Some nightmares last longer than others

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Column by Jim Flynn

Readers may wonder about the source of ideas for columns. We read newspapers and magazines. We rarely visit a blog (they’re disorganized). And we read books — most recently: “The Imperial Cruise,” a biographical telling of Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policies and “7 Events That Made America,” — turning points in U.S. history.
One turning point was “Martin Van Buren Has a Nightmare, and Big Government is Born.” New York State Senator Van Buren would later become Secretary of State, Vice President, and President.
At the time of Van Buren’s disturbing dream (1819) there were 22 states. On the sidelines, a dozen territories were considering applications for statehood. Missouri and Maine were at the head of the line. Under the historic Missouri compromise, Maine would be a free state and Missouri a slave state.
Van Buren could foresee a major conflict over slavery if the territories admitted to statehood were out of balance. A strong anti-slavery northern majority in Congress might attempt to abolish slavery in all states, which could lead to national disruption, and perhaps war.
Van Buren was less concerned about slavery than he was about preserving national unity. He envisioned a quiet campaign to keep the slavery issue out of politics and prevent its discussion in Congress for as long as possible.
To further his campaign, Van Buren and a few allies formed a movement to change the nature and practices of political parties. Their ideas were contrary to most of the founding fathers, who thought strong political parties would be disruptive.
Nonetheless, Van Buren perceived strong political parties as essential to good government. The now infamous slogan of his movement became “to the victors belong the spoils.”
Thus big government was born and political patronage became a reward for party loyalty and campaign work.
Because state and local governments were relatively small in the nineteenth century, there were a limited number of jobs to dole out to party loyalists. Van Buren did not foresee the inevitable and permanent growth of government which his scheme had hatched.
It didn’t take long for a new world of expanding governments to spread south. Van Buren’s New York cohorts and a Virginia group were soon considered a dangerous alliance which might seek to run the entire nation. They held caucuses to which powerful supporters contributed money and influence, and they selected favored candidates to run for state and federal offices.
Van Buren was convinced that as long as strong political parties could control selection of candidates and win elections, they could prevent direct confrontations over slavery.
Sadly, history proved him wrong with a devastating civil war, followed by decades of regional hostility.
In addition to an ever larger federal bureaucracy, Van Buren had opened the doors to persistent growth of government spending, rising national debt, special interests, crony capitalism, and expensive national elections.
Ironically, despite his energy and convictions, Van Buren was unable to control the size and cost of government during his own presidency (1837-41). His nightmare became his reality, and now it’s ours.

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