Members of the Tea Party purport to revere a document written by many of the founding fathers. You might think that we’re talking about the Constitution, but that guarantees too many actual freedoms to the liking of many Partiers. In reality, their views seem to be more in line with the Articles of Confederation, the document that preceded the Constitution.
The Articles didn’t work. They were too weak, so the founding fathers opted to replace them with our present constitution, which created the actual United States of America. The Bill of Rights, which shortly followed, made the federal government the primary protector of citizen rights. It took less than a quarter of a century to toss out the idea of the Articles and replace them with our present system of government.
What was weak about the Articles of Confederation, and thus attractive to Tea Party members? It asserted the supremacy of the separate states over the confederation government.
“Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated.”
That’s a fancy way of stating the supremacy of states’ rights. No federal government could provide citizens with equal protection under the law. The states could do as they pleased and, as history has shown, they have far less regard for human liberties than the federal government does.
How did the Articles describe the United States? It didn’t use the term United States of America or even the words “nation” or “government.” Instead it said,
“The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretense whatever.”
In other words, the states would presumably take care of themselves without the presence of a central government.
Powers given to the federal government were essentially limited to declaring war, setting weights and measures, and for a Congress to serve as the final court for disputes between states.
The movement in the final quarter of the 18th century was towards unification. In the first quarter of the 21st century, the Tea Party and others are calling for the dismantling of unification.
An intriguing question is, “If the Tea Party got its wish of drastically weakening the federal government, would it be satisfied with states, or would it try to strip away their powers? After all, we already have a movement in California to divide the state into two new ones, North California and South California? Why not divide Illinois into Chicago-land and downstate? How about South Florida and the Florida panhandle?
One might argue that there are certain people who are never satisfied with what exists. TheY almost always want to change it. So, Tea Partiers currently don’t like the federal government and say they would prefer states’ rights. But if states ruled supreme, would they prefer regions within each state? Would they then want separate metropolitan areas, and then the kind of balkanization that exists in St. Louis County, MO (95 municipalities in one county)? Would that be enough, or would they prefer block units, or family units, or ultimately just anarchy with each individual being thoroughly in charge of his or her life?
For now, maybe we have to settle for asking Tea Party members and their allies to take a little time out and read about life under the Articles of Confederation. Today may not look so bad.
Since 1969, Arthur Lieber has been teaching and working in non-profit educational organizations. His focus has been on promoting critical, creative, and enjoyable learning for students in informal settings. In the 2010 mid-term elections, he was the Democratic nominee for US Congress from Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District.