David Schultz is a colleague (and co-author of my recent textbook, American Public Service: Constitutional and Ethical Foundations) who has written a timely article for Salon. It’s the sort of article that should be read by the very folks who won’t read it, because it actually takes one of the Tea Party’s avowed purposes—constitutional originalism—seriously.
“With reverence and awe, Michele Bachmann and the Tea Party pay homage to the original Constitution and framers who drafted the document in 1787. The House of Representatives, in a nod to them, began its session this year by reading it. Bachmann even brought Antonin Scalia to a seminar on the Constitution for members of Congress, where the Supreme Court justice instructed members to read the Federalist Papers and follow the framers’ original intent. Moreover, many of the Tea Party’s political positions, such as opposition to President Obama’s healthcare reform program, are rooted in their adherence to the original document.
But what if they actually got their way? If a Tea Party constitutional reading suddenly took sway and we returned to the original document as conceived, what would the American republic look like?”
David begins by pointing to the obvious: the right to vote wasn’t part of the original constitution. Voting rights were largely left to state law, and in 1787 most states limited the franchise to white, male, Protestant property owners, age 21 or older. There was no direct popular voting for president or the United States Senate, and there wasn’t even language that addressed voting for members of the House of Representatives. It took the 17th Amendment, adopted in 1913, to allow for people to vote for their senators (an amendment many Tea Party activists wish to repeal), and the 19th Amendment before women could vote.
As David points out, Michelle Bachmann—self-proclaimed devotee of the Constitution—could neither vote nor serve if we still followed the original document. The Senate wasn’t chosen by popular vote originally, and the President still isn’t.
“Even if we consider the Bill of Rights, which was adopted in 1791, to be part of the original Constitution, there are still many limits on its use. Most importantly, as written, the Bill of Rights limited only national power — not state power. Notice how the First Amendment begins by declaring, “Congress shall make no law. ” … a state could take an owner’s property through eminent domain without compensating him.
Subscribe to an original intent reading of the Constitution and states are free to disregard individual rights, including free speech, property, religion and others. States did just that in the early years of the Republic and into the 20th century before the Supreme Court used the 14th Amendment to apply Bill of Rights provisions to the states. Most recently, the Supreme Court (with Scalia supporting it) used this incorporation tactic to apply the Second Amendment right to bear arms to states. A Tea Party constitutionalist could not have done this. So much for states as protectors of individual freedom.”
Then of course, there are aspects of the original Constitution that even most Tea Party members find inconvenient. In their much-ballyhooed reading of the constitutional text on the floor of the House at the beginning of this session, these fearless defenders of originalism simply omitted that pesky provision about slavery.
It’s hard not to see similarities between the way so many of these “God and Country” zealots read the Constitution and the way they read the bible—very selectively.