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Ron Paul's False Founding Narrative

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Rep. Ron Paul speaking to a crowd of supporters

Ron Paul, the libertarian congressman from Texas who has topped 20 percent in the first two Republican contests, is fond of claiming that the U.S. Constitution was written "to protect your liberty and to restrain the federal government," thus making modern laws -- from Social Security, to civil rights statutes, to health-care reform -- unconstitutional. But that isn't really true.

While the framers of the Constitution in 1787 undeniably cared about liberty -- at least for white men -- they were also practical individuals who wanted a vibrant central government that would enable the new nation to protect itself both militarily and economically, especially against European rivals.

The broad powers that the Constitution granted Congress were designed to let this central government address national problems that existed then as well as others that would arise in the future. For instance, the Constitution gave control over interstate commerce to Congress in order to counter economic advantages enjoyed by foreign competitors.

Far from Paul's assertions that the Founders wanted a weak central government, the Founders -- at least those at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia -- understood that a great danger came from having a national authority that was too weak, what they had experienced under the Articles of Confederation, which governed the nation from 1777 to 1787.

The Articles of Confederation embraced the concept of state "sovereignty" and called the United States not a government or even a nation, but "a firm league of friendship" among the states. The Confederation's Article II declared: "Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated." And very few powers were delegated to the federal government.

The result had been severe problems for the young country, ranging from the failure of states to make voluntary contributions in support of the Continental Army to opening regional divisions that foreign rivals could exploit.

So, in 1787, the framers of the Constitution -- led by Gen. George Washington, James Madison and others in the Virginia delegation -- scrapped the Articles and put forward a very different plan, eliminating state sovereignty and creating a strong central government with broad powers, including control over "interstate commerce."

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The Commerce Clause wasn't some afterthought, either. It was part of the original proposal outlined on the Constitutional Convention's first day of substantive business on May 29, 1787. The Virginia delegation had one of its members, Edmund Randolph, include it in his opening presentation.

Virginia's plan laid out the framework that would later become the U.S. Constitution, transferring sovereignty from the 13 original states to "we the people of the United States" as represented by a new national Republic.

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Beyond giving the central government authority over the common defense, foreign policy and currency -- as well as its own taxing power -- the Founders also recognized the need to coordinate American commerce so it could compete effectively with Europe and other nations around the world.

James Madison's convention notes on Randolph's presentation recount him saying that "there were many advantages, which the U. S. might acquire, which were not attainable under the confederation -- such as a productive impost [or tax] -- counteraction of the commercial regulations of other nations -- pushing of commerce ad libitum -- &c &c."

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In other words, the Founders -- at their most "originalist" moment -- understood the value of the federal government taking action to negate the commercial advantages of other countries and taking steps for "pushing of [American] commerce." The "ad libitum -- &c &c" notation suggests that Randolph provided other examples off the top of his head.

Historian Bill Chapman summarized Randolph's point in his teaching materials as saying "we needed a government that could co-ordinate commerce in order to compete effectively with other nations." So, from that first day of substantive debate at the Constitutional Convention, the Founders recognized that a legitimate role of Congress was to ensure that the nation could match up against other countries economically.

Though the likes of Ron Paul have worked hard in recent decades at constructing an alternative narrative -- claiming that the Founders envisioned a weak national government and were big supporters of states' rights -- that storyline is simply not supported by the history. Key framers of the Constitution even objected to adding a Bill of Rights to the original document, accepting the first 10 amendments only later as part of negotiations over ratification.

Yet, on Tuesday, celebrating his second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary, Paul told his cheering supporters that "the Constitution was written for a very precise manner. It was not designed to restrain the individual -- not to restrain you -- it was to protect your liberties and to restrain the federal government."

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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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