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The Right's Inside-Out Constitution

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Yet, one cannot ignore that the Anti-Federalists served an important function in creating the framework that emerged from those formative years. To win over skeptics, Madison and other Federalists agreed to have the first Congress adopt a Bill of Rights as the first 10 amendments to the Constitution.

Still, after months of argument and that promise, the Constitution barely survived. It narrowly eked through to passage in some key states, such as Massachusetts (187 to 168), New York (30 to 27) and Virginia (89 to 79). After getting elected to the new Congress, Madison then lived up to his word in getting the Bill of Rights enacted and sent to the states for ratification.

Overstating the Tenth Amendment

Today's Libertarian and Tea Party movements -- in claiming the Founders were big opponents of a strong central government and favored states' rights -- make much of the Tenth Amendment, which asserts that "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."

But the Right's historical revisionists again miss the key point here. The Constitution already had granted broad powers to the federal government -- including regulation of national commerce -- so the states were left largely with powers over local matters.

To further appreciate how modest the Tenth Amendment concession was, you must compare its wording with Article II of the Confederation, which is what it replaced. Article II stated that "each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated."

In other words, the power relationship was flipped. Instead of the states being firmly in control, the new central government would now set the supreme laws of the land with state "sovereignty" largely confined to local matters. Arguably, the most important American leader effecting this monumental change was James Madison.

In later years, Madison -- like other framers of the Constitution -- switched sides in various debates over the practical limits of federal power. For instance, Madison joined with Thomas Jefferson in opposing Hamilton's national bank, but then as Jefferson's secretary of state, Madison applied an expansive view of national authority in negotiating the Louisiana Purchase from France. Madison also shifted regarding the value of the national bank after his frustrating experiences as president during the War of 1812.

The struggles between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists also didn't end with those early disputes over how the new government should function. The battle lines formed again when it became clear to the agrarian South that its economic model, based on slavery, was losing ground to the growing industrial power of the North and the influence of the Emancipation movement.

In the early 1830s, Southern politicians led the "nullification" challenge to the federal government, asserting that states had the right to nullify federal laws, such as a tariff on manufactured goods. But they were beaten back by President Andrew Jackson who threatened to deploy troops to South Carolina to enforce the federal supremacy established by the Constitution.

In December 1832, Jackson denounced the "nullifiers" and declared "the power to annul a law of the United States, assumed by one State, incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which it was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed."

Jackson also rejected as "treason" the notion that states could secede if they wished, noting that the Constitution "forms a government not a league," a reference to a line in the Articles of Confederation that had termed the fledgling United States "a firm league of friendship" among the states, not a national government.

Jackson's nullification crisis was resolved nonviolently, but a few decades later, the South's continued resistance to the constitutional preeminence of the federal government led to secession and the formation of the Confederacy. It took the Union's victory in the Civil War to firmly settle the issue of the sovereignty of the national Republic over the independence of the states.

However, the defeated South still balked at the principle of equal rights for blacks and invoked "states' rights" to defend segregation during the Jim Crow era. White Southerners amassed enough political clout, especially within the Democratic Party, to fend off civil rights for blacks.

Ending Segregation

The battle over states' rights was joined again in the 1950s when the federal government finally committed itself to enforcing the principle of "equal protection under the law" as prescribed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Many white Southerners were furious that their system of segregation was being dismantled by federal authority.

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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 more...)
 
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The best historical background blog on the issue I... by Jim Arnold on Wednesday, Feb 15, 2012 at 1:52:23 PM