Source of Anti-Government Extremism

Exclusive: The Right’s hostility to “guv-mint” is not new. It traces back to the South’s fears that any activism by the national government, whether building roads or providing disaster relief, would risk federal intervention against slavery and later against segregation, perhaps even the end of white supremacy, reports Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

One reasonable way of looking at democratic governance is that it carries out the collective will of a society, especially in areas where the private sector can’t do the job or needs regulation to prevent it from doing harm. Of course, there are always many variables and points of disagreement, from the need to protect individual rights to the wisdom of each decision.

But something extreme has surfaced in modern American politics: an ideological hatred of government. From the Tea Party to libertarianism, there is a “principled” rejection – at least rhetorically – of almost everything that government does (outside of national security), and those views are no longer simply “fringe.” By and large, they have been embraced by the national Republican Party.

There has also been an effort to anchor these angry anti-government positions in the traditions of U.S. history. The Tea Party consciously adopted imagery and symbols from the Revolutionary War era to create an illusion that this contempt of government fits with the First Principles.

However, this right-wing revision of U.S. history is wildly askew if not upside-down. The Framers of the U.S. Constitution – and even many of their “anti-federalist” critics – were not hostile to an American government. They understood the difference between an English monarchy that denied them representation in Parliament and their own Republic.

Indeed, the key Framers – James Madison, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton – might be called pragmatic nationalists, eager to use the new Constitution, which centralized power at the national level, to build the young country and protect its fragile independence.

While these Framers later split over precise applications of the Constitution – Madison opposed Hamilton’s national bank, for instance – they accepted the need for a strong and effective federal government, unlike the weak, states’-rights-oriented Articles of Confederation.

More generally, the Founders recognized the need for order if their experiment in self-governance was to work. Even some of the more radical Founders, the likes of Sam Adams, supported the suppression of domestic disorders, such as Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts and the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania. The logic of Adams and his cohorts was that an uprising against a distant monarch was one thing, but taking up arms against your own republican government was something else.

But the Tea Partiers are not entirely wrong when they insist that their hatred of “guv-mint” has its roots in the Founding era. There was an American tradition that involved resisting a strong and effective national government. It was, however, not anchored in the principles of “liberty,” but rather in the practice of slavery.

Southern Fears

The battle against the Constitution and later against an energetic federal government — the sort of nation-building especially envisioned by Washington and Hamilton – emanated from the fears of many Southern plantation owners that eventually the national political system would move to outlaw slavery and thus negate their massive investment in human bondage.

Their thinking was that the stronger the federal government became the more likely it would act to impose a national judgment against the South’s brutal institution of slavery. So, while the Southern argument was often couched in the rhetoric of “liberty,” i.e. the rights of states to set their own rules, the underlying point was the maintenance of slavery.

This dollars-and-cents reality was reflected in the debate at Virginia’s 1788 convention to ratify the Constitution. Two of Virginia’s most noted advocates for “liberty” and “rights” – Patrick Henry and George Mason – tried to rally opposition to the proposed Constitution by stoking the fears of white plantation owners.

Historians Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg recount the debate in their 2010 book, Madison and Jefferson, noting that the chief argument advanced by Henry and Mason was that “slavery, the source of Virginia’s tremendous wealth, lay politically unprotected” and that this danger was exacerbated by the Constitution’s granting the President, as commander in chief, the power to “federalize” state militias.

“Mason repeated what he had said during the Constitutional Convention: that the new government failed to provide for ‘domestic safety’ if there was no explicit protection for Virginians’ slave property,” Burstein and Isenberg wrote. “Henry called up the by-now-ingrained fear of slave insurrections – the direct result, he believed, of Virginia’s loss of authority over its own militia.”

Henry floated conspiracy theories about possible subterfuges that the federal government might employ to take away black slaves from white Virginians. Describing this fear-mongering, Burstein and Isenberg wrote:

“Congress, if it wished, could draft every slave into the military and liberate them at the end of their service. If troop quotas were determined by population, and Virginia had over 200,000 slaves, Congress might say: ‘Every black man must fight.’ For that matter, a northern-controlled Congress might tax slavery out of existence.

“Mason and Henry both ignored the fact that the Constitution protected slavery on the strength of the three-fifths clause, the fugitive slave clause, and the slave trade clause. Their rationale was that none of this mattered if the North should have its way.”

Madison, a principal architect of the new governing structure and a slave-owner himself, sought to finesse the Mason/Henry arguments by insisting that “the central government had no power to order emancipation, and that Congress would never ‘alienate the affections five-thirteenths of the Union’ by stripping southerners of their property. ‘Such an idea never entered into any American breast,’ he said indignantly, ‘nor do I believe it ever will.’ …

“Yet Mason struck a chord in his insistence that northerners could never understand slavery; and Henry roused the crowd with his refusal to trust ‘any man on earth’ with his rights. Virginians were hearing that their sovereignty was in jeopardy.”

Right to Bear Arms

Despite the impassioned arguments of Henry and Mason – and after Madison gave assurances that he would propose amendments to address some of these concerns – Virginia’s delegates narrowly approved the Constitution on a 89-79 vote.

The key constitutional revision to allay the fears of Southern plantation owners was the Second Amendment, which recognized that “a well-regulated Militia [was] necessary to the security of a free State,” echoing Mason’s language about “domestic safety” as in the protection against slave revolts.

The rest of the Second Amendment – that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” – was meant by definitions of the day to ensure the right to “bear Arms” as part of a “well-regulated Militia.” Only in modern times has that meaning been distorted – by the American Right – to apply to individual Americans carrying whatever gun they might want.

But the double-talk about the Second Amendment didn’t begin in recent years. It was there from the beginning when the First Congress acted with no apparent sense of irony in using the wording, “a free State,” to actually mean “a slave State.” And, of course, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” didn’t apply to black people.

The Second Congress enacted the Militia Acts, which mandated that military-age “white” men must obtain muskets and other supplies to participate in bearing arms for their state militias. Thus, the South was guaranteed its militias for “domestic safety.”

Yet, the South still faced the broader political imperative of constraining the power of the federal government so it would never get so strong that it could end slavery. So, during the early decades of the Republic, leading Southern politicians tried to sabotage many of the federal plans for strengthening the United States.

For instance, when James Madison pressed ahead with his long-treasured plan to use the Commerce Clause to justify federal road-building – and thus improve national transportation – he was mocked by Thomas Jefferson for his excessive support of government, as Burstein and Isenberg noted in their book.

In the years after the ratification of the Constitution, Madison gradually pulled out of the Washington-Hamilton orbit and was drawn into Jefferson’s. The key gravitational pull on Madison was Jefferson’s opposition to federal initiatives grounded in the agrarian interests of the slave-owning South.

Madison’s realignment with his Virginia neighbor, Jefferson, bitterly disappointed Washington and Hamilton. However, after Jefferson gained the presidency in 1801, he and Madison joined in one of the biggest federal power overreaches in U.S. history by negotiating the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France – despite the absence of any “enumerated power” in the Constitution that envisioned such an act by the central government.  [For more on the politics of the Founding era, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Racism and the American Right.”]

March toward War

As the national divisions over slavery sharpened, the South escalated its resistance to federal activism, even over non-controversial matters like disaster relief. As University of Virginia historian Brian Balogh noted in his book, A Government Out of Sight, Southerners asserted an extreme version of states’ rights in the period from 1840 to 1860 that included preventing aid to disaster victims.

Balogh wrote that the South feared that “extending federal power” – even to help fellow Americans in desperate need – “might establish a precedent for national intervention in the slavery question,” as Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne noted in a May 22 column.

As it turned out, the fears of Patrick Henry, George Mason and like-minded Southerners proved prescient. The federal government would become the enemy of slavery. As the United States grew in economic strength, the barbaric practice became a drag on U.S. global influence.

With the election of Abraham Lincoln from the anti-slavery Republican Party, Southern states saw the writing on the wall. Defense of their beloved institution of owning other human beings required extreme action, which manifested itself in the secession of 11 Southern states and the enactment of a Confederate constitution explicitly enshrining slavery.

The South’s defeat in the Civil War forced the Confederate states back into the Union and enabled the Northern states to finally bring an end to slavery. However, the South continued to resist the North’s attempts to reconstruct the region in a more race-neutral way. The South’s old aristocracy reasserted itself through Ku Klux Klan terror and via political organization within the Democratic Party, reestablishing white supremacy – and oppression of blacks – under the banner of “states’ rights.”

There were, of course, other American power centers opposed to the intrusion of the federal government on behalf of the broader public. For instance, the Robber Barons of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries used their money and their political influence inside the Republican Party to assert laissez-faire economics, all the better to steal the country blind.

That power center, however, was shaken by the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression. Recognizing the abject failure of the “free market” to serve the nation’s broader interests, the voters elected Franklin Roosevelt who dealt a New Deal that stimulated the economy, imposed securities regulations and took a variety of steps to lift citizens out of poverty.

In the post-World War II era with the United States asserting global leadership, the South’s practice of racial segregation became another eyesore that the federal government haltingly began to address under pressure from Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. By the 1960s, the South had lost again, with federal laws prohibiting racial segregation.

The momentum from these two government initiatives – intervention to create a more just economy and racial integration – helped build the Great American Middle Class and finally fulfilled some of the grand principles of equality and justice espoused at the Founding. However, the energy behind those reforms began to fade in the 1970s as right-wing resentment built.

Finally, in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the combined backlash against Roosevelt’s New Deal and King’s new day prevailed. Too many whites had forgotten the lessons of the Great Depression and had grown angry over what they viewed as “political correctness.” Over the last several decades, the Right also built an imposing vertically integrated media machine that meshes the written word in newspapers, magazines and books with the spoken (or shouted) word on TV and talk radio.

This giant echo chamber, resonating with sophisticated propaganda including revisionist (or neo-Confederate) history, has convinced millions of poorly informed Americans that the Framers of the Constitution hated a strong central government and were all for “states’ rights” – when nearly the opposite was true as Madison, Washington and Hamilton rejected the Articles of Confederation and drafted the Constitution to enhance federal power.

Further, the Right’s hijacking of Revolutionary War symbols, like yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, confuses the Tea Party rank-and-file by equating the Founding era’s resistance against an overseas monarchy to today’s hatred of an elected U.S. government.

Amid this muck of muddled history, the biggest secret withheld from the American people is that today’s Right is actually promoting a set of anti-government positions that originally arose to justify and protect the South’s institution of slavery. The calls of “liberty” then covered the cries of suffering from human bondage, just as today’s shouts of outrage reflect resentment over the first African-American president.

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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16 comments on “Source of Anti-Government Extremism

  1. Ray McGovern on said:

    Many thanks to Howard Bess for his provocative essay on Genesis 1 – particularly for pointing out not only that it was written as myth, but also that “myths can witness to truth.” (All can agree, I trust, that story of creation in Genesis is not an eyewitness account.)

    Genesis is not the first book of the Bible written; it is one of the last. It was composed during and after the Babylonian captivity (587 to 538 B.C.E.) as a counter-story and repudiation of Babylon’s religion of empire. That “religion” was based on the myth of redemptive violence as the way to defeat evil and establish peace. (How fortunate that we 21st Century sophisticates have long since risen above that primitive concept!)

    Counter-stories are tools designed to repair the damage inflicted on people by abusive power systems. That’s what Genesis was all about. The Israelites desperately needed to teach their children a narrative that would negate the influence of the violence-prone, opulent Babylon – their home for half a century.

    (Have any of you noticed how seductive the redemptive violence ethos can be, even – or especially – in nations that claim “city-on-the-hill status?”)

    One story in Genesis is key to this understanding: Abel meets a violent end at the hands of his brother Cain. When YHWH asks Cain where his brother is, Cain gives a Babylonian-ethos-type response: “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

    So what’s the point? With this exchange, Genesis undermines Babylon’s claim to divinely authorized violence. The murderer has no escape when faced with this question because there is someone who hears the victim’s blood crying out. These words, valid for the whole history of humankind, protect the person as a creature of God from other people.

    No cover story will justify Cain’s act. God hears the cry of the poor even from the bloody ground. Anyone see any current application?

    These insights, which complement those of Howard Bess, come mostly from “Come Out, My People: God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond,” by Wes Howard-Brook. Modern biblical scholarship like Howard-Brook’s has been a big help, as I keep trying to make sense out of the Hebrew and the Christian scriptures – trying to see if the myths and stories are of any use today. I believe they can be.

    Ray McGovern

    • EthanAllen1 on said:

      With all due respect Mr.McGovern , what does this comment have to do with Mr. Parry’s cogent topic?

  2. RALEIGH MONROE on said:

    HIP, HIP, HOORAY.PASS ME MY COTTON SHIRT EMILY.I WIIL VOTE COTTON OF COURSE.

  3. Tom Blanton on said:

    Damn those right-wing southern hicks and their irrational hatred of government. Why without the wonderful and progressive centralized government, we would never enjoy a militarized police state, a surveillance state, a failed war on poverty, prohibition of alcohol and now some drugs, corporate welfare and bailouts, perpetual military engagement around the world, databases on citizens, assassinations of American citizens based on secret evidence, trillions of dollars in debt left for future generations, unsustainable social programs, regulations that benefit big business by eliminating competition from small businesses, federal harassment of citizens based on political beliefs unpopular by those holding office at any particular time, the largest incarceration rate in the world, a nation that is the biggest arms proliferator in the world, government regulated healthcare and education that maintains the highest costs in the world, freedom for war criminals and white-collar criminals, and so many other wonderful things.

    One wonders how these rednecks from the south can be so unenlightened as to the greatness of government. The fear of losing their slaves, inbred into their DNA, is so strong that it is reasonable to assume they will never get over their totally unreasonable fear of the government. Perhaps the enlightened people of the northern states could provoke a war against these subhumans and eliminate them all this time. That would restore faith in the glorious government of the US of A!

    • Judy M on said:

      As an American-born, Southern bred white female, I am pleased to inform you there are very few of us here who have inbred in their DNA a fear of losing their slaves. Unfortunately, it is those few who have been elected to many political offices. Having lived in other parts of the country, I have witnessed racial hatred out West and in the Northeast; the question is: What can we do as individuals and as a country, to stop it?

  4. hammersmith46 on said:

    Robert Perry is an anti-southern bigot and an ignoramus. The South’s fear of strong central government was widely shared by the former colonies, growing out of their shared Scoth-Irish heritage and the colonies’ experience under the British Empire. John Wilkes Booth was four years too late–look what Lincloln’s mercantile fantasy has given us.

  5. Terry Washington on said:

    Liberty for me but not for thee! -’Nuff said!

    Terry

  6. Alan Pyeatt on said:

    “But the Tea Partiers are not entirely wrong when they insist that their hatred of ‘guv-mint’ has its roots in the Founding era. There was an American tradition that involved resisting a strong and effective national government. It was, however, not anchored in the principles of ‘liberty,’ but rather in the practice of slavery.”

    Somebody hasn’t read Thomas Paine. Or Thomas DiLorenzo, for that matter.

    • hammersmith46 on said:

      I have read both and I do not see your point in them.

    • hammersmith46 on said:

      It has always amused me how you, i.e., Parry, et al., bemoan various imperfections of your otherwise-desirable centralized and all powerful leviathan. Slavery is a thing of the past, but a thing of the present is the war criminal state made possible by your perferred form of government. BTW, have you noticed that people are flying airplanes into your buildings?

  7. EthanAllen1 on said:

    Robert, It appears that you have tread upon the sensativities of most of those that have chosen to comment on this article thus far. My own take, being familiar with much of your excellent writing on many subjects is that, excepting your too-narrow attributions of regional bias, this is a mostly accurate historical account/outline of anti-government extremism from our founding to the present. As y9u recount conservative extremists have always employed historical revisionism and various other dishonesties to promote their ideological fictions.
    Tell Ray hello for me, and advise him that he posted his reply to the wrong article.
    As Usual,
    EA

  8. Eddie on said:

    I too think that Mr Parry has made a good point here, which goes far toward explaining some (though I would hesitate to say ‘all’, or even ‘most’) of the animus that many of the conservative Southerners exhibit towards the federal government. Original conditions can have a long-lasting effect, analogous to the ‘sensitivity to initial conditions’ of chaos theory, or more commonplace, the ‘phantom’ traffic event that happened 20 minutes ago but (like a standing wave) is still slowing traffic down long after it’s original occurrence. So just because slavery is gone now and Southerners universally renounce it doesn’t mean that the lingering effects are gone. Dragging people out of their African villages, putting them aboard abhorrent slave ships where 30-50% died, then whipping and occasionally hanging them while often making it literally against the law to teach slaves to read or write in the South is not the kind of atmosphere that just evaporated the day after the Civil War was over.

  9. Drum DeLeo on said:

    This article is satire, right? Goodness, I hope so.

  10. Julie R Butler on said:

    My my – this article has hit a nerve. Yet throughout all of the angry comments, none can truly argue against the facts laid out in the article. I really love it when Tea Party types pretend that they are the only ones to have read and understood literature when the truth is almost always that they know of some isolated quotes that have been taken completely out of context. It would be humorous if they were not doing so much damage to the nation by laying blame in all of the wrong places – most of all, refusing to take blame for their own role in perpetuating the myth of government as incompetent and corrupt by making sure it is so whenever they get involved.

  11. Burt Cohen on said:

    I will be discussing this article on my radio show tomorrow Tuesday 6/4 from noon to one PM ET. I have read a bit of history and I will bring up the fact that there was a huge debate about which interests the federal govt should serve: debtors or creditors. The “right” to own slaves is part of the debate, but certainly not all of it. Tune in wscafm.org on your computer!

  12. Robert Richardson on said:

    Robert–

    Do yourself a favor and don’t lose credibility by mixing up Libertarians with conservatives, let alone slave owners.

    For info on what Libertarians and fans do see http://www.libertarianinternational.org