Don’t Stop With the Constitution, Read History Too

Cries of constitutional betrayal didn’t begin with the Obama administration.


By Scott Galupo, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

One of the most memorable images, for me, of the Tea Party protest at the Capitol last weekend in anticipation of the climactic House vote was taken by NRO's Kathryn Jean Lopez. (See here and scroll way down.) It's of a middle-aged guy reading a pocket-size edition of the Constitution. For all I know, he's a lawyer or legal scholar and was thinking specifically about the constitutionality, or lack thereof, of the individual mandate (a legitimately open question, as even many supporters of the new law will concede). More likely is that, like a lot of Tea Partiers, this whole business of Obama had him meditating on questions of the country's founding principles.

I think this is generally a good thing. While some conservatives have a tendency to view the Constitution as a sort of sacred urtext, revealed by God to hybrids of Milton Friedman and Moses dressed in breeches, waistcoats, and periwigs, the left all too easily sees it as a discardable vestige from a distant, slavery-stained past.

Reality, as always, is a great deal more complicated.

Glenn Beck tells us that the "cancer" of progressivism, and the subsequent slow death of our Constitution, began with Teddy Roosevelt. (To my admittedly incomplete knowledge of the Beckian oeuvre, he doesn't subscribe to the neo-confederate view of Lincoln as the Great Depredator. Which is good on him.)

And yet cries of constitutional betrayal by an overweening federal government began almost immediately after the thing was ratified and Sarah Palin's favorite founder, George Washington, assumed the presidency. Quite in its favor, this early opposition included the guy who largely wrote the document—James Madison—as well as the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson.

According to historian Sean Wilentz (a liberal—sorry!), the precursor to this official opposition, which reacted with horror at Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton's plans for a national bank and a sizable public debt, sprang from so-called "Democratic-Republican" societies that dotted each state.

Opponents of the Washington administration, Wilentz writes in The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, "railed against what they deemed the administration's pompous and monarchical public manner." They worried, too, about "the government's accelerating Anglophilic, antirepublican drift."

The parallel is hardly exact—the charge of Anglophilia is an obvious anachronism—but the Democratic-Republican societies sound to my ears like today's Tea Partiers, at least in this broad sense: They believe a president and his party violated the Constitution by expanding the federal government beyond its intended bounds and thereby usurped the rights of states and individuals.

Here's where it gets interesting: The societies were largely pro-French, even pro-Jacobin.

And one of their chief political goals, according to Wilentz, involved "establishing public libraries and library companies and demanding legislative aid to free public schooling to break down class privileges and cultivate an enlightened free citizenry."

This, needless to say, is not the kind of attitude that the Beck/Palin-oids are pushing today.

What's the point of this perhaps-tedious look-back at 18th-century American politics?

It's to tell our friend on the West Lawn who was thumbing his Constitution ... It's more complicated than that.

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