RALEIGH – About a year ago, I began researching my family history with an eye towards writing two books, one about my father’s Western North Carolina family and the other about my mother’s Charlotte-area one. Along the way, I discovered some wonderful stories of ancestors or relatives who had sought freedom, fought for freedom, and in some cases died for it.
Naturally, these stories became great fodder for columns – a welcome by-product when you write four columns a week. I have written about an ancestor beaten to death for criticizing a Maryland governor, an abolitionist ancestor whose decisions led to an early court case on slavery, a Connecticut ancestor who defended the celebration of Christmas against Puritan restrictions, and a group of Virginia ancestors whose fight for religious liberty helped attract Thomas Jefferson to the cause.
Today I write not so much about freedom as about irony. This story begins with the disclosure that I am a distant cousin of President Barack Obama. Our common ancestors are Edwin and Eleanor Hickman, who lived near present-day Charlottesville, Virginia during the mid-18th century. Edwin Hickman was himself a politician, variously serving as county sheriff, magistrate, and chief justice.
The Hickman family was related to another Virginia clan, the Conways. Those ties explain how both President Obama and I are distant cousins of James Madison, the nation’s fourth president.
The Obama-Madison family connection was actually widely reported shortly after the 2008 election. New presidents are often the subject of genealogical disclosures and speculations. But now that we in the fourth year of President Obama’s term, I thought it might be interesting to evaluate his performance on some of the constitutional principles espoused by his cousin James Madison in The Federalist Papers and later writings. For example:
• The unprecedented assertions of the national government’s authority contained in the ObamaCare law and other administration initiatives would surely have troubled the Madison who wrote that the federal constitution “forms a happy combination” of specified national powers enjoyed by the president or Congress and other powers reserved for state legislatures.
• The Obama administration’s defense of the constitutionality of ObamaCare would surely have troubled the Madison who wrote that such arguments “would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation instead of the defined and limited one hitherto understood to belong to them, the terms ‘common defense and general welfare’ embracing every object and act within the purview of a legislative trust.”
• The negative economic effects of the Obama administration’s regulatory excesses would surely have troubled the Madison who asked, “What prudent merchant will hazard his fortunes in any new branch of commerce when he knows not that his plans may be rendered unlawful before they can be executed?”
• The number and complexity of these new rules would surely have troubled the Madison who wrote that “it will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood.”
• The Obama administration’s hostility to assertions of Second Amendment rights would surely have troubled the Madison who wrote that the constitution “preserves the advantage of being armed which Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation where the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.”
More generally, when President Obama and other progressives defend their policies on the basis of good intentions, surely James Madison would have referred them to his most famous observation about public life: “What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
Barack Obama, my wayward (and, yes, American) cousin, I feel compelled to inform you that you’ve been embarrassing our family. Please return to the fold. Alternatively, you might consider an extended leave of absence from politics so you can bone up on the tradition of American liberty articulated so eloquently by Cousin Jimmy.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.