A History of American Distrust of Government

By Garry Wills

Simon & Schuster. 343 pp. $25

Reviewed by Curtis Gans

The most striking feature of the last two decades of American politics is the ascent of an intense minority of anti-government, pro-fundamentalist-morality activists organized originally behind the 1964 presidential candidacy of Sen. Barry Goldwater. It has succeeded in becoming a major force in the Republican Party and in establishing the agenda for discussion in domestic affairs. It has also succeeded in producing a government shutdown; perpetual gridlock; a majority congressional party unable to fashion a program; a noticeable decline in political civility; a decade-long failure to address central problems such as Social Security, Medicare, economic inequality and insecurity; a sterile public debate about abortion, term limits and the dismantling of needed regulation; and a public increasingly disgusted with politics.

It has, however, changed the terms of debate. The Democrats, for whom the constructive use of government has been the central and unifying factor since the New Deal, now fearfully shy away from a defense of government, talk about "opportunity," and decry "extremism." Republican moderates and liberals, who believe in government -- albeit, from their point of view, on a sounder fiscal basis -- are an endangered species, seldom seen or heard. And a Democratic president feels compelled to declare that "The era of big government is over" in order to protect small-bore governmental activism.

In a series of essays compiled in a small mid-1960s book, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Richard Hofstadter described the careers of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and Goldwater, and ascribed the psychological roots of the new anti-governmental right largely to fundamentalism and fear of change. Garry Wills, the inheritor of Hofstadter's mantle as the nation's preeminent illuminator of the American political present through research into America's past, has gone further. He assaults the intellectual underpinnings of the many on the right and a few on the left who, over the history of the nation and now, view the federal government as the public's enemy.

A Necessary Evil refers to what may well be the current prevailing attitude among the citizenry: that government, especially the federal government, is inherently evil; that it is necessary (most notably for national defense), but that the Jeffersonian maxim still applies: "that government is best which governs least." Wills reminds us that it was not Jefferson's Anti-Federalists who won the debate on the shape of the Constitution but Hamilton's Federalists. And, in the first half of his book, after an exhaustive review of Revolutionary history and the birth of the Constitution -- in what is likely to be a lasting contribution to the debate over the role of government -- Wills reveals a historical record that challenges current conservative nostrums, to wit:

In reaction to the Continental Congress's inability to govern effectively under the system of consensus among the individual states under the Articles of Confederation, the Framers of the Constitution deliberately rested sovereignty with the American citizenry as a whole and with the federal government. So much for exaggerated claims of state sovereignty and rights.

The Framers did not, as is widely believed, create three co-equal branches of government; nor did they seek, in creating three branches, a system of checks and balances aimed at limiting the power of any one branch. They clearly and in a variety of ways (including the number of articles devoted to each) made Congress, the law-making branch, preeminent. And because of the Continental Congress's ineffectiveness in attempting to make, execute and adjudicate policy as one body, the Framers sought to create three distinct governmental branches to promote efficiency in doing these necessary tasks. So much for the idea that the Framers primarily sought checks on the possible abuse of federal power.

Guided by their experience with a Continental Congress whose members were term-limited (usually to one year) and who often could not muster a quorum, let alone agree upon the prosecution of a war for independence, the Framers specifically rejected the concept of term limits and amateur politicians, opting instead for the concept of paid professional statesmen responsible (they hoped) to the electorate. So much for the historical basis of the current term-limit movement.

The Framers decided, after considerable debate and controversy, that the best protection for the fledgling nation against the parochialism and intolerance of faction (whether that be of interest, state or region) was a strong federal government more likely to be able to rise above the calling of narrow interest. So much for the historical basis of the idea that the individual, community, state and region are the best judges of the general welfare.

In the entire debate over the Second Amendment, there was precisely one reference to the use of firearms for personal protection, in a dissenting memorandum that was never discussed. The discussion largely centered on whether or not to preserve the state voluntary militias that performed abysmally in the Revolutionary War. So much for the inalienable right to carry a handgun.

In the less compelling second part of this book, Wills traces the history and debunks the intellectual pretentions of all but one of the approaches, from Daniel Shays to Timothy McVeigh, which have been used to attack federal sovereignty: nullification, secession, insurrection, vigilantism, civil disobedience and individual withdrawal a la Thoreau. He allows that civil disobedience undertaken in the manner of Martin Luther King, Jr. -- with a clear and compelling moral purpose, love for one's opponent, discipline in tactics, a willingness to take responsibility for one's actions and aimed not at overthrowing authority but at changing laws and practice -- is a legitimate tool for social change.

There are two purposes to Wills's treatise. The first is to provide the intellectual and historical fodder to effectively argue with not only the current band of anti-government social conservatives but also their intellectual defenders, including George Will, whom he cites twice, and the unmentioned Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, whose concept of originalism in interpreting the Constitution according to its actual words often ignores context and intent. But Wills's larger purpose is to argue that government in the eyes of the Framers and ever since is a necessary good. While government cannot be "the family, the church, the local club or the private intellectual circle," it is necessary not simply to provide for the common defense but to promote the general welfare, adjudicate disputes, diffuse faction, expand liberty, address problem and need, provide authoritative information for public judgment, establish standards for public safety and, among many other things, bind a disparate nation into a common whole.

The question occurs, why has anti-government hostility persisted over time, and why is it so virulent now after a half-century in which government has, among other actions, provided a more secure old age, improved the quality of our air and water, expanded liberty and rights to include all Americans, improved public safety in the workplace and in the appliances we use, expanded the safety net of health protection, established a floor for earnings and successfully waged both a hot and cold war against the nation's totalitarian enemies?

Over the long term, Wills ascribes distrust of government to a variety of factors but, most important, to a set of values that has persisted through our history, headed by individualism and anti-authoritarianism, which are antithetical to the values needed to sustain support for governance. In dealing with the present, Wills devotes the better part of a chapter to secrecy. Borrowing liberally and with attribution from the work of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Wills portrays secrecy as undermining both the accountability of government to the people and the effectiveness of government and, when the secrets are finally revealed, providing evidence of dishonesty and dishonor. There is, in the present context, more: rapid change along the faultlines of two highly emotional issues, race and sex; the cynicism by which politics is increasingly conducted and covered by the media; the irresponsible anti-government demagoguery of leadership.

But perhaps most pertinent are the examples of national leadership over the last three decades: Lyndon Johnson's "I'm not going to send American boys to do what Asian boys should be doing" and his subsequent dishonesty to the American public and abuse of power in pursuing the war in Vietnam; Richard Nixon's "I am not a crook," and the subsequent revelation that he was one, at least when it came to abuse of power; Ronald Reagan's dishonesty and abuse of authority in pursuing the Iran-Contra affair; George Bush's "Read my lips"; and Bill Clinton's "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" and the subsequent year-long national ordeal to demonstrate that he did.

Which is to suggest that although Wills's lucid, important and vigorous defense of government is vitally needed at this time, it is likely to have more resonance when our leaders are able to recall that politics and governance are not simply about power and public policy but also about public trust.

Curtis Gans, as director of the non-partisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, has been studying the growing disengagement of the American citizenry from the processes of politics and government.


Ronald Reagan liked to say that the states were more important than the federal government since they had preceded and formed it. John Adams, who thought that should have been the case, lamented, during the actual process of declaring independence, that it was not happening that way. . . .

What actually happened is better described by President Lincoln than by President Reagan:

"Our states have neither more nor less power than that reserved to them in the Union by the Constitution -- no one of them ever having been a state out of the Union. The original ones passed into the Union even before they cast off their British colonial dependence; and the new ones each came into the Union directly from a condition of dependence, excepting Texas. And even Texas, in its temporary independence, was never designated a state."

Lincoln had important predecessors agreeing with him -- James Wilson, Elbridge Gerry, Nathan Dane, John Quincy Adams, Joseph Story, Daniel Webster, and Andrew Jackson. Nonetheless, most people today assume that Reagan was right. They can argue that (1) some states drew up governments even before the Declaration of Independence was issued, (2) the states formed the Continental Congress by sending their delegates to it, and (3) the states directed their delegates to vote for independence. . .

But the three points can be answered thus: (1) Most colonial assemblies did not set up governments before the Declaration of Independence -- revolutionary committees did it, on the instructions of the Continental Congress. (2) The delegates sent by the committes were instructed to consider relations with England in a joint way for joint action. (3) Their votes did not declare any one colony, or all of them, independent prior to the joint vote of the "United Colonies." Most instructions referred to the United Colonies. But Connecticut called them "the United American Colonies," and Delaware recommended independence "for promoting the liberty, safety, and interest of America." The colonies did not act, so far as independence was concerned, singly but in concert. The entity that was declared independent was the united body of states, as we learn from the most careful study of the historical sequence, prepared by Richard Morris. He concludes that the states "were created by the Continental Congress, which preceded them in time and brought them into being." Lincoln was right, after all, not Reagan.

-- From "A Necessary Evil," by Garry Wills