Mitt Romney's "liberty speech" to the National Rifle Association on Friday demonstrates how central the Right's false narrative of the nation's founding will be in the November elections, as Republicans depict Barack Obama as alien to the nation's First Principles.
Essentially, the Right's narrative holds that the Framers of the Constitution were hostile to a strong central government (for anything but national defense), rejected a federal role in addressing the nation's economic problems (leaving that to the private sector), and supported a system in which the states were very powerful.
None of these points are true, of course, at least not for the Constitution. They were true for the Articles of Confederation, which governed the original 13 states from 1777 to 1787. But the Framers, especially James Madison and George Washington, came to view the Articles as ineffectual and dangerous.
Madison, Washington and most other Founders recognized that a system of 13 "sovereign" and "independent" states within a weak confederation was a threat to the young nation's success and even survival. The lack of federal coordination of the nation's commerce, for instance, was viewed as an invitation for rich European countries to lure away a state or even a region by offering commercial advantages.
Thus, contrary to the Right's notion that the Framers were government-hating ideologues -- akin to today's Tea Partiers -- the reality was that most of the Framers were pragmatic individuals dedicated to the nation's political independence and economic success.
For that, they realized that the Articles with their weak central government had to be jettisoned in favor of an entirely new system that granted the central government broad powers to tax, to issue currency, to make treaties, to build a military, and to pass laws to "promote the general Welfare." One of the most important new powers was an unlimited one, authorizing the federal government to regulate interstate commerce.
In some ways, the drafting of the Constitution resembled a coup d'etat against the Articles of Confederation. The Constitutional Convention, conducted in secret in Philadelphia, was supposed to simply propose some amendments to the Articles, but instead threw the old system out entirely.
The audacious scheme, orchestrated by Madison and Washington, prompted a fierce backlash from Anti-Federalists who favored the old system and correctly perceived the new Constitution for what it was, a historic transfer of power from the states to the central government.
But what the Constitution revealed most was the hard-headed realism of America's dominant Founders. They recognized that the Articles weren't working -- that the old system had become a hazard to the nation's future -- so they reversed course.
It is true that the Framers took pains to prevent a concentration of too much power in any one person's -- or one faction's -- hands. As members of the young country's elite, they also distrusted the volatility of democracy, explaining why they constructed such an intricate system of checks and balances.
However, the Framers were not hostile to a vibrant central government that could grapple with the nation's problems. That was what they sought to create. Indeed, the capacity to address the commercial and economic challenges of a new and sprawling country was one of the principal reasons for the Constitution. The Articles of Confederation simply didn't allow for the necessary coordination among the states.
Birth of the Commerce Clause
Madison's Commerce Clause idea predated the Constitution. He initially proposed giving the federal government temporary control over national commerce when the Articles of Confederation were still in effect after the Revolution.
General Washington, who hated the Articles because the voluntary payments from the states had left his troops unpaid and unfed, backed Madison's commerce plan when it was before the Virginia Legislature. In a letter, Washington expressed the need for greater national unity.
"The [commerce] proposition in my opinion is so self evident that I confess I am at a loss to discover wherein lies the weight of the objection to the measure," Washington wrote. "We are either a united people, or we are not. If the former, let us, in all matters of a general concern act as a nation, which have national objects to promote, and a national character to support. If we are not, let us no longer act a farce by pretending it to be."
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