Paul Prather

Paul Prather: The debate about government size rages on

I happened to read several books in succession that covered diverse periods of U.S. history, ranging from the aftermath of the Revolutionary War to the Great Depression to the late 1960s.

And of course I always follow the daily news.

At last I saw something I'd never noticed: We're hearing the same political rhetoric and hurling the same insults our ancestors hurled more than 200 years ago.

Different day, nearly identical issues, from the era of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to President Barack Obama, Sen. Mitch McConnell and the Tea Party.

The faces change. The parties' names change, too: Democrats become Republicans and Republicans become Democrats; Whigs and Know-Nothings disappear.

Yes, specific topics rise and fade.

And some topics recur. Handwringers have wailed periodically since at least the 1840s that immigrants were overwhelming us religiously, morally, genetically and economically. The immigrant groups in question, however, keep shifting: Irish Catholics, Germans, Italians, Chinese, Jews, Mexicans. The Republic somehow still stands.

The basic, over-arching American issue, however, never changes.

(Alert: I realize I'm about to paint very broadly, but my space is limited.)

In the 1800 presidential campaign Adams and Jefferson, two founding fathers, or at least their acolytes, squared off in a battle royal of mudslinging. At stake: a presidency and fundamentally different views of America.

Adams, a New England Yankee, and other Federalists such as Alexander Hamilton believed that to survive, the country needed a strong central government that could regulate its economy, fight its wars and tax its citizens.

Jefferson, a Southern farmer, held a contrary view: The federal government should be weak and small. The states — and individuals — ought to be let alone to pursue their blisses without meddling.

The run-up to the 1800 election, which Jefferson won, proved nasty. Jefferson's supporters tarred Adams as a monarchist who cared nothing for personal rights and wanted to become de facto king, a friend of the hated British.

Adams' followers painted Jefferson as an amoral, rabble-rousing supporter of the French Revolution who would surrender our new country to its ignorant hordes — not to mention an atheist and womanizer who couldn't keep his pantaloons up.

Adams and Jefferson set the agenda for national melees ever since.

We can find the precursors of today's blue and red states in 1800's regional differences. We find charges and countercharges of un-Americanism and immorality.

More than anything, though, we see a central, philosophical disagreement over which is better, big or small government, the collective good or individual freedom.

It's the same disagreement that eventually led to the Civil War and 600,000 dead.

The question there: Are states obliged to submit to the federal government's will, or are they free to follow their own laws (even laws allowing some humans to own other humans) and to secede from the union should they become disenchanted?

Fast-forward to the Great Depression. In 1929, the stock market collapsed.

For three years, President Herbert Hoover insisted financial reforms and social programs would wreak more harm than good, that the wisest thing Washington could do was keep its big federal nose out of the problem, keep taxes and government spending low and let the free market take its natural course.

The Depression only deepened. Democrats decried Hoover, a Republican, as the heartless, witless shill of bankers and industry.

Along came Franklin Roosevelt: What America needed, he argued, was more federal intervention, larger aid programs, stouter business regulations. Bigger government. Roosevelt's Republican opponents tarred him as a traitor and a Communist.

Aren't these the same battles we're fighting today? It isn't that either philosophy is inherently superior. Both have their strengths and both carry their own blowback.

Yes, too much government is bad. Too little may be worse.

The trick is deciding where the line lies between too much and too little.

Brilliant people of great courage and laudable intentions may differ.

Adams and Hamilton were wise men, not to mention patriots who'd risked their livelihoods and lives for this country. They both wanted the best for it. They disagreed over how to achieve that best.

The encouraging thing is that, while they parted as enemies after the 1800 election, ultimately they reconciled and rekindled an earlier friendship. They rediscovered mutual respect.

About 10 years after their split, Adams told someone, "I always loved Jefferson, and still love him."

When his feelings were reported to Jefferson, Jefferson wrote a mutual friend, "This is enough for me. I only needed this knowledge to revive towards him all of the affections of the most cordial moments of our lives."

Interestingly, both men died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Adams' last words: "Thomas Jefferson survives."

Unknown to him, Jefferson had preceded him by several hours.

We'd all benefit if our entrenched, bitter leaders today could remember they didn't invent the philosophy of government they've adopted — whether they're for increasing government's size or shrinking it.

If they could recall we've been having this debate for nearly as long as we've been a nation.

If they could admit that honest people can perceive this same dilemma differently.

If they would strive for the largeness of spirit Adams and Jefferson ultimately displayed toward each other.