One of my motivations for writing this book was to try and set the record straight about the Founding generation and the debate over the Constitution. The rise of the Tea Party movement has brought with it a renewed interest in the nation’s founding. I admire the appeal to the Founding but this brings with it an inherent risk–the risk of misinterpretation.
Every forty to fifty years we see a major shift in our party system which is called realignment. These realignments can take many forms, but the most popular are those which give birth to a new party or the traditional base of the two parties is transformed to reflect a new political landscape. In the first instance we should be reminded of the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 as he was the first Republican elected to the presidency. Lincoln, like most Republicans, was a former Whig, a party that fell when it split over the slavery question just a few years earlier. Lincoln was able to win the presidential election because the existing Democratic party was itself split over the slavery question and ran two candidates—one from the north and one from the south—in the 1860 presidential election. The Republican Party has now been existence for over 150 years. While its base has changed, its opposition to the Democrats in every major national election has remained a permanent fixture in American politics…until now.
The Tea Party movement has the ability to redefine our existing party structure by either altering the base of the Republican Party or by replacing the Republican Party. The Tea Party offers alternatives to the Democratic Party’s policies rather than just negations of those policies, which is all mainstream Republicans offer. A two party system is rendered meaningless unless each party presents clear statements about their policy objectives and alternatives that can put into practice if chosen for office. It is not enough to simply disagree with the party in power.
Moreover, if this newly emerging party structure is more representative of the people’s will than the existing party structure then it should be a welcome change. But, we should—as always—keep an eye on the Constitution because with every party alignment we have seen a radical redefinition of the Constitution, and this one seems to be following a similar path. With Lincoln we saw, particularly in the Gettysburg Address, an increased emphasis on equality rather than liberty, which is the same emphasis we saw in the realignments that coincided with the New Deal and the Great Society. The Tea Party is going the other direction by emphasizing liberty and limited government, but they are doing so with some ambiguous references to the Constitution and the Founding Fathers without direct reference to which part or to whom. When speaking of the Founding Fathers we should recognize that they were not a single monolithic group. During the ratification of the U.S. Constitution the Anti-Federalists opposed the ratification as they thought that it would create too strong and centralized of a regime. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton demanded a stronger national government than what we had under the Articles of Confederation and therefore pushed for the ratification of the Constitution. Madison and Hamilton were on opposite sides of the debate as such luminaries as George Mason and Patrick Henry who no one can deny Founding Father-status to. Furthermore, it was not but a few years into George Washington’s first term in office that Hamilton and Madison split from each other as Hamilton was consistently pushing for a more expansive national government which included a national bank—which is certainly not a principle of limited government.
Our two party system originated in the disagreements among the Founding Fathers before and after the ratification of the Constitution, and we should recognize this anytime someone references the omnipotent THEY—as in, “THEY wanted limited government.” Our Founding Fathers were an intellectually and politically diverse group of individuals who bequeathed to us the legacy of high-minded debate about the most important matters to human existence. They conducted their debates after long and laborious study so that they could do more than rely upon ambiguous references and clichés. We should do the same.
We should demand that the people who use such phrases to define their terms and point us to their references, the stakes are too high not to demand precision and accuracy. Also, we should each read for ourselves the founding documents as well as the writings of our Founding Fathers, for it is only a properly informed and engaged citizenry that can save a republic from despotism. It is hard work indeed, but if we are not willing to put in the work we will neither have nor deserve “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Kyle Scott, PhD, teaches American politics and constitutional law at Duke University. He has published three books and dozens of articles on issues ranging from political parties to Plato. His commentary on contemporary politics has appeared in Forbes, Reuters.com, Christian Science Monitor, Foxnews.com, and dozens of local outlets including the Philadelphia Inquirer and Baltimore Sun.
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