In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson found himself in a position to nearly double the size of U.S. territory. He also sought to avoid future conflicts with France over Mississippi River navigation rights. But, the Louisiana Purchase gave the staunch advocate for a strict reading of federal power a pretty hefty dilemma.
He was well aware that the Constitution delegated the general government no authority to take such action. In fact, in a letter that year to John Breckinridge – the man who sponsored his 1798 Kentucky Resolutions rejecting unconstitutional federal powers – he referred to the purchase as “beyond the Constitution.”
In order to remain true to his principles, the states would need to ratify a constitutional amendment delegating to the federal government the power to make the purchase. But the clock was ticking and the deal would likely fall apart in the time necessary to complete the amendment process. And, his cabinet insisted an amendment was unnecessary anyway.
So what did Jefferson do?
He did what every good politician eventually does. He abandoned principle to pragmatism and plunked down $15 million for the 827,000 square miles of land.
You have to give the third president credit for at least coming up with a colorful rationalization. In that same letter to Breckinridge, he wrote:
“It is the case of a guardian, investing the money of his ward in purchasing an important adjacent territory; and saying to him when of age, I did this for your good.”
Jefferson’s obfuscation shouldn’t surprise any of us. Compromise and flip-flopping go with politics like peanut butter goes with jelly. It just goes to show; even those personalities we hold out as the most principled – the so-called great ones – sometimes disappoint us.
How should we handle this kind of disappointment? Forever write off the offender as a traitor to the cause? Ignore the foible and continue to prop him up on his pedestal? Tear him down or make excuses for him?
Or is there an altogether better way to approach things?
Disappointment washed across the liberty movement like a tsunami over the last few weeks. For two years, thousands of freedom lovers poured their hearts and souls into a presidential campaign, only to see it stumble far short of the finish line. Another personality engaged in political maneuvering that some in the liberty movement found shrewd and pragmatic. Others expressed their disgust with all kinds of vicious condemnations. The events of the last several weeks left many liberty lovers sounding confused, hopeless and defeated.
This brings up important questions: why do we invest so much time and energy into personalities when history teaches us that disappointment is a virtual certainty? After all, isn’t the liberty movement about a set of principles – and not about a person’s name?
Granted, we need leaders to advance our ideas. And when politicians pass good legislation, which is rare, is certainly does help too. But when the personalities become the focus of the movement, we set ourselves up for failure.
People will always disappoint us at some point. They will make mistakes. They will abandon principles for one reason or another. And ultimately, they will fade away.
We simply cannot afford to place all of our hopes on a single man or woman ascending to the White House throne, no matter how great that person may appear. Electing a handful of “good ones” to Congress won’t guarantee victory for the cause either. Even the “good ones” can prove not so good when elevated to positions of power.
So, instead of rallying around a cult of personality, I suggest we continue to build our movement on a set of unchanging principles.
At the Tenth Amendment Center, we intentionally avoid getting all wrapped up in the players on the field – especially on a national level. Instead, we tirelessly focus our attention and efforts on advancing one agenda: follow the Constitution. Every issue, every time, no exceptions, no excuses.
Of course, we praise politicians and leaders when they support our cause and put our principles into action. We quote them when they get it right. We publish their articles when they articulate them well.
But we call them out just as quickly when they fail to uphold our ideals. For us here at the TAC, people serve a purpose as players on the board, but not as the objective of the game. Leaders, politicians and personalities have a purpose, but they are never the purpose.
Our focus on principle means we don’t align ourselves exclusively with any particular political movement or their various leaders. We don’t claim the mantle of Republican or Democrat. We aren’t Tea Partiers or Occupiers. We don’t call ourselves liberals or conservatives. And we don’t cast our lot exclusively with libertarians either.
We simply want to live free. So, we build coalitions where we see opportunities to advance the principles of constitutionally limited government and the decentralization of power. Sometimes we work with the right. Sometimes we do so with the left.
And, most of the time we irritate both sides of the political aisle.
With all of the angst in the liberty movement right now, perhaps it’s time to consider a fresh approach. I hope you will take some time to look seriously at the work we do here at the Tenth Amendment Center. Maybe instead of investing so much effort in promoting a few individuals on the national level, we should instead focus on advancing a set of principles.
I can guarantee you this: no matter who wins the presidential election in 2012, no matter what crazy statement this or that politician may make in the coming year, no matter who casts a stupid vote or makes a disappointing endorsement in the future, we will be right here doing what we’ve done for the last six years – fighting to limit the size and scope of the federal government to its properly prescribed road.
To quote Jefferson once again, “In questions of power, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”
There, sir, you were certainly right.
Every issue. Every time. No exceptions. No excuses.