The Founders’ True Foresight

Exclusive: The Tea Party’s revisionist history of the nation’s founding document may play well with the ill-informed, but the truth is the framers of the Constitution were fed up with state “sovereignty” and decided on a strong central government, a judgment that has served the United States well, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

After the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin, its oldest and possibly most renowned delegate, recommended that the new American political framework could be a model for Europe, suggesting “a Federal Union and one grand republic of all its different states and kingdoms, by means of a like Convention.”

Of course, Franklin’s suggestion fell on deaf ears in Europe where nation states already had long histories of deep-seated grievances against one another. Forming an enduring union proved hard enough for the 13 American states with their much shallower differences.

Benjamin Franklin's banner urging the American colonies/states to unite against Great Britain

Ignoring Franklin’s advice, Europe remained sharply divided and those rivalries threw the world into periodic fits of bloody chaos. Two powerful dictators – Napoleon and Hitler – would try and fail to unify the Continent by force. It would not be until the last half of the 20th Century when a loose federation of democratic European states would take shape as the European Union.

However, the current European financial crisis highlights the shortcomings of the EU, particularly how the European nations retain much of their old sovereignty and keep control over key policies, particularly their budgets making it difficult to coordinate fiscal strategies behind a common currency, the euro.

Indeed, today’s European Union resembles more the ineffectual Articles of Confederation, which governed the United States from 1777 to 1787, than the U.S. Constitution with its strong central government. The Confederation’s Article II declared that “each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated.”

The United States wasn’t really even a government or a nation then. It was called “a firm league of friendship” among the states. General George Washington was particularly contemptuous of this concept of “state sovereignty” because he had watched his soldiers freeze and starve when the states reneged on promised contributions to the Continental Army.

So, with George Washington in the lead and fellow Virginian James Madison serving as architect, some of America’s most distinguished citizens, including Franklin, met in secret in Philadelphia to devise a governing framework that eliminated the independence of the states and subsumed their sovereignty into a binding Union.

The new American system concentrated the key national powers, from currency to defense to commerce, in the central government (though leaving more local matters to the states and municipalities). The framers wanted a vibrant central government that could tackle the present and future needs of a vast nation – and that is what they achieved.

Despite some moral compromises like tolerating slavery – and despite decades of struggle against forces that objected to the dominant power of the federal government – the Constitution has worked pretty much as the Founders intended. It has proved, by and large, to be a flexible governing arrangement that enabled the United States to adapt to changes and to emerge as the world’s leading nation.

Tea Party ‘History’

However, even today, influential political movements, such as the Tea Party and much of the Republican Party, continue to attack what has been the most effective feature of the Constitution, its potential for providing national solutions to national problems.

Earlier political attacks on the Constitution were more frontal – such as the Nullificationists in the 1830s and the secessionists of the Confederacy in the early 1860s – essentially reasserting the states’ independence that had been lost in the drafting and ratification of the Constitution.

Today’s assault is more modern, based on a combination of widespread ignorance about American history and disinformation spread through a pervasive propaganda network. Rather than defying the Constitution, today’s nullificationists simply revise the history to their liking under the guise of divining the Founders’ “originalist” intent.

It has become a touchstone of the American Right that the Founders wanted a weak central government and were big-time advocates of states’ rights. Tea Partiers also dress up in Revolutionary War costumes and pretend that the enemy of that time must have been Philadelphia, not London. They seem to think that their coiled-snake “Don’t Tread on Me” flag was aimed at fellow Americans, not the British.

In the real history, the banner that addressed the American colonists was one devised by Franklin showing a snake cut into pieces, representing the colonies/states with the warning, “Join, or Die.”

If Tea Partiers directed their snake venom at the creators of a strong American nation-state back then – the targets would be the likes of Washington, Madison and Franklin. But today’s right-wingers simply ignore the historical fact that Madison inserted the crucial Commerce Clause quite deliberately into the Constitution because he felt a national strategy on commerce was vital if the United States was to fend off predatory European competition.

And, the whole point of giving the U.S. central government control over interstate commerce was so the country could implement national solutions to national problems. That was why even a conservative U.S. Appeals Court judge, Laurence Silberman, ruled recently that the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was constitutional, because he recognized that Congress has broad powers to devise responses to challenges that impact the nation’s commerce.

Citing the intent of the Founders and longstanding legal precedents, Silberman concluded that the law – even its requirement for individuals to obtain health insurance – fits within the Constitution (though it’s still very possible that the Republican partisans on the U.S. Supreme Court will reverse Silberman’s ruling to deal President Barack Obama a political body blow right before the election.)

False Narrative

After all, the Right has spent years now building up its false founding narrative with the same kind of determination and resources that it has invested in many other false narratives. For that reason, many more people know the Right’s argument that the Tenth Amendment is determinative on state’s rights than understand that it was more a case of closing the barn door after the horse was gone.

The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution states, “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 Right’s historical revisionists miss the key point here.

The Constitution already had granted broad powers to the federal government – including regulation of national commerce – so there were far fewer powers left for the states. The Tenth Amendment amounted to a minor concession to mollify the anti-federalist bloc that unsuccessfully sought 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, which is what it essentially replaced. Remember, Article II says “each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated.”

All that language is either eliminated in the Constitution or substantially watered down. In effect, the power relationship between the federal government and the states was reversed by the Founders who convened in Philadelphia in 1787.

The Tea Party’s misguided “history” of the Founding is also reflected in how little some of the Right’s champions know about real Revolutionary War history. For instance, Texas Gov. Rick Perry told some voters that the Revolution was fought in the 1500s, a couple of centuries off, while Rep. Michele Bachmann claimed the opening shots of the Revolution were fired in New Hampshire, rather than Massachusetts.

But the current irony of the Right’s revisionist history on the Constitution is that it comes at a time when the financial crisis in Europe – and its inability to adopt a comprehensive regional solution – underscores the wisdom of America’s Founders to create a strong national government.

The Right’s neo-Confederate assault on the Constitution also comes at a time when innovative national solutions are desperately needed for the American people, both to respond to the economic recession caused by the Wall Street crash of 2008 and to address long-term problems that threaten the welfare of the nation, from the health-care crisis to a decaying infrastructure to cataclysmic climate change.

To take on these pressing national challenges through unified national action would be precisely what George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and James Madison had in mind.

[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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24 comments on “The Founders’ True Foresight

  1. Deborah Lane on said:

    Have you read ANY primary sources at all? Get thee to library-if you are not willing to make the investment in the books. The more you study the original sources the more you might understand.

    • Dustin on said:

      U r absolutely correct, sir! This person is a complete fool. I’m going to consider deleting Consortium news if they keep publishing garbage like this.

      • Dustin on said:

        OOOPS! I meant ma’am:-)

        • elmerfudzie on said:

          Dustin and Deborah. It comes as no surprise that historians often differ in their interpretations. I hope all readers applaud the notion that it’s OK to print “garbage”, so many laid down their lives to preserve our right do so. I think it more productive to point out how we the people consented to that so called, constitutional lawyer, Obama when he removed all our constitutional rights with NDAA! If consortium news prints garbage, which it never does, the reader has a perfect right to be mislead. In fact I like reading rubbish. It usually turns out to be factual, years down the road. I shutter to think what the founding fathers would say about the Patriot Act!

    • Scafmars on said:

      Holy cow! I’ve never read such historical revisionism in my entire life!

      James Madison, who is known as the Father of the Constitution, wrote among other things in Federalist 45:

      “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.

      The operations of the federal government will be most extensive and important in times of war and danger; those of the State governments, in times of peace and security. As the former periods will probably bear a small proportion to the latter, the State governments will here enjoy another advantage over the federal government. The more adequate, indeed, the federal powers may be rendered to the national defense, the less frequent will be those scenes of danger which might favor their ascendancy over the governments of the particular States.”

      This does not sound like the beliefs of a man who was against State sovereignty. To the contrary, Madison is pointing out to those who were still on the fence about ratifying the Constitution that the federal government would have very limited powers under the proposed Constitution and that the States will retain every other power, whether mentioned or not, that isn’t specifically mentioned (enumerated) in the Constituion.

      The reason they created the federal government was because under the Articles of Confederation each nation state created laws that favored themselves, and those biases sometimes could cause lawsuits, disputes, or even war.

      The federal government was created as an agent to the States for purposes of nationhood. Federalist 45 spells that out explicitly when Madison says, “The former (federal government) will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected.”

      External objects meaning for purposes of nationhood so that the states didn’t have to dispute over them. He then went on and gave examples; war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce.

      Robert Parry is a politcal hack.

      • Dustin on said:

        Scafmars! U are spot-on my friend. The Federalist Papers are a very tough read, but well worth it b/c no other source does as good a job of proving this article is complete nonsense and those that agree w/ it misinformed.

      • claudsam on said:

        I think a more complete reading of Madison’s views would suggest that he at times favored a stronger central government and at other times favored a weaker federal government.

        Madison, like many of the founders, feared both the consolidation of political power in any one entity, but also feared putting too much power in the hands of the ordinary people and even overly powerful state governments.

        At the end of the day, however, the starkest historical reality that we should never disregard is the fact that our founding fathers, principally Madison, Washington, Franklin, Hamilton among them, flatly rejected the weak federal government under the Articles of Confederation and they put in place the Constitution that has given us the country, the society, and the laws we currently have.

  2. Andrew Menard on said:

    Mr. Perry keeps talking about the Tea Party as if they were a unified party instead of a creation of the Koch brothers in an attempt to change the political power structure on the notion from an elected representative form of government to one based on corporate power and influence, where elections are just shams to appease the public. The far right has not one inkling of concern for any form of government that represents the people because they get in the way of profits and as we all know they are what the government is there to protect.

    This is the Maddison/Jefferson argument. The argument was won by Jefferson but the other side never forgave him and has been fighting the war for control of the government to this day. Right now they are winning.

    • “…attempt to change the political power structure on the notion from an elected representative form of government to one based on corporate power and influence, where elections are just shams to appease the public.”

      Mr. Menard, I regret to inform you that the “attempt” is completed. We now live in a place where government IS corporate power and influence (I call it BigGovCorp), and where elections ARE but “shams to appease the public.” I think the “coming out” of the Koch Brothers is also a part of the play, merely appeasing us with “somebody to hate.” The Koch Brothers can’t hold a candle to General Electric or Bank of America. If the current investigations into criminal behavior at our biggest banks/investment firms results in more than one or two imprisonments, I may muster up a little hope. Certainly no presidential candidate will give me any again.

    • fudmier on said:

      The article tries to justify the extraction of “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness rights” from the mist of the governed as reasonable? The founders sought a
      strong central government, in order to quash democratic dissent and in order to establish control over the environment of the governed, so that the governed (or their states) could not obtain the means to “raise an Army” against the financial and corporate empires or interfere with business, or its methods, enjoyed by the wealthy.

      Single unified highly controlled centralized government did not serve the needs of the governed humanity, then or now, but centralized control was essential to the commercial interest and social superiority of the wealthy and powerful ex British Aristrocrats and their heirs now called 1% Americans.

      The wealthy, not the governed, were fed up with, and scared to death of, the pre constitutional, articles of Confederation open democratic environment. The Articles of Confederation government was democratic; it allowed, even invited, and empowered, governed nobodies to active involvement in even minor decisions.

      The founders were interested in doing business and met in secret because they were threatened by the governed and because democracy was nearly always at the door steps of the wealthy demanding consideration of the rights earned by separation of Colony America from Britain [whose interest was to be first: governed or wealthy?]. It was Colonel Shay that chased the wealthy powerful founders, in haste and fear, to Philadelphia. The Businessocrats of the revolution, meet in secret, to kill democracy, not to expand or support it.

      The wealthy chartered the USA, Inc., DBA as constitutional government. It was a constitutionally chartered corporation designed to enable British style corruption which the governed were able to limit some (by the forcing the bill of rights amendments).

      Any government, any where in the world, that takes or restricts the democratic right, to rise in dissent, to enjoy unabridged oversight rights over all activities under color of government, and at the same time, does not authorize, enable, and empower its governed with absolute, unabridged authority to challenge any and all corruption (the acts or failures to act of persons who are serving in or who are in privity to the color of the government) cannot be democratic.

      For a government to be democratic, the governed must be able to form their own courts, appoint their own judges, establish their own rules and force the constitutional government to produce [from those in government or those acting in privity to the government] accused and witnesses and to punish the convicted according to court demands and findings.

      Enslavement of the governed to the service of the wealthy is the default outcome when oversight and challenge rights go wanting.

  3. Andrew Menard on said:

    my earlier comment should have been Hamilton and Jefferson. I apparently sharpened my pen before I did my mind on this one.

  4. Ib Heinisch on said:

    Unfortunately Mr. Perry does the same thing as the so called Tea party. Namely trying to fit the “founders” (which is an oxymoron, more relevant would be the “framers” which is a well defined group and as such makes sense to talk about there intentions) into some kind of modern day agenda, regardless of historical facts. Basically the reason for making the Constitution, was a mistrust of real democracy as expressed in the Pennsylvania constitution,in the “article of confederation” and the lack of recourse for the “1%” in regards to the financial condition for the wealthy (Shays rebellion).

  5. Henry Clay Ruark on said:

    For Deb Lane et al:
    Have been seeking out and consulting “original sources” –as interpreted by about 50 top historians and social scientists via their skilled, deeply reserched and truly authentic professional findings, for more than 50 years —and I agree down the line with skilled explorer Parry.
    IF you have access to true “original sources”, why not cite solid findings therefrom for your otherwise useless note, since we know you not..and one thing one learns as explorer-per-Parry (and some others of us) is to find out and know all you can about source.
    If you wish list of those I’ve sought out, state so here and trade me some of your “originals”…and I will send along names and book IDs for those I’ve mentioned.
    Hank

  6. Dennis Boyter on said:

    Thank you Mr. Ruark. Folks like Ms Lane routinely toss about abstract commentary, assuming no one will challenge them for specifics. This lack of challenge is the “strength” of the right, since evidence suggests that empty rhetoric always supersedes actual research.

  7. John Mucci on said:

    Some claim that a raid on Fort Point (–>Fort William and Mary–>Fort Constitution) New Castle, N.H. on December 14, 1774 was the first action (victory) of the Revolution, not the incidents in Lexington and Concord, Mass. It’s claimed that perhaps 400 “Sons of Liberty” subdued “all six” British soldiers stationed at the fort.

    Gunpowder, canon, light arms, etc. were removed from the fort over a couple of days and moved to Durham.

    However, by December 17-19, British reinforcements arrived preventing further raids on the fort.

    Perhaps Ms Bachman was referring to this action, but maybe not.

  8. Morton Kurzweil on said:

    The Constitution of the United States has been amended many times, but the nation has endured because of the truth in the First Amendment, specifically the F*** Y** clause. The founding fathers knew that they could never control the beliefs of the people by coercion so they cannily included a ‘right’ to free speech, the expression of feelings, emotions and group therapy, by “making no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.
    With one sentence the intellect of the consumer mentality was separated from the intent to promote the general welfare, the common defense and the blessings of liberty to all.
    None of this would be possible if a democratic state had to succumb to the demands of fanatical zealots.
    The creeping insinuation of certainty, the hallmark of belief, has evidenced itself as a ‘mandate’ for an elected majority to serve that majority without consideration for all the people from whom that authority derives.
    Honor, glory, divine right, and all the other culture myths that have driven nations to their graves have come from the convictions expressly separated from the authority of Congress, reserving the animosity, the hates and fears for the people’s amusement.

  9. Yes, so many amendments and we still want more! The “landowners” who met to frame a constitution for a nation free from British rule and taxes followed the pattern they’d learned from England. That model presumed the Nobility to be especially gifted as governors by definition that presumes the landed gentry to be genetically suited with a higher morality. These not only inherit title to the land, but also inherit the qualities of superior human beings. Of course, the original american nobility gained “legal” title by taking it at gunpoint. How noble! Here’s how Wikipedia begins the U.S. history of voting privileges.

    When the country was founded, in most states, only white men with property were permitted to vote (freed African Americans could vote in four states). White working men, almost all women, and all other people of color were denied the franchise.

    Those who self-define as authority or nobility believe that their moral superiority bestows upon them a great responsibility to maintain law and order among us lawless ones. All chaos might break out should we of common birth attempt to gain title at gunpoint. Therefore in gratitude for the noble burden, we understand that the ruling class has certain privileges not due the unwashed rabble.

  10. The Founders wanted a stronger central government than what they had under the Articles of Confederation. However, with the possible exception of Hamilton, it is doubtful that they wanted a central government as big as what we have now.

  11. Al Alvarez on said:

    I read yesterday that Romney’s riches put him up there with Washington and Jefferson..especially Washington who had 300 slaves and owned a very large plantation. When the framers penned “We The People,” in the Preamble of the Constitution, they meant the white land owners. The framers did pursue a stonger central government because the Articles of Confederation and state sovereignty were taking the country towards anarchy. But not from what I’ve studied, the federalists and anti-federalists had contradictory ideas of the power of a central government versus the states.

    Most, but not all recognized the need for a strong central government, but most wanted a small, but strong, central government. From my readings, I’ve come to believe that the founders and framers had extensively studied the philosophies and ideals of well known philosophers and political leaders of the past, as well as the history of empires such as Rome. One common thread amongst these gentlemen was their knowledge of human nature.

    For those that are interested, I currently reading an excellent new book written on two of the founders entitled “Founding Rivals, Madison vs. Monroe, The Bill of Rights and the Election that Saved a Nation, by Chris DeRose. I’ve found the interconnections, rivalries and backgrounds of these two men as detailed in the book, give the reader an insight into the environment that’s still impacts us today.

  12. Jack Kenny on said:

    I don’t think anyone would deny that the Constitution delegates broader powers to the federal government that the Articles of Confederation did. It does not follow, however, that those powers are limitless. The Tenth Amendment, adopted just two years after the original document, is more than mere window dressing or a sop to the anti-Federalists. It sets forth a principle for understanding the whole Constitution. Madison argued at some length in Federalist #45 that the powers left to the States under the new charter are far broader and more numerous than those assigned the national government: “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”

    Concerning the requirement to purchase health insurance, it is not reasonable to conclude that those who refuse to do so are thereby engaged in interstate commerce and thus subject to a federal penalty or tax. That’s not to say there are not federal judges capable of reaching such a conclusion. There is, after all, no requirement that judges be reasonable.

  13. michael walker on said:

    A strong central gov’t can do great things, but ultimately it is co-opted by wealthy influence. Once the “die is cast”, the republic dissappears and empires are born. Carnage and devastation follow as the empire takes up the burden of “enlightening” different heathens. I’m now a believer that decentralization is better in the long run.

  14. Pingback: The Founders’ True Foresight | Consortiumnews « Scenario 25 Club

  15. Liberpragmatheistarian on said:

    I’m no historian and no Constitutional scholar by any means but this is obviously an attempt to fit the framers into what Parry wants them to be. The dynamics were more contemporary to current issues and more complex than Parry concedes.

    My main problem here is the talk about the commerce clause. It is clear from what I’ve read that it was there to prevent states from counterproductive tariff wars and the like. It was about the commerce of goods between states. The “long standing” legal precedent quoted re: Obamacare started in 1942 with Wickard v. Filburn which is in my opinion, one of the worst court decisions ever. In Wickard, “interstate commerce” was redefined to be anything, interstate or not, that might possibly, affect commerce even if it would have to be taken as part of an aggregate based on the hypothetical coordination with many other similar events to have such effect. This and cases which built upon it have in effect given Congress the power to do just about anything they want.

    This begs the question, “Why was there a 10th amendment if the founding fathers intended the commerce clause to give Congress power over everything?” Would they not have considered such an amendment an absurdity? The answer of course is, they didn’t intend such broad definition of “interstate commerce” and it is the SCOTUS’ interpretation that is the absurdity.

    Similarly, Parry’s attempt to paint others as revisionists is an absurdity even if such revisionists exist when you consider this article claiming revisionism by others is itself, revisionism.

    disclaimer: although I have some sympathies with some Tea Party positions, I’m not a Tea Party member. I was invited to one of their first rallies and I looked at who the organizers were, correctly predicted the group wasn’t closely enough aligned to my positions to support, and declined.