Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, says some of the most important names associated with the push for limited government at our nation’s founding have been shoved out of history and the effort has coincided almost perfectly with America’s push for a bigger and bigger federal government.
Lee, who was just elected to a second term in the U.S. Senate, is the author of “Written out of History: The Forgotten Founders Who Fought Big Government,” which he says is designed to give adults and children a better idea of what the vision of our founding fathers truly was. Lee says limited government isn’t some anachronistic vestige of the colonial era, but the fundamental premise of our system of government.
“It’s very important for parents to emphasize to their children at a young age that that’s the whole reason why we have a constitution is to limit the power of government. Those limits need to mean something, but they can only be meaningful if we recognize them, enforce them, and talk about them,” said Lee.
Reiterating the famous James Madison quotation that if men were angels, no government would be necessary, Lee says we do need government, but not one that smothers the people who rule over it.
“It’s important for us to remind our children that they should respect government. Government is a good thing. It is a tool for good, as long as it remains subject to the limitations brought about by elections,” said Lee, who says the book is not meant to address current partisan squabbles but return America’s focus to the point of government as envisioned by our founders.
“I’m talking in this book about advocating any particular conservative vs. liberal or Republican vs. Democratic agenda. What I’m talking about here is returning power back to the people, allowing more of the people in America to have access to more of the kind of government they want and less of the government they don’t want,” said Lee.
“That’s what our founding-era principles do and that’s what they could do for us if we were to follow them more consistently,” said Lee.
Lee says the founders are of greater interest these days, even to young people, as result of the smash Broadway musical, “Hamilton.” In addition to the performance, Lee says there is always fascination with that part of our history.
“They respond this way in part because the American people intuitively understand something about the founding generation. They understand that generation knew something about who we are as a people and that we have a lot to learn if we learn from their stories,” said Lee.
And Lee says getting American to understand the lessons from our founders, especially the less known figures, is the point of the book.
“I knew there were a whole lot of founding fathers that the American people know little or nothing about, in part because they don’t fit our modern, progressive narrative. I wanted to reintroduce the people to those stories,” said Lee.
According to Lee, that “modern, progressive narrative” has been chipping away the key figures and principles of the American founding for generations.
“We tend to remember those whose narratives fit with our world view from our day. Over the last 80 years or so, we have – within our public education system and our higher education system – seen a big push toward a centralization of power. People are taught to have a whole lot of faith a whole lot of confidence in the federal government, almost as if it were endowed with certain deity-like qualities,” said Lee.
He says it is no coincidence that the push to adjust history to fit more of a big government narrative began about the same time our own leaders were pushing for great expansion of federal powers.
“There’s nothing coincidental about it at all. The fact is that since the New Deal the American people have been asked to simply trust government, to have faith in government almost as they would in God. That narrative isn’t supportable by the facts. It’s not supportable by history,” said Lee.
As such, Lee believes his book is ideal for high school or college graduates who likely heard little to nothing about the virtues of limited government.
“These are things not likely to have been taught in any high school or college history course, for the simple reason that they conflict with this modern narrative that says that government in general is great, you don’t need to fear it as much as some people might think and the federal government in particular can be trusted,” said Lee.
In the book, Lee highlights multiple figures forgotten or marginalized by history, starting with an unlikely figure from before the American founding.
“I chose, for example, Canasatego, the Iroquois Indian chief who hardly ever gets mentioned but in many respects is the father of American federalism, this concept of vertical separation of powers that says most of the governing is supposed to take place at the state and the local level,” said Lee.
“A few powers are given to our federal government in Washington, but everything else is supposed to remain with the people. That’s the essence of the 10th amendment and the rest of the Constitution even prior to the 10th amendment,” said Lee.
Lee also focuses on Aaron Burr, whose legacy goes far deeper than killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel.
“We forget about the fact that one of America’s most revered presidents (Thomas Jefferson) actually became quite dangerous in the case of Aaron Burr, had him prosecuted based on a perceived political fit of rage and very nearly won, but the Constitution held out and Aaron Burr was found not guilty,” said Lee.
“This is a reminder to us that even a revered man like Thomas Jefferson could abuse power and tried to abuse power,” said Lee.
Lee is also struck by how similar the debates over the intrusion of government are today compared with the founding era.
“Back then they were intrusions that, prior to the revolution, were considered against the right of Englishmen as established by laws of England, using things like Writs of Assistance, whereby law enforcement personnel would kick down doors, search people’s homes just looking for anything they might want to find to use as evidence against someone,” said Lee.
“This is one of the reasons why we ended up with protections found in the 4th amendment requiring that any searches be conducted pursuant to warrants and that those warrants be substantiated by probable cause and a warrant signed by a judge,” said Lee.
Lee says he is well aware of the conditioning Americans have undergone over the past 80 years to expect and accept big government, but he believes the momentum can be reversed.
“The hardest part is getting people to think about it, to talk about it, to read about it in books, to talk about it around the dinner table. Because once you have that part done, you can quickly move and bring about real change, the kind of change that returns power to the people,” said Lee.