Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Politics

The history of the U.S. Constitution tea partiers should know

Thanks to my younger son, I'm receiving an accidental refresher course in American history.

For the third straight year, he's taking an Advanced Placement social studies class at Nature Coast Technical High School — this year, American history. And, without getting too nasty, I'll just say I was surprised to see school principal Toni-Ann Noyes recently use the word "rigor" in connection with the AP courses. Because I haven't seen much sign of it.

So, to be able to help him study and to give him a decent chance of passing his AP test for this year's subject, I've read all of his assigned chapters, right through the framing of the U.S. Constitution.

This is, of course, a period cherished by tea party voters, those super-patriots who helped bring us to the verge of fiscal chaos.

And not surprisingly, considering how many other misstatements come from the mouths of people waving around pocket-sized copies of the Constitution, their take on it is mostly wrong.

This is a populist document, they say, a blueprint for a federal government that is supposed to guard our freedoms and not do a whole lot else.

And, yes, it's true that our political system generally works for the people and that the Bill of Rights strictly limits its reach.

But, of course, those rights were amendments to the Constitution. The original body of the document, on the other hand, was intended to create a strong central government. And that's because this country had already tried to get along as a loose confederation of states — and it was a disaster.

• • •

In the mid 1780s, the United States suffered runaway inflation, which is not surprising considering its currency was issued by a government without the power to levy taxes.

States issued their own paper money, and several of them passed laws requiring that this nearly worthless scrip be accepted at face value for the repayment of debts. The result was a clampdown on lending and, inevitably, economic depression.

This, in turn, led farmers to stage armed revolts — most notably Shay's Rebellion in Massachusetts — which is when the elite merchant class had finally had enough.

"Without some alteration in our political creed," wrote George Washington, then one of the country's richest citizens, "the superstructure we have been seven years in raising, at the expense of so much blood and treasure, must fall. We are fast verging to anarchy and confusion."

He and other well-to-do leaders — "there were no ordinary farmers or artisans present," my son's text states — got together in Philadelphia in 1787 to protect their own interests as well the country's.

• • •

Yes, the Constitution they wrote did all the things it's famous for, such as create a strong executive branch and a national court system. But what got most of the framers to Philadelphia was the pressing need for a government with the powers to — brace yourself tea partiers — tax citizens and manage debt.

It's basic history we should all know and — with a little more rigor in our schools — probably would know.

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