Tea Party and the Right  
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Why the Right Hates Government

The Right's ideological hatred of government originated in the founding era, when the South fought to justify and protect the institution of slavery.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/John T Takai

 

One reasonable way of looking at democratic governance is that it carries out the collective will of a society, especially in areas where the private sector can’t do the job or needs regulation to prevent it from doing harm. Of course, there are always many variables and points of disagreement, from the need to protect individual rights to the wisdom of each decision.

But something extreme has surfaced in modern American politics: an ideological hatred of government. From the Tea Party to libertarianism, there is a “principled” rejection – at least rhetorically – of almost everything that government does (outside of national security), and those views are no longer simply fringe. By and large, they have been embraced by the national Republican Party.

There has also been an effort to anchor these angry anti-government positions in the traditions of U.S. history. The Tea Party consciously adopted imagery and symbols from the Revolutionary War era to create an illusion that this contempt of government fits with the First Principles. However, this right-wing revision of U.S. history is wildly askew if not upside-down. The framers of the U.S. Constitution, and even many of their “anti-federalist” critics, were not hostile to an American government. They understood the difference between an English monarchy that denied them representation in Parliament and their own Republic.

Indeed, the key framers – James Madison, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton – might be called pragmatic nationalists, eager to use the new Constitution, which centralized power at the national level, to build the young country and protect its fragile independence. While these framers later split over precise applications of the Constitution – Madison opposed Hamilton’s national bank, for instance – they accepted the need for a strong and effective federal government, unlike the weak, states’ rights-oriented Articles of Confederation.

More generally, the founders recognized the need for order if their experiment in self-governance was to work. Even some of the more radical founders, like Sam Adams, supported the suppression of domestic disorders, such as Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts and the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania. Adams' and his cohorts' logic was that an uprising against a distant monarch was one thing, but taking up arms against your own republican government was something else.

But the Tea Partiers are not entirely wrong when they insist that their hatred of “gubmint” has its roots in the founding era. There was an American tradition that involved resisting a strong and effective national government. It was not, however, anchored in the principles of “liberty,” but rather in the practice of slavery.

Southern Fears

The battle against the Constitution and later against an energetic federal government — the sort of nation-building especially envisioned by Washington and Hamilton – emanated from the fears of many Southern plantation owners that eventually the national political system would move to outlaw slavery and thus negate their massive investment in human bondage. Their thinking was that the stronger the federal government became the more likely it would act to impose a national judgment against the South’s brutal institution of slavery. So, while the Southern argument was often couched in the rhetoric of liberty, i.e. the rights of states to set their own rules, the underlying point was the maintenance of slavery.

This dollars-and-cents reality was reflected in the debate at Virginia’s 1788 convention to ratify the Constitution. Two of Virginia’s most noted advocates for “liberty” and “rights” – Patrick Henry and George Mason – tried to rally opposition to the proposed Constitution by stoking the fears of white plantation owners. Historians Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg recount the debate in their 2010 book,  Madison and Jefferson, noting that the chief argument advanced by Henry and Mason was that “slavery, the source of Virginia’s tremendous wealth, lay politically unprotected” and that this danger was exacerbated by the Constitution’s granting the president, as commander in chief, the power to “federalize” state militias.