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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

We the People: Calls for limited government are rooted in America’s founding documents. But so are calls for federal regulations

This 1876 engraving by W.L. Ormsby shows a version of the painting “Declaration of Independence, July 4th, 1776,” by John Trumbull. Signing actually began Aug. 2, and the image of all the delegates standing around waiting to sign is a myth because some had gone home and signed later.  (Library of Congress)
By Kevin Kipers For The Spokesman-Review

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: Name two important ideas of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

Today, many believe the most efficient way to govern is, ironically, through a system of limited government, especially among members of the political right. Such beliefs stem from popular perception that too much government intervention is to blame for interfering with the effectiveness of numerous aspects of daily functions within the United States, such as corporate activity, healthcare programs and election procedures.

Some debates might occur over issues like government regulations vs. private company policies, or between various governing levels such as federal vs. state or local authority. These are certainly among a few areas of contemporary debate among U.S. citizens. Yet, this concept of limited government is far from recent and rooted as far back as the days of the early republic within the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

This notion of separation between states’ rights and federal intervention, for instance, exists today and did so in a similar, albeit slightly different, context during the revolutionary era of the late eighteenth century.

The Declaration of Independence hints frequently at a need for separation of powers between the central British Empire and local colonial legislatures. Within one section of the document, Thomas Jefferson accused British authorities of “altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments” and “suspending our own Legislatures” while “declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.”

Jefferson’s explicit grievances were, in fact, emblematic of common colonist belief that the British Crown implemented legal measures within areas like taxation in an oppressive, unilateral fashion without consulting political officers more directly representing the local colonies . Moreover, disputes over the extents of local vs. central governance stemmed from ambiguity with Britain’s own constitution, which did not specify how legislative processes were to be determined. Such oversight on the part of British rulers opened the door for political divide over proper governing structures, including among the colonists.

The Constitution also laid out certain areas within the realm of state authority. For example, Article II, Section 1 granted each state legislature the power to appoint “a number of electors equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled within the Congress” when electing the president.

This provision signified the initial process for individual states playing a major role in electing leaders on a national level.

The Bill of Rights further elaborates on the more general extent of governing jurisdiction between states and the federal government. The 10th amendment declares “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” In other words, each state has the legal power to govern as it sees fit, provided a law is not in violation of those existing within the central U.S. government. Article VI of the Constitution explicitly states “all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land.”

Federal measures, thus, equally obligate all states to abide by them. These measures, of course, have not prevented local and federal leaders from clashing over legislation related to many issues since the days of the early republic.

Another existing debate over appropriate levels of governing are rooted in various U.S. institutions, such as corporations and agencies. Some institutions are public (government-run via state/local or federal levels) while others are private (run by non-government individuals). Although even private companies are subject to certain laws governing taxes or employment practices, a higher level of government regulations tends to occur on those of the public variety.

One of the prototypical modern examples that often comes to mind is the U.S. Postal Service. The Post Office, in fact, arose out of the original Constitution and remains one of the oldest American agencies in existence. Article I, Section 8 granted Congress power “To establish Post Offices and post Roads” as part of the “common Defence (sic) and general Welfare of the United States.” Therefore, our ability to send or receive mail is made possible by a non-profit institution funded by the U.S. government with the relatively inexpensive purchase of stamps.

On the other hand, there are numerous private, for-profit businesses funded less through governments than customer purchases. This is not to say the government does not possess the authority to levy heavy regulations on corporate practices, or that legal policies are entirely absent. The comparative lack of specific rules on private companies (like Walmart, AIG, Ford, etc.) simply enables them to run their organizations as its top executives see fit, which often leads to fierce opposition whenever discussions about increased government intervention in their affairs arise.

Section 8 of Article I also permits Congress “To regulate Commerce with foreign nations, and among the several States.” Although the federal government retains the authority to standardize business transactions internationally and domestically, the Constitution does not specify in exactly what ways or extent to which this would happen. The result is ambiguous constitutional interpretation as to what roles the government should take in regulating commerce, especially when legislation implemented since the late eighteenth century has largely failed to elaborate.

So, why does this concept of limited government exist today, and some institutions have more regulation than others? It is because the earliest sets of laws in the U.S. set the stage for such institutional structures. Yes, the forefathers intended the federal government to draft laws they deemed necessary to become the law of the land, but the Constitution and Bill of Rights, in particular, left room for states to govern themselves as well. As for institutions, the founding documents contained generally ambiguous language for how to regulate commerce, resulting in a viscous political and cultural division over when the government should intervene or remain more hands-off .

Kevin Kipers is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of History at Washington State University in Pullman. This article is part of a Spokesman-Review partnership with the Thomas S. Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University.