In 1999 Texas Congressman Ron Paul introduced in the House of Representatives a bill entitled The Freedom and Privacy Restoration Act. Paul is a Republican lawmaker with a small but fi ercely loyal following among libertarian-leaning conservatives and isolationists. He has called for the abolition of the Federal Reserve Board, an end to American membership in the United Nations, and the legalization of a number of currently illicit drugs, among other positions that place him outside the mainstream of American politics. In The Freedom and Privacy Restoration Act Paul proposed a ban on the introduction of any sort of national identity card and an end to the use of social security numbers and some other national databases for all but very limited purposes. The state’s ability to identify citizens and record their activities had, Paul argued, assumed forms and reached levels that violated constitutionally guaranteed liberties. “The only ef ective protection of the rights of citizens,” Paul observed, “is for Congress to follow Thomas Jef erson’s advice and bind down [the federal government] with the chains of the Constitution.” (2002)

Such a statement is vintage 1776. The idea that the purpose of government is to protect the rights of citizens, that the executive branch has a tendency toward encroachments on rights and liberties that needs to be guarded against, and that the Constitution provides all the necessary guideposts for what the state is allowed to do and especially what it is prohibited from doing: these were widely accepted principles of government in revolutionary America. More than two centuries later these principles seem as relevant to many Americans, including Ron Paul, as they did to Jef erson and his contemporaries. Moreover, the idea that what Jef erson, Thomas Paine, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and others thought about government and the Constitution-men who lived when the United States had a mainly agricultural economy, when about one-fi fth of the population consisted of Black slaves, and before an American identity well and truly existed-is agreed by many Americans. What would Jefferson say? What would Madison do? Many Americans think it is entirely reasonable to seek guidance for current problems in the ideas of those who lived and governed in very dif erent times.