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The Tea Party Mocks the Founders

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Perhaps the single most disturbing thing about the rise of the Tea Party as a growing force in American politics is the frequency with which the movement's most notable figures have rallied the faithful with talk of armed rebellion or revolution, often invoking the Framers in support of this call to political violence:

  • Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has said "America is ready for another revolution and you and I are a part of this," and told her supporters after the passage of the health care bill: "Don't Retreat, Instead ‐ RELOAD!"
  • Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota has claimed "it was Thomas Jefferson who said, a revolution every now and then is a good thing. What do you think?"
  • Senate candidate Sharron Angle of Nevada took the Jefferson analogy one step further, telling conservative talk radio host Lars Larson, "In fact, Thomas Jefferson said it's good for a country to have a revolution every 20 years, I hope that's not where we're going. But, you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies."
  • Rick Barber, an Alabama candidate for Congress, wins the "craziest Tea Party candidate ever" award for this ad featuring an actor dressed as George Washington rallying Tea Partiers to "gather your armies," as a response to progressive taxation.

With anger high in this country in response to the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and with the rise of armed extremist groups since President Obama took office, these comments are just about as smart as throwing a lighted match into a powder keg. As Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush wrote in a column for the Washington Post, comments like Angle's lack "the seriousness of genuine sedition," but should, nonetheless, be "disqualifying for public office."

More important for present purposes, these comments get our constitutional history fundamentally wrong. As Gerson puts it, they are "so far from the moral weightiness of the Founders that it mocks their memory." Demonstrating the disconnect between Tea Party rhetoric invoking Founding principles and our actual constitutional history is the point of Constitutional Accountability Center's ongoing series, Strange Brew: The Constitution According to the Tea Party, so this article will pick things up from there.

Thomas Jefferson, our third president and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, was indeed one of the more radical members of our Founding generation in terms of his tolerance for political violence. As Bachmann and Angle both extol, Jefferson, in a letter from France in 1787, expressed his sympathy with the cause of Shays' Rebellion -- an armed uprising by farmers in western Massachusetts in 1786-87 -- saying "God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion." We'll return to Jefferson momentarily, but for now suffice it to say that when Jefferson was expressing sympathy for Shays' Rebellion, he was doing so from the comfort of his Ambassador's quarters in Paris.

Shays' Rebellion had a profoundly different impact on the draftsmen of the U.S. Constitution, who were actually in America at that time. For the leaders assembled in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, Shays' Rebellion, and the difficulty Massachusetts had in quashing it, were what James Madison called one of the "ripening incidents" that led the Founders to propose a "more perfect union" capable of securing the "common defense." In the preface to his Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, Madison wrote:

As the public mind has been ripened for a salutary reform of the political system . . . among the ripening incidents was the Insurrection of Shays, in Massachusetts against her Government; which was with difficulty suppressed. ..

This concern over insurrection and rebellion within the states is reflected in some of the Constitution's most muscular language, such as the federal government's power to "provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections, and repel invasions. . ." and to suspend habeas corpus "in cases of rebellion." As Alexander Hamilton explained in Federalist 21, a "palpable defect" in the Articles of Confederation was "total want of a sanction to [the Confederation's] laws." Specifically referencing Shays' Rebellion, Hamilton explained that the "liberties of the people" can only be protected if the federal government has the power to quash insurrections.

After ratification of the Constitution, the powers of the new federal government were quickly tested in the early 1790s with the Whiskey Rebellion. Like the Tea Partiers, the whiskey rebels of the late 18th Century believed the federal government had overreached and had unfairly imposed taxes upon them. As recounted in Ron Chernow's brilliant biography of Alexander Hamilton, President George Washington determined the rebellion must be crushed, stating that if "a minority is to dictate to the majority, there is an end put at one stroke to republican government." Then, the 62-year-old Father of our Country joined Alexander Hamilton and the federal army on a westward journey that put the rebellion to rest.

As Washington's actions and statements support, in the American republic, we express our disagreement about policy through speeches, petitions, assemblies, and elections, not by taking up arms against our government, other than in the unlikely instance of a coup d'etat by the national military. George Washington, who led the colonies in a successful revolution against the tyrannical rule of England, which dictated to the colonies without giving them representation in the British Parliament, had no mercy for the whiskey rebels--a key difference between the heroic American Revolution and the Whiskey Rebellion was that the whiskey rebels had a vote in a representative government and nonetheless turned to violence and rebellion to press their agenda.

Even Jefferson ultimately came to see the idea of revolution in a different light. After serving in Washington's Administration, Jefferson became the strongest critic and rival of John Adams, Washington's Vice President and successor as President. When Jefferson defeated Adams in the momentous election of 1800, Jefferson hailed the election as the "Revolution of 1800," but as Jefferson explained to a friend, it was a revolution "forged not 'by the sword,' but by the 'suffrage of the people.'"

If the Tea Partiers want to change our country, they are free to try, but they need to do so the American way: by winning elections. Their saber-rattling about armed rebellion and Second Amendment remedies mocks the framers they profess to revere, and undermines the democracy the framers bequeathed to all Americans.

Cross-posted at Text & History, where readers can also find additional pieces from Constitutional Accountability Center's new series 'Strange Brew: The Constitution According to the Tea Party." Matt Cagle, a legal intern for CAC this summer, provided invaluable research assistance for this piece.