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How Tea Partiers Diss the Framers

By       Message Robert Parry     Permalink
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The building of canals, as an argument in support of the Commerce Clause and the Constitution, further reflected the commercial desires of key Founders. In 1785, two years before the Constitutional Convention, George Washington started the Potowmack Company, which began the work of digging canals to extend navigable waterways westward where he and other Founders had invested in Ohio and other undeveloped lands.

Thus, the idea of involving the central government in major economic projects -- a government-business partnership to create jobs and profits -- was there from the beginning. Madison, Washington and other early American leaders saw the Constitution as creating a dynamic system so the young country could grow and overcome the daunting challenges of its vast territory.

Finessing Opposition

At other points in the Federalist Papers, Madison insisted that -- except for the Commerce Clause -- most of the other changes simply enhanced pre-existing federal powers rather than creating entirely new ones.

In Federalist Paper No. 45, Madison wrote:

"If the new Constitution be examined with accuracy, it will be found that the change which it proposes consists much less in the addition of NEW POWERS to the Union, than in the invigoration of its ORIGINAL POWERS."

Madison noted:

"The regulation of commerce, it is true, is a new power; but that seems to be an addition which few oppose, and from which no apprehensions are entertained."

Today's Tea Partiers often cite Madison's comments in No. 45 to portray him as a fellow traveler, someone who opposed a strong central government. They claim he was really an advocate for states' rights.

But that is simply taking Madison's words out of the context. In No. 45, he was simply trying to finesse his Anti-Federalist opponents. Yet, even in playing down what he was doing in the Constitution, Madison acknowledged that he was beefing up of federal powers.

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Indeed, the Constitution flipped the relationship between the states and the central government. Under the Articles of Confederation, the states were supreme; under the Constitution, the federal government was dominant.

Yet, by creating a bogus founding narrative, Tea Partiers and the American Right have confused many Americans about the historical reality. Some of the billions of dollars in right-wing propaganda money have spilled into the pockets of "scholars" who have given a shine to the historical revisionism that transformed Madison and other key Framers into anti-government ideologues.

Whenever these right-wingers discuss the Founders, the narrative jumps from the Declaration of Independence to the U.S. Constitution, skipping over the Articles of Confederation. By ignoring the Articles, they can hide what Madison, Washington and the Framers were doing -- ridding the country of a dysfunctional states-rights system.

The Tea Partiers also make a big deal about the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which states:  "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

However, again the Tea Partiers miss the point. The Constitution had already granted broad powers to the federal government, so the Tenth Amendment was just part of the effort to salvage the Constitution's ratification, more a sop to the Anti-Federalists than anything substantive.

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Some Tea Partiers have challenged the Affordable Care Act as a violation of the Tenth Amendment, without seeming to understand that the law was passed under one of the Constitution's "enumerated powers," the Commerce Clause, which grants unlimited authority to Congress to regulate interstate commerce.

Founding Pragmatism

But the true wisdom of the Framers may have been their pragmatic recognition that a dynamic central government was essential to make a nation as territorially large and as ethnically diverse as the United States work -- even in the 18th Century.

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
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