Contrary to Tea Party ideology, the Constitution was not about embracing states' rights. Instead, the Constitution eradicated states' sovereignty which had existed under the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution asserted the sovereignty of "we the people of the United States" and the national Republic, with the states relegated to a secondary status.
To understand what happened, all you have to do is examine the Articles of Confederation, which governed the new country from 1777 to 1787, in comparison with the Constitution, or read even popular histories of the Constitutional Convention like Miracle at Philadelphia by Catherine Drinker Bowen.
Gen. George Washington despised the notion of "state sovereignty," which the states had cited during the Revolutionary War and afterwards as an excuse not to contribute promised funds to the Continental Army. "Thirteen sovereignties," Washington wrote, "pulling against each other, and all tugging at the federal head, will soon bring ruin to the whole."
It is true that some Revolutionary War leaders, such as Virginia's Patrick Henry, ardently opposed the Constitution, but they did so because they saw it as an infringement on states' rights. In other words, both proponents and opponents recognized what the Constitution's drafters were doing: creating a strong central government.
The Constitution, which was ratified by the 13 states in 1788, represented the most dramatic shift of power from the states to the national government in U.S. history.
Still, ratification of the Constitution did not stop proponents of states' rights from resisting federal authority, especially in the slave-owning South.
But the battles over what the Constitution intended -- including President Andrew Jackson's facing down the Nullificationists in the 1830s, President Abraham Lincoln's defense of the Union in the Civil War, and the desegregation of the South in the 1950s and 1960s -- were ultimately settled in favor of national sovereignty. Federal law prevailed over states' rights.
Having lost those historic fights, the Right latched onto a new strategy: to confuse the American people by rewriting the nation's founding history. The Right's influential politicians and pundits began claiming that the drafters of the Constitution were opposed to a strong federal government and were big advocates of states' rights.
For instance, last year on the campaign trail, Gov. Rick Perry, R-Texas, declared, "Our Founding Fathers never meant for Washington, D.C. to be the fount of all wisdom. As a matter of fact they were very much afraid of that because they'd just had this experience with this far-away government that had centralized thought process and planning and what have you, and then it was actually the reason that we fought the revolution in the 16th century was to get away from that kind of onerous crown if you will."
Besides being 200 years off on when the Revolutionary War was fought, Perry had the larger point wrong, too. The Founders -- at least those who drafted the Constitution -- saw the gravest danger to the new country coming from disunity. They viewed a vibrant central government as a way to protect the young Republic from renewed encroachments from Europe's monarchies, which otherwise could turn one state or one region against another.
The Tea Party's revisionist history of the Founding also has required a gross exaggeration of the Tenth Amendment's significance. It 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."
While references to the Tenth Amendment draw cheers from today's Tea Party crowds, its wording must be compared to the Confederation's Article II, which says: "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 Constitution flipped the balance, stripping the states of their "sovereignty, freedom, and independence," while granting broad powers to the national government, including over interstate commerce. The Tenth Amendment was essentially a sop to the anti-federalists, added three years after the Constitution was ratified.
The New Deal
The Founders' "originalist" vision of a strong central government was vindicated in the 1930s when President Franklin Roosevelt led a national effort to recover from the Great Depression, which had been caused largely by lightly regulated "free-market economics."
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