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Tom Head

Pleading the Tenth

By April 21, 2007

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Profile: Ron Paul on Civil Liberties Issues

"The Federal," Thomas Jefferson wrote in a 1824 letter, "is in truth a foreign government."

As I finished my profile of 2008 presidential contender Ron Paul earlier today, I thought about how much things can change in 200 years. In the 1798 conflict over state's rights between President John Adams and his political rival Thomas Jefferson, there was no doubt that the state's rights position was the one most amenable to the spirit of the young American democracy. Adams had persuaded his allies in Congress to pass a piece of a legislation that would have imprisoned Jefferson's supporters for criticizing government officials, and Jefferson took him on by ghostwriting the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798. "The several States composing the United States of America are not," he wrote, "united on the principle of unlimited submission to their General Government." Jefferson won the presidency in 1800 and Adams' Federalist Party was consigned to the dusty tomb of history, never to win another national election.

But as time passed, state's rights began to take on a different meaning. The Founding Fathers, in their limited wisdom, had left a contradiction in their system of government. The Constitution that begins "We the people...," that states that the very function of government is to protect human rights, had also stated that more than half of the country had few, if any, rights. Women could not vote, and were by force of law essentially made into wards of their fathers and husbands. And, more specifically pertinent to this discussion, black Americans of either gender could be consigned with their children and grandchildren to a life of forced servitude. Soon the phrase "state's rights" began to refer, almost exclusively, to the right of states to force "we the people" into lives of slavery. The Tenth Amendment, which had been drafted to protect rights, provided cover for limited totalitarianism.

After the American Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment redefined the concept of state's rights. States still had their zone of authority--but whenever human rights were trampled upon, they lost that authority. By protecting human rights at the federal level, the government placed an asterisk next to the Tenth Amendment. The precise meaning of that asterisk would define American domestic policy for a century.

In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court finally explained what that asterisk really meant. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended legal segregation in public accommodations, established further federal authority to protect human rights. Soon Southern segregationists, nostalgic for the old ways, repeated the familiar cry of "state's rights" in order to win elections. When then-governor Ronald Reagan repeated that cry while announcing his presidential candidacy at the 1980 Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi, there was little doubt that he was referring specifically to the old ways. That was what "state's rights" had come to mean, especially in Mississippi.

Then I read Ron Paul. Here is a candidate who believes that the government lacks the authority to regulate marriage, prosecute drug-related crimes, ban abortion, or collect an income tax--never mind the Civil Rights Act, though he opposes that, too. Turning to Article I Section 8 and Article III Section 3, he points out that the only crimes specifically defined as punishable by the federal government in the Constitution are treason, counterfeiting, and piracy. All other matters, from the drug trade to racketeering to tax evasion, are relegated to the states. What is remarkable about Ron Paul is that he takes the Tenth Amendment to its logical conclusion--and what he advocates is complete reform of the U.S. government.

For my part, I believe that we have learned too much over the past two hundred years to return to Jefferson's model of a confederation of independent states. I believe that the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Commerce Clause, while not consistent with the original intent of the framers, is certainly an accurate reading of the text--and one consistent, to quote Chief Justice Earl Warren, with our "evolving standards of decency." I know too much about my own home state of Mississippi to trust an unfettered Tenth Amendment system. We need legislation that deals with interstate crime, we need an FDA and Department of Education, and we need strong federal civil rights legislation. If that means Thomas Jefferson would be disappointed with me, so be it.

But there is still one Jeffersonian left in Congress, and his name is Ron Paul. However slim his chances of capturing the nomination, however impractical his ideas, his appeal to the Tenth Amendment is no thinly veiled reference to the days of segregation. He is serious about advocating Thomas Jefferson's approach in every area of government, and the consistency of his platform is both uncommon and refreshing.

Read more:


April 22, 2007 at 3:47 am
(1) Lex says:

The Supreme Court’s reading of the Commerce Clause is a mockery of what the Founders wrote. In Wickard v. Filburn (1934) they wrote that agriculture was interstate commerce, even when no commerce across state lines occurred. The Federal Government has grown out of control ever since.

April 22, 2007 at 11:36 am
(2) C Bowen says:

At the min., four years of Ron Paul might get things back on the right path with the new alliances and party restructuring that would follow. Any Good Government liberal should support him, but I suspect they will just do what tee-vee tells them to do and vote for the pro-war Hillary, or the pro-some wars Obama.

April 22, 2007 at 3:11 pm
(3) brody says:

The 10th amendment is about keeping the balance of power, and the protection of rights. History has shown that governments with centralized power do not protect the rights of it’s citizens. Power needs to be decentralized and brought closer to the people.

April 22, 2007 at 6:48 pm
(4) Dixon Cannon says:

Jefferson was right! Now, we’ve gotten what we asked for. We’ve allowed the federal govermnet to grow way past it’s Constitutional constraints despite the warnings of the Founders. Thank goodness there is finally a candidate that holds the Constitution supreme, understands State Rights, and belives in individual responsibility. No matter what, he can count on my vote!

-Dixon Cannon

April 23, 2007 at 10:23 am
(5) Mike Wagner says:

Yes, we’ve learned a lot over the last 2 centuries and most of what we’ve learned confirms the Founder’s fears. Democracy really is the “tyranny of the majority.” Freedom is ultimately impossible in a democracy. To the extent you have democracy, you cannot have freedom and vice versa.
Two things haven’t changed in 200 years – human nature and the will to power. The Founders understood these concepts very well and tried to set up a system to thwart the will to power and to balance human nature with just the right amount of centralized power to keep the lid on. They failed because the Constitution grants far too much power to the Federal Government. The Articles of Confederation, flawed though they were, struck a better balance between State power and Federal power.
While it certainly would not solve all of our problems, stict return to the express powers granted in the Constitution would be a very good start. Once that is accomplished, we should look toward amending the Constitution to limit Federal power even more. I’d start with repealing the 16th and 17th amendments and the “commerce” clause.

April 23, 2007 at 2:55 pm
(6) Bam Bam says:

Its like this – Ron Paul is for the People, he’s not for the corporation.

While this author may like his Federal – one bill to fix it all, he’s voicing a lazy and happy to pass the buck viewpoint. What is good for Maine, is not necessarily good for Hawaii. I don’t know how you bring segregation into the argument! Ron Paul wants YOU, at the state level, to be in control of your surroundings.

Its simple, Ron Paul is for the People, Rudy McRomney is for Enrons.


April 24, 2007 at 2:32 am
(7) Garry Cobb says:

The Tenth Amendment was the only thing standing between the people and a centralized empire that takes our riches and continually puts us in more danger. Ron Paul understands this and knows it needs to be stopped before the country suffers more serious harms.

April 24, 2007 at 11:36 pm
(8) D Boccia says:

It’s interesting that under a Republican administration, we’ve seen the greatest growth in the size of government. Of course, this makes sense in light of our declaring war on a noun.

I thought the GOP was inherently States’ Rights oriented? And also small government minded? I mean, wasn’t that the classic bash against those icky Dem/Libs?

Sorry folks, I abandoned the Republican Party because Benny Hinn & Pat Robertson have sunk their evangelical fangs in too deep. And the Dems? Ha ha ha ha…we gave you a mandate in November ’06 to change course. And Nancy Pelosi is what you gave us. Thanks, I’ll pass.

However, I’m doing everything in my power to get Ron Paul the attention he deserves. He’s a true Republican, and we need him in office in 2008.

To clarify, it should be noted that I’m supporting the Dem candidate in NY-29 (Eric Massa) in ’08, as well as Mr. Paul for President.

I don’t give a damn what your party affiliation is, if you demonstrate character and a true sense of fidelity, then you get my vote.

Edwards, Hillary, Barack, McCain, Romney, Rudy…they’re all the same, they just shop at different tailors.

August 3, 2007 at 4:03 pm
(9) minerboy says:

You should read some Zora Neale Hurston comments about Brown vs Board of education.

The problem with the civil rights laws of the sixties is that they specified certain groups that would be protected by the federal government. It is better to protect individual rights.

Rather than fight out equal protection cases against the states in the sixties, congress went for its own law somehow meant to give extra protection to a certain group of people, codifying a legal distinction between different races.

Imagine what would happen if Mississippi would deny equal education to Blacks. Illinois, on the other hand would provide equal opportunities. Blacks would flock from Mississippi to Illinois, like in the past, to get the better opportunity. Mississippi would be forced to either get with the times, or whither on the vine.

December 7, 2007 at 5:45 am
(10) Michael N says:

How can you defend civil rights from the federal government? You mean Guantanamo? or Haebeus Corpos? or do you mean Wiretapping? or do you mean Warrantless Searches?

They have slaves in other countries, do you want to go to war with every country that doesn’t meet your standards, because fighting a civil war against other states is just that.

You can’t have it both ways.

March 29, 2010 at 2:06 pm
(11) Dave Y. says:

the federal government is an necesary evil, the only way slavery was done away with and basic human rights for all people happened because the feds existed.

with a choice between the feds and a christian theocracy, I’ll hang on to the federal government.

and I’m sorry folks, those are the real choices in this country, people have been voting based on the religious morals of the candidate for the past 30 years and look where its gotten us, not a good reason to think religion has a place in government!

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