Rule of Law

Article V Amnesia: The Tea Party Pretends To Know Better Than Our Nation’s Founders

The Tea Party, time and again, claims that it wants to restore our Founders’ Constitution by repealing the many Amendments that “We the People” have added to the Constitution over the last two centuries. The latest example comes from Florida, where Steve Southerland, a Tea Party candidate running for Congress, has been calling for repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment. Rather than argue that the Seventeenth Amendment was unwise – a hard claim to justify, given that when the Amendment shifted the selection of U.S. senators from state legislatures directly to the people, it enhanced democracy and provided a more direct link between citizens and their representatives – Southerland simply denounces the fact of the change. Noting that “the men that met in Independence Hall in Philadelphia in 1787 were smart,” Southerland views Amendments like the Seventeenth as a rebuke to the Constitution’s Founders, and the “divine providence that also met in that hall.” As he explained to the Miami Herald, “what we’ve done is embarrassed their memory. . . . The more we tinker with what those men did, I think the further we get away from their original intent. It bothers me that we’ve drifted so far.”

Except that the Founders “originally intended” for our Constitution to be amended. The process for amending the Constitution is right there in Article V, as written by those “smart men” who met in Philadelphia in 1787. By attacking constitutional Amendments simply because they add to the supposedly infallible 1787 text of the Constitution, Tea Partiers like Southerland fail to recognize that it was the Constitution’s Founders who specifically provided for an amendment process that would allow our Nation’s foundational document to be improved in the future. If “divine providence” had a hand in crafting our Nation’s charter, then it also smiled at the prospect of amending it.

And rightly so. As our recent issue brief and blog series, “Strange Brew: The Constitution According to the Tea Party,” demonstrate, the Constitution – including the Amendments – is an incredible source of pride for Americans. The Founders created a remarkable system of government, and the American people have only made it better, adopting numerous Amendments to secure liberty and equality, make our system of government more democratic, and add to the powers of the federal government to solve national problems and protect the rights of all Americans. These Amendments are not a rebuke to the Founders’ constitutional design; to the contrary, they are a confirmation of the Founders’ wisdom that Southerland properly celebrates.

Given his admiration for the Founding generation, perhaps Southerland will take to heart a sorely needed history lesson from the very Founders he reveres. One of the reasons the Founders of 1787 were so “smart” was that they realized that Amendments to the Constitution were necessary if the Constitution was to endure for the ages. As Akhil Amar explains in his fabulous history, America’s Constitution: A Biography, “[m]istakes happen – and the men drafting and ratifying the Constitution of 1787 had no illusions that they had gotten every issue exactly right. Even had they somehow believed that their blueprint would solve every problem in sight, they understood that new challenges and new opportunities might require new approaches.” And that judgment has proven true, time and again over the course of our history. Were we committed to Southerland’s rules on Amendments – that any “tinkering” by amending the Constitution moves us further from the genius of our constitutional design – the Nation would still be locked into a Constitution that sanctioned slavery, offered no protection for equality, and excluded racial minorities, women, and young adults from the franchise.

Indeed, one of the reasons we have a Constitution in the first place was that the Articles of Confederation – the failed experiment in a weak central government that governed the American states prior to the Constitution – was virtually impossible to amend. Because every state had to agree to amend the Articles, it was practically impossible for our Nation’s Founders to make any changes to them. In the years before the Constitution, every effort to amend the Articles went down to defeat, leaving the Nation saddled with a charter that was so dysfunctional that George Washington once suggested that it nearly cost the country the Revolutionary War. Ironically, from their views on the power of the federal government to their views on amending the Constitution, it seems like what the Tea Partiers really want is to return to the days of these failed Articles of Confederation.

Fortunately, our Founders learned from the failures of the Articles of Confederation and knew that we could not hope to form a “more perfect Union” without a workable amendment process. That amendment process is one reason the Constitution, more than two hundred years later, has survived as our Nation’s governing document. If Tea Partiers like Southerland want to avoid “embarrassing” the Founders’ “memory,” they would do well to get over their collective amnesia about Article V of our Constitution and stop bashing our Constitution’s Amendments simply because they weren’t written in 1787.