Tea party constitutionalists: Anti-federalists in sheep’s clothing

by Russell's Rants

Originally published January 9, 2011


The Tea Party and conservative Republicans constantly tell us that they want to defend the Constitution and return to its original intent. What is that intent? According to the Mission Statement of the Tea Party Patriots, it is “Constitutionally Limited Government.” The Tea Party’s interpretation of limited government, however, is more consistent with the Articles of Confederation that the Framers of the Constitution found too weak and in need of replacement with a more robust set of laws to govern our federal union.

In the debate over ratification of the Constitution, it was the Federalists, like James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, that made the case for a strong federal government with enumerated powers. The loose-confederation crowd was represented by the Anti-Federalists, which, like the Tea Party of today, saw any exercise of federal power as an infringement of liberty.

Does this quote from the Richmond Tea Party website sound more like a Federalist or an Anti-Federalist mission statement?

When the government moves beyond [limiting its own growth and the protection of its citizens’ liberty] in its scope, it inevitably takes away from the freedom of the people. When it tries to interfere with the economy it can only put a damper on its growth at best, and at worst will cause it to stagnate. When the state seeks to meddle with the health care of the people it can only bring about slow treatment and suffering. When it seeks to control how people make and use their money it can only bring about poverty.

In his 1961 book, The Anti-federalists: Critics of the Constitution 1781-1788, Jackson Turner Main describes the Anti-Federalists as comprised of those “who preferred a weak central government.” According to Main,

Antifederalists viewed a strong national government as a threat to liberty. From this standpoint a vital part of the proposed structure of power to be erected by the Constitution was section eight of the first Article, which endowed Congress with the powers once held by the states. This section was studded with such ominous words as “taxes, “general welfare,” “Commerce,” “Armies,” “necessary and proper.”

Over the objections of the Anti-Federalist, the Constitution was, in fact, ratified. And now the Tea Party pretends to be its defender. Its candidates campaign with evangelical fervor as “constitutionalists.” But when the House of Representatives opened its new session by reading a sanitized version of Constitution (to avoid past controversies over slavery and prohibition), was the Tea Party following along?

If so, its leaders would not contend that the “US Constitution was written by our founders to limit the powers of the federal government and instead give the power to the people and the States.”

Nor would they repeat statements like this that appeared on the website of something called “Red Country,” which describes itself as “[t]he place for state and local conservative politics”:

At the federal level many are speaking about the enumerated powers imbedded in our Constitution that limit the Executive, Legislative and Judicial Branches to their primary roles of dealing with issues beyond our shores and allowing the individual states to deal with matters of public and social policy.

Really? The purpose of the Constitution was to limit the federal government to foreign affairs, never permit it to intrude into the economy and return power to the people and states?

To the contrary, the purpose of the Constitution was to strengthen the national government, give it the power to tax and spend for the general welfare and ameliorate inter-state conflicts, such as one state taxing imports from another state.

Here are some of the clauses in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution that so concerned the Anti-Federalist and which the Tea Party of today seems somehow to pretend do not exist:

  • To lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States;
  • To borrow money on the credit of the United States;
  • To regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes;
  • To establish uniform rules of naturalization and bankruptcy;
  • To coin money;
  • To provide for the punishment of counterfeiting;
  • To establish post offices and post roads;
  • To establish copyright and patent laws;
  • To constitute tribunals inferior to the Supreme Court;
  • To define and punish piracies and felonies committed on the high seas, and offenses against the Law of Nations;
  • To declare war;
  • To raise and support armies, maintain a navy and call forth the militia;
  • And to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers.

The Tea Party Patriots claim to be “inspired by our founding documents and regard the Constitution of the United States to be the supreme law of the land.” They even “believe that it is possible to know the original intent of the government our founders set forth, and stand in support of that intent.” And fashioned to its theory of limited government, here is the Tea Party Patriot’s summary of the Constitution from its Mission Statement:

Like the founders, we support states’ rights for those powers not expressly stated in the Constitution.

Note the use of the word “expressly” because the Tea Partiers don’t believe that the federal government can go beyond the specifically enumerated powers in the Constitution. Yet, the Tenth Amendment, which reserves powers not delegated to the federal government to the states or the people, omits the use of the word “expressly.” And it did so purposefully as explained by James Madison, who was, in fact, the Father of Constitution, in Federalist 44 with respect to the “necessary and proper” clause in Article 1:

Without the substance of this power, the whole Constitution would be a dead letter. . . . Had the convention [prohibited the exercise of any power not expressly delegated as was done in the Articles of Confederation], it is evident that the new Congress would be continually exposed, as their predecessors have been, to the alternative of construing the term “expressly” with so much rigor as to disarm the government of all real authority whatever, or with so much latitude as to destroy altogether the force of the restriction. It would be easy to show, if it were necessary, that no important power delegated by the Articles of Confederation has been or can be executed by Congress, without recurring more or less to the doctrine of construction or implication. . . . No axiom is more clearly established in law, or in reason, than that wherever the end is required, the means are authorized; wherever a general power to do a thing is given, every particular power necessary for doing it is included. . . .

And no wonder it is the Tea Party that proposes to rescind multiple components of the Constitution (including significant aspects of the 14th, 16th and 17th Amendments related to equal protection, the income tax and popular election of senators). It has even revived pre-Civil War notions of nullification.

In proposing policies that would so undermine or constrain the federal government, the Tea Party is not protecting the Constitution – real or imagined. It is the heir of the Anti-Federalists that sought to defeat ratification of the Constitution and make our union much less perfect.