The Billings Outpost

Once upon a time, America was just perfect

No one should equate the Tea Party movement with Al Qaeda. But I have been reading a history of Al Qaeda (Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Looming Tower”), and there is one interesting parallel: Both movements seem to long for some lost, more perfect past.

With Al Qaeda, it’s easy to tell when that was: When the prophet Mohammad walked the earth and inspired Sharia law, the embodiment of God’s will toward men. With the Tea Party, it’s not so easy.

Since even the name of the party refers to the idea that Americans already are taxed enough, it’s safe to say that the prelapsarian age the Tea Party longs for was not in my lifetime. U.S. marginal tax rates are lower now than they have been in 70 years. Before that, America endured 15 years of war and depression – hardly a forgotten paradise.

So why not go all the way back, to the founding of this great republic? No wait, not that far: It was obvious from the beginning that the Articles of Confederation were never going to work, so scrap that.

But how about the Constitution? In a recent appearance in Ohio, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney ignored a woman’s suggestion that President Obama should be tried for treason, but he did say that he believed the Constitution “was not just brilliant, but that it was inspired.”

The suggestion that the Constitution was divinely inspired reflects poorly both on God and mankind. The Constitution was a remarkable achievement for human beings, locked away in a room in Philadelphia, arguing about how to set up a workable government for a vast and mostly undeveloped country.

To suggest that God took an active role undermines their achievement. Nobody gives Moses credit for being a great political thinker; writing down the 10 Commandments was work for a clerk, not a philosopher.

By God’s standards, the Constitution was a shoddy piece of work. Even the men who wrote it knew it contained serious defects that would have to be remedied somewhere along the way. Thirteen founders left the convention before the signing ceremony for the new Constitution was held, and three who did attend refused to sign it.

Practically before the ink was dry, Congress voted for 12 amendments. The 10 that passed became the Bill of Rights.

Even then, the Constitution was far short of what one might expect from an inspired text. It didn’t solve the slavery question, setting the stage for the disastrous Civil War. We have been debating for 200 years exactly what the Bill of Rights means when it says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

And you would think that an omniscient God would have put something in there about universal healthcare, anticipating what a big problem it would become a couple of centuries later.

So where does that leave us in the search for lost American perfection? Certainly not before 1791, when the Bill of Rights was passed, and not after 1929, when government began to expand to deal with the Great Depression.

The Montana Republican Party platform supports repeal of the 16th Amendment, which allows a federal income tax. Many Tea Party members also oppose the 17th Amendment, which allowed direct election of senators.

Both of those amendments were ratified in 1913, so let’s knock off 16 years from the end date. Unfortunately, that takes us back before women got the right to vote, but even best-selling conservative author Ann Coulter has recommended taking suffrage away from women because they vote for too many Democrats.

At the other end of the timeline, Marbury vs. Madison, which established the principle of judicial review, was decided in 1803, so let’s lop off a decade in the other direction.

That’s leaves us from 1803 to 1913, still a nice chunk of time for an idyllic American past. And it is a time that Montana’s current crop of Republican candidates for governor harkened to when most of them said in response to a recent Lee Enterprises questionnaire that they favored some form of nullification, which is the principle that states can exercise their sovereignty to ignore federal laws they consider unconstitutional.

Lee didn’t publish the entire questionnaire, and some candidates, such as Rick Hill, gave ambiguous answers, promising only to guard against federal overreach. Corey Stapleton said a majority of the states is the “ultimate arbiter against an unyielding federal government,” but majorities of states don’t need nullification to work their will against the federal government, especially in the Senate, where all states are represented equally.

Ken Miller of Laurel seemed to take the most ambitious position in support of nullification, saying that states have the right not only to reject unconstitutional laws but also those that are “harmful and against the will of Montanans.”

That’s not much different from the nullification arguments that Southern states used to defend slavery in the years leading to the Civil War. That movement threatened to permanently take “united” out of the United States, and the principle became widely discredited after the war. After all, the founders must have meant something when they wrote in the Constitution that it is the “supreme Law of the Land … any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.”

Besides, slavery wasn’t abolished until 1865, and even overt racists are embarrassed to publicly support slavery these days. So, with all due respect to nullification, let’s lop off another half-century from the earliest date, then note that everything started to go downhill just three years later when the 14th Amendment was ratified.

That amendment made anyone born here a U.S. citizen, giving rise to anchor babies. And it said that the validity of the public debt of the United States shall not be questioned, a direct challenge to the Tea Party contention that just because we owe money is no reason to raise the debt ceiling. Some Tea Party members, and even some members of Congress, have called for repeal of the 14th Amendment.

So there we have it: America reached its pinnacle of perfection on Dec. 6, 1865, when the 13th Amendment was ratified, and began its downward slide on July 9, 1868, when the 14th Amendment was ratified.

It was a good, but short, run. During that time, the Capitol Dome was completed. Jesse James pulled his first bank robbery. Laura Ingalls Wilder was born. Yellow fever raged in New Orleans. A Republican president was impeached.

Those were the good old days. Adjust your November ballots accordingly.


Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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