Would the Founding Fathers Have Backed the Tea Party?

One of the most consistent refrains of Tea Party politicians is that their political philosophy is the most consistent with the Founding Fathers. But some more astute observers of history are disputing this, saying that the Founding Fathers were politicians who crafted the Constitution on compromises—and that some of the Founding Fathers were more big-government than others:

There is, of course, a more broadly applicable lesson here. At any given moment in time, it always appears to be the case that our politicians are unprincipled sleazeballs, in sad contrast to their upstanding, principled forebears. But statesman are merely dead politicians. The Emancipation Proclamation only liberated slaves held in rebel territory, while leaving in bondage those in neutral states. Lincoln wrote a newspaper op-ed declaring, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” This, too, was spin — Lincoln needed to hold the support of a crucial bloc of northerners who were willing to fight for Union but not for abolition. He settled for partial emancipation because that was the extent of his power at the time. When the opportunity came to abolish slavery everywhere, Lincoln seized it.

Madison’s compromise [to allow small states disproportionate representation in the Senate] has held in part because his defense of the compromise has been erroneously translated through pop history as genuine conviction, and in part because advocates of proportional representation lack the votes to reform the Senate, just as they did in the 18th century. But we should be clear that the critics of the malapportioned Senate, not its defenders, are Madison’s true ideological heirs. Madison and his allies were practical politicians. This is another characteristic separating them from the tea party.

So, in other words, the Tea Party is more in line with the Anti-Founding Fathers than the Founding Fathers themselves. If, by Founding Fathers, you mean the nationalizing Federalists rather than their opponents. So Alexander Hamilton—an aristocrat who favored a regressive tax, high national debt, a centralized money system, and a large standing army—is more similar to modern-day big government shills than Tea Party politicians. Fair enough.

But there is one thing missing here. Sure, Tea Party politics looks dissimilar to the big-government machinations of the most ardent centralists who framed the Constitution. But what about Thomas Jefferson or Patrick Henry (who wouldn’t even show up for the constitutional debates because he thought the Constitution had been hijacked by centralists)? Are they not Founding Fathers as well?

In any compromise, there are two sides. Tea Party politicians are wrong to consider themselves the heirs of Alexander Hamilton—the Tea Party’s critics are right about that. But does that mean that the Tea Party isn’t the heir of Hamilton’s small-government opponents? Weren’t they Founding Fathers as well?

And the Tea Party isn’t even named for the framers of the Constitution. It’s named after the colonialists who successfully resisted Great Britain’s tyranny, only to be seated with another harbinger of tyranny in 1789. The Anti-Federalists were largely right about the Constitution. It was apparently rife with potential abuses, as we can now clearly see. And if the Tea Party is heir apparent to the Anti-Federalist Founding Fathers—I say God bless their efforts.