Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Constitutional Idolatry


Since its inception in the spring of 2009, the conservative Tea Party movement has generated a torrent of online articles and blog entries - possibly a sentence of text for each of its actual members. Until quite recently, though, I've seen little (virtual) ink spilled on the Tea Partiers' interpretation of the historical era that inspired them, or on their somewhat idolatrous - not to say illiterate - attitude toward the culminating document of that era, the U.S. Constitution. Now, however, several authors and essayists have taken up those subjects. Award-winning historian Jill Lepore has a new book out on the Tea Party movement and the American Revolution, The Whites of Their Eyes, which wryly observes that in "the American political tradition, nothing trumps the Revolution" (p. 14), but notes that those who currently make use of it for political ends have no actual interest in history. History may be summarized as "change through time," and the Tea Partiers don't wish to acknowledge any lapse of time between the Revolutionary Golden Age and our descent into the Dark Age of Obaman Socialism. (The introduction and first chapter of Lepore's book, incidentally, are available in PDF form at the Princeton University Press website linked above.)

Meanwhile, Harvard Law professor Michael Klarman and Economist columnist "Lexington" (alias Peter David) have commented on the Tea Partiers' ahistorical worship of the U.S. Constitution, which the TPers alternately deploy as a political talisman and as an imaginary key to the secrets of the Founding Fathers (and thus to the legitimate origins of the republic). Klarman calls this sort of attitude "Constitutional idolatry," and observes that the original U.S. Constitution contains several provisions that made sense to the Framers, but which modern Americans find repugnant (e.g. its support for slavery and the slave trade) or indefensible (e.g. parity in the Senate, the provision that the president must be a "natural-born citizen"). We might also note, as Woody Holton discovered while polling his students at the University of Richmond, that most modern Americans, when they think of the U.S. Constitution, prefer to associate that document more with the protection of legal, civil and voting rights than with the structure of the federal government. In other words, Americans put more emphasis on the amendments than on the main body of the Constitution. (See Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution [New York, 2007], ix-x.)

Finally, journalist and prize-winning biographer Ron Chernow noted, in a somewhat less acidic op-ed piece for the New York Times, that the Founding Fathers were themselves a pretty disputatious lot, and that several of the first leaders of the federal republic, notably Washington and Hamilton, took an "expansive view of the Constitution" at odds with the modern Tea Partiers' strict-constructionism. Just what you'd expect a font of liberal socialist treason like the Times to print, of course.

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