Sunday, August 8, 2010

Dressing up in a tricorn hat doesn't make you a historian

There’s much that is despicable (ugly anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric), scary (overt calls to violence), and fatuous (exhibitionists in tricorn hats talking in fake English accents) in the Tea Party movement. But for sheer irritation value, it’s their cartoonish version of American history, the founding fathers, and the Constitution that the tea partiers keep trying to foist on the rest of us that takes the prize.

Mercifully there’s comic relief even here, provided most recently by an amusing account of tea partiers being shown up for the fools they are by the costumed reenactors at Colonial Williamsburg. I’ve never been a big fan of “living history,” but clearly even actors putting on a show for the tourists are infinitely better informed about history than the Tea Party crowd, who have lately been descending on Colonial Williamsburg for the chance to rub elbows with their Revolutionary heroes.

Typical exchange between Tea Party tourist and “George Washington”:
Tourist: What should we do about Americans who remain loyal to the tyrannical British king?

George Washington (shocked): I hope that we’re all loyal, sir.
One of the greatest distortions of history perpetrated by the tea partyites is their attempt to enlist the authority of the founding fathers to back up their tendentious reading of the Constitution with respect to “states’ rights.” (A small aside: you have to be surpassingly ignorant of the last 150 years of American history not to realize that “states’ rights” has meant one thing and one thing only: the attempt by the South to justify slavery, secession, and then a century of disfranchisement of African Americans. But we’ll let that one go for now.) Typical is the assertion made by Virginia Tea Party activist Rick Buchanan: “the founding fathers were very afraid of a central government.”
My friend and colleague David Kahn, author of The Codebreakers and former op-ed page editor of Newsday, once told me that his publisher at Newsday used to say, “Writing letters to the editor is the first sign of insanity.” But nonetheless I responded to Buchanan’s statement with a letter to the Washington Post pointing out that the actual history is precisely the opposite: it was fear of the state governments which was overwhelmingly the driving force that led the founders to call for a new constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation. Most of the crafters and proponents of the Constitution fully expected to see the Federal government transcend, and in time supplant, the state governments in most basic functions of government. The Constitution gave the federal government direct taxation power (“to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States”) and sharply circumscribed the power of the states, forbidding them to enact laws impairing contracts, to issue currency, and to levy duties, among many other restrictions. It also created a Federal judiciary—something completely new, and which the framers of the Constitution fully expected would (as historian Gordon Wood notes in his superb new book Empire of Liberty) “break down state loyalties and nationalize the society” by ensuring that Federal authority, even over common crimes, would “penetrate the membrane of state sovereignty and operate directly on individuals.” (How the Federal courts in the end abandoned the administration of the common law is a long and interesting story, which I’ll plan to return to at a later date.)

Even a republican stalwart like James Madison had been horrified by the “excesses of democracy” (yes, that was the phrase commonly used) of the state legislatures, in which partisan and local special interests were rampant, factional fighting rife, and all the worst sorts of political backscratching  and pork-barrel corruption on display. Madison saw a much-empowered Federal government as absolutely vital to check the “local prejudices” and “schemes of injustice” so manifest in local politics. He even proposed a Federal veto over all state legislation, and when the Constitutional Convention failed to adopt that idea he was sure the new Constitution was doomed to failure.

And when the convention adopted the big-state/small-state compromise of giving the states equal representation in the Senate, Madison was so horrified by the power that that would give to the state legislatures (which under the original Constitution chose each state’s two U.S. senators), he swiftly moved to strip away many of the powers that he had all along conceived of being exercised by the Senate, including appointing Federal officials and conducting foreign affairs, and give them to the president instead. (The 17th Amendment—adopted in 1913 in reaction to the massive corruption in state legislatures’ selection of U.S. senators—instituted popular election of senators. The Tea Party in one of its absolute nuttiest ideas wants to repeal that and return to the good old anti-democratic method of having senators chosen by the state legislatures.)

What’s fascinating about all this is that the tea partyniks are not just a little bit wrong: they have managed to get their history almost exactly backwards.