How Tea Partiers Diss the Framers

Exclusive: The Framers of the U.S. Constitution never looked smarter than when the American system of a strong central government is compared to the European Union model, a loose federation staggered by disunity. But the Tea Partiers want a states’ rights structure more like Europe’s, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

The chaos that is engulfing Europe, where 17 countries share a common currency (the euro) but lack a unified fiscal policy, underscores again the wisdom of America’s Framers, who cast aside a states-rights-oriented system in favor of a strong central government, which ironically is now what the Tea Partiers want to dismantle.

The Tea Partiers, with their intense hatred of the federal “guv-mint” and their love of states’ rights, fail to appreciate what the Framers actually achieved in 1787 and why they did it. If the Tea Partiers could think clearly, they might look at the crisis in Europe and come away with a deeper appreciation of Washington, both the capital and the Founder.

Bust of George Washington at Mount Vernon

American unity, contrasted with Europe’s disunity, also has helped keep U.S. borrowing rates low by again distinguishing the U.S. dollar as the world’s preeminent currency. Some countries and cartels were thinking about switching to the euro, but now have rethought that idea. Foreign capital is surging into U.S. bond markets. The dollar again is king.

Though the Framers of the U.S. Constitution couldn’t have anticipated this valuable gift that they passed down to their posterity, their insights into the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation and the audacious decision by George Washington, James Madison and others to scrap that initial governing structure in 1787 have served the nation well.

The Articles of Confederation, which governed the United States from 1777 to 1787, emphasized the independence and sovereignty of the 13 original states. Because of that, the young nation lacked a common currency and states could renege on promised financial commitments to the weak central authority.

General Washington, in particular, despised this system because it often left his troops without desperately needed supplies and contributed to near mutinies. After the Revolutionary War ended, Washington also observed how the divisions among the 13 states slowed the country’s economic development and invited commercial incursions by European powers.

So, when Madison, as a Virginia legislator, tried to amend the Articles of Confederation to give Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce, Washington lent his strong support:

“The 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. 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.”

However, Madison’s amendment was rejected, leading him to an even more radical idea seeking a convention ostensibly to consider a series of amendments to the Articles but to which he brought an entirely new governing structure. Once the delegates got to Philadelphia, the doors were closed to the public and the Federalists proposed scrapping the Articles entirely.

Ditching the Articles

After a hot summer of debate and compromise, the new Constitution stripped out all language about the independence and sovereignty of the states and made federal law supreme. The Constitution gave the central government the power to print currency and inserted Madison’s commerce idea, granting Congress broad indeed unlimited powers to regulate interstate commerce.

The new federal powers were so sweeping that the Constitution stirred intense opposition from the Anti-Federalists who rallied to block ratification.

Dissidents from Pennsylvania’s convention delegation wrote: “We dissent because the powers vested in Congress by this constitution, must necessarily annihilate and absorb the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of the several states, and produce from their ruins one consolidated government.” [See David Wootton, The Essential Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers.]

As resistance to Madison’s plan spread and as states began electing delegates to their ratifying conventions Madison feared that his constitutional masterwork would go down to defeat or be subjected to a second convention that might remove important federal powers like the Commerce Clause.

So, Madison  with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay began a series of essays, called the Federalist Papers, to counter the fierce (though generally accurate) attacks by the Anti-Federalists against the Constitution’s broad assertion of federal power.

Madison’s essays in the Federalist Papers veered from a spirited defense of the new system’s advantages to a lawyerly downplaying of how drastic the changes were. In Federalist Paper No. 14, Madison envisioned major construction projects under the powers granted by the Commerce Clause.

“[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 reflected the commercial desires of key Founders. In 1785, two years before the Constitutional Convention, George Washington started the Potowmack Company, which began the work of 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 overcome the daunting challenges of its vast territory.

Finessing Opposition

At other points in the Federalist Papers, Madison insisted that except for the Commerce Clause most of the other changes simply enhanced pre-existing federal powers rather than creating entirely new ones.

In Federalist Paper No. 45, Madison wrote: “If the new Constitution be examined with accuracy, it will be found that the change which it proposes consists much less in the addition of NEW POWERS to the Union, than in the invigoration of its ORIGINAL POWERS.”

Madison noted: “The regulation of commerce, it is true, is a new power; but that seems to be an addition which few oppose, and from which no apprehensions are entertained.”

Today’s Tea Partiers often cite Madison’s comments in No. 45 to portray him as a fellow traveler, someone who opposed a strong central government. They claim he was really an advocate for states’ rights.

But that is simply taking Madison’s words out of the context. In No. 45, he was simply trying to finesse his Anti-Federalist opponents. Yet, even in playing down what he was doing in the Constitution, Madison acknowledged that he was beefing up of federal powers.

Indeed, the Constitution flipped the relationship between the states and the central government. Under the Articles of Confederation, the states were supreme; under the Constitution, the federal government was dominant.

Yet, by creating a bogus founding narrative, Tea Partiers and the American Right have confused many Americans about the historical reality. Some of the billions of dollars in right-wing propaganda money have spilled into the pockets of “scholars” who have given a shine to the historical revisionism that transformed Madison and other key Framers into anti-government ideologues.

Whenever these right-wingers discuss the Founders, the narrative jumps from the Declaration of Independence to the U.S. Constitution, skipping over the Articles of Confederation. By ignoring the Articles, they can hide what Madison, Washington and the Framers were doing — ridding the country of a dysfunctional states-rights system.

The Tea Partiers also make a big deal about the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which 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.”

However, again the Tea Partiers miss the point. The Constitution had already granted broad powers to the federal government, so the Tenth Amendment was just part of the effort to salvage the Constitution’s ratification, more a sop to the Anti-Federalists than anything substantive.

Some Tea Partiers have challenged the Affordable Care Act as a violation of the Tenth Amendment, without seeming to understand that the law was passed under one of the Constitution’s “enumerated powers,” the Commerce Clause, which grants unlimited authority to Congress to regulate interstate commerce.

Founding Pragmatism

But the true wisdom of the Framers may have been their pragmatic recognition that a dynamic central government was essential to make a nation as territorially large and as ethnically diverse as the United States work even in the 18th Century.

Madison, Washington and the other Federalists understood that their hard-won independence could only succeed if the new nation presented a unified front to the more powerful nations of Europe, which were still eager to divide America and pick off territory in the New World.

Two centuries later, the Framers’ vision has been vindicated again by the contrast to what is happening in Europe. Despite heightened hostility toward the U.S. government from the Tea Partiers and other states’ rights advocates, the United States still has the capability to address its economic troubles through federal action. Thus, the dollar is not facing the crisis that now confronts the euro.

The 17 nations using the euro and the 27 nations in the larger European Union are caught in a monetary trap attributable to the fact that the member countries have followed different economic strategies based on their own sovereignties. Only very limited powers have been ceded to federal authorities in Brussels and a unified budgetary policy is not one of them.

Thus, Europe has been forced to confront its fiscal crisis in an ad hoc manner, insisting that countries like Greece that have demonstrated fiscal irresponsibility by spending beyond their means and failing to collect taxes efficiently must adopt severe austerity measures. But the austerity has only made the economic crisis worse.

Even in the face of this emergency, the European Union has been hobbled by a crippling dissension among its members, leaving effective countermeasures out of reach for the Continent. Some European leaders have warned that only two options remain: greater unity or the eventual splintering of the euro zone, with Greece possibly the first to go.

Though the unity course might make the most sense, it inevitably will encounter historic issues of national sovereignty. Unlike the American states in 1787, which had only recently come into existence as sovereign entities and which had recently banded together to fight a war for independence, many European states have existed as national entities for centuries; they  speak different languages; and they have often warred against each other.

In other words, as hard as it was for Madison and Washington to persuade the 13 original states to surrender sovereignty and independence to the central government, it is sure to be an even harder sell among Europeans. Nevertheless, as long as Europe operates within a loose federalism, it will be at a disadvantage to the United States.

Structurally, at least, the U.S. system allows for the kind of unified action that will be needed to build a stronger recovery and confront future problems. The American dilemma, which forced a credit downgrade last summer, is the extreme partisanship and hard-line ideology of the current Republican Party and the Tea Party.

The Tea Partiers continue to advocate a looser union of the United States, restricting the federal government mostly to national security and leaving pretty much everything else to the states, local governments and “the market.”

In other words, the Tea Partiers are dissing the constitutional vision of the Framers — the likes of Madison and Washington — who understood that a strong central government was necessary for a strong country.

To read more of Robert Parry’s writings, you can now order his last two books, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, at the discount price of only $16 for both. For details on the special offer, 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 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.

15 comments for “How Tea Partiers Diss the Framers

  1. Neko
    June 24, 2012 at 19:15

    The current Tea Party was founded by a group of freedom loving Ron Paul supporters and was HIJACKED by a group of fascist christian nationalists by Glen Beck.

    I used to support the Tea Party but now I consider its leadership a bunch of shoot on sight traitors! Those in the US government who put the security of Israel before the US Constitution deserve immedient military executions!

    Organized religion is getting removed from ALL American government functions soon….with millions of dead christians if necessary!

  2. June 21, 2012 at 01:17

    I appreciate Robert Parry’s mention of the difficulty in persuading the states that formed the Confederation to approve of the _coup d’etat_, which was essentially what took place in 1787.

    The founders, however, were primarily concerned with protecting their own wealth from the “leveling instincts” of the masses, and it was for this reason that they made sure that the only United States governmental institution directly elected was the “lower House,” which had reduced terms, had nothing to do with advice and consent of federal appointments, and was based on smaller constituencies than the Senate, so that it could be more easily divided. “Ambitious guttersnipes” was the descriptive term used by those privileged, wealthy elites to describe their fear of a democratic majority.

    It is indeed true that they faced enormous opposition from the population at large. For that reason, they carefully planned to present the _fait accompli_ to certain legislatures before they could have an election, and to delay presentation to others, considered more likely to elect a friendlier body. And they in no instance presented the Constitution for popular ratification, even to the very limited franchise (adult free white male property owners) of the time, but insisted that the state legislatures, which were generally composed of the wealthier and more established elements, be able to adopt the new government in the name of the people who had no say.

    Moreover, while the Articles required unanimity to be adopted,the Founding Coupmeisters audaciously and arbitrarily declared the “amendments” would go into effect when only nine of the thirteen states agreed to them.

    The Bill of Rights was originally not part of the plan, as the framers had no interest in anyone’s rights but their own, but was added at the insistence of a couple of the late, and demographically significant, ratifiers as a condition for their ratification.

    Meanwhile, Rhode Island had elected a popular coalition government of small farmers and merchants, rather than the usual wealthy and powerful elites, and that government, alone of the former colonies, put the vote to the actual population (limited, to be sure, to the adult white etc.). This was the only popular vote on the Constitution, and it went down to a stinging defeat, with some 92 per cent of the voters opposing it.

    Thereupon, the newly formed “federal” [a misnomer; the “federalists” adopted that monicker as a propaganda ploy, as in reality they were the “nationalists” and the “anti-federalists,” tagged as obstructionists by the coupsters, were the real “federalists”] government, as virtually its first act, threatened to destroy the economy of Rhode Island by declaring its currency worthless as a medium of exchange with its neighbors, thus coercing the last holdout into joining “of its own free will.”

    Within 10 years, the government had demonstrated its true colors by outlawing criticism of itself or the president (the Sedition Act, which expired when Jefferson took office) and giving the president the power to expel foreigners, including those who had obtained citizenship, in the event of hostilities with their home countries (The Alien Act of 1797, still on the books to his day).

    Now it may be true that the constitutional coup created a strong country — the U.S. is the most aggressive and arrogant country in the world today, and is widely resented by the innumerable countries it exploits and in which it maintains military bases. But pretending the Founders were thoughtful, noble, far-seeing and the like is to do violence to history.

    For those who would like to explore the subject in greater detail, I highly recommend the book “Toward an American Revolution,” by Jerry Fresia, originally published by South End Press over twenty years ago, and now available in full text on line at “”. It is a real eye opener for those who have only previously been exposed to the sanitized history taught in our schools.

  3. June 19, 2012 at 19:36

    I read the article again. I submit that Robert Perry’s article is historically inaccurate. It is primarily designed to support the unconstitutional Obamacare; he thus bypasses the enumerated powers as “sop” (you remember those?). He claims the tenth amendment amounts to a “sop” to the anti-federalists; if so, the tenth amendment is superflous,a collection of meaningless words, just like his article.

    • TC
      June 19, 2012 at 23:51

      Really you need to do more research the first tax for Healthcare was started
      by Congress in 1797 it was the forerunner of the Public Health System. For Merchant Seamen it was tax at 1 cent. Collected by The ship Captains. I would tell you more. But you need to research it out and see it for yourself. And if you reading the Federalist Paper it is the Colonial version of what we can call propaganda to sell Constitution back than. Very cleaver strategy on the part of the Federalist. In closing you can your a Tea Party member or not, to bad you don’t share their values. If you think it was about the tea tax you are wrong. It was against the East India Company a corrupt Corporation. I guess the Founding Father hated Corporations I just saying they limited them to 20 to 30yrs Charters.

  4. June 19, 2012 at 18:59

    Two words: “Enumerated powers.” The author is passionate, but he doesn’t persuade, and he is wide of the mark on facts.

  5. oudiva
    June 19, 2012 at 17:08

    Are you suggesting that the Framers were smarter than the Tea Party? Isn’t that Elitism? *snark*

  6. Chad
    June 18, 2012 at 23:28

    Robert, this article is great but I wished you’d leave out the insulting opinions like “If the Tea Partiers could think clearly.” I am not a sympathizer, I just don’t feel it’s professional or conducive to real debate to insult people. Maybe some of them are reconsidering their positions. So, please re-edit and take out the couple of insulting type comments.

    • June 19, 2012 at 19:40

      I am a tea party member. Its ok-there is no greater argument that I have heard against the Tea Party; the arguments start with a distortion of the truth and conclude in some name calling. We’re ok.

  7. REMant
    June 18, 2012 at 17:45

    There’s hardly anything in this article remotely true. Madison was not an “improver,” and he was quite clear in his letters to Democrats later in life regarding to extent of legislative power. But more to the point, this is NOT investigative journalism, nor is it, obviously, impartial. Whatever Europe has, too, was not, clearly, achieved in Brussels.

  8. Lk
    June 18, 2012 at 03:39

    This article reflects a very partial understanding of what the founders actually achieved when they converted the confederation, which was similar to that of the EU today, to a federal state. The article seems to think that the founders faced a simple duality of options and chose to create a central state. But this simplistic view misses the actual genius of what the founders accomplished. Madison was very clear that the purpose of the Constitution was to divide sovereignty as an initial defense against tyranny, just as the separation of powers of the more powerful of the two moieties was divided into three parts, and the most powerful of the three parts divided in two again. The central government was assigned authority experience showed necessary, while the states reserved a vast authority to themselves.
    This is the fundamental design of the Constitution for defense of democracy against tyranny. The Bill of Rights was considered superfluous so long as this structure prevailed. The core principle of the federal design was not included in the 10th amendment, which simply underlines and shores up the design, but did become express in the 11th Amendment after federalist judges overturned the design in their first important decision in 1793.
    The 11th Amendment was a swift riposte supported by all political sides, without any significant opposition. It reaffirmed the dual sovereignty upon which the founders unanimously agreed. The 11th amendment rejected the paramount central government that the article says they supported. It stripped the Supreme Court of jurisdiction to hear private suits against states. This preserved the states as independent sovereigns, while their citizens had two sovereigns.
    The importance of the 11th Amendment can be seen when the federal government through its unelected branch, tacitly supported by the elected branches, imposed a corrupt plutocracy on the federal government. This corrupt system could be resisted at the state level if the 11th Amendment were enforced to prevent the Supreme Court from imposing its politically unsupported and ahistorical views that money is speech on the states, which conduct all elections, without the active support of either elected branch.
    For detailed information about the 11th Amendment and its role in deploying the Madisonian view of dual sovereignty to defend the republic from the tryanny of money in politics it is recommended that the following two amicus briefs filed in ATP v Bullock be closely studied.

    To discuss states rights under the Constitution without mention of the 11th Amendment is to miss the main act. To treat states rights as the province of an astroturf movement funded by the latest tyranny itself is to miss the purpose of states rights as a means to defeat that tyranny.

    • June 19, 2012 at 19:49

      The Bill of Rights was considered superfluous so long as this structure prevailed.” WTF???
      You could not be more wrong about the Bill of Rights. The Constitution would not have been ratified were it not for the inclusion of the first ten amendments, which was put in place to reassure the anti-federalists that the central government would NOT have too much power.

  9. June 17, 2012 at 14:02

    The Tea Party of today has NOTHING in common with our patriots of 1775.

    1775 (2012)
    Tory Conservative Party (Republican Conservative Party)
    Merchantmen (Corporations)
    Clergy (Moral Majority)
    Entitlement (Fortune 500 Corporations)
    Royalty (1%)
    Loyalist Militia (Tea Party / Citizens United)

  10. June 17, 2012 at 13:06

    Superb analysis, F. G. Sanford! I guess the Tea Party Republicans (and most of the Democrats) have done an in-depth study of Stalinist methods of revising history to prop up what can only be termed “their propaganda”. We see even pResident Obama indulging in similar practices by redefining what constitutes a militant or combatant in proximity to Drone strikes. Or is that simply lawyerly casuistry? A parallel development is the ridiculous corruption of the word “hero” in my lifetime — now anyone who puts on a military uniform or a police or firefighter’s uniform is, ipso facto, a hero! To a large extent we have the corporate media to thank for the debasement of our language and history — they and the spin-offs from the media (PR types, so-called media consultants, etc.), after all, are the major benefactors of the astronomical amounts of funding spent at all levels on our nation’s so-called elections. Our physical, political and socio-economic environments are filled with toxins, produced mainly by corporate capitalism and its imitators around the world…

    • June 17, 2012 at 20:09

      mea culpa – I made an error in the penultimate sentence: ‘benefactors’ should be ‘recipients’…

  11. F. G. Sanford
    June 16, 2012 at 22:53

    “Thus, Europe has been forced to confront its fiscal crisis in an ad hoc manner, insisting that countries like Greece – that have demonstrated fiscal irresponsibility by spending beyond their means and failing to collect taxes efficiently – must adopt severe austerity measures. But the austerity has only made the economic crisis worse.”

    This really begs the question: why not just start collecting taxes efficiently and start demonstrating fiscal responsibility? The tea-partiers are also fascinated by the idea of the “gold standard”. The big problem with the Euro is that it effectively behaves as a gold standard. Individual countries cannot devalue their currency, because they are stuck with the going rate, just as they would be with gold. Be that as it may, the idea that the dollar is “king” just because it is momentarily more flexible than the Euro is false optimism.

    Failure to collect taxes based on a rational tax code and lack of fiscal responsibility are much bigger problems in U.S.A. than they are in Europe. If General Electric is able to earn massive profits in America, it is because it utilizes infrastructure to transport goods, market goods obtain raw materials and draw upon an educated workforce, ALL provided at U.S. Government (that is, taxpayer) expense. Yet they are notoriously among the industries that pay minimal taxes and increase profits by off-shoring jobs. Cadillac is building cars in China, and General Electric recently shipped its medical imaging operations there too. Meanwhile, Wal-Mart’s shelves are filled with Chinese goods.

    Europe has better public transportation, better health care, a better public education system, vastly less personal debt per-capita, less violent crime, less poverty and a longer life expectancy. And there is no doubt in my mind that a Dutchman can make himself understood in Italy much easier than a Bostonian can make himself understood in Louisiana.

    The problem we face is not so much the tea-party mentality, misinformed as it is, but that corporations and banks are in the process of raping the country and brainwashing Americans. The economic programs espoused by the likes of Ron Paul, Scott Walker or Paul Ryan are essentially those of the so-called “Austrian School”, implemented by Heinrich Bruning in Weimar Germany. Incidentally, that is probably the only field-test of this concept prior to the IMF’s attempt to rape Greece. Look where it got Germany.

    A review of Paul Ryan’s bio on Wikipedia indicates that despite being from a wealthy family, he received Social Security benefits until age 18 after the untimely death of his father. He worked as an Oscar Meyer Weinermobile driver, and was a member of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity in college. There was a chapter of that fraternity at my Alma Mater as well. They were affectionately known as the “Down Town Drunks”.

    People like this are formulating economic policy in a misinformed vacuum. The only reason the dollar has not crashed is that it has been skillfully maneuvered to maintain its status as the World Reserve Currency. That has been accomplished with printing presses, and little else of any real substance. It will not go on forever. The irony is that folks who themselves benefited from the “social safety net” are eager to take it away from everybody else in order to pay for their own greedy excesses. We in America are in much more dire need of tax reforms, protection of our industry, health care reform, rebuilding of our infrastructure and debt relief for education. Instead, we are opting for the programs that brought fascism to Europe. The Euro conundrum will eventually be solved, but I see no hope on the horizon for the dollar. Europe still has an intact industrial base. We’ve shipped ours to China. Nevertheless, I am grateful for your thoughtful article.

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