Alfred Regnery

Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1798 to liberal political theorist and Virgina Senator John Taylor that he wished the constitution included strict debt limitations: “I wish it were possible to obtain a single amendment to our Constitution. I would be willing to depend on that alone for the reduction of the administration of our government; I mean an additional article taking from the Federal Government the power of borrowing. I now deny their power of making paper money or anything else a legal tender. I know that to pay all proper expenses within the year would, in case of war, be hard on us. But not so hard as ten wars instead of one. For wars could be reduced in that proportion; besides that the State governments would be free to lend their credit in borrowing quotas.”

What Jefferson meant by a “single amendment” is a balanced budget amendment, which would require revenues to equal expenses. While I cannot argue with the sapience of TJ, I have an unfair advantage with my 235 years of hindsight.

Not only did Jefferson underestimate the ability of past generations to impart wisdom on the future, he could have not dreamed how the federal government would usurp so much authority that states would be reduced to, as President Ronald Reagan described, “mere administrative districts for the federal government.”

And such a budgetary limitation, in and of itself, could have not contained expenses of a growing nation.

For example, can you imagine President Abraham Lincoln, who suspended the writ of habeas corpus and much of the Bill of Rights during the endlessly bloody Civil War, making sure Congress kept a tidy, balanced budget?

As the 16th and 17th Amendments were ratified, in 1913, and progressivism became the political zeitgeist, Woodrow Wilson and FDR, on-top of fighting world wars, believed endless amounts of federal spending would bring our nation out of depression. In the process, they trampled on the Constitution by vastly expanded the authority of the federal government, ballooned the deficit, and created an entitlement class which has defined our political landscape ever since.

The late Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, who helped organize much of the conservative resurgence in the 1970s and provided Reagan with an incomparable political team, spent five terms standing firmly against government growth. And while he was no friend to special interests and lobbyists who never run out of new proposals to fund, Helms was explicit about his support for the tobacco subsidy, knowing that if he opposed it his time in Washington would come to a screeching halt.


Alfred Regnery

Mr. Regnery is the Publisher of The American Spectator, and was previously the President and Publisher of Regnery Publishing, Inc. He is the author of Upstream: The Ascendance of American Conservatism (Simon and Schuster, 2008).