Rick Perry’s Revolutionary War ‘History’

Exclusive: The stupidity of the Republican presidential field seems to know no bounds, with Gov. Rick Perry’s putting the American Revolution in the 1500s and joining Rep. Michele Bachmann and the Tea Party in messing up the history of the nation’s founding, notes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

For people who supposedly revere the Founding Fathers and the Constitution, the Tea Party and its favored candidates seem to know little about the actual history of the Revolutionary War or why the Constitution was written.

Instead, the Right has spun an upside-down narrative of America’s founding era, much as the Right’s pervasive media has created false narratives about almost everything else, a disturbingly easy process given how ignorant some Americans are about their own history.

The latest example of this garbled history came from Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Tuesday night  when he placed the Revolutionary War in the 1500s, a couple of centuries before America’s Declaration of Independence in 1776 – and even before the first permanent English settlement in the New World, Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry

“Our Founding Fathers never meant for Washington, D.C. to be the fount of all wisdom,” Perry lectured. “As a matter of fact they were very much afraid of that because they’d just had this experience with this far-away government that had centralized thought process and planning and what have you, and then it was actually 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’s “history” lesson followed a similarly loony account from Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minnesota, who – while pandering to Tea Party voters in New Hampshire – told them, “You’re the state where the shot was heard around the world in Lexington and Concord.”

Of course, the Revolutionary War battlefields of Lexington and Concord are in Massachusetts. (Bachmann may have gotten confused because there is a Concord, New Hampshire.)

But the Tea Party’s rewriting of America’s founding narrative is more cynical than the know-nothingism of Perry and Bachmann. The Right has made a conscious effort to distort U.S. history into something that would have made the southern Confederacy proud, by wrapping its desire to maintain slavery inside the prettier trappings of the phrase, “states’ rights.”

The Confederates of yore and the neo-Confederates of today reinterpretted the Constitution as a document providing for a weak central government that must submit to the supremacy of the states. That bogus historical claim was the core point in Perry’s bungled “history” lesson on Tuesday night.

To push this revisionist history of the Constitution (under the guise of “originalism” or “strict constructionism”), the Right ignores what the Founders were up to when they convened the Constitutional Convention in 1787. They were set on replacing the weak central government in the Articles of Confederation with a strong one in the Constitution.

Washington’s Purpose

Gen. George Washington, who presided over the convention in Philadelphia, was one of the strongest advocates for a powerful central government because he had experienced – as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army – the dysfunction of the Articles, which governed the United States from 1777 to 1787.

The lack of a federal taxing authority meant that Washington’s soldiers were at the mercy of the states’ contributions to the federal government for their pay and munitions – and often those voluntary payments didn’t arrive.

Other Founders, especially the merchants and businessmen at the convention, understood the need for a unified national policy on commerce, so the new nation could compete with the economic powers around the world.

So, during the Constitutional Convention, the delegates from the 13 states agreed to scrap the Articles of Confederation in total and replace them with the Constitution, creating a dynamic central government possessing broad powers to tax, print money, make war, negotiate treaties, regulate national commerce and take a variety of other actions.

Another key change from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution was the stripping out of language describing the “independence” and the “sovereignty” of the states. In effect, the Constitution transferred national sovereignty to “we the people of the United States” and to the Republic that the Constitution created.

Often the Tea Party and the Right talk as if they haven’t actually read the Constitution, at least not in contrast to what it superseded in the Articles of Confederation.

The Articles had described the United States not as a government or even a nation, but as “a firm league of friendship” among the states. The Confederation’s Article II added: “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated.”

And very few powers were delegated to the federal government. Those power relationships between the states and the federal government were reversed in the Constitution, with the states’ rights language almost completely eradicated.

Tea Party activists will often cite the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution as evidence that the Founders were strong advocates for states’ rights, since it says “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

But the Tea Partiers miss the point again. The Constitution granted broad powers to the federal government – even the regulation of national commerce – so there were far fewer powers left for the states. The Tenth Amendment amounted to a sop to mollify the anti-federalist bloc that was trying to block ratification of the Constitution by the 13 states.

To further appreciate how modest the Tenth Amendment concession was, you also must compare its wording with Article II of the Confederation. Remember, Article II says “each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence,” while the Tenth Amendment simply says powers not granted to the federal government “are reserved to the States” or individuals.

Southern Resistance

Only years after the Constitution was adopted – and the South began to appreciate that its agrarian economy and its institution of human slavery would be threatened as the North and the free states grew in industrial power and in immigrant population – did an aggressive effort emerge to reinterpret the Constitution.

In the early 1830s, Southern politicians led the “nullification” challenge to the federal government, asserting that states had the right to nullify federal laws, such as a tariff on manufactured goods. In effect, the South was reasserting the states’ sovereignty principle that had been lost with the ratification of the Constitution.

“Nullification” was thwarted by President Andrew Jackson who threatened to deploy troops to South Carolina to enforce the federal supremacy established by the Constitution.

In December 1832, Jackson denounced the “nullifiers” and declared that “the power to annul a law of the United States, assumed by one State, incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which it was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed.”

Jackson also rejected as “treason” the notion that states could secede if they wished, noting that the Constitution “forms a government not a league,” a reference to the line in the Articles of Confederation that had termed the fledgling United States ”a firm league of friendship” among the states, not a government.

The nullification crisis was defused, but a few decades later, the South’s continued resistance to the constitutional preeminence of the federal government led to secession and the formation of the Confederacy. It took the Union’s victory in the Civil War to firmly settle the issue of the sovereignty of the national Republic over the states.

However, the defeated South still balked at the principle of equal rights for blacks and invoked “states’ rights” to defend segregation during the Jim Crow era. White Southerners had amassed enough political clout, especially within the Democratic Party, to fend off civil rights for blacks.

The battle over states’ rights was joined again in the 1950s when the federal government finally committed itself to enforcing the principle of “equal protection under the law” as prescribed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Many white Southerners were furious that their system of segregation was being dismantled by federal authority.

The South’s anger was reflected in the prevalence of the Confederate battle flag on pickup trucks and in store windows. White Southerners were expressing the bravado of secession even if it was more tough talk than anything real.

That neo-Confederate spirit has resurfaced in today’s Tea Party movement with one early favorite, Gov. Rick Perry, musing about the right of Texas to secede from the Union if the state disagreed with federal policies.

Perry’s neo-Confederate interpretation of the Constitution reflects the Right’s success in distorting American history for political purposes. And Perry’s confusion about the century when the Revolution was fought is indicative of the stupidity that enables the false history to work.

The Right’s immense media infrastructure – print, radio, TV and the Internet – simply repeats the propaganda so often than many weak-minded Americans succumb to it.

So, American history gets turned inside-out. The Revolution was fought in the 1500s with the first shots fired in Lexington, New Hampshire. And the Founders replaced the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution because they wanted to assure the supremacy of the states over the federal government.

 [For more on related topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, now available in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.]

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.

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16 comments on “Rick Perry’s Revolutionary War ‘History’

  1. Dan Thompson on said:

    Not to side with Perry, but the south seceded because they were getting the shaft from the federal government on tax collections vs. distributions (unlike today). Slavery was a vexing point of contention, but did not start the war or become its driving force. If the north wanted to do away with slavery, they should have started with outlawing it in all of the northern states. This was only done after the war (do as I say, not as I do).

    • David Smith on said:

      You really think that’s what motivated the average southerner then or now? My grandmother’s family is from the South. They act like the war is still going on and it’s got nothing to do with taxes. Haven’t done any exyensive visits since the 80s but back then in Mississippi and Louisiana it was all about racism. Dress that up however you like but it doesn’t change anything. Maybe it has finally changed. I hope it has. As a kid I couldn’t believe half the shit I saw and experienced there. And, no, I’m not saying the North isn’t without its faults or responsibility.

      Also, doesn’t change that Perry is an ignorant tool.

      • Stacey Simmons on said:

        @David Smith, please- making generalizations about the South based on 20 year personal experience is hardly worthy of a sweeping statement. There are loads of progressives in the South, and while yes, there are still pockets of intolerance, violence, and ignorance, those same pockets exist in the West, Mid-West, and the Northeast.

        I think the article is great, and believe that most Americans, even ones with advanced education have no or little knowledge of the Articles of Confederation.

        • Morgaine on said:

          If Americans with advanced educations are still ignorant of their own history and the principles by which their country is governed, then obviously an American education is extremely deficient. Perhaps the same people who run our media are running our schools? Without knowledge of history there is no real national identity. You might as well send away for a fictional history online–it would be about the same value, and a lot less expensive. Honestly, I don’t think you realise what a ghastly truth you have illuminated with your innocent statement. What could possibly be “advanced” about our education if we can complete it without even knowing the basics required to be responsible citizens?

        • Jym Allyn on said:

          Stacy,
          You are right that there are progressive people in the South, but the “War Between the States” was motivated by the preservation of the concept of white supremacy inherent in slavery.
          And the Revolutionary War was motivated as much by the preservation of slavery as it was the “unfair” taxation. England had decided that slavery west of the current colonies would not be permitted and that slaves who escaped to the west would be regarded as freemen. The financial property losses (slaves) was just as much of a motivation as the other tax issues.
          See “Lies My Teacher Told Me” for details.
          http://www.amazon.com/Lies-My-Teacher-Told-Everything/dp/0743296281

          • Gretchen on said:

            Many of the original founding fathers were for abolishing slavery with the formation of the United States; however, they would not have had the support of the southern states that they needed to battle the English. England, as well as the Dutch, gain much income from the slave trade. They regarded the slaves that escaped west of the colonies “freemen” because they didn’t want to expend their resources when they were already having issues controlling the colonies.

            Also, if the Civil War was mainly about slavery, why did it take Lincoln 2 years to free the slaves? Lincoln would have freed the slaves and then the war would have started due to that. Additionally he would not have publicly stated that he had no desire to change the institution of slavery, and would not have stated in public that he was not in favor of giving blacks the right to vote, to be judges, to hold office, or to intermarry with whites.

            While slavery is wrong, blacks & whites should be equal, the Civil War and Revolutionary War were not fought mainly because of slavery.

            Now back to the point of this whole article – yes people, especially those in the public spotlight, need to get their historical dates and places right.

  2. Pingback: Perry still not showing his debate chops -…

  3. Jym Allyn on said:

    The distorted myopia of the Republican Party and the Pee Baggers is why the 2012 convention in July in Tampa is going to be known as “The Convention of Village Idiots.”

  4. Henry Clay Ruark on said:

    After some 50 years reading, teaching, practicing principles and guidance from early-days American history, I can confirm, support and document every main point Parry makes here.
    Happens I hold in office for constant reference six-foot shelf of major solid, authoritative books written in past 30
    years on this period –far outweighing in documented, dated, sourced detail the distressing down-playing perpetrated here by some still personally stuck on the basic driving force still at work – “dat ol’ debbil” racism, the founding plank for the centuries-outmoded Southern “plantation attitude”.

  5. Thanks for an interesting read. Tea Party favorites like Sharron Angle rely on the absurdity factor. Opponents may be more easily flummoxed by the bizarre and or the unexpected than by a reasoned discourse on policy. Who could forget her mentioning the Second Amendment, then claiming it could be used as a remedy for certain unwelcome Democrats and, “I’ll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.” –WP,G. Sargent.
    In that sense seeming like a Constitutional scholar could seem like more of a liability than an asset. And given the amount of money going to the media, at least some editors may chose to ignore outright stupidity. Then too, its as if a new personality has formed. Could this persona of seeming hard core, slightly addled, armed and dangerous, and having nice teeth and good hair, have become a political type? One senses unease in the more reasonable Tea Party supporters one meets. And there have been some editorial letters from Tea Party members who defend the ‘movement’ as something ‘misunderstood’ and ‘demonized’ by the left. I wondered as I read their work why all the attention hasn’t been enough for them. Why getting some members of Congress elected or getting mentioned by the media as relevant hasn’t been enough to insulate them from criticism. Possibly they sense the deceptions of Bachmann, or Perry, and this lunacy factor may generate unease about the future of our country in the hands of such people. In that sense I wonder if some members of the Tea Party were interested in the Occupy Wall Street movement because they were attracted to the down to earth logic, well reasoned arguments, and genuine emotions about injustice they were hearing.

  6. Perry went through the public school system, including “university”>

  7. Son of roy rogers on said:

    I believe somewhere in our history is the stipulation that only Congress can declare war. As we view the wreckage of the 4th and 5th wars fought without this step one would think that these history lovers would want to reinstate that rule.
    They should also know that the revolutionary war term for conservative was Tory.
    They also missed the reason why we have a NATIONAL guard in addition to an army and why it defeats their purpose entirely to send them overseas..ever.

    The most annoying thing about this recent gaff, as opposed to the one he will make tommorow, is his attitude while delivering these pearls of historical wisdom was quite arrogant as though he is enlightening a bunch of high school students who know nothing about the topic.

  8. Larry Linn on said:

    Why are the liberal realists picking on Perry just because he miss-stated the so-called date of the revolutionary war by a couple of centuries. He need not apologize! All that he needs to do is to assign some of the pseudo-historians to modify the history books to prove that he was correct. It is common knowledge that Obama does not know the year that the Confederates won the Civil War! Perry just assumed that he was running to become President of the Nation of Texass. I assume that he will ask Upchuck Norris to become Vice-President.

  9. d brown on said:

    The speeches of the time and the newspapers show the only thing that mattered was Slavery. Little talked about now is how the slavers would not join the Union till they got the right for owners to vote their slave. They wanted 1 for 1. They got a slave that was worth 3/5 of a free white man’s vote. This gave the slavers power over the rest of America.

  10. d brown on said:

    The speeches of the time and the newspapers show the only thing that mattered was Slavery. Like Japan says now about its war. It was just not their doing. Little talked about now is how the slavers would not join the Union till they got the right for owners to vote their slaves. They wanted 1 for 1. After years of holding out, and talking to England, they got a slave that was worth 3/5 of a free white man’s vote. This gave the slavers power over the rest of America till after the war. Years ago I read that Texas, and only Texas, under the deal that was used to join the USA can pull out. If they do it they should take about their 20 or 30% of the National Defect. Texas’s new textbooks are minimizing what T. Jefferson said. Most states buy the same books Texas buys. I think that matters.