Getting To The Fundamentals

Recently on Maggie’s Farm, a post linked to this.

Which quoted this from Calvin Coolidge in a speech he gave at the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration Of Independence.

About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.

Here’s the speech in it’s entirety.

Coolidge makes the point that the individual and his inalienable rights are sovereign and that anything that restricts those rights is not progressive but regressive, reaching toward a past of reduced equality, smaller opportunities and social and cultural tyranny that has prevailed for most of history.  It’s really simple, Inalienable truths, period. Life, Period. Liberty, period.  Pursuit of happiness, period. Consent of the governed, period.  This is the fundamental basis for the American ideal.  In it’s time these were radical ideas. They still are.

Anything that tries to create “rights” that can only be met by stealing the property of some for the sake of others is a corruption of the American ideal.  The America that existed for almost two centuries did not base itself on “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”  This was for a very good reason. The Socialist alternatives had by the 1770’s shown themselves to dead ends. And the monarchies of Europe were all on shaky ground as the industrial revolution was disrupting the economies and cultures of many of the countries of Europe. The tune played at the Yorktown surrender; “The World Turned Upside Down” was completely apt for the whole last quarter of the Eighteenth Century.

Radical times required radical ideas. This was especially true for a new nation that was cutting it’s ties with the homeland.  The founders were well aware of the imperfections of the new government that they were creating and they hoped that each new generation would push the bar higher and forward.

Instead the country seems determined to regress. Instead of the citizen, with full knowledge of his rights and responsibilities the trend has been, for a century, to favor the state over the individual. Rather than the government being a tool of the citizen, the people who want to govern have been working to make the individual a subject of the state.  In just about every facet of civil life the rights of the individual have been subordinated to the needs of a state that for a hundred years now has become ever more grasping and intrusive.

I find it amazing that Coolidge’s words have become so alien. It’s almost as if they were from another country entirely rather than  a different time.   We seem to have lost the focus and reason that the country exist. Instead it seems like the government is run by the people who are the best at robbing Peter to pay Paul and robbing Paul to pay Peter, with truly enormous overhead all the while convincing both Peter and Paul that it’s free, because it’s a “right.”

Rights don’t require that you take from someone else at the point of a gun.  Rights are intrinsic to yourself.  maintaining those rights is the prime reason for government.   A government cannot grant you rights, it can only suppress the ones you already have.  In order to give you the things you think that you are entitled to, a government can only take the property from others.

The problem with that is that the taking and giving becomes corrosive and destructive.  The rot an corruption spread quickly through the nation. Because once the taking and giving go on long enough, Liberty cannot be sustained.

For instance how many people know that the census, that once had as it function a count of the purposes assigning the legislature the number of representatives in each state once a decade has become the tool to generate endless statistics on every aspects of people lives through surveys collected by professional harassers who chase  down people who don’t fill out the surveys and threaten them with the force of law.  Then there is the drug war and it’s well known highwaymen, taking property under civil forfeiture laws without due process. Or the FDA arresting people for selling raw milk.

How far away are we from the rest of this? “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.”   Back when the country was young a Congressman named Crockett had this discussion with a constituent.:

“‘Well, Colonel, it is hardly worthwhile to waste time or words upon it. I do not see how it can be mended, but you gave a vote last winter which shows that either you have not capacity to understand the Constitution, or that you are wanting in the honesty and firmness to be guided by it. In either case you are not the man to represent me. But I beg your pardon for expressing it in that way. I did not intend to avail myself of the privilege of the constituent to speak plainly to a candidate for the purpose of insulting or wounding you. I intend by it only to say that your understanding of the Constitution is very different from mine; and I will say to you what, but for my rudeness, I should not have said, that I believe you to be honest …. But an understanding of the Constitution different from mine I cannot overlook, because the Constitution, to be worth anything, must be held sacred, and rigidly observed in all its provisions. The man who wields power and misinterprets it is the more dangerous the more honest he is.’

“‘I admit the truth of all you say, but there must be some mistake about it, for I do not remember that I gave any vote last winter upon any constitutional question.’

“‘No, Colonel, there’s no mistake. Though I live here in the backwoods and seldom go from home, I take the papers from Washington and read very carefully all the proceedings of Congress. My papers say that last winter you voted for a bill to appropriate $20,000 to some sufferers by a fire in Georgetown. Is that true?’

“‘Certainly it is, and I thought that was the last vote which anybody in the world would have found fault with.’

“‘Well, Colonel, where do you find in the Constitution any authority to give away the public money in charity?’

“Here was another sockdolager; for, when I began to think about it, I could not remember a thing in the Constitution that authorized it. I found I must take another tack, so I said:

“‘Well, my friend; I may as well own up. You have got me there. But certainly nobody will complain that a great and rich country like ours should give the insignificant sum of $20,000 to relieve its suffering women and children, particularly with a full and overflowing Treasury, and I am sure, if you had been there, you would have done just as I did.’

“‘It is not the amount, Colonel, that I complain of; it is the principle. In the first place, the government ought to have in the Treasury no more than enough for its legitimate purposes. But that has nothing to do with the question. The power of collecting and disbursing money at pleasure is the most dangerous power that can be entrusted to man, particularly under our system of collecting revenue by a tariff, which reaches every man in the country, no matter how poor he may be, and the poorer he is the more he pays in proportion to his means. What is worse, it presses upon him without his knowledge where the weight centers, for there is not a man in the United States who can ever guess how much he pays to the government. So you see, that while you are contributing to relieve one, you are drawing it from thousands who are even worse off than he. If you had the right to give anything, the amount was simply a matter of discretion with you, and you had as much right to give $20,000,000 as $20,000. If you have the right to give to one, you have the right to give to all; and, as the Constitution neither defines charity nor stipulates the amount, you are at liberty to give to any and everything which you may believe, or profess to believe, is a charity, and to any amount you may think proper. You will very easily perceive what a wide door this would open for fraud and corruption and favoritism, on the one hand, and for robbing the people on the other. No, Colonel, Congress has no right to give charity. Individual members may give as much of their own money as they please, but they have no right to touch a dollar of the public money for that purpose. If twice as many houses had been burned in this county as in Georgetown, neither you nor any other member of Congress would have thought of appropriating a dollar for our relief. There are about two hundred and forty members of Congress. If they had shown their sympathy for the sufferers by contributing each one week’s pay, it would have made over $13,000. There are plenty of wealthy men in and around Washington who could have given $20,000 without depriving themselves of even a luxury of life. The congressmen chose to keep their own money, which, if reports be true, some of them spend not very creditably; and the people about Washington, no doubt, applauded you for relieving them from the necessity of giving by giving what was not yours to give. The people have delegated to Congress, by the Constitution, the power to do certain things. To do these, it is authorized to collect and pay moneys, and for nothing else. Everything beyond this is usurpation, and a violation of the Constitution.'”

“I have given you,” continued Crockett, “an imperfect account of what he said. Long before he was through, I was convinced that I had done wrong.

He wound up by saying:

“‘So you see, Colonel, you have violated the Constitution in what I consider a vital point. It is a precedent fraught with danger to the country, for when Congress once begins to stretch its power beyond the limits of the Constitution, there is no limit to it, and no security for the people. I have no doubt you acted honestly, but that does not make it any better, except as far as you are personally concerned, and you see that I cannot vote for you.’

“I tell you I felt streaked. I saw if I should have opposition, and this man should go to talking, he would set others to talking, and in that district I was a gone fawn-skin. I could not answer him, and the fact is, I was so fully convinced that he was right, I did not want to. But I must satisfy him, and I said to him:

“‘Well, my friend, you hit the nail upon the head when you said I had not sense enough to understand the Constitution. I intended to be guided by it, and thought I had studied it fully. I have heard many speeches in Congress about the powers of Congress, but what you have said here at your plow has got more hard, sound sense in it than all the fine speeches I ever heard. If I had ever taken the view of it that you have, I would have put my head into the fire before I would have given that vote; and if you will forgive me and vote for me again, if I ever vote for another unconstitutional law I wish I may be shot.’

“He laughingly replied: ‘Yes, Colonel, you have sworn to that once before, but I will trust you again upon one condition. You say that you are convinced that your vote was wrong. Your acknowledgment of it will do more good than beating you for it. If, as you go around the district, you will tell people about this vote, and that you are satisfied it was wrong, I will not only vote for you, but will do what I can to keep down opposition, and, perhaps, I may exert some little influence in that way.’

That farmer in Tennessee seems to have understood something that all the brain trusts and eggheads that have created policies in Washington have never seemed to understand.  Coolidge understood.  He understood just how easy it is to take rights away and just how hard it is to regain then once they are curtained or withdrawn.  I think that the last Century has learned that to a terrible cost.


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