Bill MoyersI have good news and bad news.

The good news is that the folks over at Bill Moyers’ website have discovered the Tenth Amendment Center.

The bad news is that their research apparently stopped at the name.

Moyers associate and historian Bernard Weisberger recently published a piece on the Moyers and Company website decrying the recent explosion of state-based resistance to unconstitutional federal legislation.  Weisberger’s work is a maddening combination of the partial recognition of the value of federalism and ignorance of the recent and distant history of state’s rights, which is particularly unacceptable for a professional historian.

The most easily refuted of Weisberger’s claims is his implication that nullification in general and the Tenth Amendment Center in particular are partisan in nature.  Weisberger states that nullification “has as much to do with who holds the reins at a given moment as it does with the theoretical embrace of the separation of powers.”

This accusation is wholly incorrect.  Consider this: the Tenth Amendment Center was founded in June of 2006.  Let’s think back to that time.  Who was president?  Republican George W. Bush.  Who controlled the Congress?  The Republicans.  Who had the theoretical advantage in the Supreme Court?  The Republicans.  I don’t suppose that Weisberger would care to explain why such an allegedly partisan organization as the Tenth Amendment Center, whose sole interest in his view is to further the cause of Republicans, would form itself at the high-water mark of Republican power.

For this assertion to be true, other questions must also be answered.  For instance, if the Tenth Amendment Center is simply the product of an anti-Democrat backlash, why do we come under attack from the so-called right at least as often as from the left.  Why do we support the constitutional interpretation of states’ rights even when that interpretation leads to the ascendancy of ideals not typically associated with American conservatism?  The obvious answer is that our goal is solely the reclamation of the Constitution as it was ratified.  Given these facts, I think it’s safe to assume that our history professor simply didn’t do his homework.

But Weisberger doesn’t stop at making uneducated judgments about the current nullification movement.  He attacks the entire doctrine that a state can resist the federal government as “extreme” and “destructive”, while proclaiming that such thinking “has justified as many states’ wrongs as rights.”

I find it interesting that the opponents of nullification always label it as extreme and yet find centralization totally acceptable.  I guess running up $16 trillion in debt and over $200 trillion in unfunded liabilities, trampling on the privacy of law-abiding citizens, expanding militarily across the globe and completely ignoring the law of the land isn’t extreme.  But, my goodness, look at those wacko state governments standing up for the rights that the Constitution says they have.  How extreme!  How dangerous!

Weisberger points out that states’ rights have resulted in wrongs, but are we to assume that this is not also true of centralized power?  Inherent in the power to rule is the power to rule unjustly.  This existence of this truth only strengthens the argument for federalism, for the smaller the government, the smaller the potential harm it can inflict. Put differently, which is more dangerous: a rabid dog or a fire-breathing monster?  Sure, a rabid dog can attack you, but the last time I checked there were no movies of Old Yeller taking out Tokyo.

People with professed faith in centralized power never seem to realize its danger, but the people who founded this country did.  During the ratification debates Alexander Hamilton remarked that “the states can never lose their powers till the whole people of America are robbed of their liberties.”  In 1800 Thomas Jefferson wrote that if the federal government became too powerful, “it would become the most corrupt government on the earth.”

The fact is that the states, under the Constitution, retained their original sovereignty.  Contrary to Weisberger’s point that “The states never were genuine mini-nations,” that is exactly how they understood their powers during the Revolution.

To that point, Article II of the Articles of Confederation stated “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated…”  The only honest interpretation of this clause is that the states were sovereign, giving up only the powers they expressly delegated while retaining the authority of independent political societies.  This is also the exact understanding that the Tenth Amendment was intended to clarify.

Ultimately, Weisberger does make a few good points, saying that “our federal system has great usefulness for governing a gigantic and diverse nation.”  He also has a point when he says that the application of states’ rights throughout American history has at times been uneven and unprincipled.

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But even here the point he makes isn’t the point he thinks he’s making.  If Americans throughout history had not been willing to sacrifice their devotion to the constitutional division of powers when their guys were in power, the central government could not have grown to the size it is today.  The fact that people have historically done this does not invalidate the principle, as Weisberger suggests, but rather calls for its rigorous application across all issues.

This is our cause.  We don’t care who is in power or what the issue is.  We recognize that the limitations on federal power exist for a reason, namely that the most dangerous governments are those that are highly centralized.  Our opponents can try to misrepresent our movement, but they cannot escape the reality that our principled ground is much firmer than the partisan quicksand on which they’ve built their houses.

The Constitution.  Every issue.  Every time.  No exceptions.  No excuses.  Find the partisanship in that, Mr. Weisberger.  I won’t hold my breath that you can.

Ben Lewis
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