The Right’s Dangerously Bad History

Exclusive: Reacting to President Obama’s modest executive orders on gun safety and his proposed legislation to Congress, the Right is engaging in hysterical rhetoric about “tyranny” and riling up angry whites to arm themselves. But key Republicans can’t even get their historical facts straight, notes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

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.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky. (Photo credit: Gage Skidmore)

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.”

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.”

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 1500s. “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.

By ignoring the Articles, the Right can pretend that the Constitution was written with the goal of establishing a system dominated by the states with the central government kept small and weak. That version of history then is cited to support right-wing claims that federal officials, such as Roosevelt and Obama, violate the Constitution when they seek national solutions to the country’s economic and social problems.

However, in the real history, the Framers of the Constitution, particularly George Washington and James Madison, were rejecting the structure of “independent” and “sovereign” states (with a weak central government or “league of friendship”) as established by the Articles of Confederation. The Framers had witnessed how that system had failed and how it was threatening the future of the newly independent nation.

Thus, Washington and Madison led what amounted to a coup d’etat at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Though their instructions were simply to propose amendments to the Articles and refer those suggestions back to the state legislatures, Washington and Madison instead threw out the Articles entirely and produced a dramatically different structure.

Gone was the language in the Articles about “sovereign” and “independent” states. Instead, national sovereignty was shifted to “We the People of the United States.” The new Constitution made federal law supreme and granted the central government sweeping new powers over currency and commerce as well as broad authority to act on behalf of the “general Welfare.”

Washington and Madison also circumvented the state legislatures, putting the new Constitution before special conventions and requiring only approval of nine of the 13 states for ratification. The proposed changes were so radical that a determined opposition arose, known as the Anti-Federalists.

To save his plan, Madison joined in writing a series of articles called the Federalist Papers, in which he mostly tried to downplay how radical the changes actually were. He also agreed to tack on a Bill of Rights, spelling out specific guarantees for individuals and the states.

Misreading Amendments

Some of the first ten amendments were substantive and others mostly rhetorical, For instance, the Tenth Amendment states that powers not granted by the Constitution to the central government remain with the people and the states. However, the whole point of any constitution is to define the limits of a government’s powers – and the powers granted to the central government by the Constitution were extraordinarily broad.

So, the Tenth Amendment – despite efforts by today’s Right to exaggerate its significance – was mostly a sop to the Anti-Federalists. To recognize how insignificant it is, it should be contrasted with Article Two of the Articles of Confederation, which it essentially replaced. [See Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative.]

Today’s Right also has misrepresented the original intent of the Second Amendment, which reads: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This concession also was primarily to the states which wanted militias to maintain “security.”

The context for those concerns related to the recent experience of Shays’ Rebellion in western Massachusetts (in 1786-87) as well as the fear of slave revolts in the South and raids by Native Americans on the frontier. The states wanted their own militias to put down such uprisings.

In the early days of the Republic, the Second Amendment also was not seen as a universal right for individuals. For instance, some states passed “Black Codes” that barred all African-Americans from owning guns. When the Second Congress passed the Militia Act of 1792, the law specified arming “white” men of military age.

Yet, despite some of the ugly compromises that went into drafting the Constitution, such as its tolerance of slavery, the chief goal of the Framers was to create a framework for a democratic Republic that would enable the new nation to pass laws necessary for the country’s growth and success.

European monarchies were predicting that this experiment in self-governance would fail, so the likes of Washington and Madison wanted to show that Americans could govern themselves without resort to violence. The Framers stated as one of their top goals, “domestic Tranquility.”

The Framers also recognized the failure of the Articles and the need for a vibrant central government in a country as sprawling as the United States. The last thing they wanted was an armed population violently resisting the constitutionally elected government of the United States. Indeed, they declared such behavior to be ”treason.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “More Second Amendment Madness.”]

But today’s neo-Confederates and other right-wingers have spent vast sums of money distorting American history and deluding many Americans into believing that they must do whatever is necessary to “take back” their country from the likes of Barack Obama.

Any modest steps toward rational gun safety – even provisions cleared by the conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court – are deemed “tyranny” on par with the British Crown imposing its will on the Thirteen Colonies, which were denied representation in the British Parliament.

What is particularly dangerous about the Right’s hodgepodge of bad history is that – with the nation’s first African-American president – millions of whites are rushing to arm themselves while believing they have some duty to enforce the Constitution, without the foggiest idea of what the Framers were trying to do with it.

Not only is some of the right-wing rhetoric wildly hyperbolic – comparing a twice-elected U.S. president seeking modest gun safety in the wake of a horrendous school massacre to an English monarch – but Rand Paul and many of his fellow Republicans don’t even bother to get their history straight.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).

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14 comments on “The Right’s Dangerously Bad History

  1. Frances in California on said:

    Well, Robert, Rand Paul is in Kentucky. Something else in Kentucky is a museum featuring a diorama of dinosaur-riding cave men . . . no, that’s not just Onion-schtick; it’s really there! If Kentucky is that far from Reality, history will never be accurate there.

  2. gregorylkruse on said:

    I think there was a time when such carelessness with the facts would have been met by derision in the mainstream press. At least we have some reporters online who document the insanity of right wing leaders and try to keep the historical record straight. Thom Hartmann on Truthout presented a little more specific view,(http://truth-out.org/news/item/13890-the-second-amendment-was-ratified-to-preserve-slavery) of the purpose of the 2nd Amendment. “Sally E. Haden, in her book Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas” documents the purpose of militias in slave states. For many, this should be an epiphany in the sense that it turns the opaque veil over the “gun rights” advocates’ agenda into a curtain of Saranwrap.

  3. “If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say this or that even, it never happened-that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death.”

    “And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed-if all records told the same tale-then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’”

    “Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct; nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and re-inscribed exactly as often as was necessary.”

    - George Orwell, 1984,

  4. cộng đồng on said:

    As the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) is reported to have said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but NOT his own facts.”

    But a number of studies have shown that a significant number of people will not change their opinions even when shown incontrovertible facts that prove their position is based on inaccurate information or is baseless or illogical. And in a culture where so many base their beliefs or opinions on “authorities” (the Bible, or other holy books, even received “wisdom” such as the Founders’ statements at the time of the founding of the Republic) what else is to be expected? The Founders, however, did give us one instrument to bring our Constitution and implementing legislation into line with reality of circumstances in a culture profoundly different from the one they lived in: the ability to amend the “sacrosanct” document, which these days is more honored in the breach than in adherence to many parts of it.

  5. kathleen on said:

    This would be head-shaking, except these are Republicans. You know, the people who believe the earth is 6,000 years old; that a woman’s body repells the sperm of a rapist, that global warming is a myth, and on and on. They are a stunning indictment of whatever educational system that produced them.

  6. Obama like FDR? I wish.

  7. Hillary on said:

    “The Right’s Dangerously Bad History”
    .
    Am I the only one to feel angry at all this BS American Republican v Democrat nonsense 24/7.
    .
    The US Foreign Policy is basically the same under both G.W.Bush and Obama .
    .
    Bibi Netanyahu’s 29 standing ovations from robotic like Republicans and Democrats during his speech , packed with lies,to the US Congress spelled out just how feeble the USA has become.
    http://vaticproject.blogspot.com/2011/05/tell-congress-no-standing-ovations-for.html
    .
    The American people led by their politicians just unconditionally support the service to country by “our American heroes” in far away lands putting their lives on the line for the sake of all of us to “defend” the US with aggressive wars that kill innocent men women and children leaving behind a trails of destruction and unbelievable misery in Iraq,Afghanistan,Pakistan,Yemen,Libya etc
    .
    The US Air Force ,Army ,Navy , CIA , DEA, ETC ETC. all putting their lives on the line for the sake of all of us, serving our country by meeting out violence and death and calling it all sorts of ever changing fraudulent names.
    .
    Truthfully this cannot benefit the US , costs us Trillions of dollars,and is surely the biggest foreign policy mistake in US history.
    .
    It is shameful what has happened and sadly it seems likely to continue.
    .
    It must be the worship of the once almighty dollar with everyone too worried about their their pay checks and their pensions to patriotically speak out.
    .
    Even after the attacks of 9/11 not one single individual within the CIA, FBI, and NSA was reprimanded, punished, or fired and all received promotions.

    http://arabesque911.blogspot.com/2007/11/911-incompetence-sabotage-and.html

    • what does this antisemitic diatribe have to do with President Obama’s reasonable proposals? Your delusional fixation with all things Jewish and Israel should be shifted to the medievalist islamic world that would throw us back 1000 years or more.

  8. Peter Loeb on said:

    Robert Parry and “leftist” (self-proclaimed “liberal/progressive”) friends
    ALWAYS portray the debate on the so-called “Second SECOND AMENDMENT
    RIGHTS in partisan terms. “The right, the right, the right”. This kind of
    discussion leads nowhere. Furthermore it totally obscures the real concerns of the founders at the time the Second Amendment was debated and when the original
    draft was altered by Madison. The “Militia” and “The State” (not the federal
    government) were given the right to decide. Not coincidentally, the slaveholding colonies/states had the political power and they were courted to
    obtain their vote for ratification of the proposed Constitution. It is was at that time that the State Militia of the slaveholding States also operated the “slave patrols” and other agents of terror against slaves.A more incisive analysis of the history of the drafting of The Second Amendment can be found in Thom Hartman’s excellent article in TRUTHOUT of Tuesday, January 15, 2013. It is titled THE SECOND AMENDMENT WAS RATIFIED TO PRESERVE SLAVERY. I cannot urge everyone too strongly to abjure partisan rhetoric and
    look at the history. The “left” is as guilty as the “right” in perpetuating
    a discourse of meaningless shouts and recriminations.

  9. Anthony-Frank Cerone on said:

    Those are the BEST five words to rebut Mr. Rand Paul…Thank-You!

  10. Hillary on said:

    I am not aggressive , crude or rude and follow the usual protocols but somehow I my comments are posted and then removed or just not posted at all.
    .
    I basically said Republicans and Democrats are very similar in their Foreign Policies but people continue to spend
    their time differentiating their perceived differences in both the “Left and Right’s Dangerously Bad History”.
    .
    For example -US Foreign Policy is basically the same under both G.W.Bush and Obama
    .
    The American people led by their politicians just unconditionally support the service to country by “our American heroes” in far
    away lands putting their lives on the line for the sake of all of us to “defend” the US with aggressive wars that kill innocent men
    women and children leaving behind a trail of destruction and unbelievable misery..
    .
    Whistle blowers are imprisoned while Incompetents rewarded with promotion and any intelligent observer will lament this very dark but whitewashed period in American history.

    http://arabesque911.blogspot.com/2007/11/911-incompetence-sabotage-and.html

  11. vincent goodridge on said:

    I agree with Robert Parry. He does not go far enough. Many Federalist and Anti-
    Federalists said that anyone who rebels against a republican form of government should be tried for treason. Many who participated in The Shay’s,Whiskey and the Fries rebellion were indeed tried for treason. I believe Jefferson Davis was also jailed for a couple of years. The Constitution with its checks and balances has built into it assurances against tyranny.The purpose of the US government is to promote the general welfare and to assure the domestic tranquility of the nation,