Monday, June 22, 2009

Edgycater's Liberty Summer Book of the Week: "Reclaiming The American Revolution: The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions..." by William Watkins

As a history teacher, it is interesting to read Conservative pundits and listen to talk radio hosts discuss history. One would get the impression that the U.S. Constitution was upheld fastidiously until the Great Society and the mainstreaming of the hippie generation. OK, to be fair, most will at least go back to Franklin "Mussolini Is On To Something" Roosevelt and his New Deal/Fascist regime. Occasionally, you will find some that trace the rise of the State to the Progressive movement of the early 20th century (although few will criticize Woodrow Wilson directly and NONE would dare besmirch Theodore Roosevelt--oops, except Mike Church). Prior to the 20th century, the Constitution was revered and upheld without fail. Right. And Al Gore invented the internet, Democrats were the party of civil rights, and Ted Kennedy had no idea how that girl ended up locked inside his Buick under water.

The truth is, the U.S. Constitution was under attack before the ink was dry. The history portrayed in modern textbooks has been watered down beyond any recognition of what really went on in 1787 and beyond. Alexander Hamilton, for example, was no Federalist. He was a Nationalist. Because he wrote editorials supporting the passage of the Constitution, people forget that he wanted the states to turn over even more power to the central government with no limits or protections of their interests. Over the next decade, Hamilton would play the lead role in the first round of assaults by nationalists on the founding document.

William J. Watkins examines this era and its impact in "Reclaiming The American Revolution: The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions and Their Legacy." Watkins demonstrates how federalism was under attack from the country's inception, as were the inalienable rights described by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence and codified in the Bill of Rights. Political parties developed in the 1790s along the lines of constitutional interpretation. Federalists, ironically, rejected federalism and sought a nationalization of American governance. The Democratic-Republicans were not confederates, but the true federalists. They believed in limited government as the Constitution dictated. Hamilton and the Federalists immediately saw the "necessary and proper clause" in Article I, Section 8, Clause 18 of the Constitution as a trump card to justify any priority they sought to pursue. Later, the commerce clause and the 14th Amendment would be used in much the same way.

Textbooks tend to present the idea of nullification as a final effort of Southern slave owners to maintain their "peculiar institution." In fact, the theory was presented in 1798's Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions written by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Yes, that Jefferson and that Madison. What prompted these great Patriots to write about a state's authority to reject an action of the central government on constitutional grounds? The Federalist party had used its 1796 presidential victory and its control of Congress and the judiciary to intimidate and marginalize political opponents including the jailing of Republican newspaper editors. The most well known of these attacks came via the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 which prompted the Resolutions.

The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions provide a great reflection on the text of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Certainly, the words of Jefferson and Madison are much more consistent with the founding ideals than were the actions of the central government in its first decade of existence. Of course, those excesses seem quaint in light of today's welfare state. As Voltaire said, "no snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible." No one likes to talk about the early usurpations by the national government; they prefer to talk about the giant snowball after it rolled halfway down the mountain and began picking up speed.

Chief Justice John Marshall certainly understood the power of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions' arguments. After the Federalists lost the White House and the Congress in 1800, the Federalists moved quickly to create new federal judgeships to fill during their lame duck period. They would maintain one branch of government for many years. A few short years later, in Marbury v Madison, Marshall established for the Supreme Court what the Constitution did not: the final and unquestionable authority to determine constitutionality. The judicial review element of Marbury had nothing to do with William Marbury's lawsuit or any of Congress' Judiciary Acts. It was a frontal assault on the states' role in the federal system. There is little doubt in my mind that Marshall's famous (infamous?) opinion was aimed directly at the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions.

History textbooks largely ignore this era of history, but it is vital to truly understanding how the principles of the Constitution were first violated. Watkins provides a concise history of the period and reminds us just how dynamic the Constitution can be when applied as originally intended. After reading this book, you will have a greater appreciation for the Constitution and the power it gives the states and the people.

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