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Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 12/20/2010

The original tea party and the Constitution

By Ezra Klein

It's common enough these days to hear that the country is going awry because of all these elites who don't care enough about the Constitution. So I was interested to read about Pauline Maier's history of the national argument over ratifying the document. That debate pitted the elites against the common man, as well -- but back then, it was the elites who wanted the Constitution, and the common man who didn't:

The critics of the Constitution tried to speak out, but as one Connecticut Anti-Federalist complained, they were “‘browbeaten’ by the self-styled ‘Ciceros’ and men of ‘superior rank, as they called themselves.’” The opponents of the Constitution grumbled that the Federalists, “these lawyers, and men of learning, and monied men ... talk so finely and gloss over matters so smoothly, to make us poor illiterate people swallow down the pill.” They expected to go to Congress, to become the “managers of this Constitution,” and to “get all the power and all the money into their own hands.” Then they would “swallow up all us little folks, like the great Leviathan ... yes, just as the whale swallowed up Jonah.” What was needed in government, said Melancton Smith of New York, was “a sufficient number of the middling class” to offset and control the “few and great.”

By Ezra Klein  | December 20, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
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Next: Column: A world with an individual mandate


Ezra, so far today you're like the Eagles in the first half yesterday.

I'm hoping you have a little Michael Vick and DeSean Jackson in you, so you can elevate your game and win after lunch!

Posted by: 54465446 | December 20, 2010 10:49 AM | Report abuse

Interesting point. Although I think the current "tea party" (I hate that they have taken that moniker) sees the constitution as more of a convenience that, despite its own words, always supports their position in any debate. Therefore, opposition to their reactionary views is "unconstitutional" and unworthy of acknowledgement.

This would be a fantastic strategy if you couldn't, you know, actually read what the document says, and if there weren't, oh, a couple hundred years of interpretation already behind us.

Posted by: KBfromNC | December 20, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

The common man was indeed forced to swallow an ultimately bitter pill. What if the Constitution had been written in plainer language? For example, what if the "general welfare" and "necessary and proper" clauses had been defined in plain terms?

One author (Serwer?) cited in Wonkbook this morning makes a case in opposition to a [a notably failed] viewpoint:
"'To lay taxes to provide for the general welfare of the U.S.' that is to say 'to lay taxes for the purpose of providing for the general welfare.' For the laying of taxes is the power and the general welfare the purpose for which the power is to be exercised. They are not to lay taxes ad libitum for any purpose they please; but only to pay the debts or provide for the welfare of the Union. In like manner they are not to do anything they please to provide for the general welfare, but only to lay taxes for that purpose. [...] The second general phrase is 'to make all laws necessary and proper for carrying into execution the enumerated powers.' But they can all be carried into execution without a bank. A bank therefore is not necessary, and consequently not authorised by this phrase."

The argument from 1791 (available at opines that "To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specially drawn around the powers of Congress, is to take possession of a boundless feild of power, no longer susceptible of any definition."

Not much has changed over the centuries: there is still an elite view and a plain view. Currently [and ironically], the Democrats currently represent the elite view and the Republicans the plain view. Is there “'a sufficient number of the middling class' to offset and control the 'few and great.'”? Is a balance possible?

Posted by: rmgregory | December 20, 2010 11:40 AM | Report abuse


I don't think that's fair. The Constitution was written in such a way that everyone who read it, across the political spectrum, thought it was saying exactly what they wanted it to (because they needed such people to agree on single document). So no matter what you political beliefs, barring monarchist, the document clearly agrees with you. Going further, there is almost certainly an original framer who has gone on record to make it clear that your interpretation is correct (again, no matter what your beliefs are).

Posted by: eggnogfool | December 20, 2010 12:17 PM | Report abuse

@ eggnogfool

You're right, which is why I find pretending that there is only one true interpretation, and that this interpretation is irrevocably supportive of reactionary conservative positions, so odious.

But again, we do have hundreds of years of interpretation of the document that are helpful in determining what it means. When people seek to go back on those interpretations by claiming to be "originalists" or something similar, they are full of it, since without that interpretation we don't really know what it means. That's why it was interpreted in the first place.

Posted by: KBfromNC | December 20, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

It's difficult to equate parties across hundreds of years. And, like Maier says, even critics of the Constitution at the time didn't have the same concerns.

Yes, lower classes probably worried about consolidation of economic power around the country. But when there's now-political oddities like William Jennings Bryan throughout US history, it's near-impossible to compare any era's conception of the "common man" to current-day examples.

To me it seems like that w/ each step toward a more centralized authority in DC an increasing number of critics were *social* conservatives who resented the power they'd lose over minorities. This attitude also helps explain the original AOC, the 3/5 compromise, the need for 14th Amendment, and the Civil Rights laws of the 60s.

So yeah, instead of comparing the state of New York to the Tea Party, it seems more accurate to just look at who opposed the "good things" of the past 300 years: people who didn't like their power shifting to DC because they wanted to more effectively control minorities. That seems more akin to the modern-day Tea Party.

Posted by: Chris_ | December 20, 2010 12:48 PM | Report abuse

It would be nice, to have more of the middle class in congress...

Posted by: will12 | December 20, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

“these lawyers, and men of learning, and monied men ... talk so finely and gloss over matters so smoothly, to make us poor illiterate people swallow down the pill.”

Well said. Apparently, illiterate meant something different in those days.

Posted by: dpurp | December 20, 2010 8:18 PM | Report abuse

It was the opposition by the common people that led to the passage of the Bill of Rights as a series of checks on government power.

Posted by: tomtildrum | December 20, 2010 8:48 PM | Report abuse

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