Utah Senator Mike Lee’s Failed Attempt at American History



Over at Politico, Utah Senator Mike Lee, the author of a new book on the Anti-Federalists titled Written Out of History: The Forgotten Founders Who Fought Big Government, warns against using history to “seek out confirmation for our pre-existing beliefs.”  He then goes right ahead and uses history to seek out confirmation for his pre-existing beliefs.

His article “How the ‘Hamilton Effect’ Distorts the Founders” calls us to remember the Anti-Federalists, those men who opposed the ratification of the United States Constitution.  Lee paints a picture of the United States Constitution as a “compromise” between Federalists and Anti-Federalists” and argues that Alexander Hamilton was not in favor of “big government.”

Here is a taste:

It’s understandable why progressives would imagine Hamilton as their partisan, Big Government comrade. But this understanding of Hamilton is based on a deeply distorted image of him.

Call it the “Hamilton Effect”: Twisting history to suit one’s ends, willfully ignoring and ultimately erasing it when it stands in your way.

If we knew our history—the true and complete stories of how our nation came to be—we’d know how to fight back against the progressive agenda. And we’d be a lot less likely to accept its overreach.

Our Constitution was the result of a brilliant compromise between the Anti-Federalists and the Federalists—between those who championed a divided and limited but strong central government, and those who feared that almost any central government would expand its authority at the expense of individual liberty and state autonomy. During the debates surrounding the Constitution’s drafting and ratification, the doubts, skepticism, and outright fear of what it would bring ultimately made the document stronger and more just.

We are the beneficiaries of the Great Compromise between those two factions, but too many of us don’t fully understand or appreciate that fact. And that is because history, over time, tends to remember only one side of the argument, crowding out dissenting voices and obscuring the full story of the American experiment.

Most of us, for example, are never presented with the arguments raised by the Anti-Federalists, who opposed the Constitution’s ratification based on concerns that it would vest too much power in the federal government and thereby imperil liberty. And just as disturbing, many of the Federalists have been mischaracterized as early advocates of big government. Some have tried to portray the founders as proto-progressives, even though the founders lived a full century before there was anything even resembling a “progressive.”

Read the entire piece here.

A few thoughts:

First, I agree with Lee when he says the Anti-Federalists do not get the attention they deserve.  This is largely because they lost the ratification debate.  It was close in some states, but they eventually lost and the Constitution was ratified. On this story I highly recommend Saul Cornell’s The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism and the Dissenting Tradition in America, 1788-1828.

Second, by calling the Constitution a “compromise” between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, Lee can conveniently affirm his present-day states-rights position and not appear to be challenging, like the actual Anti-Federalists did, the very existence of the Constitution.  This makes for a shrewd political move since Lee has strong connections to the Tea Party movement, a conservative political movement that prides itself on defending the Constitution. The very fact that Lee has to do this dance means that he is using the past for political purposes and does not really care about doing history.

Third, since Lee is a Mormon who supported Ted Cruz in the 2016 election, he might be interested in knowing that there were some Anti-Federalists who opposed the United States Constitution because it did not mention God. Here is what I said about these Anti-Federalists in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction:

While Anti-Federalist opposition was always more political than it was religious, many Anti-Federalists rejected the Constitution because it did not make any appeals to God. Even some statesmen who were prone who were prone to give their support to the Constitution on political grounds wondered why the framers had not made the slightest mention of God in drafting the document.  The writings of these constitutional skeptics present an interesting dilemma for those today who want to argue that the Constitution was a Christian document.  In the eighteenth century it was those who opposed the Constitution who made the strongest arguments in favor of the United States being a Christian nation.

When Luther Martin reported on the events of the Constitutional Convention to the Maryland state legislature, he could not help including some editorial comment about the way that the convention handled the question of religion.  According to Martin, “there were some members so unfashionable as to thin, that a belief of the existence of a Deity, and of a state of future rewards and punishments would be some secuirty for the good conduct of our rulers.”  For Martin, the United States was a “Christian country” and the Constitution should “hold out some distinction between the professors of Christianity and downright infidelity or paganism.”

One of the more scathing critiques of the godlessness of the Constitution came from William Petrikin, an Anti-Federalist from Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  Writing under the pseudonym “Aristocrotis,” Petrikin attacked the framers of the Constitution as elitists who preferred a refined religilon of “nature” over a religion of “supernatural divine origin.”  In doing do, he sounded a lot like a twenty-first century working-class evangelical complaining about the so-called secular liberal elites who had no respect for the Constitution.  The difference, of course, was the Petrikin was attacking the U.S. Constitution and the men who framed it.  Using stinging sarcasm, he argued that the framers believed that the Christian religion was the religion “of the vulgar in this country” and its “precepts are…so rigid and severe, as to render it impossible for any gentleman of fashion or good breeding to comply with them in any sense, without a manifest violation of decorum, and an abandonment of every genteel amusement and fashionable accomplishment.”  Petrikin did not stop there.  He chided the members of the Constitutional Convention for denying a belief in God, the “immortality of the soul,” the “resurrection of the body,” a “day of judgement,” and a “future state of rewards and punishments.”

Anti-Federalists especially attacked Article VI because it placed no Christian qualifications on officeholders.  “Samuel,” an Anti-Federalist from Massachusetts, worried that the lack of a religious test for office would mean that “Pagan” or a “Mahometan” might serve the country in the “most important trusts.”  “A Watchman,” writing from western Massaschusetts, feared that the Constitution opened a door for the “Jews, Turks, and Heathen to enter into the publick office, and be seated at the head of the government of the United States.”  A “Friend of the Rights of the People” also feared the possibility that “a Papist, a Mohomatan, a Deist, yea an Atheist” might be elected to the “helm of Government.”  And a New York Anti-Federalist, writing under the name Curtopolis,” was particularly harsh on Article VI because he feared it would allow the following kinds of people to serve in the national government:

“1st Quakers, who will make the black saucy and at the same time deprive of us the means of defence–2dly, Mahometans, who ridicule the doctrine of the trinity–3dly. Deists, abominable wretches–4thly, Negroes, the seed of Cain–5thly Beggars, who when set on horseback, will ride to the devil–6thly, Jews & c. & c.  It gives the command of the whole militia to the President–should he hereafter be a Jew, our posterity may be ordered to rebuild Jerusalem.

I am not sure if Senator Lee is willing to endorse this kind of Anti-Federalism. (His connections to Ted Cruz might be relevant here).  I guess I will need to read his forthcoming book.

Fourth, I agree with Lee when he says that Alexander Hamilton could never have imagined the kind of “big government” we have today.  I would take this idea even further.  The founding fathers could not have imagined most of what happens in the United States today–that includes political partisanship, rampant individualism, corporate capitalism, etc…  This is why we need to be careful when we appeal to them in order to promote this or that agenda.

Fifth, Hamilton believed in an active, centralized government modeled after Great Britain.  His view of government was fundamentally different from the one the country was experiencing under the Articles of Confederation.  Hamilton’s belief on this front deserves more than the mere caveat that it gets in Lee’s article.

Sixth, when we use the phrase “big government” today we usually associate it with progressive reforms such as those put forth by so-called “progressive” presidents Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson.  We also think about Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal or the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson.  Some of us might associate “big government” with Ted Kennedy’s late twentieth-century vision for the nation.  Of course one can also trace activist government back to the Radical Republicans of the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877).  These Republicans used the full power of the federal government in a failed attempt to integrate the South in the wake of the Civil War. In the end, states rights triumphed over these “big government” humanitarian efforts and the racist South managed to uphold their way of life for another hundred or so years.

I hope Lee’s book, unlike this article, acknowledges that history is complicated and does not easily fit the molds of our political preferences.

3 thoughts on “Utah Senator Mike Lee’s Failed Attempt at American History

  1. I have been listening to the anti federalist papers on audio and find them interesting. Is there a more academic book on them?


  2. When I read Lee’s article, I realized it was just an opinion piece, promoting the right wing Republican agenda. In no sense did I accept that he was presenting a valid history lesson.

    So much of “history” these days is cherry picking to promote a prior conclusion.

    That’s why I took your suggestion and am reading “One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America”.


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