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The U.S. Constitution: Tool of Centralization and Debt, 1788-Today

Gary North
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April 4, 2011

On a conservative site last week, the editor wrote this:

While the Constitution has been largely ignored over the last 80 years, the document is very real, and its purpose is clear: to limit greatly the powers of the federal government.

Having said this, he went on to a conclusion:

If Congress proves unwilling to force indiscriminate cost reductions on government then it should apply constitutional principles to the budget whereby government functions not enumerated in the Constitution are abolished, privatized, or passed to the states.

When we begin with a myth, we have a tendency to expect miracles. Let me explain.

The Constitution was established in order to strengthen the powers of the Federal government. It strengthened them vastly beyond what the British had attempted to impose on the colonies in the early 1770s.

Before the American Revolution, the British level of taxation on the colonies was in the range of 1%. There were sales taxes on imported goods, but most people, then as now, bought domestically produced goods. There were taxes on paper after 1765. This affected mainly lawyers and newspaper publishers. By alienating these two influential groups, the Parliament stirred up a hornets' nest. When professional talkers and writers get squeezed by the government, the public gets an earful. "The end of liberty is nigh!" On the contrary, the end of a debt-free colonial governments was drawing nigh.

Revolutions must be financed. They are always financed with debt and fiat money. Creditors buy the IOUs with good money, then weaker money, and then -- at the end of the revolt -- worthless money. Then they have a supreme political goal: to get the new government to pay off the worthless IOUs at face value in gold or silver. In the 1780s, it was silver.

The Constitution was deliberately designed to centralize power vastly beyond what the legitimate constitution -- the Articles of Confederation -- allowed. The Federal government in 1787 was weak. In 1788, it was vastly stronger.

The newly created Federal government immediately did two things. It accepted responsibility to pay off state debts. This was Alexander Hamilton's proposal. He proposed it specifically to centralize the government by granting enormous profits to the investment class that had bought state debts for practically nothing.

The Wikipedia article on this consolidation of Federal debt is accurate in its discussion of Hamilton's motives.

Hamilton's economic plan had multiple goals. First, the debts and honor of the nation would be secured. Hamilton felt that the Federal government would not be able to borrow money from anyone in the future if these debts were not paid. By selling bonds to pay the debt, bondholders would have a direct financial interest to help the new United States government survive and thrive. Creditors who purchased the bonds could use them as collateral for loans, stimulating the economy even more.

The plan would also create a bureaucracy of agents across the country who would be tied to the Federal government instead of the individual states. Assuming the debts of the states would likewise couple financial elites in those states to the national government and less so to state governments, thereby reducing the risk of secession. Hamilton's scheme was called "debt assumption plan," and it was a radical idea in 1790.

Hamilton's Report supported ideas of war debt assumption, redemption of Confederate securities at face value, and funding of new national securities as a permanent national debt. Hamilton reasoned that creating a large financial structure, which wealthy citizens would support and belong to, would enhance the revenue and fiscal system of the national government and bring prosperity to the Federal government. He also reckoned that failure to establish the creditworthiness of the Federal government would weaken the United States, and called a permanent, reasonably-sized public debt "the powerful cement of our Union."

Hamilton's statements at the time were quite frank about all this.

When Madison and Jefferson opposed the plan, Hamilton bought them off by promising to support the swamp today known as Washington D.C. as the nation's Capitol. This was done at a private dinner with only the three in attendance. Jefferson later wrote about it.

Here was the outcome:

The Treasury Department quickly grew in stature and personnel, encompassing the United States Customs Service, the United States Revenue Cutter Service, and the network of Treasury agents Hamilton had foreseen. Hamilton immediately followed up his success with the Second Report on Public Credit, containing his plan for the Bank of the United States --- a national, privately-operated bank owned in part by the government, which became the forerunner of the Federal Reserve System. In 1791 Hamilton released a third report, the Report on Manufactures, which encouraged the growth and protection of manufacturing.

By 1791, Hamilton had created a vast Federal debt and the nation's first central bank, owned privately.

He had planned it from the beginning. That was why he promoted the Constitution. This was why he wrote most of The Federalist Papers.

The anti-Federalists predicted accurately what was coming in 1787. It came.

There was a conspiracy in Philadelphia in 1787. It was successful. I have written a book on this: Conspiracy in Philadelphia. You can download it for free here.

To understand the expansion of Federal power in 1788, consider this. In 1786, the Federal government's total army was 1,200 men. It was too small come to the rescue of the state of Massachusetts in putting down Shays' rebellion. This was a rebellion by rural counties against the state government's decision in 1786 to pay off state debts in silver, collected from the counties. The governor and most of the members of the legislature had bought these debts for pennies in fiat currency. Now they were about to get very rich at the expense of rural taxpayers, who had little silver. A lot of counties revolted.

That was the trigger that got George Washington to attend the Convention, which he had previously refused to agree to attend. He had been completely misinformed about the motives of the protest. A former general of his sent him letters that concealed the politics of the revolt. Read my article on this revolt: "John Hancock's Big Toe."

In 1794, Washington personally led an army of 13,000 to crush a tax revolt in Western Pennsylvania. This was the first and last time a President ever led troops into action. Because so few men volunteered, the Federal government imposed a draft. This was the whiskey rebellion.

The revolt was against Hamilton's 1791 tax on whiskey -- a tax used to raise revenues to pay off Federal debts at face value -- debts that the holders had purchased for pennies. If this sounds like a replay of Shays' rebellion and its outcome, that's because it was, but on a far larger scale.

Centralized power? I guess so.

What Hamilton didn't do, Federalist Party Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshal did do, 1801-1836. Among other things, he wrote the opinion for McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), which authorized the privately owned Second Bank of the United States to exercise a government-granted monopoly over the monetary system.

In only one fiscal year, 1836, has the U.S. government ever been debt-free.

The Constitution was from day one an instrument to consolidate Federal power and expand it. The Constitution has proven to be a weak reed in every attempt to slow down the expansion of Federal power. It has proven utterly impotent to roll Federal power back as little as a decade, ever.

Therefore, the following is just plain silly, politically speaking:

If Congress proves unwilling to force indiscriminate cost reductions on government then it should apply constitutional principles to the budget whereby government functions not enumerated in the Constitution are abolished, privatized, or passed to the states.

I would of course love to see this. But I am unaware of any fiscal year since 1790 in which such a roll-back of Federal employment and Federal spending took place, other than after a major war, when the soldiers were de-commissioned and taxes were cut. If we are talking about civilian employment by the Federal government, I am unaware of any permanent reduction, ever.

There should come a time when the victims of a myth should figure out that they are the victims of a rich and powerful ruling class, which hires the teachers and screens the textbooks to keep the voters docile. But this dawning of enlightenment has yet to come.

When Washington's checks finally bounce, the day of enlightenment will come of necessity, not principle. Then we will have a shot at abandoning the myth of the Constitution as a restraint on Washington's power.


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