The “American system”: It us un-American

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Written By Red Phillips

President Obama’s recent “you didn’t build that” comment has ignited quite a debate.  Interestingly, this debate has brought to the forefront the terminology and the idea of the “American System.” James Pinkerton covers the history of the “American System” well in this article from The American Conservative, although, as you will see, I do not totally agree with his take.

Those of us who have been involved in the renewed debate over the merits of Abraham Lincoln are well aware of the term “American System” as one of the chief criticisms of Lincoln by his new antagonists is that he essentially remained a Henry Clay style Whig intent on advancing Clay’s “American System” including federally subsidized “internal improvements” (infrastructure), which is why he could not afford to let the South leave. So I was a bit surprised that this terminology seemed new to so many people, but I guess if you have not been following the Lincoln debate it could be.

While as a partisan Southerner I do not concede that the debate about Lincoln was ever over, there has clearly been a recent upsurge in Lincoln revisionism. I would date this “renewed” debate to the publication of Thomas DiLorenzo’s first Lincoln book. Lincoln as Clay style Whig was one of DiLorenzo’s main themes.

Of course for conservatives and constitutionalist, Clay’s “American System” is un-American. (It is probably more accurate albeit less alliterative to call it un-Constitutional rather than un-American because violating the Constitution has unfortunately been a feature of American reality for quite some time now.) According to conservative minded constitutionalists, the Constitution is a document of “enumerated powers” so if the power is not enumerated the Federal Government does not have it. By this reading of the Constitution there should be virtually no federal spending on infrastructure. Roads and bridges are a state and local concern.

I concede that there is always the question of what was intended and authorized by the term “post roads” in the Constitution (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 7), but the defenders of the interstate highway system did not even try to justify it on the basis of “post roads,” but rather they attempted to justify it on national defense grounds. Even if you allow for a liberal interpretation of what it means to “establish” post roads, the Federal Government does not have carte blanche authority to build infrastructure for the facilitation of enterprise which is what Clay’s “American System” envisioned.

Of course Romney will not make this constitutionalist argument. Instead he will continue to reinforce the impression that he is a Chamber of Commerce Republican and have his surrogates make vague insinuations that Obama is a collectivist or a socialist or whatever and does not respect entrepreneurs. (As Pinkerton points out, Obama is in fact an advocate of a “mixed economy,” but Republicans and movement conservative wags cannot effectively make this point because for so many of them their defense of “free-enterprise” is actually shilling for state corporatism gussied up with free-market platitudes. How can the same people who labeled Ron Paul a wacko for criticizing the Federal Reserve question the wisdom of Henry “Second Bank of the United States” Clay’s “American System?”) And a valuable opportunity to explain what the American System (constitutionally limited government) really is and should be will be lost.

Published originally at : republication allowed with this notice and hyperlink intact.”

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