A History Lesson for a Conservative President

October 21, 2002 • Commentary
This article originally appeared on FoxNews​.com on October 21, 2002.

The philosopher Michael Oakeshott once remarked that conservatism is not so much an ideology as it is a disposition to enjoy the fruits of the past and to distrust novelty.

For American conservatives, the past begins and often ends with the founding era and its greatest fruit, the Constitution. The Constitution established a constitutional republic dedicated to liberty and limited government under law.

James Madison, the primary author of our Constitution, never took constitutional government for granted. His famous Federalist No. 10 analyzed the dangers to liberty from political factions founded on class resentment or religious fervor. Less noticed today, he also believed that war offered a profound threat to liberty and limited government.

In 1795, Madison wrote “Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.” War required armies which lead to debt and taxes, all three of which “are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.” Like many classical liberals, Madison knew that the state makes war and war makes the state.

Madison’s skepticism about war grew out of his antipathy to monarchy and its democratic cousin, the executive branch. War, he wrote in 1791, was a disease that “must continue to be hereditary like the government of which it is the offspring.” Kings could make war, Madison noted, because they were spending other people’s money and lives. The solution to the disease of war was making the government subordinate to the will of the community through republican institutions.

Even in a republic, “war is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement.” After all, the president would direct armies, spend public money and achieve the presumed glory of victory. If “war is among the most dangerous of all enemies to liberty,” he concluded near the end of George Washington’s second term, “the executive is the most favored by it, of all the branches of power.” Citizens in a constitutional republic should thus “keep a watchful, tho’ not censorious eye” over the executive branch.

Madison’s time as secretary of state and president contravened his skepticism about war.

Early in Thomas Jefferson’s second term as president, the war between Britain and France led both countries to harass American shipping, and the British added to the insult by forcing 10,000 American sailors to serve in Her Majesty’s navy. America could not tolerate such restrictions, in part for republican reasons. Jefferson and Madison believed free trade provided a market for America’s farmers thereby supporting the habits and virtues necessary for a the survival of a constitutional republic.

At the same time, that same republican commitment precluded war with Britain or France. Jefferson responded instead with “the means of peace coercion,” an embargo on foreign trade with the United States in 1807. He hoped the need for trade would force both nations to respect American neutrality in their war.

Jefferson was mistaken. The embargo hurt the United States far more than it did the European belligerents. American exports dropped by 80 percent in the first year, farmers saw prices bottom out, and 30,000 sailors lost their jobs. Smugglers did find work, especially through Canada, leading Jefferson to enforce the blockade by military force. The embargo ended in 1809 in failure.

Following Jefferson into the presidency, Madison needed a new way to protect American shipping. Congress tried to give both Britain and France an incentive to respect American neutrality. If either nation left American shipping in peace, the United States would stop trade with the other country. Napoleon agreed and trade again ceased with Britain. Nineteen months later the British relented and decided to remove restrictions on American trade. The change in policy came too late. Goaded by war hawks in Congress, Madison asked the legislature for a declaration of war in 1812.

The war of 1812 was not glorious. The United States was not prepared, and the early battles went badly. The British occupied and burnt the capital forcing Madison and his wife, Dolly, to flee. Americans fought bravely later in the war and obtained a peace that restored the antebellum order. The Treaty of Ghent ending the war was silent about British harassment of American ships and sailors.

Yet the war seemed a triumph at the time, fostering a spirit of nationalism and collective achievement. In the remaining two years of his second term, Madison pushed a strongly nationalistic domestic agenda. He worked for a rechartering of the national bank, a new tariff and federal spending on internal improvements like roads and canals. The war for free trade culminated in protectionism and a burgeoning federal establishment.

Sometimes history seems little more than a series of tragic ironies. From 1807 onward, both Madison and Jefferson struggled with the force of circumstances imposed from afar and ultimately carried out policies they both would have condemned prior to assuming office. More tragically, it’s hard to see exactly how the War of 1812 served our national interest.

Like Madison, President Bush is a conservative who espouses limited government and individual liberty. However, he sometimes invokes Theodore Roosevelt, a president who had “no more use for the Constitution than a tomcat has for a marriage license” in the words of his contemporary, House Speaker Joseph Cannon. For TR, war was a moral mission, a struggle to realize righteousness. Similarly, President Bush has spoken of transforming Iraq into a democracy, so that the promise of the United Nations might be fulfilled in our time.

No one should envy President Bush. He must protect the nation and prosecute the war against terrorism. Yet doing that may well enhance the powers of the federal government in general and the presidency in particular, especially if the war becomes a moral crusade. President Bush may find, like President Madison, that wars, even just ones, inevitably contravene conservative hopes for liberty and limited government.

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