Would today's tea party have opposed the US Constitution?
The states-rights, neo-secessionist, small-government ideologues who seem to have taken over the Republican Party might have a coherent political philosophy. But their views align less with the constitutional framers than with their opponents, the Antifederalists.
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In the Virginia ratification debates, for example, opponents of the Constitution sought an amendment that would allow the states themselves to requisition federal taxes, so that all money flowed though the states to the federal government in order to maintain states’ rights over taxation. Explaining the amendment to Thomas Jefferson (who was in France), the Federalist and Founder James Madison noted that the purpose of such a proposal was to “mutilate the system” by attacking its taxing power so that it could no longer “answer the purpose for which it was intended.” That purpose, in Madison’s view, was the creation of a government of national supremacy fit for a true nation.Skip to next paragraph
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Link between strong government and national health
The Constitution’s proponents saw quite clearly that the fate and character of the nation was at stake in the Constitutional debate, so they spoke more explicitly about the connection between a strong government and our national health than tea party proponents care to acknowledge. Only if the federal government was strong could the nation survive, Federalists claimed. And the federal government could only be strong if it was able to apply taxes directly on citizens in a way that many states might not like.
This trade-off was necessary for the perpetuation of American freedom, at least as the Constitutional framers understood it. In the words of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney during the South Carolina ratification debates, the Declaration of Independence had recognized a fundamental fact that had led to the constitutional moment of 1787: “our freedom and independence arose from our union,” he claimed. And so important was union to freedom that without the national power necessary for union – which preeminently included the power of taxation to pay for debt – Pinckney concluded that “we could neither be free nor independent.”
Keep history in mind
So the next time newly elected tea party proponents talk about freezing the debt ceiling in order to “starve the beast” of national government, keep the arguments of Federalists such as Pinckney in mind. Keep them in mind when tea party proponents call for the roll-back of the federal health care law, which they regard as an illegitimate incursion into states’ rights.
Keep them in mind when you hear about secession balls, which are popping up around the South and coincide with both the ascension of the tea party into office and the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. And keep them in mind when tea partiers rehearse the long-discredited idea that states have the power to nullify federal laws.
The states-rights, neo-secessionist, small-government ideologues who seem to have taken over the Republican Party might have a coherent political philosophy. But that philosophy is not the philosophy of the constitutional framers. It is the philosophy of the Constitution’s opponents.
David Sehat is assistant professor of history at Georgia State University. His first book, “The Myth of American Religious Freedom,” was published in January.