The Framers also understood that the country would not remain locked in a late 18 th Century world. Though they could not anticipate all the changes that would arise over more than two centuries, they incorporated broad powers in the Constitution so the country through its elected representatives could adapt to those times.
The true genius of the Framers was their pragmatism, both for good and ill, in the cause of protecting American independence and unity. On the for-ill side, many representatives in Philadelphia recognized the evils of slavery but accepted a compromise allowing the states to count African-American slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of representation in Congress.
On the for-good side, the Framers recognized that the American system could not work without a strong central government with the power to enforce national standards, so they created one. They transferred national sovereignty from the 13 "independent" states to "We the people." And they gave the central government the authority to provide for the "general Welfare."
Yet, the fight over America's founding principles didn't end with the Constitution's ratification in 1788. Faced with a growing emancipation movement -- and losing ground to the industrial North -- the Southern slave states challenged the power of the federal government to impose its laws on the states. President Andrew Jackson fought back against Southern "nullification" of federal law in 1832 and the issue of federal supremacy was fought out in blood during the Civil War from 1861-65.
Even after the Civil War, powerful regional and economic forces resisted the imposition of federal law, whether intended to benefit freed slaves or to regulate industry. In the latter third of the 19 th Century, as Jim Crow laws turned blacks into second-class citizens, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan created industrial monopolies that rode roughshod over working-class Americans.
For different reasons, the South's agrarian oligarchs and the North's industrial oligarchs wanted the federal government to stay out of their affairs -- and they largely succeeded by wielding immense political power until the 20th Century.
Then, in the face of widespread abuses, President Theodore Roosevelt went after the "trusts," President Franklin Roosevelt responded to the Great Depression with the New Deal, and post-World War II presidents and federal courts began the process of overturning racial segregation.
The Right's Emergence
In reaction to those changes -- federal regulation of the economy and rejection of overt racial discrimination -- the modern American Right emerged as a sometimes uneasy coalition between the "free-marketeers" and the neo-Confederates, sharing a mutual hatred of modern liberalism.
Those two groups also drew in other constituencies harboring resentments against liberals, such as the Christian Right -- angered over Supreme Court prohibitions on compulsory prayers in public schools and abortion rights for women -- and war hawks, drawn from the ranks of military contractors and neoconservative ideologues.
These right-wing movements recognized the importance of propaganda and thus -- in the 1970s -- began investing heavily in an infrastructure of think tanks and ideological media that would develop supportive narratives and disseminate those storylines to the American people.
It was especially important to convince Americans that the New Deal and federal interference in "states' rights" were a violation of the Founders' core principles. Thus, the Right could pretend that it was standing up for the U.S. Constitution and the Left was out of step with American "liberty."
So, right-wing "scholars" transformed the purpose of the Constitutional Convention and recreated James Madison in particular. Under the Right's revisionist history, the Constitution was drafted to constrain the power of the federal government and to ensure the supremacy of states' rights. A few Madison quotes were cherry-picked from the Federalist Papers and the significance of the Tenth Amendment was exaggerated.
The success of the pseudo-history can't be overstated. From the Tea Party, which arose in angry determination to "take back our country" from the first African-American president, to the hip libertarians who turned the quirky Ron Paul into a cult figure, there was a certainty that they were channeling the true vision of the American Founders.
A large segment of the American Left also embraced Ron Paul because his ideology included a rejection of imperial military adventures and a disdain for government intrusion into personal lives (although he is a devout "right-to-lifer" who would deny women the right to have an abortion).