A Revolutionary War-era banner that has been adopted as an iconic symbol of the Tea Party.
There is a logical way to think about governance -- one that was shared by the key Framers of the U.S. Constitution -- that the federal government should have sufficient authority to do what is necessary to fulfill the goals that the document laid out about promoting the general welfare and protecting the nation.
Put differently, the actual "originalist" thinking behind the Constitution was what might be called "pragmatic nationalism," not what today's Right tries to pretend it was, an ideological commitment to a tightly constrained federal government hemmed in by a strong system of "states' rights."
In other words, the Right's modern interpretation of the Founding Principles was not shared by the key Framers of the Constitution. Instead, the Right's position on the Constitution apes the opposition to the Constitution by the Anti-Federalists, who warned that the new federal structure would subordinate the states to the central government and endanger slavery. Indeed, the "original" thinking behind the Constitution was almost the opposite of the right-wing canard. The key Framers -- George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris (who authored the famous Preamble) -- all believed that a vibrant federal government was needed to control the squabbling states which had pushed the new country to the brink of disaster under the Articles of Confederation.
Despite that real history, today's Right has largely succeeded in distorting the Founding Narrative to convince vast numbers of lightly educated Americans that -- by joining with the Tea Party -- they are defending the Constitution as the Framers devised it when, in reality, they are channeling the views of those who fiercely opposed the Constitution.
This historical issue is important because as the empirical case for "small government" ideology collapses -- amid failures of "supply-side economics," austerity in the face of recession, "free-market" extremism that let the banks run wild, anti-scientific stances denying global warming, etc. -- all the right-wingers have left is this claim they are upholding the Framers' original vision, an emotional tug on many Americans who dress up in Revolutionary War costumes and unfurl yellow flags with a coiled snake saying: "Don't Tread on Me."
Yet, the reality is that key drafters of the Constitution were staunch advocates of a strong central government invested with all the necessary powers to build a young nation and to protect its hard-won independence. Article One, Section Eight authorized a series of powers, including to "provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States" and "To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers."
In Federalist Paper 44, Madison expounded on what has become known as the "elastic clause," writing: "No axiom is more clearly established in law, or in reason, than that wherever the power to do a thing is given, every particular power necessary for doing it, is included."
At the time of the Constitutional Convention, Madison favored even a greater concentration of power in the central government, wanting to give Congress the authority to veto state laws, a proposal that was watered-down into declaring federal statutes the supreme law of the land and giving federal courts the power to judge state laws unconstitutional.
"They'll Free Your Niggers!"
So, today's Tea Partiers, "libertarians" and the Republican Right are not so much descendants of the Framers as they are heirs to the Anti-Federalists who tried to strangle the U.S. Constitution in its cradle. And a principal motive for this fierce opposition was a desire to protect slavery.
Led by pro-slavery Southerners like Patrick Henry and George Mason, the Anti-Federalists warned that the Constitution would concentrate so much power in the federal government that it would lead inexorably to the eradication of slavery.
In battling the Constitution's ratification in 1788, Patrick Henry warned his fellow Virginians that if they approved the Constitution, it would put their massive capital investment in slaves in jeopardy. Imagining the possibility of a federal tax on slaveholding, Henry declared, "They'll free your niggers!"
It is a testament to how we have whitewashed U.S. history on the evils of slavery that Patrick Henry is far better known for his declaration before the Revolution, "Give me liberty or give me death!" than his equally pithy warning, "They'll free your niggers!"
Similarly, George Mason, Henry's collaborator in trying to scare Virginia's slaveholders into opposing the Constitution, is recalled as an instigator of the Bill of Rights, rather than as a defender of slavery. A key "freedom" that Henry and Mason fretted about was the "freedom" of plantation owners to possess other human beings as property.
As historians Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg wrote in their 2010 book, Madison and Jefferson, the hot button for Henry and Mason was that "slavery, the source of Virginia's tremendous wealth, lay politically unprotected." Besides the worry about how the federal government might tax slave-ownership, there was the fear that the President -- as the nation's commander in chief under the new Constitution -- might "federalize" the state militias and emancipate the slaves.
"Mason repeated what he had said during the Constitutional Convention: that the new government failed to provide for "domestic safety" if there was no explicit protection for Virginians' slave property," Burstein and Isenberg wrote. "Henry called up the by-now-ingrained fear of slave insurrections -- the direct result, he believed, of Virginia's loss of authority over its own militia."