Tea Party, meet John Marshall

    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.


    [audio: satullo20101003.mp3]

    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.

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