Parents: This Fall, Beware Tea Partiers Dressed Up as James Madison

When I was growing up, my mom warned me each fall about Halloween candy with a hidden razor blade. As a parent, the thing I’ll be most scared about this fall is the prospect of Tea Partiers coming to my child’s school dressed up like James Madison to “teach” the U.S. Constitution.

It is undoubtedly the case that all our kids could use a good civics lesson, but these modern day Madisons are peddling snake oil, not real history. Mother Jones reported yesterday that, during Constitution Week in September this year, the so-called “Tea Party Patriots” are planning to pressure school boards across America to allow them into our schools to teach our children about the Constitution using materials from the National Center for Constitutional Studies, an organization founded by a genuinely scary individual named W. Cleon Skousen, a far-right conspiracy theorist with links to the John Birch Society who passed away in 2006.

As reported in both The New York Times and Mother Jones, NCCS materials and seminars — at times led by instructors who dress up in period costume — teach the views of Skousen, who concluded that “most federal regulatory agencies are unconstitutional, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Communications Commission,” and who also called “for the repeal of the 16th and 17th Amendments, which he view[ed] as an affront to states’ rights.” Skousen also apparently wanted to repeal Social Security for the same reason.

According to Jeffrey Rosen, a George Washington University law professor who attended a NCCS seminar and reported on it for the Times, participants at the seminar he attended were instructed to memorize Skousen’s 28 principles of liberty, derived from his book, The Five Thousand Year Leap. These principles form a truly odd list, juxtaposing inspiring quotes from founding-era documents such as the Declaration (“all men are created equal”) and innocuous descriptions of our government structure (“the government shall be divided into three branches — legislative, executive, and judicial”), with claims clearly rooted in the Bible, not the Constitution (“All Things Were Created by God, Therefore upon Him all Mankind are Equally Dependent, and to Him”), and some of the most ideologically-charged and disputed claims about the views of the framers imaginable (“The Highest Level of Prosperity Occurs when there is a Free-market Economy and a Minimum of Government Regulations.”)

At the same time the Tea Party Patriots are peddling theocratic and free market ideology masquerading as constitutional history, we also have Tea Party politicians like Rep. Michele Bachmann not knowing what state the battles of Lexington and Concord were fought in. The Tea Party has clearly disqualified itself from being included in any serious discussions of our Constitution’s text and history. 

Still, let me issue a challenge to the Tea Party Patriots and NCCS: Before you get to go into any school in this country and teach a child about the Constitution, find one credible historian willing to support Mr. Skouson’s account of the ideology of the Founding Fathers. Find a tenured professor on the history faculty on one of any of the 50 highest-rated universities in the United States who will vouch for the accuracy of Mr. Skouson’s Principles of Liberty as a reflection of the ideology of our Founding Fathers, and then we’ll talk. 

It’s past time the Tea Party learned that to qualify to teach anyone — much less America’s school children — about the Constitution, they will need to do more than dress up like James Madison in a tri-cornered hat. Meanwhile, America’s school boards must flatly reject the Tea Party Patriots’ attempts to muscle their bad history into our children’s classrooms, and Americans across the ideological spectrum should help.