ways to pay down the national debt. His real accomplishments were of course “funding and assumption” — absorbing the states’ war debts in the federal one and funding that huge obligation via nationally collected and nationally enforced taxes.

Hence the all-important provisions of the Constitution giving Congress very broad powers to tax and acquire debt. To 18th-century American nationalists across the political spectrum — to our founders and framers, that is, from Hamilton to Madison, from Morris to Randolph, from the financiers to the planters — national taxing and borrowing were ineluctably connected to the very purpose of national government.

Nobody has to like it. But the original intent of the Constitution involved sustaining and managing public debt via taxation.

Both the articles and the amendments do, of course, limit government and restrict its power. But no ratified amendment has ever qualified Congress’s power of the purse, which in the minds of the framers explicitly involved the power to take on debt and fund it. In their tweets and blogs, “constitutional conservatives” have been promoting a balanced-budget amendment with reference to the tired notion that since households and small businesses must balance their budgets (as if!), government must too. They link that economically useless prescription to the widespread fantasy that our Constitution was written, amended, and ratified for just such a purpose. The framers saw it just the other way.

But really everybody, not just “constitutional conservatives,” buys into the fantasy now. History is rarely helpful politically. It’s hard to imagine liberals bringing to debt-ceiling and balanced-budget debates the painful realpolitik of our national origins, which show the Constitution existing, originally, to finance the investing class and yoke that class’s interest (in every sense) to national power. Thus the Times gives the Bruni piece a headline referring to Norquist’s “dangerous purity” — as if the danger in Norquist’s approach lies in a too-rigid insistence on basic principle. There’s nothing purist about Norquist. Whether his ideas may be proven right or proven wrong, they are anything but originalist. Like those of Bachmann and the rest of the anti-tax right, Norquist’s principles are novel, innovative, and weirdly postmodern, extra-constitutional at best.

Stark realism about the actual founding purposes of the Constitution will always have limited use in political debate. But it would be nice, at least — though unlikely — if we would argue these issues on their merits, and leave the Constitution alone.

William Hogeland is the author of the narrative histories Declaration and The Whiskey Rebellion and a collection of essays, Inventing American History. He has spoken on unexpected connections between history and politics at the National Archives, the Kansas City Public Library, and various corporate and organization events. He blogs at http://www.williamhogeland.com.

Bankers vs. Democratic Finance at The Constitutional Convention

I’m cross-posting the following with permission from New Deal 2.0.  This should be of particular interest to students of American history. Our current struggles and political battles over the relative power and influence of banks and the monied class vs. ordinary citizens, workers, and small businesses, most of whom are dependent on sources of financial capital for their livelihoods are not new.  Indeed, they were foundational to the creation of the republic.  This piece also sheds a new light on the period of the Articles of Confederation (1776-1788) vs. the Constitution (1789 onward).

Hogeland’s article also puts the actions of today’s Tea Party movement in a new light. The forefathers weren’t universally in favor of democracy. Rather, they viewed it as an enemy of finance.  The article is long so please follow the more button.

Constitutional Convention Delegates Had Common Goal: Ending Democratic Finance

by William Hogeland

Economic struggles played a huge role in the founding of our country, despite some attempts to revise that history.

Edmund Randolph of Virginia kicked off the meeting we now know as the United States constitutional convention by offering his fellow delegates a key inducement to forming a new U.S. government. America lacked “sufficient checks against the democracy,” Randolph said. A new government would provide those checks.

Randolph’s listeners in Philadelphia in the spring of 1787 knew what he meant by “the democracy.” And readers of this series probably will, too. He was talking about the 18th-century American popular finance movement, whose supporters agitated for policies to obstruct concentrated wealth and to give regular folks access to political power and economic equality. Amid depressions and foreclosures, ordinary people had long been rioting — they called it “regulating” — to pressure assemblies to restrain the merchant creditors, whose command of scarce gold and silver let them acquire immense wealth by lending at high, even predatory rates to the needier.

Then, with revolution against England, the popular finance movement turned its attention to changing the economic terms of American society. The 1776 Pennsylvania constitution, based in large part on ideas expressed by Thomas Paine in “Common Sense,” smashed the ancient property qualification for voting and holding office. In Pennsylvania, new political leaders like the preacher Herman Husband, the weaver William Findley, and the farmer Robert Whitehill entered the assembly and began passing laws shutting down elite banking and requiring government to operate, for the first meaningful time anywhere, on behalf of ordinary people.

Democracy in Pennsylvania sent chills through elites of every kind throughout the newly independent country. Rioting for popular finance was bad enough, but rioting was temporary, spasmodic, and traditional. Debtors wielding legitimate political power to equalize economic life — that was tantamount to a new kind of tyranny of the mob, hardly what Whig revolutionaries had fought England to gain. Neither Edmund Randolph nor other delegates of the Philadelphia convention, meeting in secret sessions in the Pennsylvania State House, felt any need for subtlety in seeking to suppress the political and economic equality burgeoning everywhere in America among “the democracy.”

Present at the Philadelphia convention was the fabulously wealthy Pennsylvania financier and speculator Robert Morris, America’s first central banker, no doubt licking his ample chops over the fulfillment, at long last, of his plan to wed nationhood to high finance. Yet it was the planter Randolph, not the financer Morris, who referred to “the plague of paper money,” and he meant just what Morris meant. State legislatures’ currency emissions and legal-tender laws depreciated the merchants’ income from their loans; paper, the people’s medium, built debt relief into money itself. Randolph also rued the country’s difficulty in paying the investing class its interest on federal bonds. With those bonds, Morris had made private creditors into public creditors as well, swelling the domestic U.S. debt to vast proportions in an effort to connect national purpose to high finance.

Hence the need, Randolph said, for a national government with laws acting on all the people throughout the states. It’s no coincidence that he also charged the delegates with repairing the federal government’s military weakness. A debtor uprising in western Massachusetts known as Shays’ Rebellion had marched on the state armory. That wasn’t just a riot. It showed how far ordinary people might go in rejecting regressive taxes and policies giving investors huge paydays with public money. The United States, Randolph said, must be empowered to put down insurrections anywhere in the country.

So Randolph did indeed know what he meant by “the democracy,” and his fellow delegates knew too. Why are historians typically so coy about the constitutional convention’s financial purposes?

The fight over those purposes is almost 100 years old. In 1913, the historian Charles Beard published “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States.” There Beard argued that because delegates of the convention came overwhelmingly from the bond-holding class, the government they put into effect represents less a glorious triumph of republican philosophy than a rearguard action of money elites to assure their own payoffs. Beard’s startling contention was that the framers acted at least as much on financial self-interest as on principle.

If that contention remains startling, we can thank an immense effort, carried out over generations, to throw out not only Beard’s particular economic interpretation of the convention, but along with it any suggestion that struggles between elites and ordinary Americans over public and private finance played a role in framing our Constitution. It’s not surprising that many of the popular founding father biographers routinely avoid the issue. But entire careers in academic history — major ones, like Edmund Morgan’s — have been largely dedicated to depicting a founding generation acting with perfect intellectual consistency almost entirely on principle. Wherever self-interest did arise, Morgan suggests (in his popular book “The Birth of the Republic” and elsewhere), the nature of the founding mission was such that it enabled even greed to inspire the founders to good. In that kind of history, everyday political struggles over money between ordinary Americans and American elites just don’t play.

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