Did the Founding Fathers Want a Very Weak Government?
The Libertarian Argument
There is a strong libertarian strain in American society today that fears any governmental activity as a strain on personal liberty. These people argue that the Founding Fathers intended to keep government very weak and then frequently try to use the Constitution as an example of this desire for a weak government.
Were the founders concerned with limiting the power of government? The answer to this question is yes. The founders were concerned with personal liberty (at least for white men who owned property and who had not been loyalists during the American Revolution). However, the idea that the Constitution was set up to weaken government is very problematic.
The Articles of Confederation
The United States had a constitution before they had THE Constitution. It was not called the constitution, but rather the Articles of Confederation. The Confederation government had a few successes. It was able to deal with the Treaty of Paris that officially ended the American Revolution. It also set up the method by which new states would be organized and come into the United States via the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. This process is still in effect today.
Other than these successes, there were some major problems with the government under the Articles of Confederation. There was a "president" of the Confederation Congress, but there was very little in the way of executive authority. The government could only request taxes from the state. The states did not have to pay them, and this was problematic when it came to paying the national debt. There has been a national debt throughout US history, except for a short period under Andrew Jackson.
Trade between states (i.e., interstate commerce) was not regulated, and this led to frequent disputes over the use of waterways. Amending the Articles of Confederation required unanimous consent of all 13 states. The amendment process under the Constitution is difficult. Unanimous consent of 13 people or groups of people on just about anything is nearly impossible to pull off.
Failures of the Confederation Government
There were a couple of major events that actually scared the powers that be in the late eighteenth century. The first is known as the Newburgh Conspiracy, and it was basically a thwarted attempt at a military coup. The Congress could not pay soldiers for the Continental Army after the revolution, so many of the officers and the soldiers refused to go home. They actually considered making George Washington what amounted to a king, but their General refused and they disbanded after getting some concessions.
The second major issue that caused fear among people was Shays' Rebellion. Banks in New England, especially Massachusetts, required payment of debt in gold and silver, rather than in Continental currency. Most farmers had little in the way of hard currency to pay their debts, so their homes were foreclosed upon. The farmers, led by Daniel Shays, decided to take things into their own hands. They actually took over courthouses to stop the foreclosure process until they were disbanded by the militia. The failure of the national government to be able to deal with these crises led to calls for a new government charter.
The Constitution was actually written as an attempt to replace the Articles of Confederation because the Articles were considered too weak to effectively govern the new nation. Some people were very worried about the lack of stability after the Revolution.
The Constitution set up a strong Executive Branch under the control of the President who would be elected by a group of Electors. The Founders were not democrats by any stretch, but felt that only property owners had the skin in the game to make wise decisions. They actually feared the opinion of the masses in most instances. The Constitution also set up a Judiciary/Supreme Court, which was another thing that the Articles of Confederation lacked. In general, while the men at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia supported personal liberty, they also wanted a stronger national government that could have broader taxing power and have a greater ability to enforce order.
Opposition to the Constitution
There was some pretty heated opposition to the Constitution. One of the leading opponents was Patrick Henry. He felt that the Constitution provided for too strong of a government that could trample on the rights of the people. Those who opposed the Constitution were known as Antifederalists, but many of these opponents decided to support the Constitution after the promise of a Bill of Rights.
Historian Eric Foner on the Constitution
Were the Founders Strict or Broad Constructionists?
Most of the Founding Fathers were fairly broad in their understanding of the Constitution's powers once they took office. The very first Congress voted to establish a national bank at the behest of Alexander Hamilton, in spite of the fact that a national bank showed up nowhere in the powers of Congress as listed in the document.
Hamilton argued that the clause that allowed Congress to make laws that were "necessary and proper" to carry out the delegated powers permitted the establishment of a national bank. He was able to convince the biggest founder of all, George Washington, that the Constitution implied certain powers for the federal government. The majority of the First Congress agreed. Therefore, it can be argue that many of the founders were not quite as strict in their interpretation of the Constitution as some people today would like to argue. This also largely shoots down the idea that the Founding Fathers wanted an extremely weak national government. Of course, they might complain that today's government is a bit too powerful.