The Amendment Fetish: The Problem of the States
The swelling Tea Party movement embodies a fascinating contradiction. Its leaders profess a near-religious awe for the U.S. Constitution. This has led to stunts like the reading of the Constitution on the floor of the House of Representatives. Should it also lead to greater sales for The Summer of 1787, I will be hard-pressed to complain.
Yet Tea Party adherents advocate for a variety of amendments to this supposedly near-perfect Constitution, all of which are designed to empower state governments and reduce federal power. These amendments include:
- A “repeal amendment,” designed to allow two-thirds of the states to override congressional legislation.
- Repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment, which established the direct election of senators by voters, rather than their selection by state legislatures.
- Repeal of the Sixteenth Amendment, which authorizes a federal income tax.
- Repeal of the Fourteenth Amendment, with its citizenship, Due Process and Equal Protection clauses.
Ambitious stuff. I will address each of these proposals in posts over the next several weeks. For now, though, I want to start with a quick contemplation of the problem of the states. Tea Party doctrine insists that individual liberty will be preserved and restored if only power must be returned to the states.
It is odd in the extreme, however, to look to state governments to vindicate individual rights and liberties. States have been the source of far more oppressive legislation through the nation’s twenty-two decades than has the federal government. Start, say, with slavery. Then there were Jim Crow and segregation laws, and a variety of laws restricting free speech, the right to exercise religious practices, rights to a lawyer and a fair trial, and on and on.
I wish the advocates of brawnier state governments would spend more time reading the thoughts of James Madison. Though Tea Partiers profess to revere Madison, I wonder if they have seriously considered his warnings to the Constitutional Convention about the evils of state governments. I offer a selection:
“Experience had evinced a constant tendency in the States . . . to violate national Treaties, to infringe the rights & interests of each other; to oppress the weaker party within their respective jurisdictions.” (June 8, 1787)
[Addressing the “evils which vitiate the political system of the U.S.,” Madison listed] “1. the multiplicity of the laws passed by the several States. 2. the mutability of their laws. 3. the injustice of them. 4. the impotence of them.” He concluded with the lament that there must be a “remedy for this dreadful class of evils.” (June 19, 1787)
Warning against “the propensity of the States to pursue their particular interests in opposition to the general interest. . . . They can pass laws which will accomplish their injurious objects before they can be repealed” by national legislation. (July 17, 1787)
More to come.
The underlying irony of the Tea Party’s constitutional positions of course is that the whole purpose of the Constitutional Convention, as you point out in your book, was to establish a national government strong enough to end the chaos that existed under the Articles of Confederation. So the Tea Party wants to undermine the entire purpose of the document they so revere.
I think this is another example of the lie that underlies modern conservatism; that power taken from elected government officials in Washington will return to “the people.” Power like matter cannot be created or destroyed, it simply changes shape and history has shown, with the rare and uncharacteristic exception of very small polities like New Hampshire town meetings, that power taken from elected officials will simply become private power in the hands of those with the most money.
Amen. Another way to think about this is that the Framers were 18th-century “tax rebels” — rebelling to ensure that there would be federal taxation!