by Michael Makovi
I. General Historical and Ideological Context
Joseph Moore's argument is that the Constitution was meant to limit populist movements like the Tea Party, and that the Tea Party has more in common with the Anti-Federalists than with the Federalists:
"The Constitution was written to constrain movements like the Tea Party. Ironic, then, that Tea Partiers espouse such a religious reverence for it. ... The paradox of this crusader's zeal for the Founding Fathers is that the Tea Party more closely resembles the groups that opposed the Constitution than those who wrote it in 1787. ... The Constitution was written to protect government from movements like the Tea Party. It was written to ensure the power of the federal government to direct economic policy. It was written to keep control away from angry men with guns. It was, in short, everything Tea Party advocates like Beck and Michael Savage think it was not."
Moore concludes that the Tea Party is voicing historically-legitimate views (those of the Anti-Federalists), but is confused, in that it's relating itself, wrongly, to the Constitution:
"Ironically, the Tea Partiers have embodied what their most sacred text opposed. This does not delegitimize them.They stand in a meaningful tradition even as they misunderstand it. They have channeled the old angst of Anti-Federalism, good and bad, into the present by combining Jeffersonian fear of government with anger for anger's sake. Their zeal is both tremendous and historic."
However, I think Moore needs to view this whole matter in greater historical perspective. Yes, the Tea Party might very well be more like the Anti-Federalists than like the Federalists, but if we compare them both together with other political philosophies, then we see they are both of the same classical liberal, constitutionalist, limited government school. The Anti-Federalists and the Federalists were both two different opposing factions of the same general school of thought. Had Moore studied these two factions against the backdrop of the entire history of the classical liberal and federal traditions, he would have seen how similar the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists really were.
In fact, most of the differences between the two come down to mere tactics; i.e., they differed not on the theory, but on how to enshrine that theory in practice. It is one thing to believe in limited government and social contract, but it is something else to determine how to put those into effect, and the Anti-Federalists and Federalists mostly disagreed merely on practice, not on theory.
And whatever theoretical differences they did have, were relatively minor when put into a greater perspective. The Federalists, like the Anti-Federalists, also feared that a strong government would take away their freedoms. After all, that is exactly why the American Revolution was fought. The Federalists may not have been as libertarian as the Anti-Federalists, but they weren't Tories!
We cannot have such a myopic and narrow view of history. The American Revolution cannot be viewed in isolation. It must be viewed alongside the Dutch, English, and French Revolutions, and viewed as the sequel to the first two that it truly was. The cartoon "An Attempt to Land a Bishop in America" depicts John Calvin and Algernon Sidney as being partners of John Locke, while John Adams said John Ponet's work contained "all the essential principles of liberty, which were afterward dilated on by [Algernon] Sidney and Locke". John Adams additionally recommended the anonymous Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos. I'm sure we all know who Calvin was, while John Ponet was a Protestant Christian during the persecutions of Protestants by Mary Tudor (Bloody Mary), the Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos was a Huguenot tract, and Sidney was a partner of Milton and Cromwell. In other words, the American Revolution was part of the general Reformed Christian movement of federalism and limited government that was behind the Dutch and English revolutions, and we must study it as part of that movement, not in isolation. And this Reformed Christian movement was closely related to the Whig and classical liberal tradition. After all, Locke's father fought under Cromwell, and Locke was familiar with Puritan and Congregationalist trends in England, and the two traditions remained very closely allied to each other. Analyzing Francis Schaeffer's claim that John Locke relied on Samuel Rutherford, Robert Arnold concluded that while there is no evidence that Locke utilized Rutherford, that nevertheless, Locke certainly relied on those who were part of Rutherford's same Reformed Christian school of thought, such as Milton. Indeed, let us also note that the Mayflower Compact displays a mature social contract theory decades before Locke was even born. Locke may be the most famous exponent of social contract theory, but he was not the first.
II. The Bill of Rights
And we should not mischaracterize the Bill of Rights, as I believe Moore does:
"The original Constitution did not include the rights to free speech, religious choice, bearing arms, due process, or trial by jury. ... Along the way the Anti-Federalists browbeat ten notable concessions called the Bill of Rights out of Washington and 'the establishment.'"
Is it really reasonable for us to imagine that the Federalists had no concern whatsoever for limited government and the securing of basic rights? Even if the Constitution said nothing, what about the Magna Carta, the Petition of Right (1628), and the English Bill of Rights (1689), not to mention the Declaration of Independence? After all, the Declaration of Rights of 1765 asserted
That his majesty’s liege subjects in these colonies, are entitled to all the inherent rights and liberties of his natural born subjects, within the kingdom of Great Britain.
Similarly, the Declaration of Rights and Grievances of 1774 claimed,
"That the inhabitants of the English Colonies in North America, by the immutable laws of nature, the principles of the English constitution, and the several charters or compacts, have the following Rights."
So even if the Constitution says nothing, the Magna Carta (or rather, the Whig hagiography that grew up around it) ought to suffice. More importantly, when the Anti-Federalists asked for a Bill of Rights, the Federalists did not respond that men lack rights to freedom of speech, to bear arms, and such. Rather, they responded that a Bill of Rights would imply that any rights not listed were not to be protected. In other words, it was a legal/exegetical/hermeneutical dispute, not an ideological one. The Federalists had no disagreements with the substance of the Bill of Rights as demanded by the Anti-Federalists, but were afraid that explicitly listing those rights would disparage those rights not listed. The Federalists, as much as the Anti-Federalists, were part of the classical liberal tradition, and believed that all men are created by God, and as such, have the rights to speak freely and bear arms, and that the government is created by social contract and has only those powers delegated by the people.
III. Economic Policy
It may very well be, as Moore says, that the Constitution
"was written to ensure the power of the federal government to direct economic policy."
But even Federalists would be aghast at how the Commerce and General Welfare Clauses have been interpreted. Given the fundamentally illiberal government we have today, the differences between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists pale in comparison. Even a Federalist would say that the Commerce Clause was meant to prevent trade wars among states and that the General Welfare Clause was meant to protect the general welfare as opposed to parochial, sectarian welfare of select factions. If anything, the Federalists would be more upset than the Anti-Federalists! After all, the Anti-Federalists could always say, "I told you so. This is why I wanted us to stick to the Articles." But the Federalist had just spent so much time carefully crafting the Constitution, only for the New Deal court to come along and declare that the Commerce and General Welfare Clauses were carte blanches, and that the whole rest of the Constitution was literally useless and meaningless. So much toil and sweat and ink, for naught!
In the comments to Moore's original posting at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, I value Paul M.'s observations about Keynesianism and Shays's Rebellion. But he makes the same mistake as Moore when he says,
It is very ironic that the Tea Party movement has embraced a document designed as a check on individual liberties and local and state autonomy. ... Isn't it amazing that the scope of the federal government has become so extensive as to make the Constitution a check on federal authority rather than the expansion it was originally intended to be?
IV. Mindset, Worldview, and Intention of the Tea Party
Moore goes on to say
"They collapse evangelical views on the Bible (as written by divinely inspired men and therefore inerrant) into conservative views of the Constitution (same, same). When faced with problems, Glenn Beck proclaimed to a group of kids this summer, "The answer is always 'restore the Constitution.'" In August, a Greensboro crowd carrying weapons met for a "Restore the Constitution" rally. they have turned 'don't tread on me' into 'don't tread on the Constitution.'"
But I believe that the Tea Party's advocacy of loyalty to the Constitution is not so much a religious worship of the Constitution per se, as much as it is instead that:
- The Constitution is what we already have. Anyone concerned with the rule-of-law and federalism (meaning "covenantalism", i.e. social contract) is going to advocate loyalty to the Constitution not only because of its intrinsic value and goodness, but simply because it is what is already on the law-books; the libertarian will demand observance of the Constitution not only because it is intrinsically good, but simply because the rule-of-law demands it. Even if the Anti-Federalist would say the Constitution is evil, it is at least lawful evil.
2. The Constitution enshrines principles greater than itself. The Constitution is a specific instance of federalism (social contract), and so anyone who supports federalism in general - i.e. classical liberals and libertarians - is going to see the Constitution as a good approximation of what they seek. It does not mean the Constitution is perfect, but it is among the closest things to perfection in today's world. It provides a good starting point, and once we reinstate it as the lawful king that it ought to be, then we can talk about improving on it. Those who advocate adherence to the Constitution are likely planning on moving past the Constitution, towards a more completely libertarian government, but they rightly see the Constitution as a step in that direction.
So when Tea Partiers advocate adherence to the Constitution, they do this instead of advocating for the Articles of Confederation because (respectively):
To summarize my argument, I believe Moore takes too narrow a view of history when he says the Tea Party is like the Anti-Federalists and thus should be opposed to the Constitution. I believe that he has overstated the differences between the Anti-Federalists and the Federalists, and the Articles and the Constitution, because his chosen time-span of history is too small.
[Michael Makovi is an Orthodox Jewish student studying in Jerusalem, and is originally from Silver Spring, MD. Mr. Makovi's focus is on political philosophy, with a special interest in Reformed Christian sources of libertarianism. His personal blog is here.]