It is a touchstone of the American Right that the Framers drafted the U.S. Constitution in 1787 to tightly constrain the federal government and to promote states’ rights – and that this supposed “originalism” is inviolable regardless of the perceived needs of the nation or the dangers implicit in this so-called “strict construction.”
For various reasons – from the mainstream media’s timidity to the disdain some progressives feel for the Constitution’s compromises on slavery – this right-wing Founding Narrative rarely gets challenged, even though it is a demonstrable fiction. But this lazy tolerance of the Right’s made-up history now is becoming an existential threat to mankind.
That is because the scientific consensus continues to solidify that human activity is causing global temperatures to increase dangerously, possibly causing a catastrophic rise of three feet in sea levels by the end of the century. Yet, right-wing obstructionism, which deems federal environmental activism unconstitutional, has hobbled any effort to enact a timely response to the emergency.
By wallowing in a world of scientific denial and historical fabrication, the Republican Right and its Tea Party allies have prevented the U.S. government from responding aggressively to the existential emergency from global warming
The scope of the impending environmental disaster is fast becoming incontestable among scientists.
“It is extremely likely that human influence on climate caused more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010,” a draft report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said, according to the New York Times. “There is high confidence that this has warmed the ocean, melted snow and ice, raised global mean sea level and changed some climate extremes in the second half of the 20th century.”
The consequences are expected to grow much worse in the coming decades, with many climate scientists seeing the probability of temperatures rising more than 5 degrees Fahrenheit if the present trend continues, the Times reported.
“Warming the entire planet by 5 degrees Fahrenheit would add a stupendous amount of energy to the climate system,” the Times wrote. “Scientists say the increase would be greater over land and might exceed 10 degrees at the poles. They add that such an increase would lead to widespread melting of land ice, extreme heat waves, difficulty growing food and massive changes in plant and animal life, probably including a wave of extinctions.”
The possibility of a three-foot rise in sea levels would threaten some of the world’s major cities, possibly displacing hundreds of millions of people. The mix of mass dislocations from flooding and the loss of traditional agricultural lands to drought could exacerbate geopolitical tensions and spark warfare among desperate countries facing steep declines in standards of living or even mass starvation.
Given the prevalence of nuclear weapons in the hands of rival nations where the impact of global warming might be particularly severe – from China, India and Pakistan to Great Britain, Israel and the United States – the threat to human existence is made even more acute.
Aggressive action by the U.S. government, in particular, is required to avert this impending catastrophe, but today’s Right has politicized the near scientific certainty about global warming and the human role in its acceleration.
From the Tea Party to the “libertarians,” oil money from fossil-fuel energy tycoons, such as Charles and David Koch of Koch Industries, has fueled “populist” propaganda challenging the case for global warming, first by funding “scientists” who quibble with the research or who assert that the warming will be modest and manageable.
Beyond that, America’s political Right has added climate change to its list of perceived “statist” conspiracy theories, claiming that the scientific consensus is just a plot by Al Gore and “liberals” to find another excuse for overriding the supposed constitutional principles of a tightly constrained federal government.
And, since these alleged principles of “originalism” and “strict construction” are inviolable anyway, this thinking goes, there’s no legitimate case that can be made for expanding the federal government’s role in reducing U.S. emissions of the carbon dioxide and other global-warming chemicals.
That is why the emotional pull of the Right’s proclaimed Founding Principles must be addressed with sound historical research, even if some on the Left find it silly or irrelevant to ponder what Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and George Washington were thinking back in 1787.
It is dangerous to cede the historical reality to well-funded right-wing “historians” who are dispatched back in time by the Koch Brothers and their allies to cherry-pick a few quotes here and there to distort what the key Framers were actually doing with the Constitution, i.e. they were creating a vibrant federal government that would have the flexibility to address the country’s “general Welfare” then and in the future.
The Real Constitution
The historical reality of 1787 was nearly the opposite of how today’s Right portrays it. The Framers of the Constitution were intent on overthrowing a disastrous system from the Articles of Confederation, which had enshrined the 13 original states as “sovereign” and “independent” with the central government deemed only a “league of friendship” and lacking any significant power.
As the young nation descended into squabbling and insolvency in the mid-1780s, the advocates for a strong central government – led by Washington, Madison, Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris (who drafted the famous Preamble) – staged what amounted to a nonviolent coup d’etat against the old structure.
Meeting in secret in Philadelphia – and then circumventing the state legislatures by arranging special ratification conventions – the Framers pushed through a system that made federal law supreme and sought to make the states “subordinately useful,” in the words of James Madison.
This reality was recognized by political leaders who opposed what the Framers of the Constitution were doing. For instance, Pennsylvania delegates on the losing side of the Philadelphia debate explained their opposition, declaring: “We dissent … because the powers vested in Congress by this constitution, must necessarily annihilate and absorb the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of the several states, and produce from their ruins one consolidated government…
“The new government will not be a confederacy of states, as it ought, but one consolidated government, founded upon the destruction of the several governments of the states. … The powers of Congress under the new constitution, are complete and unlimited over the purse and the sword, and are perfectly independent of, and supreme over, the state governments; whose intervention in these great points is entirely destroyed.”
The Pennsylvania dissenters noted that the state sovereignty language from the Articles of Confederation was stripped out of the Constitution and that national sovereignty was implicitly transferred to “We the People of the United States” in the Preamble. They pointed out that the Constitution’s Article Six made federal statutes and treaties “the supreme law of the land.”
“The legislative power vested in Congress … is so unlimited in its nature; may be so comprehensive and boundless [in] its exercise, that this alone would be amply sufficient to annihilate the state governments, and swallow them up in the grand vortex of general empire,” the Pennsylvania dissenters declared.
The Sweeping Powers
Those federal powers, listed in Article One, Section Eight, included “to provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States” and “To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States.”
In other words, the Framers gave the U.S. Congress broad powers to act on behalf of the American people. But those powers were particularly unnerving to Southern Anti-Federalists, such as Virginia’s Patrick Henry, who warned the state’s plantation aristocracy that ratification would inexorably lead to the demise of slavery. “They’ll free your niggers!” Henry declared.
Despite losing the battle to block ratification, the Anti-Federalists did not go away. Behind the charismatic figure of Thomas Jefferson – and drawing important support from Southern slaveholders who feared federal encroachment on their investment in human chattel – the opponents of a strong central government set out to redefine what the Constitution meant. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Rethinking Thomas Jefferson.”]
That was a political struggle that Jefferson and other Southern slaveholders won against the Federalists of Washington, Hamilton and Morris by the end of the 1790s, with Jefferson’s defeat of John Adams for the presidency in 1800. The victory of Jefferson’s Republicans, those supposed advocates of human freedom, relied on the extra votes that the Southern states got by counting their slaves as “three-fifths” of a person for the purpose of representation.
As the bitter political warfare of the 1790s played out, Madison was pulled from his original alliance with the Federalists into the political camp of his Virginia neighbor and fellow slaveholder Jefferson. In doing so – in becoming a political representative of Virginia’s plantation system – Madison repudiated many of his earlier constitutional positions.
Jefferson called his election a new “revolution” as he reinterpreted the Constitution to afford very limited power to the federal government and expanded authority for states, even to “nullify” federal law. This revisionist approach amounted to a radical change from what Washington, Hamilton, Morris and the earlier Madison had constructed in Philadelphia.
In other words, Jefferson’s view was not the “original” understanding of the Constitution. Yet, today’s Right pretends it was. Even Jefferson, after becoming the third U.S. President, abandoned his “strict constructionism” when it was useful for him to do so, such as when he and Secretary of State Madison negotiated the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
The Ongoing Struggle
But the struggle between the original Federalist view of the Constitution and its later hijacking by some of its anti-federal opponents has continued throughout American history, most notably in the South’s resistance to Northern efforts to restrict the spread of slavery into new states and ultimately in the secession of Confederate states after Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860.
Even after the South’s defeat in the Civil War and the end of slavery, the white Southern aristocracy did not surrender its insistence on a crimped view of the Constitution, often finding allies among the powerful Northern “robber barons” of the late Nineteenth Century and early Twentieth. Both the segregationist Southerners and the laissez-faire capitalists of Wall Street wanted the federal government to keep its nose out of their business.
However, with the Great Depression of the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt reached back to the original concept of the Constitution – that the federal government was empowered to act on behalf of “the general Welfare,” a principle embedded both in the Preamble and Article One, Section Eight.
Yet, when this federal activism began to encroach on the South’s racial separation in the 1950s and 1960s, the Right again moved to reassert its revisionist take on the Constitution, that it supposedly enshrined states’ rights as supreme.
Though the Right lost this battle to defend racial segregation – much as the Anti-Federalists lost the fight to block the Constitution – the political struggle was by no means over as Southern whites moved to the Republican Party of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
With Reagan’s victory in 1980, the stage was set for the ascendance again of right-wing revisionism on the Constitution, with Reagan and his Republican successors, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, installing on the U.S. Supreme Court right-wing ideologues who embraced the faux history that right-wing “scholars” had been busy assembling.
These ideological descendants of the South’s slaveholders and the later alliance between the Robber Barons and Jim Crow are now positioned to interpret the Constitution as they see fit. Plus, they have a dedicated political movement in the Tea Party and on the Republican Right that has absorbed the made-up Founding Narrative of why the Constitution was written.
This combination of factors now presents an existential threat to the world because the Right’s distortion of the Framers’ original intent precludes crucial U.S. government action to restrain the spewing of climate-changing chemicals into the atmosphere.
It is a case where history is not just history, it is the future of mankind.