The Hobgoblin of a Little Mind

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, from the essay Self Reliance

Senator Rand Paul took boyish delight in pestering Senator John Kerry at his confirmation hearings for Secretary of State over the fact that as a candidate Barack Obama had said “the president doesn’t have the power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack.” But as president he did something much different in his support for NATO action in Libya in support of anti-Gadhafi rebels.

He sounded giddy when he asked: “I’d like to know if you agree with me and candidate Barack Obama, or if you agree with President Barack Obama who took us to war in Libya without Congressional authority unilaterally?”

See, he had caught Obama being inconsistent, which apparently, to Senator Paul, proves something deep and disquieting about Obama.

But what does inconsistency prove?

Have great statesmen ever been inconsistent?

Well, here are a couple of examples of inconsistency from the founding period.

Alexander Hamilton left the Constitutional Convention in disgust on June 30, 1787, saying that the document they were creating would ruin the nation. He returned in early September, and signed the final document, though he noted his disapproval of some measure. He then went on to be the coordinator and chief author of the Federalist Papers, which were fundamentally important in the ratification of the Constitution. What a flip-flopper.

James Madison, during the debate in the First Congress over the bill to charter the first Bank of the United States, said that the Constitution should be interpreted according to the understanding of men who wrote it. During other debates he said that the meaning of the Constitution was the meaning as understood by the men who ratified it in the states, and not by the Framers. During the debate over the second Bank of the United States Madison said that the meaning of the Constitution was determined by actual use and public acceptance. Finally, after he had retired from public life, he was asked about Constitutional interpretation and said that the understanding of the actual framers was unknowable and irrelevant. That dude was all over the place.

Thomas Jefferson ran for President in 1800 against President John Adams. Jefferson noted that many of Adam’s actions exceeded the scope of Presidential powers, and he said that the powers granted by the Constitution should be strictly construed. Then, in 1803, when France was having a fire sale on foreign territory to fund their European wars, Jefferson bought the Louisiana Territories, despite admitting both at the time and later, that this clearly exceeded his powers as president and violated express provisions of the Constitution. What a hypocrite.

So, what does this say about Hamilton, Madison and Jefferson?

And what does it say about Senator Paul?

Author: Mike

I am a patent attorney in Lexington, Kentucky. My law firm web site is I ran for State Representative in 2010 and lost in the primary. Many of these posts are based on writing that I did for that election. Rather than delete it all, I decided to dump it onto the internet.

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