A “grand design” refers to any kind of deliberate plan of action. In politics, the term is usually used to mean an overarching strategy or a long-term plan.
A grand design implies long-term thinking.
The opposite of a grand design, of course, is a series of disconnected responses to events. That approach – the “muddling through” approach – is not a favorite with political scientists.
“Grand design” can also have religious connotations. The term can refer to the “grand design” supposed to originate with God. A book by the Mormon author E. Douglas Clark, for example, is titled “The Grand Design: America from Columbus to Zion.” Clark argues such people as Christopher Columbus and the Founding Fathers were all led by the hand of God to carry out a key mission towards fulfilling America’s destiny.
In the past, Americans talked about “grand design” more often than they do today. The concept of “manifest destiny,” or the belief that Americans were intended to spread out across the continent of North America, can be described as a particularly fervent example of grand design.
Secular historians also like to talk about the founding fathers and grand design. In the secular sense, grand design means a plan which originated with the founding fathers themselves, rather than a plan handed down from on high. Usually, historians describe the writing of the Constitution and the formation of the US government as an example of grand design.
Still, historians and think tanks have a tendency to see a grand design in whatever aspect of the government they approve of. Features which they disapprove of aren’t usually described in this way.
The libertarian Hoover Institution, for example, issued a paper titled “Federalism: the Grand Design.” The paper enthuses over state rights and the federalist system at large:
Federalism was part of the constitutional tapestry designed by our Constitution’s framers to create an effective national government while protecting liberty. First, they invested the national government with limited and specifically prescribed powers, only those powers essential for effective governance. They also established specific constraints on government power and recognized specific rights in the Bill of Rights.
Sometimes, the founding fathers had conflicting grand designs. The Federalists clashed with the Republicans over the reach of the national government and the economy. If the Federalists had one grand design, the Republicans had their own, competing grand design.
Jeffrey Estano delved into this in an essay titled Friendship and Conflict: The Relationship of the U.S. Founding Fathers:
Economic differences between Federalists and Republicans were a primary source of conflict. The most drastic point of contention centered on Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s plan for a national economy, and the opposition he faced from the Republicans. Hamilton’s grand design called for the assumption of state debts by the national government, the formation of a national bank, and the establishment of national credit. A true genius (and a favorite of President George Washington), Secretary Hamilton stood in position to permanently elevate the federal government’s power over that of the state governments.”