Barack Obama as he was sworn in on Jan. 20, 2009, with an oath to
defend the Constitution. (Defense Department photo by Master Sgt.
Cecilio Ricardo, U.S. Air Force)
A woman's suggestion that President Barack Obama "should be tried for
treason" for supposedly "operating outside the construction of our
Constitution" has raised a stir because Republican presidential
candidate Mitt Romney initially chose not to challenge her. But the news
media has ignored the substance -- or lack thereof -- of the
The woman's "treason" charge at a town-hall meeting in Euclid, Ohio,
on Monday fits with a right-wing disinformation campaign about what the
Framers of the Constitution intended and what the Constitution actually
In recent years, as the vast reservoir of right-wing
money-in-politics has overflowed its banks, some of that cash has
sloshed down to propagandists who have worked hard at rewriting the
nation's founding narrative, to transform the Constitution's Framers
into anti-government zealots.
This false narrative -- with the Framers starring as Ayn Rands of the 18th
Century -- has contributed to the modern Right's extremism, since many
of today's Tea Partiers envision themselves as brave patriots ready to
die for the nation's founding principles. But they have only a distorted
view of what those principles are.
Run-of-the-mill politicians like Romney then pander to this ignorance
with talk about the Constitution as "inspired" or "sacred" as if this
decidedly secular governing document with its sometimes unseemly
compromises (such as tolerance of slavery) was the work of the Almighty.
But the Right's anti-historical narrative of the Founding has a
strong appeal to many ill-informed Americans, like those who dress up in
Revolutionary War costumes, channel the anger of the original Tea
Partiers and wave "Don't Tread on Me" flags against their own
government, apparently not realizing that the real Founders were
directing their anger at the British Crown.
The Founders -- and especially the Framers of the Constitution -- were
surely not anti-government extremists as the Right today presents them.
They were intent upon creating an effective governing structure that
could build a young nation and address its many challenges, especially
confronting economic and political threats to its independence from
The key Framers, such as James Madison and George Washington, pressed
for a vibrant central government to replace the weak version that
existed under the Articles of Confederation, which made the states
"sovereign" and "independent" -- language that was eliminated by the
Constitutional Convention in 1787.
The new structure, devised primarily by Madison, made the laws of the
federal government supreme and gave Congress broad powers to enact
legislation "to promote the general Welfare." Madison inserted the
Commerce Clause so the central government could coordinate the nation's
economic strategies to thwart predatory practices of European rivals and
to build a stronger country.
A fair reading of U.S. history reveals most Founders to be highly
practical individuals, inspired by a mix of pragmatism and patriotism.
From the start, they advocated a public-private partnership with
government working collaboratively with businessmen to solve problems.
[See Consortiumnews.com's "America's Founding Pragmatism."]
Distorting the Framers
But today's right-wing propagandists have worked diligently, scouring
the historical record in search of quotes that can be plucked out of
context and used to mislead gullible Americans into a false narrative.
Perhaps most bizarrely, the Right has sought to transform James
Madison, the Constitution's chief architect, into an early version of
Rep. Paul Ryan by harping on comments that Madison made in Federalist
Paper No. 45, in 1788 when he was trying to tamp down heated opposition
to his new governing structure by playing down how radical the changes
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Trying to finesse the opposition to his plan of enhanced federal
powers, 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."
But even that was an admission from Madison that the Constitution
added teeth to what had been toothless authorities theoretically granted
to the central government under the Articles of Confederation. Making
these powers meaningful was itself a significant change -- and Madison
clearly was soft-pedaling some of the new powers.
Madison wrote: "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." In other words, the power to
regulate interstate commerce, the bane of modern conservatism, was
viewed by Madison (and other Framers) as a common-sensical and