By Robert Parry
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.
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.