Strict Construction

It is one of the ironies of the age in which we live and the nation of which we are members that the Republican party that identifies itself closely with the founders of this nation and would have us all believe that they want nothing more than to remain true to the founders’ wishes also happen to be, in large measure, the group that includes most (but not all) of the very wealthy citizens of this country. They parade before us thumping their chests and waiving the flag vigorously as they talk about “strict construction” of the Constitution and seek to recapture the spirit of ’76. They advocate (correctly) teaching history to our kids though they themselves seem to have read very little. And this gives rise to the irony that is apparent when we look closely at some of the words that reflect the thinking at the time of the founding of this nation when writers and speakers were worried almost above all else about the corrupting influence of wealth and luxuries.

In The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787 Gordon Wood, quoting from a sermon delivered in 1778 by the Rev. Payson, has this interesting paragraph for us to ponder:

Because it was commonly understood that “the exorbitant wealth of individuals'”had a “most baneful influence'”on the maintenance of republican governments and “therefore should be carefully guarded against,” some Whigs were even willing to go so far as to advocate agrarian legislation limiting the amount of property an individual could hold and “sumptuary laws against luxury, plays, etc. and extravagant expenses in dress, diet, and the like.”

Though many of the framers of our Constitution were themselves Deists, we must recall the prevailing influence of both the Puritans and the Quakers on the minds of those who prepared the nation to revolt against England. This is especially so in an age in which the conservative element among us tends to exaggerate the influence of the Christian religion on the founders of this nation while they promote the conflicting myth of free enterprise capitalism which was never regarded as an ideal in the minds of the colonists. In fact the early colonists insisted that “commerce. . . had “destroyed England’s soul”;  it was beneath the true calling of human beings who are at their best when they remain close to the earth and control their appetites and desires. They advocated “enterprise,” to be sure, but there were both legal and moral restraints in many of the colonies against the uncontrolled gathering of wealth and luxuries — laws against entail, primogeniture and even monopolies. Indeed, as Wood tells us, “A preliminary draft of Pennsylvania’s Declaration of Rights even contained an article stating ‘that an enormous Proportion of Property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the Rights and destructive of the Common Happiness of Mankind,’ and therefore should be discouraged by the laws of the state,”

In a word, the ideals of the wealthy today in their support of the Republican party are at odds in almost every particular from those who founded this “Republic” as a nation dedicated to the furtherance of the Common Good. Self-interest had no place at the table of those who practiced “public virtue” and sought to establish a new nation on this continent. And yet self-interest is the engine that drives the Republican party in our day.  At a time when we should all be increasingly concerned about our fellow citizens who are struggling and our planet which is at risk from human greed and exploitation this party would have us ignore it all in the name of “the economy” — by which they mean an increase in their own wealth and a lock on their power. The founders must be turning in their graves!

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