Entry from September 24, 2010

A very odd op ed in today’s New York Times by Ron Chernow, biographer of Alexander Hamilton, J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller among others, takes the tea partiers to task for invoking the Founders in their campaign against big government, big spending and high taxes. His point, made at quite unnecessary length, is in essence that the Founders disagreed about almost everything, particularly when it came to Constitutional issues, and that, therefore, no one can claim to be on their side against other Americans who are not. Amusingly, the headline to his article, “The Founding Fathers Versus the Tea Party,” suggests that he is doing precisely this himself, though it would be unfair to blame him for the headline writer’s unconscious self-contradiction. That’s pure New York Times.

But for someone who insists that the Founders “were revolutionaries, not choir boys,” Mr Chernow himself takes an oddly religious view of them, echoing those of his liberal brethren who never tire of telling us that no one can legitimately claim to have God on his side when it comes to political matters.

No single group should ever presume to claim special ownership of the founding fathers or the Constitution they wrought with such skill and ingenuity. Those lofty figures, along with the seminal document they brought forth, form a sacred part of our common heritage as Americans. They should be used for the richness and diversity of their arguments, not tampered with for partisan purposes. The Dutch historian Pieter Geyl once famously asserted that history was an argument without an end. Our contentious founders, who could agree on little else, would certainly have agreed on that.

Indeed they would. And yet among the “little” they did agree on, not mentioned by Mr Chernow, was that government should be exercised with the consent of the governed — particularly in matters of taxation and regulation — which happens to be the very principle on behalf of which the tea partiers invoke the Founders.

The smoke-screen of disagreement among the Founders is meant to disguise the fact that the “progressive” principle against which the tea-partiers are in revolt is of a much later provenance and would have horrified the Founders quite as much as it does them. This is the principle that “consent of the governed” doesn’t apply to those making more than a certain amount of money: now set by the Obama administration in theory as $200,000 a year for individuals and $250,000 for families. Actually, the disguised taxation involved in health care, cap and trade and other recent legislation sets these boundaries much lower. That’s why the TEA in tea party is said to stand for “Taxed Enough Already.” Progressives may, of course, disagree, but in sneering at their protest as “the revolt of the privileged,” they suggest, as Mr Chernow implicitly does here, that the protest itself is illegitimate — surely not something that any of the Founders, however contentious on other matters, would agree with.

That there has not been even more of an outcry over the progressive assumption that the property of the people belongs to the state for purposes of re-distribution is doubtless owing to the fact that the whole tendency of contemporary progressivism has been to use the concept of a “bias towards the poor” to deny the legitimacy of the wish of anyone who is not poor to keep more of what he earns. The resentment of those who pay for government has been simmering for a long time, but the current revolt seems to have been sparked by the new health-care law mandating that people buy insurance — which those familiar with the ways of government and the progressive ratchet realize will eventually mean that they can buy only government health insurance. It may well be that bits of the progressivist agenda would have been contentious even among the Founders, but I don’t think there can be any doubt that Mr Chernow, who is about to produce a biography of George Washington, will look long and hard in the writings of the Founders before he will find any who believed in “spreading the wealth.”

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