Home » Politics » Distrust of Government: an American Virtue

Distrust of Government: an American Virtue


Aug. 2012 055

I love my country.  I hardly ever feel anything less than disdain for my government.  It is because I love my country so much that I don’t like my government.

Pres. Obama was recently quoted at the Ohio State University graduation as saying “Still, you’ll hear voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s the root of all our problems, even as they do their best to gum up the works; or that tyranny always lurks just around the corner. You should reject these voices.  Because what they suggest is that our brave, creative, unique experiment in self-rule is just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.”

There is a lot more to that speech; if you like, you can listen to it or read it here.

He also said a lot of stuff that sounds really nice, fluff about using the government to accomplish good things by empowering individuals and getting everyone active in political decisions.

It might have been a little more convincing if he referred to our form of government as a republic instead of a democracy.

It might also be a little more convincing if we didn’t consistently see government abuses of power, small and large, all around us.

Or if the Founding Fathers hadn’t so unambiguously warned us about the dangers of too much government.

“The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restraint he people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government.”

-Patrick Henry

“Government is not reason; it is not eloquence.  It is force.  And force, like fire, is a dangerous servant and  a fearful master.”

-George Washington.

“My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government.”

-Thomas Jefferson.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable Rights; that among these, are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness; that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

That last one is from the Declaration of Independence.  Apparently President Obama isn’t very familiar with it, or he would realize that the reason people need to right to abolish and institute a new government, is that tyranny is always just around the corner.

Or maybe he does know, but it suits his purposes to flatter a bunch of naive graduates and lull them into complacency.

Thomas Jefferson encouraged occasional revolution – there should be rebellion every twenty years or so, or the people would become lethargic, which is “the death of liberty.”

Believing that government is “nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s the root of all our problems” and that “tyranny always lurks just around the corner” is why we have this country at all.  Our Founding Fathers fought against the British government because it was tyrannical and stomping on their liberties.  They set up a republic with a government system of three branches of power specifically to prevent tyranny.

Not trusting the government is more American than baseball and apple pie.

Believing we can do better for ourselves than the government can is what makes us American.



  1. Miley Gee says:

    I agree that distrusting the government has a long tradition in this country. It is also a carry over from an even longer English tradition of rebelling against its government. I read a late Medieval poem which stereotyped Spaniards as zealous, French as lovers, Germans as warriors and English as ungovernable.

    I’ve already shared my conviction that this rebelliousness is unChristian so don’t feel the need to do more than stand by my conviction.

    You are correct that the Thomas Pain, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson branch of the American Patriots were distrustful of government power. However the James Madison, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin branch of American Patriots were much less so. Remember that in the debate preserved between the Federalist and anti-Federalist it was the Federalists who were regarded more persuasive.

    You are correct that your view has a long and honorable tradition in our country but it has never been the only view but represents one side of a debate that had been going on pretty much since England was defeated in the Revolutionary War.

    For my part I stand some where near Adams and Franklin more than Jefferson or Paine.

    • Even the Federalists supported individual liberty and separation of powers. None of them (except maybe Alexander Hamilton, whom I regard with the deepest suspicion) would support the progressive government programs and regulations that we have today. I think they would be closer to today’s Tea Party than today’s progressives.

      After all, it was Benjamin Franklin who said “They that can give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” So, Patriot Act? TSA? Gun control? Ben wouldn’t have supported any of that kind of stuff.

      Also, “more persuasive” isn’t exactly how I would describe the Federalists. The states only ratified the Constitution because the Articles of Confederation had been less than effective. Even then, the response was something like: “Well, okay, but only if you add a bill of rights, and we can still secede later if we don’t like what you do.”

      Personally, I’m with Patrick Henry 100%.

  2. Miley Gee says:

    You are of course very right that distrust if government has a long and storied tradition in America. It predates the US government in the colonies and actually has its roots in English history. Where the French had a reputation for being lovers, the Spanish for being zealous and the Germans for being warriors so did the English have a reputation for resisting their kings (think how unusual the Magna Carta was in European history).

    I am already on record saying disrespect for government (even unjust government) is unChristian and don’t think we need to go over that again except to say I stand by that.

    But you are right that resisting and distrusting government power is very American. Thomas Pain, Patrick Henry and President Jefferson were consistent in their support for decentralized power (even though Pres. Jefferson didn’t practice this perfectly as President). However (isn’t there always a “however” with me?) just as distrusting government has a tradition that goes all the way back so too does the tradition of believing there is a worthy purpose of government. There is President Adams, Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin were all supporters of the Revolutionary War but after achieving Independence were strong supporters of a centralized government and government being a force for good in society. They were just as American as your heroes and their perspective is just as much a part of our tradition. Remember that the completely decentralized Articles of Confederation was overall rejected in favor of a much more centralized US Constitution. In the debate of the Federalist and anti-Federalist it was the Federalists who ultimately won out. Also remember that the motto of the Patriots was not “Taxed Enough Already” but “taxation without representation” which is actually a nod to the right of government to tax just so long as the people were a part of the process.

    • The Articles of Confederation were only rejected after taking them out for a test drive, as it were. The people as a whole had to be persuaded to accept the Constitution, and they only did so with the caveat of the ability to secede.

      I never said that government does not serve a worthy purpose, or that it doesn’t have the right to tax (only with the consent of the governed, of course). I’m only saying that we have to keep in control of the government so it doesn’t become a tyrannical juggernaut (too late).

      With the possible exception of Alexander Hamilton, I don’t think any of the Founding Fathers would support the excesses of the government today.

  3. Mikey G says:

    Sorry about the double post. I thought t didn’t get posted so rewrote it. I don’t disagree with you and certainly there is more power in the government than most of the Founding Fathers would be comfortable with (though there are more black or women voters than they’d have been comfortable with too) but my point is that the strong proponents of federal power have a strong tradition in the US too.

  4. CJD says:

    I’m wondering if you have read the book “Leadershift: A Call for Americans to Finally Stand Up and Lead” by Orrin Woodward and Chris Brady. I think you might find it interesting. Also, if you are not already following it, you might be interested in the Center for Social Leadership @ http://www.thesocialleader.com.

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