The Tea Party and the Revival of Liberty

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On page 243 of his compelling new book, Covenant of Liberty: The Ideological Origins of the Tea Party, Michael Patrick Leahy recalls the memorable exchange, at a July 24, 2010, town  meeting in California, between Democratic congressman Pete Stark and a constituent who asked about the constitutionality of ObamaCare.  “I think,” said Stark, “that there are very few constitutional limits that would prevent the federal government from rules that could affect your private life.”  When the constituent followed up – asking, “if they can do this, what can’t they?  Is your answer that they can do anything?” – Stark’s reply was clear and unhesitant: “The federal government, yes, can do most anything in this country.”

Stark’s candid acknowledgment of the well-nigh unlimited scale of federal authority in the twenty-first century comes toward the end of an extremely absorbing account of how, exactly, we got to this point.  Leahy begins his story in 17th-century England, where heroes of individual liberty battled the tyranny of Stuart kings and Puritan theocrats alike.  Never heard of John Lilburne?  John Wise?  The Levellers (“the first significant grassroots political movement in Anglo-American history”)?  Leahy makes it clear that every American schoolchild should know these names.  He illuminatingly identifies the different philosophical traditions that went into America’s founding documents, noting that the critical second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”) is “the perfect blend of Locke, Protestant covenant theology, and the Ancient Constitution.”  However much history you may think you know, you may actually find Leahy deepening your understanding of the Founding Fathers’ ideas and of their historical roots.

At the center of this book is the U.S. Constitution – and, especially, Article I, Section 8, which includes three clauses that have been broadly interpreted in such a way as to expand government powers: the “general welfare” clause (“The Congress shall have power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common defence and general Welfare of the United States”); the “necessary and proper” clause (“[The Congress shall have power] To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof”); and the commerce clause (“[The Congress shall have power] To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes”).

It is remarkable to reflect upon the fact that immense government agencies and onerous, life-destroying regulations have been constructed on the fragile foundation of these few words.

In Leahy’s story, the hero is Thomas Jefferson, whom Leahy views as a supporter of “the plain meaning of the words of the Constitution.”  (He chooses to overlook the fact that Jefferson, as president, was not quite the constitutional purist, buying the Louisiana Territory even though he believed himself that he had no constitutional authority to do so.)  The villain is Alexander Hamilton, who, in establishing the National Bank, established “the precedent of federal powers far beyond those articulated in the Constitution,” thereby becoming the forefather of “modern expansionists of government power” who “support a meaning of the Constitution that can be expanded to justify virtually any action the federal government seeks to undertake.”  (There are many good things to be said about Hamilton, but Leahy’s book is not the place to look for them.)

Until Woodrow Wilson and World War I, America swung back and forth between constitutional purism and overreach.  Among the good guys: Andrew Jackson, who put the kibosh on the Second National Bank, and Grover Cleveland, “the last constitutional Democrat,” who “demonstrated greater fidelity to the constitutional principles of limited government” than any other president.  Among the bad guys: John Adams, whose Alien and Sedition Acts represented an outrageous violation of the First Amendment; Abraham Lincoln, who dispersed federal funds to the companies that built the transcontinental railroad; Benjamin Harrison, who signed “the first massive entitlement program in American history”; and, of course, Wilson, who during the First World War implemented “massive intrusive and ubiquitous government regulations,” whetting federal bureaucrats’ appetite for power and accustoming American citizens to Washington’s exercise of unconstitutional power over their lives.

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  • crackerjack

    The teaparty was created and funded by billionairs, logical that it created and now "supports" a billionaire candidate.

    • ProgDestroyer

      CJ you are a certifiable moron. How many billionaires support A-hole in the White House? Let me help your dumbass out: Buffet, Soros, Lewis, Gates, Zuckerburg, Cuban, Bloomberg. And these are just a quick list. If we expanded the conversation to millionaires the list would be pages long with some of the most insufferable narcissistic idiots around. Starting with the most destructive generation (born between 1930-1950) the left has been in love with the filthy rich and have since the sixties enriched themselves through the tyrannical use of government and wallstreet. Your side is the disease and the tea party is the cure. Assclown!

      • crackerjack

        Obama is Soro's puppet, the teaparty the Koch's puppet. In the end the taxpayer foots both bills. And can we expect anything will change under Romney exept that Obamacare would become Romneycare?

        …..and what exactly is the teaparty doing to end billionairs, wallstreet and cooperation's influence in lawmaking? Where are the bills agains lobbying (bribery) of senators ? How about a bill to keep big money out of political campaigning and out of political decision making? Instead, all the teaparty has achieved is to install a GOP big money candidate who will cater for big money interests and push Washington cronyism to new highs.

        • ProgDestroyer

          My apology. I thought you were giving the leftist argument. I

        • ProgDestroyer

          I don't have a problem with folks making tons of money or billions of it as long as they do so within the framework of what is moral, ethical and legal. I agree with your sentiment that those who enrich themselves and their cronies by manipulating the political system in order to stack the deck in their favor are the problem, a huge problem to be fair. I completely concur with your criticism of the alluded to crony capitalist (fascists) in both parties and agree that at this point not much has been done to stem the tide of the fascists. But, we have only started and the only way the movement will stay true is by our contined vigilence and participation. I prefer the strategy that sees constitutional conservatives taking over the republican party thereby inheriting the infrastructure but putting it to nobel uses vice starting a third party which I think is doomed to failure given the history of third parties in our country. Even though the Republican party was the third party option in the 1850's but that was the exception not the rule.

      • Asher

        Speaker Boehner said with total conviction: "If you have a government big enought to give you everything you want, they can also take away everything you got!" (This is Obama's road to European Socialism.)

    • UCSPanther

      So what if the Tea party was "supported" by the Koch brothers. As far as I am concerned, they are a counter-balance to George Soros, who has allegedly thrown his money behind the "Occupy" movement.

    • Rosine Ghawji

      Respectfully disagree.. As the co chair of the Memphis tea party, we started with 3 or 4 people . Nobody had money. . we just happened to share some basic ideas…. our focus was on the corrupted elected officials… Tennessee is number one in the country for jailed or arrested elected officials………..We got involved in local elections.. We have a watch team… that is watching our new elected officials are behaving. …..
      As far as supporting a billionaire , the state of Tennessee went for Santorum. Sure … like everywhere else ,some people supported Romney….
      and now do we have a choice… Obama or Romney….. looking at Obama 's records ,,,, we don't have a choice.

    • zap glomer

      Obamacare will survive because one out of seven blacks, one out of ten Hispanics and one out of twelve Italians (thank Fumento) have HIV/AIDS. Do you really want them biting you on the street corner if you refuse to donate?

      • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLNn2YflwNs Roger

        Obama care won't survive.

        Either it will be overturned or it will collapse the economy. In any event it won't survive.

  • http://libertyandculture.blogspot.com/ JasonPappas

    Quite an interesting book but it sounds like Leahy may exaggerate for effect. Jefferson wasn't the complete constitutionalist as President (as Bawer points out) but failing to live up to his aspirations merely makes him human. Jefferson didn't abolish the central bank or pay down the national debt–Andrew Jackson did those things. Jefferson established the anti-Federalist tradition; Jackson pushed it further. No one President today will get the Tea Party agenda established. However, we must maintain our principles and demand progress from each of our next Republican Presidents.

    One other minor flaw. It sounds as if Leahy holds wartime measures against past Presidents. It was always understood that (declared) war makes for exceptions. Washington suspended many rights during the Revolutionary War. While Adams was wrong to do this without a declaration, Lincoln and Wilson had their declaration. Their peacetime policies may be questionable but the exception of war is a tradition that goes back to the Roman Republic–which the founders studied over and over again.

    • wctaqiyya

      Good reply Jason. To your point that wars make for exceptions, I agree. Unfortunately, after WW2, for the first time, many if not most of the war time powers were not rescinded. The federal government kept many of them and here we are. We then slid into undeclared wars, unfinished wars and more and more centralized power. Now, we have Obama publicly declaring that he will bypass Congress, not consult with them on matters of war and peace and telling the Supreme Court what they can and can't do. It's out of control.

      Much as I like this article and the tea party, I'm afraid they are not organized enough or motivated enough to get the job done. I don't see it as a matter of the next few presidents changing things back, I see it as the people forcing the president and Congress to change it back. And I don't see the tea party doing much at all right now. We have another big government republican running for office and he will surely do nothing but affirm the bloated power of Washington. If he wins. If Obama wins, we will still vote, but only for one candidate. Here's to the tea party getting off their collective asses.

      • http://libertyandculture.blogspot.com/ JasonPappas

        Excellent points (here and in your other comment) including the comments on defense, war, and the military.

        While I respect the spirit of the Tea Party, they didn't have what it takes to continue the battle. They didn't have a viable leader to rally around in the primary.

        • wctaqiyya

          Thank you brother. Yeah, I never understood why so many of the Tea Party 'non-leader' organizers insisted so strenuously that it was a leaderless grass roots thing. There's nothing inherently wrong with leadership and they sounded eerily like the commie hippies of OWS.

          I don't see any national figure filling the leadership role at the moment, but I also don't see what's stopping the regional groups from each electing a few representatives and holding a convention someplace. Or something along those lines. They can build a national platform from which they can spin regional and even local platforms. We need to push back against the raging mobs of entitlement parasites who are being stoked up by the left. We need the people who pay the bills to say enough is enough. And mean it.

          Just had a random, but related, thought. It appears as though Romney, judging by his recent staff moves and speech noises, intends to run a campaign straight down the left center lane. I think he believes he can pull votes from Obama's base and leave the Tea Party behind. If so, Romney is just the tone deaf, amoral opportunist with no emotional connection to the people, he appears to be.
          And he will lose.

          • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLNn2YflwNs Roger

            While both of you are having fun chatting in the mutual agreement society, none of that matches reality.

  • StephenD

    After all the talk from the Left, can any of you tell me what bothers you concerning the four ideas the TEA Party is united around: " limited government, free markets, individual liberty, and strong national defense. Period." ???

    If you have a problem with this…you have a problem.

    • Spider

      StephenD you missed the fifth and most important Tea-Party doctrine – Vote Obama out in November – because he is the complete antitithis of the first four doctrines…

  • Asher

    Believe me, Freedom and Liberty will never go out of style or be forgotten…We the People are Uniting!

    • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLNn2YflwNs Roger

      No wonder the elite are nervous.

  • clarespark

    I was surprised to see Jefferson elevated and Hamilton put down in this article. Jeffersonian democracy is the darling of the history establishment, which has gone far left. I wrote about it here: http://clarespark.com/2011/10/30/collectivism-in-…. Also, for the Jeffersonian-Jacksonian legacy see this piece on Claude Bowers's instructions, so reminiscence of Saul Alinsky: http://clarespark.com/2011/12/10/before-saul-alin….

  • tagalog

    How do the people who today support government intrustion into our private lives square that desire with the obvious fact that the Constitution was intended to be, and was written as, a limitation of the powers of the central government?

    I mean, I know that the Constitution is largely ignored as a political document and has taken on the stature of some sort of sacred scroll, something like the Ten Commandments or something, that we can just put on display somewhere for the people to look at without actually following its law, but what about that government of limited powers thing?

  • AntiSharia

    It's a common libertarian narrative: Jefferson good, Hamilton bad. Sadly there really isn't much factual history behind it, just political propaganda. Hamilton was hardly the godfather of progressivism. If we want to rightly blame someone for the massive federal government lets blame FDR, and FDR was hardly a disciple of Hamilton. He was a disciple of Croley and the Progressive movement. But back to Jefferson. Jefferson, the patron saint of constitutional government, was actually against the constitution. He worked through his protege, James Monroe, to defeat the constitution in Virginia. Only when ratification was inevitable did he switch to his other protege, James Madison to back the constitution, and use his influence on Madison to bring him over to his side.

    Jefferson was also the father of the idea of nullification. If we, as conservatives, are supposed to love the constitution then we should love the people who loved it. Not the people who try to erase it. Nullification is blatantly unconstitutional as it goes against the supremacy clause. Of course he dropped his support for nullification once he became President. I guess you could say he was for nullification before he was against it.
    Jefferson was hardly the small government guy that the propagandists want us to believe. Upon taking office he greatly expanded the powers of the Presidency, beyond anything Hamilton of the Federalists advocated.

    As conservatives we're supposed to be in favor of free markets, but was Jefferson? Jefferson imposed embargoes, and forbade Americans from trading overseas, both crippled the American economy. These policies were mostly deliberate attempts to weaken the northern economy and the Federalist party that was dominant there.

    As conservatives we're supposed to be in favor of an independent judiciary, Jefferson was not. Upon taking office he abolished many of the federal courts, and attempted to impeach the Supreme Court, impeaching associate justice Samuel Chase, who committed no other crime than disagreeing with the President.

    As conservatives we favor a strong military, Jefferson gutted the military(a tradition that virtually every Democratic President has followed up on) to just 1,000 men in the army and reduced our navy to just three real warships. The debacle of 1812 can be laid squarely at his feet.

    Mr. Leahy needs to get his historical facts straight. Jefferson was hardly the champion of individual liberty and the little man that most make him out to be, Hamilton was hardly the monster with blood dripping off his fangs that he's made out to be. If we lived under the federal government as the Federalists ran it, we'd be ecstatic.

    Jefferson against the constitution, against free markets, against an independent judiciary, against a reasonable military, and against the rule of law(he was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Reign of terror however) . Jefferson is a poor choice for the face of liberty, he was a man of the mob, not liberty. We should look to Washington, not the "sage" of Monticello.

    • http://libertyandculture.blogspot.com/ JasonPappas

      It is a common libertarian narrative. Before that it was a common Whig narrative and our nation was founded by [old-style] Whigs. You distort their position and leave out context.

      Jefferson was against the constitution? Yes, but because he worried that the “more perfect union” was too much of a consolidated government that threatened the sovereignty of the states and rights of the individuals. Thanks to the anti-federalists we got a Bill of Rights. That’s the constitution we on the right love.

      Jefferson and Madison were for nullification? Yes, but as good Lockeans they saw the “social contract” as null and void when it violated natural rights (as it did with Adams’ Alien and Sedition Acts). Madison would back Jackson when Calhoun wanted South Carolina to succeed from the union. Thus, it wasn’t nullification for “light and transient” causes …

      Jefferson embargoes? True, but he was trying to avoid being dragged into a war with England. Give a little context, please.

      Independent judiciary? Jefferson saw the Marshall Court as advanced a “living constitution”. He (and Jackson) believed they swore an oath to the constitution, not to the court. Obviously a problematic position since there has to be some final authority — but not a dishonorable position.

      A strong military? Let’s remember that the revolutionaries went to war in part because of the “standing army” that they found threatening to our liberties. A little thing called the American Revolution was the “reality” that “mugged” a few of our founding fathers into a more realistic position. By the time of Jackson (who had no trouble fighting the British, Spanish, and Indians) that all changed. Let’s respect the context of history.

      • wctaqiyya

        Nice piece of work Mr. Pappas. Might I suggest a smaller military for America? Maybe 9 carriers instead of 12? And perhaps a robust, well trained and equipped, reserve component with a 30 to 40% reduction in active duty units? I so dislike the idea of invading every damn nation on earth. Except Cuba. I really think it's about time we liberated Cuba. What's the hold up? We wouldn't even have to invade, just tell them it's over.

  • clarespark

    The history establishment continues to confuse readers about the Founding Fathers and the Constitution. See http://clarespark.com/2011/10/30/collectivism-in-….

  • oldtimer

    Divide and conquer. Jesus said in Mat.12:25 …any kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and a house divided against itself shall not stand." Lincoln also repeated these words.

  • stevefraser

    Individual liberty is meaningless in a tribal society. The DEMS are commited to supporting tribalism with the hope their white elites can control it from "above". See Ken Wilber's "Up From Eden" for an explanation of the evolution from tribalism to the birth of the private self (yes, private property is directly correlated with this advance in human development.).

  • Schlomotion

    Tea Partiers look silly with their ready-made Revolution II flags and their Rove-Approved franchise protesting. It's the same as Anonymous buying their Guy Fawkes masks from Newbury Comics. Rent-a-Revolution! ¢ha ¢he!

    • wctaqiyya

      Somebody here is just havin too much fun. Shame on you Schlomotion. Tisk, Tisk

    • mlcblog

      are you a bit jealous, bubbie?

  • Whos_John_Galt

    What does "Liberty" mean to drunks like, John Boehner?

    • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLNn2YflwNs Roger

      It depends who he's golfing with.

  • popseal

    First they ignore you, next they misrepresent you, then you're slandered, and finally they threaten you…at the last when you don't quit, you win! Don't Tread On Me !

  • WilliamJamesWard

    The govenment is only as good as the people put into it and due to the moral failure of the American
    character in so many dimensions we cater to one scam artist and snake oil salesman after another.
    It is common here to see the term District of Criminals. Until caught all of the Washington darlings
    pose as our deliverers and as I have observed over the decades money has become the God of
    all there and if the constituents back home knew what was going on we would pick our government
    representatives out of the local phone book. The tea party wants to return normal everyday people
    to government that will not sell them out and truly do what is best and honest and it is and uphill
    battle and an ongoing effort that must prevail this November, failure ends a good future for all
    of our posterity…………………………………..William

    • wctaqiyya

      Poetry to my ears. I read it like it was one sentence and I'm still out of breath.

    • mlcblog

      Hear hear!!

  • Albert8184

    No mention of the word “God” anywhere in this article. Therefore, it’s all just an issue of which people have the most guns and money to determine what rights we have.