“The purpose of the U.S. Constitution is to limit the power of the federal government.”
That is one of the best lies I’ve ever heard and I just love a good lie.
To be more accurate, I admire the skill it takes to create it. A good lie is one which appears to be true when examined in a cursory manner. Not only is this lie well constructed, it also has the benefit of longevity. It’s been told so often by so many people, over so many years, it is accepted as truth. Like many good lies, the beauty of this rests on the idea that the premise seems to be rooted in and supported by underlying facts.
This particular lie was the founding principal of the Tea Party and other ultra-conservative groups.
In defense of those good folks, my guess is they are not all participants in the lie – they are merely victims of the lie. They believe it deeply and passionately. They believe that over the last century liberals/progressive have engaged a well-thought out conspiracy to subvert “the founders.”
Many liberals also believe it – and so they often make the wrong argument in defense. They acknowledge the truth but hold fast to the belief that we are deviating from “original intent” in order to meet the changing needs of rapidly evolving culture.
This lie is not just slightly off. This lie is 180 degrees from reality. In fact, The U.S. Constitution was created to give MORE power to the federal government.
The reason this law is so widely accepted has to do with the way we humans look at history. We tend to view the past in chunks of time. We talk about history in terms of centuries or half centuries.
One of these chunks is the period from 1776 to 1791 – The Founding of America: “Thomas Jefferson wrote the declaration – yada yada yada – George Washington was inaugurated.”
Let’stest that using the last 15 years: “George Bush beat Al Gore in a highly contested presidential election – yada yada yada — Donald Trump is a leading the polls in the GOP primary elections.“
In each case, lots of stuff happened in between. Here’s some of what happened during the founding of America chunk
Once the colonies had officially begun their war of independence it was decided that there needed to be an official country fighting against the King as opposed to 13 individual colonies. So a document was created that gave birth to the United States of America.
This document would not only serve to create the union but would also leave no shred of doubt that the new government would repeat the tyranny such as existed under British rule. The document needed to stay true to the primary basis for the revolution — Under the King,the colonies were not given any voice in the British government. The King and the British Parliament decided what should and should not happen in the colonies.
A FIRM LEAGUE OF FRIENDSHIP
The Articles of Confederation created the infrastructure needed to run the war, and also made a strong statement against the U.S succumbing to threat of tyranny from a strong central.
Each colony would make its own decisions. 13 individual colonies would band together in very specific ways.
This can be made very clear simply by reading paragraph 3 of the articles:
“The said states hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defence, the security of their Liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretence whatever.”
In our “chunk-based” history, the premise of the lie is:
- We wanted a Government which would protect us from tyranny
- We created the Constitution
- Ipso-facto: The Constitution was designed to minimize the threat of tyranny by limiting the power of the federal government.
NOT SO FAST, BUCKO
One only need ask a simple question to find the first chink in this lie’s armor.
If the Articles of Confederation accomplished what the people wanted, why did it need to be trashed and replaced with the Constitution as we know it?
The answer is pretty simple. The Articles of Confederation were a complete failure.
Why did it fail?
This answer also pretty simple. It gave no power to the central government.
By 1786, the social and economic profile for the east coast of North America could be described in one word — chaos.
Carol Berkin goes into great detail about the problems of this decade in her wonderful book, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution.
YOU CAN’T GET THERE FROM HERE
Just take a look at one of those areas – interstate commerce.
If something was produced in, Pennsylvania, for example and there was a need for that product in Georgia, the shipper would have to pass through border crossings in each state it passed through. States developed their own tariffs. This was not only financially ludicrous and expensive, it was a logistical nightmare.
If something was being shipped to the US from a European country to the U.S. that was to be sold in different states, the shipper had two options.
They could run multiple ships, each landing in a different port – or land in one port and then pay to ship their goods across as many state borders as necessary.
It took a while for everyone to get on board but by 1787 it was generally agreed that if something didn’t change in the structure of the government, there would be no United States in a few more years. There would only be 13 separate countries co-existing on the same continent.
At the end of the Shays Rebellion in early 1787, Congress met in New York City and issued a call for all state delegates to convene in May of that year in Philadelphia, which was, at that time, the nation’s capital.
FEDERALISTS Vs ANTI-FEDERALISTS
The Constitutional convention was a gathering of 55 men from 12 states. Rhode Island declined to attend.
Aside from the little details to be worked out – of which were many – there were two broad factions. The Federalists who felt the only solution was to create a strong central government, and the anti-Federalists who, for the most part, wanted to keep the essence of the articles of Confederation while agreeing that changes needed to be made.
With apologies to Shakespeare, “To centralize or not to centralize – that was the question.”
Compromises were made there was a great deal of give-and-take. In the end though the Constitution moved the bulk of power from 13 individual states to a strong federal government.
TO MAKE A LONG STORY SHORT (oops – too late!)
The purpose of the U.S. Constitution was to increase the power given to the central government for the good of all the states — not the other way around.