“History is bunk,” pronounced Henry Ford in an expression that was widely appreciated in his era and in eras since. So you have to admire the members of the Tea Party, if only for their earnest attempts to reverse Americans’ aversion to the past by injecting “history” into the public dialogue. This is a movement that positively thrives on historical references, many of them relating to the Constitution. Glenn Beck’s radio listeners, for instance, are regularly treated to a diatribe against the Progressive movement and its leaders, Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. With his high praise, Beck has made a best-seller out of Friedrich Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom,” a 1944 book that laid out the argument for classical, small-government libertarianism. Earlier this year Beck emerged with his latest book, a reworking of the 18th century American classic “The Federalist Papers” by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. Beck’s tome is called “The Original Argument: The Federalists’ Case for the Constitution, Adapted for the 21st Century.” One has to wonder why, if he is an originalist, Beck must show us how to “adapt” the language of the Federalists to the 21st century (isn’t adaptation the definition of the “living Constitution” he and others so abhor?) but that is not the point. Right-wing talk show hosts like Beck, Mark Levin, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and now the Tea Party-leaning presidential candidates repeatedly look to history lessons, however unorthodox, to justify their positions.
Governor Rick Perry of Texas, the latest to enter the race for the Republican nomination, is another of this breed and judging by the results of a Gallup poll released last week, the favorite by far of those who identify themselves as Tea Partiers. A few years ago, he wrote a book called “Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington” in which he argued for, essentially, a return to America as it was in 1890. Perry wants the 16th amendment (giving Washington the power to institute the income tax) repealed as well as the 17th amendment (which provided for direct election of senators instead of their being chosen by state legislatures, as had been the Constitution’s original mandate). There are a few other constitutional changes he wants: a new amendment outlawing gay marriage and another outlawing abortion. But Perry’s vision, like that of most of the Tea Partiers, is mostly one of rolling back the Constitution, not adding to it.
A few years ago, “rolling back” meant disavowing the liberal Warren Court decisions of the 1960s; then, in what seemed a radical departure, a pre-New Deal Constitution, and now, by attacking the 16th and 17th amendments, the Tea Partiers are essentially asking us to go back to the time before the Progressive Era. But why not simply go all the way? The most revered president in American history, Abraham Lincoln, was the original Big Government man.
The income tax, which Perry describes as the first step on “the road to serfdom” (a reference, for all Beck listeners, to Hayek) — was first instituted by Abraham Lincoln as a means of raising revenue to fight the Civil War. The Court later declared the tax, which ended with the war, unconstitutional, leading to the 16th amendment, ratified in 1913, that gave Congress the power to re-establish the income tax. But Lincoln did much more that Tea Partiers profess to resent. He fought the war to keep the Union intact. Perry has threatened to lead his state to secede from the Union and earlier this year mistakenly declared that Texas had made the right of secession a stipulation to its joining the Union in 1844. With the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Lincoln made the end of slavery a war aim as well. The Proclamation was a brazen display of executive power, preceded by an earlier display of executive power, the suspension of habeas corpus. Depending on whom you are speaking to, the Civil War was either a contest over the future of slavery or a contest over the future of states rights. But either way you look at it the South lost. As many historians have asserted, the “United States” was a plural noun before the war; a singular noun afterwards.
Pre-Civil War America was a Tea Partier’s dream: a decentralized republic where the post office was the only way that most people had any connection with the federal government. The war, and Lincoln’s vision for a new “birth of freedom” introduced federal taxes, a federally conscripted army, a wider jurisdiction for federal courts, a national currency system and a sense of America as one place, with Washington DC at its core. It is Lincoln’s Washington that Perry and other Tea Partiers are “fed up” with. Yet Lincoln remains among Americans’ most admired presidents. You can find that in a recent Gallup poll as well.