Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky. (Photo credit: Gage Skidmore)
One conceit of America's right-wingers is that they respect U.S. history and especially the Constitution in ways that other Americans don't. But not only has the Right absorbed a grossly distorted idea of the Constitution but many prominent conservatives have a shoddy understanding of history, most recently revealed by Sen. Rand Paul.
On Wednesday, the Kentucky Republican appeared on Fox News to liken President Barack Obama's executive orders on gun safety to the behavior of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who guided the nation through much of the Great Depression and World War II.
Regarding the FDR point, Paul is referring to the 22nd Amendment which limits a U.S. president to two four-year terms. Roosevelt was the only president elected more than twice, having won four elections. But the 22nd Amendment did nothing "to limit FDR." According to Paul's version of that history, "FDR had a little bit of this 'king complex' like Obama, so 'we had to limit FDR finally because he served so many terms that I think he would have ruled in perpetuity, and I'm very concerned about this president [Obama] garnering so much power and arrogance that he thinks he can do whatever he wants.'"
Roosevelt died shortly into his fourth term in 1945. The 22nd Amendment was passed by Congress in 1947 and ratified by the states in 1951. In other words, Roosevelt was no longer around at the time of the 22nd Amendment.
Paul's erroneous history puts him in the company of other prominent Republicans who profess to love American history and the Constitution, but don't seem interested enough to get their facts straight. For instance, several GOP candidates for President in 2012, including one who served as governor of Massachusetts, displayed ignorance of basic facts about the American Revolution.
Mitt Romney, who served four years as governor of the state where the war began, wrote in his book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, that the Revolutionary War began in April 1775 when the British attacked Boston by sea. "In April 1775, British warships laid siege on Boston Harbor and successfully took command of the city," Romney wrote.
However, in the actual history, the British military controlled Boston long before April 1775, garrisoning Redcoats in the rebellious city since 1768. The British clamped down more tightly after the Boston Tea Party on Dec. 16, 1773, imposing the so-called "Intolerable Acts" in 1774, reinforcing the Boston garrison and stopping commerce into Boston Harbor.
The aggressive British actions forced dissident leaders Sam Adams and John Hancock to flee the city and take refuge in Lexington, as colonial militias built up their stocks of arms and ammunition in nearby Concord.
The Revolutionary War began not with British forces seizing Boston in April 1775 as Romney wrote, but when the Redcoats ventured forth from Boston on April 19, 1775, to seize Adams and Hancock in Lexington and then go farther inland to destroy the colonial arms cache in Concord.
The British failed in both endeavors, but touched off the war by killing eight Massachusetts men at Lexington Green. The Redcoats then encountered a larger force of Minutemen near Concord Bridge and were driven back in a daylong retreat to Boston, suffering heavy losses. Thus, the Revolutionary War began with a stunning American victory, not with the American defeat that Romney described in a book that he claims to have written himself.
Romney's misrepresentation of the start of the war is particularly stunning because Massachusetts celebrates the battles of Lexington and Concord every year in a holiday called Patriots Day, with the Boston Red Sox playing an unusual morning game so fans can exit Fenway Park in time to watch the end of the Boston Marathon.
Wrong Century, Wrong State
Other rivals for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination also got basic facts about the nation's founding wrong.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry put the American Revolution in the 1500's. "The reason that we fought the revolution in the 16th Century was to get away from that kind of onerous crown if you will," Perry said, missing the actual date for the war for independence by two centuries and even placing it before the first permanent English settlement in the New World, Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, the first decade of the 17th Century.
While pandering to Tea Party voters in New Hampshire, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota declared, "You're the state where the shot was heard around the world in Lexington and Concord." (She may have gotten confused because there is a Concord, New Hampshire, as well as a Concord, Massachusetts.)
More significantly, however, the American Right has inculcated in its followers a bogus idea of what the U.S. Constitution did. Typically, the Right's founding narrative jumps from the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to the Constitution, which was written in 1787 and ratified in 1788. What is usually left out is the nation's experience with the Articles of Confederation, which governed the new nation from 1777 to 1787.