Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Constitutional cultists

Fringe movements obsessed with paranoid conspiracy theories are hardly new to American politics. The populists of the 1890s were convinced the Rothschilds and "international bankers" were behind the farmers' troubles; the John Birch Society spent the 1960s warning that fluoridation and the United Nations were Soviet Communist plots.

What is new this year is the penetration of longstanding far-right conspiracy theories into the mainstream of the Republican Party, vividly on display in the platforms recently adopted by the Iowa and Maine GOPs. Many of the planks in these platforms are especially creepy for the cult-like manner in which they allude to bizarre and occult theories as if they were common knowledge: "Return to the principles of Austrian economics"; "make public the declaration of war made against the US on 23 Feb 1998"; "Reject any effort to give foreign citizens the right to vote in the U.S."

The one that probably will have most historians and constitutional scholars scratching their heads, though, is the reference in the Iowa platform to restoring "the original 13th Amendment, not the 13th Amendment in today’s Constitution." The one "in today's Constitution" is that one that abolished slavery in 1865. There was an amendment proposed in 1810 that would have become the 13th—had it been ratified—and it turns out that this is the centerpiece of one of the weirdest conspiracy theories of them all to make it into mainstream Republican "thinking" this year. 

Article I of the Constitution bars the United States or any state government from granting a title of nobility and forbids any Federal official from accepting such a title from "any King, Prince or foreign state." The proposed "original" 13th Amendment would have gone further, barring from office anyone who did accept such a title of "nobility or honour." Only twelve states ever ratified the proposed amendment and it was thus never adopted. But in 1991, a self-described "legal representative" for "sovereign citizens" (more on this below) began publishing articles in an extremist journal called AntiShyster claiming not only that the amendment had been ratified (a fact that a conspiracy of lawyers, bankers, and foreign interests subsequently suppressed) but that it also meant that all Federal government actions ever since were illegal because—ready for this?—lawyers, by using the title "esquire," had adopted a "title of honor" and thus could not legally serve as members of Congress.

This would seem like harmless loony tunes were it not for the fact that the people who invented and promoted these claims about "the original 13th Amendment" were part of the violent anti-government (and often white-supremacist and anti-Semitic) groups that began showing up at the same time. The "sovereign citizens" regularly claimed that the government has no authority to collect income taxes, enforce mortgage contracts, or even require drivers' licenses or hunting and fishing licenses, and several of their adherents even used the "original 13th Amendment" claim as an attempted legal defense after shooting and killing police officers—whom they insisted had no legal authority to stop them and demand to see their drivers' licenses. 

It has been a little-noted fact that the constitutional cultism of the Tea Party, and now much of the "mainstream" Republican Party as well (besides the "original" 13th Amendment, this includes assertions that the 14th Amendment was illegally adopted, that the 17th Amendment providing for direct election of U.S. senators should be repealed, that the Federal Reserve and most Federal regulatory laws are unconstitutional), comes right out of the extremist tax-protest, Posse Comitatus, and sovereign citizens movements of the 1990s. Jol Silversmith, who wrote the definitive law review article on the "missing" 13th Amendment, noted that the press has tended to view those advancing these outre constitutional conspiracy theories as "lovable rogues,"  ignoring their ties to anti-government extremist groups that use "constitutional nonsense"—and sometimes violence—as their weapons.