Throughout this election season, we’ve heard a lot about what’s wrong with the presidential candidates. He’s authoritarian. He’s squishy. She’s untrustworthy. He’s nasty. He looks strange on television. He sweats. He doesn’t attract black voters, women, Hispanics, young, old, dumb, smart. On and on it goes.
But it’s not all negative, of course. We also hear a lot about what these candidates will do for us. He’ll kill the terrorists. She’ll get healthcare for everyone. He’ll bring everyone together in Washington. He’ll make Wall Street pay. He’ll build a wall.
It can be quite confusing as the American public is deluged with messaging from every corner. As a result, voters are whipped into a frenzy and choose candidates based on emotion or pet issues rather than rationality and a sound understanding of the right standards for choosing a president.
Those standards have nothing to do with personality, hairstyles, or likeability, and they certainly have nothing to do with promises and policies that either compromise or extend the powers of the executive branch. They are derived from the Constitution, which states that the fundamental responsibility of president is to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. The most qualified candidate is the one who recognizes this and promises to execute the powers of the office in alignment with the law.
Thomas Jefferson: The Original Anti-Establishment President
The greatest presidents in American history are those who have done this faithfully. We often think of great presidents as those who have brought about social change or pushed for revolutionary policies that have transformed the fabric of our nation (e.g., Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson). But this isn’t what makes a president great. The best presidents are those who have shown restraint, stood for limited government, abided by the rule of law, and faithfully executed their duties according to the original intent of the Constitution.
Thomas Jefferson was one such president, and he serves as a much-needed reminder of what’s at stake in this election. As a constitutionalist who understood that liberty and limited government are inseparable, Jefferson faced many of the same challenges constitutionalist candidates face today.
One of those was his battle with “the establishment.” In Jefferson’s day, they were “the Federalists,” and they had unconstitutionally broadened the powers of the presidency and the government, enlarged the debt, and pushed for more centralization of power instead of limiting government according to the Constitution.
Jefferson had always been a thorn in the side of those who wanted to expand government powers. When George Washington unconstitutionally declared that America would not get involved in European wars and Alexander Hamilton defended the action, Jefferson wrote to James Madison and said, “For god’s sake, my dear Sir, take up your pen, select the most striking heresies, and cut him to pieces in the face of the public.” Madison obliged.
Jefferson was so passionate about small government that he supported nullification, bringing resolutions against the Federalists who continued to overstep their bounds and bombard the states with unconstitutional laws. He promised to repeal the Alien and Sedition Acts and to restore the presidency to its rightful place as executor of the law instead of legislator in chief.
The establishment in Jefferson’s day hated him. They called him a terrorist, and during the election northern politicians suggested the North should secede from the Union if Jefferson were to become president. The Federalists resented Jefferson’s constant fight to limit their powers and to reduce the size and scope of government. They would rather break up the country than have him in the White House.
The Spirit of ’76 Is Not Dead—Only Slumbering
The Federalists’ hatred of Jefferson is reminiscent of the vitriol dripping from establishment politicians over Ted Cruz, driving Lindsey Graham to say he’s worse than Barack Obama and that if anyone shot him dead in the Senate, they wouldn’t be convicted.
Jefferson could relate. The election in 1800 was rough, with Jefferson winning the White House by a single vote. His victory was labeled a revolution—and it was. It ushered in the demise of the establishment Federalists. Jefferson brought reform to the government, repealing laws, breaking up power brokers, reducing the debt, and restoring the presidency to its rightful place as defined by the Constitution. His commitment to limited government and to republicanism radically changed the political landscape and pulled our nation back from the abyss of tyranny for many years.
Jefferson, the thorn in the side of the establishment, the “terrorist” who was despised by his colleagues because he constantly undermined their will to power, showed strength in his commitment to let Congress legislate, check their abuses, and maintain the balance of power between the branches of government. He knew his place—he was not a king, but he was a servant of the people.
In 1799, as the people were rising up against the Federalists because of their abuse of power with the Alien and Sedition Acts, Jefferson wrote, “The spirit of ’76 is not dead. It has only been slumbering. The body of the American people is substantially republican. But their virtuous feelings have been played on by some fact with more fiction; they have been the dupes of artful maneuvers and made for a moment to be willing instruments in forging chains for themselves. But time and truth have dissipated the delusion, and opened their eyes.”
The Spirit of ’76 Can Be Alive Today
I wonder, though, if the spirit of ’76 is still alive today. People are angry, reacting to an abusive, corrupt government just as they did in 1799. But the impulse driving them is not the spirit of limited government, of liberty. They’re driven by other impulses: a sense of entitlement, pragmatism, preservation of parties, or even vengeance.
Those of us who do have the spirit of ’76 stand in the midst of the tumult and wonder if we can get back on track, if we can revive Jeffersonian republicanism and return to the Constitution and the liberty that entails. I wonder as I look at our choice of candidates if we are a nation determined to destroy ourselves by abandoning the central pillar of freedom: limited government.
What’s even more disturbing is that while I understand why Democrats in their ignorance line up behind either a socialist like Bernie Sanders or an authoritarian progressive like Hillary Clinton and her agenda to expand centralized government, I do not understand why conservatives who love small government and who are Jeffersonian at heart are not supporting the one candidate in the race who consistently fights for these very principles—the one candidate who exudes the spirit of ’76. Can anyone deny that this candidate is Ted Cruz?
Yet I hear from my freedom-loving friends how Cruz is not electable (Was Jefferson?), how he’s a purist, (so was Jefferson!), how he’s hated by his colleagues (Wasn’t Jefferson?), and how he’s a purist and too extreme. The same was true of Jefferson. And, of course, there’s the litany of shallow excuses, including how he looks, how he speaks, and that he’s not likeable.
My hope, my challenge, to anyone who loves freedom is not to abandon it now. Don’t be “dupes of artful maneuvers.” Don’t be “willing instruments in forging chains for yourselves.” Don’t abandon the fight for liberty. Instead, stand with those who are engaged in that fight, stand for your principles and, like Jefferson, don’t give up.
The Hour Is Late—Don’t Delay
Here at The Federalist we have a motto: “Be lovers of freedom and anxious for the fray.” That phrase comes from a speech by Calvin Coolidge in remembrance of Bunker Hill. As I consider that phrase, I think of what’s at stake in this election. It’s nothing more and nothing less than our liberty. Jefferson understood that, and Coolidge—another great small-government president—understood it.
But do we—conservatives, libertarians, classical liberals—understand what we’re fighting for? We’re not fighting for a party or for the status quo or to get along. We’re fighting for liberty, and fundamental to that is limited government.
That fight will never end. We’ve been fighting for it since the early days of our republic, and we need to continue to fight for it no matter who wins this election. Whatever the result, it could mean the end of the GOP. But maybe that needs to happen. It doesn’t mean the end to liberty or our republican principles. It will mean the end to a party that has abandoned those principles, and out of its ashes will—if we fight for it—rise a renewed commitment to liberty and small government. Creative destruction is painful but necessary.
We aren’t at that point yet. The primaries are still underway, but the hour is late. The drift is not toward Jefferson republicanism. It’s away from it—either toward Trump, who is no defender of limited government, or Marco Rubio, the establishment candidate who is an untrustworthy conservative. Only Cruz is speaking the language of Jefferson. Only he is fighting for liberty because only he is fighting to limit government.
Why, I must ask are conservatives who are committed to limited government not standing with him in that fight? Are we lovers of freedom and anxious for the fray, or are we sellouts and compromisers?
You Don’t Need to Lose Your Soul to Win
Coolidge said it is time to examine ourselves by recounting the deeds of the men of long ago. The same holds especially true today. These are times that will define us. Do we value liberty enough to sacrifice for it? Are we like the patriots of Bunker Hill who faced tyranny and fought it, not compromising with it? Or are we sunshine patriots who flee from the battle?
Yes, the fight is hard, it’s bloody. “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” Jefferson understood that. The colonists who fought at Bunker Hill never lost sight of it.
We need to understand this today, particularly those who wish to compromise because they don’t want to lose. Trump’s message is all about winning. Rubio’s message is the same but in different wrapping, the gloss of pragmatism and sunny cooperation. Remember this, though: The colonists at Bunker Hill did not win the battle. They faced overwhelming odds. It seemed hopeless, but they ran into the fray anyway. They fought the British, and even though the colonists lost the peninsula, the British suffered so many causalities at the hands of the colonists that it discouraged them from making any more advances.
George Washington, who had just become the new commander of the Continental Army, received news of the battle, and it gave him hope that his army might just prevail. Fifteen hundred patriots faced 3,500 British soldiers. The Americans lost nearly 20 percent of their forces, while the British lost 33 percent—all in just an hour and a half. The patriots lost the battle, but they eventually won the war because they were filled with courage and they struck fear in the hearts of their enemies.
We Will Prevail, Or Die Trying
The rough and tumble colonists stood against the superior forces of Britain, fought for liberty, and overcame the odds. These were men who were lovers of freedom an anxious for the fray. We, today, should consider them and be ashamed of ourselves.
When Washington first heard of the battle, he asked the dispatch, “Did the militia fight?” When he was told how the brave men fought, he said, “Then the liberties of the Country are safe.” He said that even though they had lost the battle. Washington was a visionary, and he knew what they were fighting for, that battles are lost, but what matters most is the will to fight. If you don’t have that, then you will lose. If you are willing to fight no matter the challenges, then the liberties of the country are indeed safe.
This is our hope, this is why freedom will rise from the ashes—because we have the will to fight for it. But, if we don’t, if we compromise as sellouts to tyranny or as sunshine patriots who shrink from the battle, then all is indeed lost.
In his speech, Coolidge reminds us that these men were not distracted by great plans to build a new nation. Their fight was simple: it was for freedom.
We read events by what goes before and after. We think of Bunker Hill as the first real battle for independence, the prelude to the Revolution. Yet these were both afterthoughts. Independence Day was still more than a year away and then eight years from accomplishment. The Revolution cannot be said to have become established until the adoption of the national Constitution. No, on this June day, these were not the conscious objects sought. They were contending for the liberties of the country, they were not yet bent on establishing a new nation nor on recognizing that relationship between men which the modern world calls democracy. They were maintaining well their traditions, these sons of Londonderry, lovers of freedom and anxious for the fray, and these sons of the Puritans, whom Macaulay tells us humbly abased themselves in the dust before the Lord, but hesitated not to set their foot upon the neck of their king.
It is the moral quality of the day that abides. It was the purpose of those plain garbed men behind the parapet that told whether they were savages bent on plunder, living under the law of the jungle, or sons of the morning bearing the light of civilization.
Are we humble enough to fight against the odds? Are we distracted by concerns to preserve a party, or are we focused on what’s most important: fighting for liberty against those who wish to take it? Are we willing to stand with fools in order to shame the wise? Are you brave enough to set your foot on the neck of the king no matter what form he takes? Are you a lover of freedom and anxious for the fray?
I am. Do you stand with me?