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.

Page one of the Articles of Confederation. The Founding Fathers found this "constitution" much too week and replaced it with the current Constitution.
Page one of the Articles of Confederation. The Founding Fathers found this "constitution" much too week and replaced it with the current Constitution. | Source

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.

Danial Shays and Job Shattuck, two of the conspirators in the rebellion that bears Shays' name.
Danial Shays and Job Shattuck, two of the conspirators in the rebellion that bears Shays' name. | Source

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

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.

Patrick Henry: opponent of the Constitution and supporter of a very weak national government.
Patrick Henry: opponent of the Constitution and supporter of a very weak national government. | Source

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.

Comments 19 comments

HSchneider 3 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

Excellent Hub, Cprice75. The viewpoints of the Founding Fathers were all over the lot concerning the power of the central government through the Constitution. This was as true then as it is now. James Madison wrote the bulk of it knowing the Articles of Confederation were too weak then became alarmed with how the Washington Administration stretched it. Madison and the rest knew there must be some strength in a central government to hold the country together. They also wrote in checks and balances as well as the Bill of Rights to reign in that government. There will always be this tug of war and I believe that is always a proper debate.

cprice75 profile image

cprice75 3 years ago from USA Author

Checks and balances show that many of the founders had a fundamental mistrust of human nature. They would've agreed with Lord Acton's statement about power and corruption.

mbuggieh 3 years ago

My sense is that the Founding Fathers sought to create a strong central government that would enable a "more perfect union".

But, the Founders also understood that in order to sell that "more perfect union" to a group of delegates---many deeply suspicious of about "big" government, that this strong central government needed to be contextualized within the larger space of federalism; a space that secured national AND state government powers.

And then, when realizing that the suspicions of "big" government extending beyond meeting rooms in Philadelphia and into the larger American public, the Founders further contextualized the Constitution with the Bill of Rights ; a space that secured the civil liberties of the people and reiterated the powers of the people and the state governments.

cprice75 profile image

cprice75 3 years ago from USA Author

Agreed. The way that the Founders reacted to the Whiskey Rebellion shows that they were not for a really weak government.

Schoolmom24 profile image

Schoolmom24 3 years ago from Oregon

Interesting hub...I agree that they wanted a secure government but did not want to pattern themselves after England, from whom we had just won independence. Instead, they wanted a national government that was "by the people, for the people". Individual rights and freedoms were of extreme importance.

Love American history and enjoyed re-learning about a couple of the events written in this hub.

cprice75 profile image

cprice75 3 years ago from USA Author

Thanks for visiting, Schoolmom. The founders actually feared "the people." That comment was given by Abraham Lincoln nearly 80 years after the Constitution. They also stuck with what they knew from British government. The President was similar to the king, the two houses of the Congress approximated the Houses of Lords and Commons, and the legal system followed the British common law system, rather than Roman law or some other system. They did cherish liberty for white males who owned property, though.

Schoolmom24 profile image

Schoolmom24 3 years ago from Oregon

I understand what you're saying but disagree somewhat...I don't necessarily believe that they "feared" the people, especially since some of them came from humble backgrounds, themselves. I believe they really wanted to form a nation there the people had rights and freedoms, and not pattern themselves after a monarchy where government ruled over them. And yes, they had flaws and were human.... but we who are of the 21st century can't fathom a completely different world that they lived in (i.e....slavery, women). As far as government, they wanted the people to make the decisions over their own lives, not the government, something pretty radical for the time.

mbuggieh 3 years ago

The founders---particularly Washington, Hamilton, and Jefferson were at the very minimum wary of the American people; wary of the masses; wary of the massification of democracy. We see this very clear in the debates which ensued at the Constitutional Convention related to the Second Amendment and equally very clearly in the creation of the Electoral College, which if properly understand, can function as a "check" on the popular vote.

We also see, again if we read Madison's notes on the Constitutional Convention, a distrust of the people; a fear as John Adams explained it of the people's penchant for gravitating toward the celebrity and popularity rather than the hardworking and competent and mistaking the self-interested man for the states-man.

Mark Lees profile image

Mark Lees 3 years ago

Madison had no trust in the uneducated having a genuine voice. He believed power should rest in the hands of the educated- who were fit to make decisions.

The war of independence was over some very limited attempts at getting tax revenue from the colonies (far less than the cost of the standing army kept in the US to protect against French imperial ambitions) so the founding fathers would not have made open attempts at authority but they would have been keen to ensure that the new country had the strong structures to prosper.

thegecko profile image

thegecko 3 years ago from San Diego, CA

From the history I've read and discussions I've participated in, it's not fair to group the Founders of the Constitution together as a single entity with unified beliefs. The Constitution almost did not come to fruition because of the many disagreements amongst the Founders and the need for compromise to create it.

I think that in general, the Founders believed in local government, a system already well established in the former colonies. They believed in democracy, but that qualified and educated people, with strong investments in their communities, should have the final say and write the laws. They saw the Constitution as a set of broad defining guidelines to establish laws and entrust powers to particular branches. That as the country evolved, so would the government, and the Constitution needed to be flexible enough to handle these changes.

In the end, most of the laws that rule our daily lives come from our cities, counties, and states, as the Founders intended.

Did they want a strong government? Most likely, but one that relied on the leadership and governance of responsible elected representatives and responded to the needs of the citizens.

If our government's reach has grown too far and become too wasteful, then we have but ourselves to blame. Is this what the Founders wanted? The Founders intended we would shape the government and the country as we saw fit.

Maybe we should be asking ourselves... is the government we have today too strong? Do we want a weaker government?

Is our government really what we want, need, or deserve?

It's easier to retrospective and ponder about the thoughts and actions of people who died hundreds of years ago. People who lived in a world that would be alien to us. It's harder to be introspective. To judge ourselves and our communities. To take action, create change, and compromise with our contemporaries based on our own needs and vision.

Guest 3 years ago

Wonderful article

Better Yourself profile image

Better Yourself 3 years ago from North Carolina

Very interesting, enjoyed reading your Hub and all the comments and congrats on being featured in HOTD!

cprice75 profile image

cprice75 3 years ago from USA Author

Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Smireles profile image

Smireles 2 years ago from Texas

Great article! No doubt that Thomas Jefferson believed that the educated elite should make the decisions and have the right to choose our elected leaders. The first time I read his comments in The Federalist Papers about the ability of the masses to vote in elections I was totally outraged. However, in view of recent elections I wonder if he was right. People with no "skin in the game" as another commenter stated tend to be motivated by self interest. This is not always the right direction for our country. It is unfair to judge the actions of our forefathers by today's morals and standards. They did not create the world in which they lived. They lived according to the morals and standards of the world in which they found themselves. They did a pretty good job of changing the world, too. In my opinion, Americans or any other people who have never lived under tyranny; whether that tyranny be a king or dictator who has the power of life and death over all people are not in a position to understand or judge those who have lived through such times.

cprice75 profile image

cprice75 2 years ago from USA Author

Don't people with skin in the game seem to be motivated by self-interest, as well? Isn't this pretty universal with the exception of a few people?

Smireles profile image

Smireles 2 years ago from Texas

Self-interest seems to be pretty universal.

cprice75 profile image

cprice75 2 years ago from USA Author

I'm glad that you enjoyed visiting the page.

RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

For me the bottom line is that we tried the "states rights" approach in the 18th century, and found it inadequate in those far less complex times. We then fought a civil war because some states wanted to protect their right to be free of Federal Government interference in the way majority populations in those states chose to treat minority populations. George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door protesting for the state right to discriminate against certain segments of the population without Federal interference. All in all, the idea that a weak Federal Government is the path to "a more perfect union" doesn't have a good track record.

cprice75 profile image

cprice75 2 years ago from USA Author

This question, like most in history, is more complicated than a simple yes or no. The "states' rights" people from the ninteenth century just wanted to avoid having a government that was strong enough to free any of their slaves. Thanks for visiting.

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