The Constitution was written to constrain movements like the Tea Party. Ironic, then, that Tea Partiers espouse such a religious reverence for it. 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.'And though I am not a fan or an apologist of the Tea Party movement, I believe that Mr. Moore's summation is a bit too superficial.
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 world was different then, but not so different.
Our Constitution was a reaction to a great recession. America couldn't even pay the interest on the national debt taken out to finance the Revolution. Cheap imported goods flooded the market, diving American workers out of a living. These patriotic people, many of them war veterans, had financed their homes with loans. With no one buying American anymore, regular people couldn't pay their mortgages, and banks foreclosed on homes across the nation.
In Massachusetts, a war veteran named Daniel Shays espoused something like the modern sentiment, 'we're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore.' Shays and other farmers took up arms, took to the streets, and became the faces of a movement sweeping the country. In the spirit of American patriotism, they demanded that state lawmakers pass legislation protecting hardworking people against bankers and taxes. Thomas Jefferson noted approvingly, "A little rebellion now and then is a good thing."
Thomas Jefferson was in Paris when he said that. George Washington, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were not. Those Founding Fathers called for a new government to stave off groups like Shays'. The document they created, the Constitution, put distance between the people and their government. Politicians, not the people, chose Senators. Not one private citizen voted for George Washington to be president. The original Constitution did not include the rights to free speech, religious choice, bearing arms, due process, or trial by jury. "We the People of the United States" was added in the final day of editing- to save space.
Enter the Anti-Federalists. They were panicked that the new government would enable "the rich to oppress and ruin the poor." This annoyed Washington, who privately remarked that the protesters gave "the tone" of being "obnoxious," and that it was best that citizens should not have opportunity to "peak behind the curtain" of US government.
What frustrated our first President were the Anti-Federalists; emotional appeal and their conspiracy theories about strong central government colluding to take away people's freedoms. "This government, " one opponent prophesied, "will set out a moderate aristocracy."
The Anti-Federalists lost, mostly because in the midst of economic crisis a strong national government made the best sense. Along the way the Anti-Federalists browbeat ten notable concessions called the Bill of Rights out of Washington and 'the establishment.' We woe them our thanks. But that cannot change irrefutable historical facts:
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 Michale Savage think it was not.
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.
Perhaps the ultimate irony is that the political moderation the Tea Party hates and the Founding Fathers loved is now represented not by politicians, but by comedians. One week before the mid-term elections, Comedy Central's Jon Stewart will hold his "Rally To Restore Sanity" on the National Mall. The restoration of sanity was what the Constitution was originally about.
But what say you?