The Wisdom of Richard Henry Lee

THE recent explosion in the reach of federal government has made limits on federal power once again the central political issue. Unfortunately, ignorance of our founding severely impoverishes that discussion. A good example is Richard Henry Lee. Lee made the motion calling for the colonies’ independence. He was a leader in the Continental Congresses, including as president. He was elected senator from Virginia, despite opposing the Constitution’s ratification for lacking “a better bill of rights.”

Particularly important were Lee’s Letters from the Federal Farmer, an important impetus to the Bill of Rights. Today, when what the federal government is permitted to do is again central, his arguments merit reconsideration. I can consent to no government, which … is not calculated equally to preserve the rights of all orders of men.

A free and enlightened people … will not resign all their rights to those who govern, and they will fix limits to their legislators and rulers…[who] will know they cannot be passed. [Hope] cannot justify the impropriety of giving powers, the exercise of which prudent men will not attempt, and imprudent men will … exercise only in a manner destructive of free government. Why … unnecessarily leave a door open to improper regulations? We cannot form a general government in which all power can be safely lodged. Should the general government…[employ] a system of influence, the government will take every occasion to multiply laws … props for its own support.

Vast powers of laying and collecting internal taxes in a government … would be … abused by imprudent and designing men. We ought not … commit the many to the mercy, prudence, and moderation of the few. National laws ought to yield to inalienable or fundamental rights—and … should extend only to a few national objects.

Men who govern will … construe laws and constitutions most favorably for increasing their own powers; all wise and prudent people … have drawn the line, and carefully described the powers parted with and the powers reserved … what rights are established as fundamental, and must not be infringed upon.

Our countrymen are entitled … to a government of laws and not of men … if the constitution … be vague and unguarded, then we depend wholly on the prudence, wisdom and moderation of those who manage the affairs of government… uncertain and precarious.

Liberty, in its genuine sense, is security to enjoy the effects of our honest industry and labors, in a free and mild government. The people have a right to hold and enjoy their property according to known standing laws, and which cannot be taken from them without their consent.

In free governments, the people … follow their own private pursuits, and enjoy the fruits of their labor with very small deductions for the public use. Our true object is … to render force as little necessary as possible.

The powers delegated to the government must be precisely defined… that, by no reasonable construction, they can be made to invade the rights and prerogatives intended to be left in the people.

We must consider this constitution, when adopted, as the supreme act of the people … we and our posterity must strictly adhere to the letter and spirit of it, and in no instance depart from them.

The first maxim of a man who loves liberty [is] never to grant to rulers an atom of power that is not most clearly and indispensably necessary for the safety and well-being of society. It must never be forgotten … that the liberties of the people are not so safe under the gracious manner of government as by the limitation of power.

According to Forrest McDonald, Lee was “imbued with an abiding love of liberty and a concomitant wholesome distrust of government.” In an era when the founding generation’s determination of the proper, narrow limits to impose on federal power has eroded to whether it is subject to virtually any limits, his insights are important. He knew that “The first maxim of a man who loves liberty” was “never to grant to rulers an atom of power that is not most clearly and indispensably necessary for the safety and well-being of society,” and that “It must never be forgotten … that the liberties of the people are not so safe under the gracious manner of government as by the limitation of power.” Americans today need to relearn those same lessons.

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