FAIRFAX, Va. — For obvious reasons, and with some justification, the supporters of the Tea Party movement that has so energized the recent political landscape in America seek to enlist the Founding Fathers as fervent champions of their cause.
George Washington impersonators and others in Colonial garb are often part of crowds protesting what they view as an oppressive government heedless of constitutional limits. They think this government might destroy the promise of the American Dream via a dangerous combination of profligate spending, excessive taxing, and overweening regulation.
But several factors make George Washington and the American Tea Party movement an uncomfortable fit. First, there is a strong tendency among tea party supporters to view the Founding Fathers as a monolithic body united in its view of the proper role of the government and how to interpret the Constitution. While the Founders may have generally agreed on a limited government, there was as much debate then on what the proper limits of government should be as there is today. And within the framework of their heated debate, George Washington was in fact a champion of an expansive government.
Arguing for a stronger government, George Washington used words that would greatly anger today’s Tea Party supporters if they were uttered by a member of the current administration: “Experience has taught us, that men will not adopt & carry into execution, measures the best calculated for their own good without the intervention of a coercive power.”
Washington viewed the Constitution in a somewhat different light than does the Tea Party movement, which tends to subscribe to a literal reading of the national charter. A tea party manifesto, called the Contract From America, even contains a rigid provision stipulating that all legislation passed by Congress should specify the precise clause in the Constitution giving Congress the power to pass such a law.
Certainly, George Washington was both a strong supporter and fervent admirer of our Constitution, which was shaped in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 with him as the presiding officer. Nevertheless, Washington recognized that it was far from perfect and anticipated the need for future amendments, adding, “I do not conceive that we are more inspired — have more wisdom — or possess more virtue that those who will come after us.”
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One of George Washington’s most important and far-reaching decisions made as president revolved around the question of whether he would sign into law a bill establishing a national bank. Alexander Hamilton, his brilliant secretary of the treasury, argued for such an institution and justified his action by seizing on Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution, which endowed Congress with all powers “necessary and proper” to perform tasks assigned to it in the national charter.
In short, Hamilton posited that there were “implied” powers in the Constitution as well as “enumerated” ones. Thomas Jefferson was aghast at such implications and prophesied that for the federal government “to take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specifically drawn is to take possession of a boundless field of power.“
Washington saw it differently and signed Hamilton’s controversial national-bank bill. With a stroke, he endorsed an expansive view of the presidency and made the Constitution a living, open-ended document. The importance of his decision is hard to overstate, for the federal government might have been stillborn had the president rigidly adhered to the letter of the document as urged by Jefferson.
In seeking to reconcile Hamilton and Jefferson (whose views were every bit as divergent as those of the Tea Party and Obama are today), the president eloquently urged forbearance: “I would fain hope that liberal allowances will be made for the political opinions of one another; and instead of those wounding suspicions, and irritating charges there might be mutual forebearances and temporizing yieldings on all sides, without which I do not see how the reins of government are to be managed.”
George Washington’s words of wisdom are sorely needed today.
Peter R. Henriques is professor emeritus of history at George Mason University and author of “Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington.” Readers may send him e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. The author specifically acknowledges his debt to Glenn Phelps and Ron Chernow for some of the wording in this essay, which he wrote for The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va.