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A "Treason" Trial for Barack Obama?

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President 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 woman's accusation.

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 says.

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 European powers.

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'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 actually were.

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 non-controversial measure.

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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 It's also available at

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