For the Tea Party, the Meaning of the Founding Era is in the Words of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights

By: May 16, 2011

Author William Hogeland is an honest historian who, despite his apparent left wing proclivities, doesn’t distort the historical record. He also seems to appreciate the unique self-organizing character of the Founding Era civil rebellions that continue to inspire modern Tea Partiers. Where we disagree is in our view of the Constitution. In his guest article published here today in Broadside Books’ “Line of Fire,” Hogeland argues that the Tea Party movement makes a claim on history that I think distorts, to a damaging degree, realities of the American founding period, and what those realities might mean for us today.”

To the contrary, our claim that the Constitution, as ratified and amended, is a secular covenant by which we are all bound is the strongest, most democratically rooted claim on history that emerges from the American founding period.  As I argue in my upcoming book, The Covenant of Liberty, this secular covenant was formed in an intense, elaborate national discussion that took place over four long years from 1787 to 1791.  Perhaps the most important outcome of that exhausting but authentically democratic process is that Congress’ powers are limited to those enumerated in Article I, Section 8.

Mr. Hogeland appears to regard the Constitution as something other than a binding secular covenant, and in this I would submit he makes an error of historic misinterpretation. He argues that the reality of the founding period is that  “ordinary Americans  demanded that government foster political and economic equality”, and he points to  the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution (clearly the most “radically democratic” constitution of all the state constitutions), Shays’ Rebellion (1786) , and the Whiskey Rebellion (1791-1794), as specific examples that “reflected core values of ordinary Americans throughout the 18th century.”

Mr. Hogeland seems to be implying that the process by which the Constitution and Bill of Rights were ratified somehow excluded the ordinary citizens who participated in these events. To the contrary, they were heavily involved.  Indeed, many of the authors of the 1776 Pennyslvania Constitution participated as elected delegates to the state convention that ratified the Federal Constitution by a 2 to 1 margin in 1789.   Influenced by this debate, no doubt, the state of Pennsylvania threw out the 1776 version of its constitution the very next year, so unsuccessful in actual operation had been this document upon which Mr. Hogeland relies for one-third of his argument. Similarly, the participants in Shays’ Rebellion of western Massachusetts voted for delegates to that state’s 1788 ratification convention as well as members of the Massachusetts State Legislature who later deliberated the merits of the Bill of Rights.

Contrary to Mr. Hogeland’s argument, the lessons from these efforts to introduce concepts of political and economic equality were incorporated into the debates of the Constitutional Convention, the ratification conventions held in all thirteen of the states, the First Congress that passed the Bill of Rights, and the state legislatures that ratified the Bill of Rights. Mr. Hogeland’s complaint appears to be that some aspects of the kind of economic equality he favors did not survive the rigors of this collaborative and highly democratic process.

Mr. Hogeland also objects to my interpretation of the history of the Whiskey Rebellion:

“You, by sharp contrast, … cast the Whiskey Rebellion as a libertarian revolt on behalf of free markets, with the Hamiltonian national finance plan, which depended on the tax, representing unconstitutional federal meddling in the economy … With Hamilton, I read the Constitution as giving Congress the power to make a national finance plan; in fact, unlike you, I think a major purpose of the Constitution was to enable just that. Hamilton ran with the opportunity to beat down the popular movement for economically equalizing legislation.”

Mr. Hogeland states my argument incorrectly. The Whiskey tax of 1791 was not unconstitutional,  it was simply very unfair to the small farmers of western Pennsylvania and Hamilton’s conduct towards them was unnecessarily heavy handed. Nor was Hamilton’s earlier plan for the federal government’s assumption of state debts, adopted in 1790,  unconstitutional. My complaint with Hamilton is that his plan for the establishment of a National Bank, adopted in 1791,  relying as it did upon his invented meaning of the “necessary and proper” clause ( a meaning he had earlier disavowed as a delegate to the New York State ratifying convention) was unconstitutional, and that his conduct during the Whiskey Rebellion revealed his true “Napoleonic” character.

I close by pointing out that in his attempt to use absurdity to dismiss the Tea Party’s core values, Mr. Hogeland actually makes the case for their significance when he states:

“The Tea Party’s core values …[are] meant to imply that anyone opposing or opposed by the Tea Party must, by definition, favor 1) unconstitutionally unlimited government, 2) strangled markets, and 3) fiscal irresponsibility. Since nobody would openly espouse such a position, it’s useless to argue about it.”

In fact, politicians like Democrats Pete Stark (“the federal government can do pretty much anything it wants”) and Nancy Pelosi (“you’ll know what’s in Obamcare after it’s passed”), and Republican George W. Bush ( “I’ve abandoned free-market principles in order to save the free market” ) have been supporting the opposite of our core values in their actions and public statements for years. Recently, they’ve done so in the most egregious ways. I will save the detailed list of examples that expand upon this point for another post, but any reader familiar with the events of the last several years can readily make his own very long list.

Michael Patrick Leahy is the editor of the Voices of the Tea Party e-book series and co-founder of Top Conservatives on Twitter and the Nationwide Tea Party Coalition. His new book, The Covenant of Liberty, on the ideological origins of the Tea Party movement, will be published by Broadside Books in January, 2012. He can be reached on Twitter at @michaelpleahy .

3 Responses to For the Tea Party, the Meaning of the Founding Era is in the Words of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights

  1. James Kilgore says:

    It’s going to take at least two election cycles to get the Republican party back. We were all asleep for many years even through the Bush years. The people are now awake and engaged. Washington is going to be very different in a few years. I predict the income tax will be replaced with the Fair Tax, term limits will be passed in a few years. Many federal departments will be abolished and/or severly downsized and the entire way of doing business in Washington will be changed.Unions will be neutered with right to work passed in all states. If most of the above does not happen, this Republic will not survive as we know it. It will probably end in a violent struggle similar to the revolution against the British. We may just have to do it all over again just like the founders did.

  2. Advocatus Diaboli says:

    With all due respect, it’s hard to see that the Tea Party is strongly grounded in the Constitution if recent polling is showing that some two-thirds of those identified with the movement oppose any significant cuts or changes to Medicare.

  3. Pingback: Chit Chat #2: What *Is* the Dang Constitution, Anyway? « Hysteriography

Leave a Reply