Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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December 31, 2010

THE FOUNDERS WERE MANY THINGS, BUT THEY WEREN'T LIBERTARIANS.... As part of the right's newfound interest in all things constitutional, there's been a related push of late to recast the framers of the Constitution. Today's far-right activists, we're told, are the ideological descendents of the Founding Fathers.

Indeed, in Christopher Beam's widely noted piece this month, we're told, "The Constitution was a libertarian document that limited the role of the state to society's most basic needs, like a legislature to pass laws, a court system to interpret them, and a military to protect them."

This is certainly a welcome characterization for those who prefer to believe most of the progressive bedrocks of modern American society -- Social Security, Medicare, etc. -- are not only unconstitutional, but are wholly at odds with the vision of limited government established by the framers.

The problem, of course, is that the framers weren't libertarians. John Vecchione had a good piece on this the other day.

George Washington belonged to the Established Church (Episcopalian) of the State of Virginia; he also was the chief vindicator of national power in the new republic. Thomas Jefferson determined to wage war by simply denying foreigners the right to trade with the U.S. So did Madison. What libertarian has ever thought the government could cut off trade between free individuals?

Further, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine supported the French Revolution. That revolution denied there was anything the state could not do in the name of the people. Jefferson never repudiated his support for that tyranny and Thomas Paine was only slightly more dismissive even after it nearly killed him. [...]

The Founders believed in carefully delineated federal powers either broad (Hamilton) or limited (Jefferson, sometimes) but all believed in a more powerful state than libertarians purport to believe in. If ever there was a libertarian document it was the Articles of Confederation. There was no national power. The federal government could not tax. Its laws were not supreme over state laws. It was in fact, the hot mess that critics of libertarians believe their dream state would be ... and it was recognized as such by the majority of the country and was why the Constitution was ratified. The Articles of Confederation is the true libertarian founding document and this explains the failure of libertarianism.

Jon Chait noted a recent piece from historian Gordon Wood that touches on this, emphasizing the similarities between the debates of the framers and those of today. "The great irony, of course, is that the Anti-Federalist ancestors of the Tea Partiers opposed the Constitution rather than revered it," Wood explained.

And this, too, speaks to a larger truth. As Ezra Klein noted yesterday, "In reality, the tea party -- like most everyone else -- is less interested in living by the Constitution than in deciding what it means to live by the Constitution." Or as Matt Yglesias added this morning, "The field of constitutional law has always featured a great deal of what's known as 'motivated belief' where people look at the document and tend to see it as supporting their preexisting policy conclusions."

The same is true of the nation's founders, and the drive on the right to convince themselves that they think as the framers did, which somehow gives contemporary conservatism a weighty, historical legacy, and a strong foundation from which to attack the modern welfare state.

This might be more compelling if it weren't transparent nonsense.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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The tea party people don't have a f'n clue about current events. What makes anyone think they would have the first f'n clue about historical events, which requires at least some book learnin'?

This is nothing more than an attempt to give themselves and their opinions credibility.

Posted by: Holmes on December 31, 2010 at 11:40 AM | PERMALINK

One more time--the purpose of the Constitutional Convention called by the founders and the results of that convention were to create a stronger national (central)government that was to be superior to state governments with the ability to raise a revenue (through taxes and tariffs)and regulate commerce for the good of the nation. The very opposite of libertarianism. Geez, Beams--read a history book for cryin' out loud, or better yet--The Federalist Papers--it's all in there.

Posted by: xpatriate on December 31, 2010 at 11:46 AM | PERMALINK

But even the Teabaggers aren't Libertarians, really. They're only Libertarian when they don't like what the government is doing. When it comes to things like telling Moslem Americans where they can and cannot exercise their religious rights, they are authoritarians.

The teabaggers don't subscribe to any consistent, coherent political philosophy at all. They are a neo-tribalistic sect intent on imposing its will on all other Americans. They like what they like and they want what they want and the rest of us had just better not get in their way if we know what's good for us.

Posted by: Chesire11 on December 31, 2010 at 11:52 AM | PERMALINK

The founders were intent on creating a much more powerful federal government, but one that was sufficiently limited as to be never able to interfere with slavery in the slave-holding states. It is those limitations that prevent the federal government from protecting people from exploitation and oppression that the Tea Party is interested in upholding.

Posted by: Tom in Ma on December 31, 2010 at 11:58 AM | PERMALINK

Libertarians? Slave owners are not libertarians. Period.

Posted by: Tigershark on December 31, 2010 at 12:13 PM | PERMALINK

I've decide to utilize my marginal bully pulpit in defense of what Ezra Klein was implying. He obviously was not clear enough, perhaps an analogy would do the trick :

Ezra Klein In The Cross-Hairs Of Right Wing Outrage

Posted by: Ryan Colpaart on December 31, 2010 at 12:23 PM | PERMALINK

TigerShark beat me to it.

But let's not forget taking of private property for public use IS allowed by the Constitution as long as there is just compensation. That one still drives the libertarians wild. Not to mention the right to tax.

By 18th century standards, the Constitution can be considered small "l" libertarian, but it was never Libertarian.

Posted by: martin on December 31, 2010 at 12:36 PM | PERMALINK


Are you sure about that? I have it on good authority that both Hamilton _and_ Jefferson had autographed copies of Atlas Shrugged in their personal libraries. In fact, one of the major arguments at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia was which of The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged was the superior book.

Posted by: josef on December 31, 2010 at 12:36 PM | PERMALINK

The FOUNDING FATHERS were not libertarians, they were literate.

Posted by: KurtRex1453 on December 31, 2010 at 12:43 PM | PERMALINK

Klein isn't wrong, he just missed the point of the GOP's plan to read the Constitution aloud.

Like many of the Republican Party’s tactics, waving the Constitution around is good politics, as it appeals to the masses who believe America is straying from the intentions of its Founding Fathers. But in practice, such histrionic displays of alleged patriotism will only further enrage the blindly faithful and context-averse followers of the GOP by giving Republicans a seemingly legitimate reason to block Democrat-sponsored legislation in the 112th Congress. http://bit.ly/ffJcRp

Posted by: Nicholas Wilbur on December 31, 2010 at 12:54 PM | PERMALINK

Sure the Founding Fathers were libertarian.

Just ask the people who started the Whiskey Rebellion.

Posted by: 2Manchu on December 31, 2010 at 1:10 PM | PERMALINK

This curious interpretation if undermined by one thing: The Constitutional Convention. The Founders were well acquainted with the prospect of a government unable to act in the interests of its citizens, who were left to the tender mercies of unfettered financial interests. They explicitly rejected such a government when they framed the Constitution in the first place. That's why before anything else, their own words call for the general welfare and the blessings of liberty.

Our modern conservatives are spiritual descendants of some of the Founders' contemporaries - the Tories.

Posted by: Roddy McCorley on December 31, 2010 at 1:11 PM | PERMALINK

What part of 'promote the general welfare' in the preamble of the Constitution do they not understand? Pretty clear and concise language one would think.

And the tea party? Those people are pathetic and sad, to be so easily manipulated by the very powers (Dick Armey's 'Freedom Works' for instance) that have created the problems most middle and working class people face. They are so incredibly terrified of this 21 century world in which we live, they willfully withdraw into fantasy land.

Posted by: citizen_pain on December 31, 2010 at 1:22 PM | PERMALINK

Vecchione has made a number of mistakes. Virginia dis-established the Episcopal Church with the Virginia Declaration of Religious Freedom (he could have fixed this by talking about Adams and Massachutsetts, which kept its established church until the 1820s). The Articles of Confederation didn't establish a libertarian government; it was simply a loose alliance between a bunch of very powerful state governments, much like the early EU (the current EU is more centralized than the Articles of Confederation were in many ways, less so in others). Libertarians want to limit the power of both federal and state governments, but at the time of the founding, in many places the state or the local government dictated exactly what each merchant must charge for each product.

Posted by: Joe Buck on December 31, 2010 at 1:43 PM | PERMALINK

Jefferson was very suspicious of banks, the very wealthy, and so on. Quotes to that effect abound, easy to look up. (As a "Wahoo", I have a special affection for TJ.)

Posted by: neil b on December 31, 2010 at 1:58 PM | PERMALINK

Ezra Klein is an idiot. The Constitution is not that hard to figure out and if you really need to know what the Founders were thinking, read the Federalist Papers.

Posted by: WaPoSucks on December 31, 2010 at 2:37 PM | PERMALINK

I've got two words for conservative lovers of the Constitution as a petrified document frozen in time; and this is for conservatives dressed in revolutionary garb with tea bags hanging from their hats or millionaire corporate welfare barons swilling martinis at their local country club: Citizens United. Activism is a two-way street boys. Be sure to look both ways before you cross.

Posted by: max on December 31, 2010 at 3:21 PM | PERMALINK

WaPoSucks says:
"Ezra Klein is an idiot. The Constitution is not that hard to figure out and if you really need to know what the Founders were thinking, read the Federalist Papers."

I couldn't disagree more. Ezra Klein writes one of the most entertaining and informative blogs on the Internet, even if it is for WaPo.

Posted by: max on December 31, 2010 at 3:35 PM | PERMALINK

Libertarians and like-minded Conservatives who supposedly revere the Constitution often point to the 10th amendment as validation of their worldview. Here's the wording of it:

"The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

This is a fine and worthy amendment. As a Liberal, I agree with it entirely. But I also recognize that it is subservient to Article VI, Clause 2 of the Constitution, also known as the Supremacy Clause:

"This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding."

This is the part of the Constitution which Libertarians and like-minded Conservatives conveniently forget. Check the wording. The 10th amendment is clearly subservient to the supremacy clause.

Add to that the fact that promotion of the general welfare is one of the stated purposes of the Constitution, and you begin to understand why Liberalism is not threatened in the least by a close reading of the Constitution. Indeed, it is reinforced by it.

Posted by: Doug on December 31, 2010 at 3:38 PM | PERMALINK

I have been to Monticello and Mount Vernon and have spoken to both Washington and Jefferson and they both agree that these people are insane. Jefferson thinks they are more dangerous than we know and Washington thinks they should all be sent back to what every country their ancestors came from.

Posted by: shanti2 on December 31, 2010 at 4:07 PM | PERMALINK

If Beam isn't projecting shear historical ignorance, he's attempting to do something that is very insidious to a democratic society - bend our shared heritage to fit his ideology!

Call me out on a limb here, but when one begins to bend history, one could begin to believe the Jews lost WWI for Germany!

I believe it was Benito Mussolini who coined the appropriate F word regarding the wanton willingness to use the media as a tool for a collective memory! -Kevo

Posted by: kevo on December 31, 2010 at 5:52 PM | PERMALINK

These are people who think the only valid war fought by the US was the revolutionary war.


Q: Do you care to comment on the view that the only war in which the United States has been involved which could be justified is the Revolutionary War?

A: Yes, I agree 100% with that! The difference between the Revolutionary War and an interstate war is that, in the first place, an interstate war is a war of one government against another - it’s a war that aggresses against the innocent civilians of the opposite government, it’s a war that increases taxes at home, and conscription usually, to pay for it. Revolutionary war is a war against the state apparatus, a war from below by the armed public. It doesn’t have to injure innocent civilians, and it usually doesn’t. It often does not involve taxes or conscription - if it does, it does so on a very small scale.

This is the Confederate/Lindbergh/Buchanan/Birch/Rockwell/Ron Paul wing of American life.

To hell with them.

And a reminder - little units of government is not the same as small government. We have almost as many units of gov't in the US as people, each with their own police forces and pension obligations.

White Flight is expensive.

Posted by: c1444c on December 31, 2010 at 8:42 PM | PERMALINK

"If ever there was a libertarian document it was the Articles of Confederation."

Glad to see some people are finally starting to get it.

Posted by: Sean Scallon on December 31, 2010 at 9:40 PM | PERMALINK

The difference between the Confederation and the USA is more a matter of whether the states or the federal government have the power than a matter of individual vs government. The states had constitutions and many were very similar to the US Constitution.

Posted by: skeptonomist on December 31, 2010 at 9:59 PM | PERMALINK

Chesire11 gets it right. Libertarianism, as even its name subtly suggests, is the authoritarian wing of "liberalism"-- it is what happens when you remove all of classical liberalism's concerns for civic virtue and democratic representation and replace them with a sycophantic worship of wealth & (private sector) power. Which, of course, is ALWAYS converted into public sector privilege.

Hence the sick irony: libertarianism is a doctrine of servitude masquerading as liberation, an amoral, boot-licking creed that self-righteously brays for "freedom" and "limited government." Limited to what? Limited to doing what the richest and most powerful want for their own narrow benefit. As Isaiah Berlin once wrote about the libertarians, "freedom for the wolves means death for the sheep."

For all their human flaws, the founders had a far nobler vision (really, visions). To call them "libertarians" in the modern sense is a slander worthy of pistols at dawn.

Posted by: RMcD on January 1, 2011 at 12:59 AM | PERMALINK

Conservatives did the same thing to the New Testament, the founding document of the Christian religious movement, as they are attempting to do to our U.S. Constitution.

Early Christians were studying far more than four gospels, just as there were far, far more letters/communications circulating among the early Christian communities, but only the four gospels and a relatively few letters made their way into the New Testament...the rest were censored based on the ideological bias of certain conservative Christians

These same conservative Christians, after whittling down the number of books in the New Testament, then took the New Testament and placed it at the end of the Old Testament, creating their version, the Douay Bible, putting the "Judeo" into Judeo-Christian. This wasn't necessarily bad, since Jesus was Jewish, but it did imply that Jesus agreed with all that is contained in the Old Testament, which he didn't, which is why he was accused of blasphemy and heresy and of doing the work of the devil by his own religious leaders at the time.

So, certain conservatives after Jesus' time cherry-picked what would go into the New Testament and then spun it by placing their abridged version at the tail-end of the Old Testament, acts driven entirely by their conservative religious (and political) ideology and motivations, and now certain conservatives want to do the same thing to our Constitution, cherry-picking it and spinning it. Go figure. Some things never change.

Posted by: The Oracle on January 1, 2011 at 8:20 AM | PERMALINK

You omit a very important criticism of the libertarian nonsense. You identify government with the federal government. By that standard the European Union is almost a libertarian utopia as the European Union institutions have almost no power.

The Constitution lists only a very few things which state governements can't do. Otherwise, State governments were restricted by State constitutions.

Now, since Tea Partiers are clearly not willing to read the actual US Constitution, it would be very naive to expect them to read the 13 original state constitutions. But a libertarian must support not just a minimal federal government but minimal state governments as well.

The identification of big government with federal government has a long history in the Confederate treason and the neo-confederate movement. It has nothing to do with libertarianism.

Also (and off topic) a Congress authorised to "provide for the general welfare" was limited almost only by the limitations on its power to tax which were repealed by the 16th amendment.

Finally google "second militia act"
search for "musket."
I submit George Washington was a founding father and he signed it. He was not a libertarian.

If Barack Obama tried any such thing (without the word "free" rendered redundant by amendment 13 oer the word "white" rendered unconstitutional by amendment 14, that there would be, in the words of the act, "an insurrection").

Posted by: Robert Waldmann on January 3, 2011 at 4:25 AM | PERMALINK



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