Goldman: Liddick’s assertion of our Founders inaccurate (letter)

In his Feb. 23 column, Morgan Liddick attempts to tie his notion of conservatism to the Founding Fathers and the Constitution. The facts do not support his contention.

Our Founding Fathers were not conservatives, they were revolutionaries. Indeed, our revolutionary Founders engaged in two revolutions. The first was the armed revolution that threw off the yoke of British control; the second was a peaceful revolution that reconstituted the government through an expeditious procedure that ignored the process set forth in the existing Articles of Confederation.

Furthermore, contrary to Mr. Liddick’s assertion, the Founders established a government intended to play an active role in the lives of our people. Thus, the Preamble to the Constitution specifies that the government is to promote the general welfare. This responsibility is repeated in Article I which gives Congress the power to collect taxes to be spent for the common defense and “general welfare.” Additionally, it is given the power to regulate commerce.

Moreover, contrary to Mr. Liddick’s contention that the Founders did not consider it a good thing for government to “get things done,” the Constitutional Convention was convened to overcome the weakness of the central government that had been created by the Articles of Confederation, a weakness that resulted in Congress’ inability to effectively promote and protect interstate commerce or adequately ensure the national defense.

Once the Constitution was adopted, Congress quickly undertook a number of commercial interventions including establishing a postal system with the accompanying building of free interstate postal roads that eventually displaced most of the existing privately owned turnpikes. Congress’ most controversial early intervention into the commercial world was the creation of the Bank of the United States in 1791. It was succeeded in 1816 by the Second Bank of the United States, established under Madison, which was partially owned by the government. Supporting the First Bank was the conservative Alexander Hamilton, opposing it the more liberal Thomas Jefferson. The Second Bank was challenged on constitutional grounds and in 1819 its legitimacy was upheld by a Supreme Court whose members had lived through the debates surrounding the Constitution’s ratification.

Another early intervention into the world of commerce was the creation in 1798 of a federal hospital to provide free medical and disability care for merchant seafarers — the first step on the long road to Medicaid. Additionally, in 1802 Congress established what we now know as West Point which was to be “a national university” dedicated to science and engineering.

Significant, too, is the fact that in the first half of the 19th Century, when the steam engine became the foundation for the industrial revolution, Congress began enacting a variety of laws for the licensing and safety regulation of steam ships and locomotives.

Thus, although our nation was formed when we were primarily an agrarian society relying mostly on local commerce, and, therefore, primarily reliant on local regulation and assistance, the Founders recognized the value and need for the federal government’s intervention in commercial affairs affecting our nation’s general welfare. In one sense this is conservatism because it conserves a level playing field for commerce and protects the people from the insecurities and inequities that can give rise to revolution. That is not, however, Mr. Liddick’s apparent definition of conservatism.

Alvin Goldman


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