Exclusive: Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney wowed a convention of gun enthusiasts with a flowery talk about the Constitution and his fears about what a re-elected President Obama would do to it. But Romney’s speech reflected an American history that never was, reports Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
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.”
Madison failed to attach his commerce amendment to the Articles, but he revived the idea when the Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia in 1787. On the first day of substantive debate – May 29, 1787 – the Commerce Clause was there as fellow Virginian Edmund Randolph presented Madison’s constitutional framework.
Madison’s convention notes recount Randolph saying that “there were many advantages, which the U. S. might acquire, which were not attainable under the confederation – such as a productive impost [or tax] – counteraction of the commercial regulations of other nations – pushing of commerce ad libitum – &c &c.”
In other words, the Founders – at their most “originalist” moment – understood the value of the federal government taking action to negate the commercial advantages of other countries and to take steps for “pushing of [American] commerce.” The “ad libitum – &c &c” notation suggests that Randolph provided other examples off the top of his head.
So, Madison and other key Framers recognized that a legitimate role of Congress was to ensure that the nation could match up against other countries commercially and could address problems impeding the nation’s economic success.
After the Convention, when the proposed Constitution was under fire from Anti-Federalists who favored retaining the states-rights orientation of the Articles of Confederation, Madison returned, in the Federalist Papers, to arguing the value of the Commerce Clause.
In Federalist Paper No. 14, Madison explained how the Commerce Clause could help the young nation overcome some of its problems with communications and access to interior lands.
“[T]he union will be daily facilitated by new improvements,” Madison wrote. “Roads will everywhere be shortened, and kept in better order; accommodations for travelers will be multiplied and meliorated; an interior navigation on our eastern side will be opened throughout, or nearly throughout the whole extent of the Thirteen States.
“The communication between the western and Atlantic districts, and between different parts of each, will be rendered more and more easy by those numerous canals with which the beneficence of nature has intersected our country, and which art finds it so little difficult to connect and complete.”
The building of canals, as an argument in support of the Commerce Clause and the Constitution, further reflects the pragmatic – and commercial – attitudes of key Founders. In 1785, two years before the Constitutional Convention, George Washington established the Potowmack Company, which began digging canals to extend navigable waterways westward where he and other Founders had invested in Ohio and other undeveloped lands.
Thus, the idea of involving the central government in major economic projects – a government-business partnership to create jobs and profits – was there from the beginning. Madison, Washington and other early American leaders saw the Constitution as creating a dynamic system so the young country could grow and compete with rival economies around the world.
Ironically, given today’s furor over the Commerce Clause and the Affordable Care Act, Madison considered the grant of power to Congress to regulate interstate commerce one of the Constitution’s least controversial elements.
In Federalist Paper No. 45, Madison referred to the Commerce Clause as “a new power; but … an addition which few oppose, and from which no apprehensions are entertained.” [See Consortiumnews.com's "Did the Founders Hate Government?"]
The Musket Mandate
The pragmatic Founders also saw no problem in mandating Americans to buy private products, despite the insistence of today’s Republicans that such a mandate has never been enacted in U.S. history, before the Affordable Care Act’s mandate on uninsured Americans to buy health insurance (with financial help from the government).
In 1792, just four years after ratification of the U.S. Constitution, Madison and Washington supported the Militia Acts, which mandated that all white men of fighting age obtain their own muskets and related equipment so they could participate in armed militias. Madison was a member of the Second Congress, which passed the law, and Washington was the First President, who signed it.
Though the law was passed under Article Two powers of the Executive, which makes the President the Commander in Chief of the military, not Article One’s Commerce Clause, the principle is the same, that the government can order Americans to buy something that Congress deems necessary for the country’s good.
The fact that a mandate was included in a law enacted by key Framers of the Constitution also reflects their “originalist” thinking on the question of mandates. The idea didn’t seem to bother them in the slightest. It was just a practical way to achieve a goal, rather than having the government use tax money to buy and distribute muskets.
Indeed, if there was one core “originalist” attitude among the Framers, it was their pragmatism. They created a powerful and dynamic federal government so it could address national problems. They weren’t hung up on whether some individual might be upset that his personal “liberty” was facing some slight infringement.
After all, the Founders had just fought a long war for independence and, as Washington explained in his letter on Madison’s commerce plan, “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.”
In other words, Washington wanted the new nation to set aside its squabbles over such issues as state sovereignty and go-it-alone individualism and to do what was necessary to make the country succeed. “If we are not” this unified nation, he added, “let us no longer act a farce by pretending it to be.”
Washington’s view on the need for a vibrant central government was not universally held by the Founders, but it clearly represented their dominant sentiment since Madison’s Commerce Clause did become part of the Constitution, which was ratified by the states.
Ratification consigned the Articles of Confederation, with their “independent” states and weak central government, to the dustbin of history.
But Mitt Romney and today’s American Right would have you believe that a different history occurred, that somehow the Articles of Confederation are the Constitution and that the Founders were not the practical men that history shows us they were but rather anti-government zealots.
Romney’s NRA speech showed how the Right’s false narrative will be repeated again and again, making it the equivalent of truth for the ill-informed and weak-minded.
“The principles of our Constitution are enduring and universal,” Romney declared in his didactic speech. “They were not designed to bend to the will of presidents and justices who come and go.”
Then, in reference to the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank regulations of Wall Street, Romney added, “This President is moving us away from our Founders’ vision. Instead of limited government, he is leading us toward limited freedom and limited opportunity. …
“My course restores and protects our freedoms. As President, the Constitution would be my guide, and the Declaration of Independence my compass.”
But Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, appears to know very little about the real Constitution and the real Founders. After all, they were the ones who chose to place no limiting principle in the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, because they knew that for it and the other powers to be effective – both then and in the future – that those powers required flexibility.
Despite their shortcomings in tolerating slavery and granting liberties primarily to white men, the Founders still trusted the democratic impulse of the people, expressed through Congress, to use government to “promote the general Welfare” – much more so than today’s conservatives do.
Instead of faith in the democratic decisions of the people, Romney argues that the Constitution restricts the federal government’s actions to address America’s commercial and economic problems – like the cost of health care or access to a doctor.
In adopting this crimped view of the Constitution, Romney harks back to a history that never existed and to a self-serving narrative invented by right-wingers who have used this bogus version of the past to mislead the American people into a dreary future.
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.