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Tea Party, meet John Marshall

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010

In today’s Centre Square commentary, Chris Satullo recalls one of the greatest, if lesser-known, Founding Father.  If that hero of American history were alive today, Satullo speculates, he might have some crisp words for the Tea Party.

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Cleveland, the city where I grew up has a John Marshall High School.

So does Los Angeles.  Both Rochester, New York, and Rochester, Minnesota, do, too.

Perhaps every town in America should name a school after this lesser-known but most consequential Founding Father.

Then, perhaps, the naïve, media-favored activists now clutching copies of the Constitution as they agitate to dismantle the federal government would have more of a clue.

John Marshall, as much as any man save for the great James Madison, determined what our founding charter really meant, and did so in ways that enabled the American experiment to thrive.

And Marshall, our greatest chief justice, interpreted the Constitution in a way opposite to the Tea Partiers and libertarians who now cite the10th Amendment as cause to roll back the clock to 1850.

Marshall led the Supreme Court over 34 years, deciding the key cases that established the court as an equal branch and shaped the role of the federal government.

One of those cases is McCulloch v. Maryland.   Apparently the Tea Partiers now carrying on about the 10th Amendment never heard of McCulloch or think it wrongly decided.

The 10th Amendment, you say. Which one is that? It says nothing about free speech, guns or trial by jury.  It says: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Tea Partiers today insist, following their hero Jefferson (no fan of the Constitution), that this clause limits Congress and the President only to those powers specifically named.  They would have our leaders hamstrung in the face of any event not anticipated in 1787.  They would declare illegal most of modern government, from the Tennesee Valley Authority to Social Security to the EPA.

But Marshall decided McCulloch, the great test of this question, in precisely the opposite way, establishing that the federal government has implicit powers to “ensure the general welfare.”

Now, I’ve been hanging out with some Tea Partiers and libertarians lately, as part of the election forums WHYY is holding in Delaware.  They are sincere, serious people, on fire with citizenship.  That’s great. But their magical reverence for the Constitution comes with a worrisome lack of historical grasp.

If their view of the Constitutions had won out, a slave-owning, fractious United States would never have become the wealthy, vast nation that it became.

A curious patriotism, that.


  • J Toner says:

    You say of the tea partiers: “(T)heir magical reverence for the Constitution comes with a worrisome lack of historical grasp.” Translation: they’re ignorant and not fact-based.
    Further: “(T)he naïve, media-favored activists now clutching copies of the Constitution as they agitate to dismantle the federal government…” Translation: they’re ignorant AND anarchists.
    And finally: “A curious patriotism, that.” Whatever happened to ‘Dissent is the highest form of patriotism’?
    And your takeaway wisdom from Marshall re the Constitution: “The federal government has implicit powers to ensure the general welfare.” Hmmm. Sounds like government is completely unrestrained as long as it’s for the general welfare? The 10th Amendment has no meaning at all then? It’s pointless now?
    The Tea Party movement is not a bunch of anarchists. They just want the ballooning government to be trimmed. What’s so curious about that?

  • Brandon says:

    Excellent. The teahadi movment is no doubt sincere, but at the same time their passion is matched only by their ignorance.

    “Keep your government hands off my Medicare” got it all in one gloriously misinformed placard.

    And for Dolly Madison — JM was a political opponent of Mr. Marshall. Partisan bickering anyone? Madison at one point in the Cosntitutional convenntion actually called for a provision to allow congress to veto state laws. The other Frmaers saw this as too intrusive into state soveriegnty. It was a provision that never went anywhere, and one that Madison later expunged from his own “minutes” of the Convention. Madison, like most politicians, would change his mind when it was politically expedient, but he certainly would not agree with the nonsense spewed like so much raw sewage from the teahadis – especially know nothings like palin, toomey, paul, miller, angle, mcmahon, and the queen of cluess – odonnel.

  • Vidya Rajan says:

    Brilliant commentary.
    I agree with Paul Simons above. In addition, I worry that people justify their ideological positions by adapting the constitution (or other venerated institutions) to their views instead of the other way around. I do wish media would engage in conversation with political candidates instead of propagating their sound bites.
    Nice job exposing the vacuity behind the volume, Mr. Satullo.

  • Paul Simons says:

    Again Mr. Satullo hits the bullseye. Those words “lack of historical grasp” in describing the tea party and its candidates and cheerleaders might be an understatement. It never fails to amaze me how much they love things like F-16 fighter jets, nuclear carriers and subs, and the most powerful nuclear arsenal in the world, but want to dismantle the kind of federal organization and revenue consolidation without which there would be no U.S. Armed Forces.

  • Dolley Madison says:

    James Madison, Father of the US Constitution, sharply objected to Marshall’s reasoning in the McCulloch decision. Fail.

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