The trouble with history isn’t that it’s apt to be forgotten. The real problem is that it’s often remembered at the most inconvenient times.
Last week, several hundred people gathered at the Hilton near the airport to celebrate the alleged sovereignty of Georgia and the other 49 states of the Union.
The Tenth Amendment Summit, named for the portion of the U.S. Constitution intended to crystallize the concept of federalism, was a national gathering of the state’s rights movement.
As a group, these are the combatants on the exposed right flank of the Republican party. They can make tea partiers look like pikers — demanding not just restrained Washington spending, but shackles on all aspects of the federal government. At the Hilton, the pitchfork in the crowd was real.
But like the tea party movement, the rhetoric and symbolism harkened back to the American Revolution. The event featured two candidates for governor, though not from the same state.
Roy Moore, the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, won fame for his defiance of a federal jurist who ordered him to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments. Ousted from the bench, Moore lost a primary campaign against GOP incumbent Bob Riley in 2006 – but is trying for the post again this year.
Moore recited vast stretches of the Declaration of Independence and the speeches of Patrick Henry from memory.
Ray McBerry spoke slightly longer, but this was entirely proper. His campaign for governor financed the two-day event.
McBerry, a one-time history teacher, challenged Republican Sonny Perdue in the 2006 primary, winning nearly 12 percent of the vote. He’s trying again, and makes the six other Republicans in this year’s contest a little skittish.
McBerry named two bills he’d had introduced in the Legislature this session, one to assert Georgia’s right to decide what federal expenditures it will pay for.
Like Moore, McBerry walked his audience – he’s an excellent speaker – to the very edge of the 18th century. McBerry then leaped across the next 100 years, landing in the 1920s for a discussion of the federal government’s expanded use of the commerce clause.
The omissions by both men were too spectacular to be accidental. Not in Atlanta, which was once burned in an argument over a state’s right to hold a people in bondage. Not in the South, which once used the Tenth Amendment and state sovereignty as a shield for slavery.
Afterwards, McBerry admitted to editing his history. “I’ve made a real effort in my campaign not to be associated with the war or slavery. That’s not what I’m about. I’m Christian. I simply believe in the Constitution. All Americans – white, black or otherwise – we’ve all lost our liberties,” he said. “I genuinely hope and believe that we’ve moved past that point in our history where standing up for the Constitution has to automatically be tied to racism or anything from the past.”
Many would agree. A CNN/ORC poll released Friday indicated that 56 percent of Americans think the federal government has become so powerful that it poses an immediate threat to individual rights – the highest number in 15 years of polling on the topic.
But very few ideas can claim to be born whole, without a past. And in Georgia, where McBerry wants to be governor, the past matters more than words can possibly say.
Asked when America was at its ideal, McBerry picked 1850.
“Ultimately, when the South lost the war, it totally transformed the American republic into basically a federal empire,” McBerry said. “And the truth is, that’s what we’ve been morphing into over the last 150 years. In a sense, the old republic died when the South lost the Civil War.”
More than a few Georgians would have serious problems with that statement.
But this isn’t just about history. Last year, the state Senate passed a resolution declaring Georgia’s right to secede — should encroachment by the federal government deepen. One candidate, then-state senator Eric Johnson of Savannah, voted for the measure. Two others, John Oxendine and Karen Handel, joined McBerry and endorsed it.
The bandwagon crashed to a halt when Democratic candidate for governor David Poythress, the former commander of the Georgia National Guard, rebuked his GOP opposition in a YouTube video.
Poythress declared that dissolution of a nation isn’t something to be spoken of lightly when U.S. troops were dying overseas. “They would, in effect, ban the American flag, and end the Pledge of Allegiance. They would say to the world that when they don’t get their way, they quit,” Poythress said. “That’s just childish. That’s cowardice, not leadership.”
That ended the discussion for most Republican candidates. But not McBerry.
“I’m personally in favor of de-funding the Georgia National Guard, and funding the Georgia state guard, which is solely under the authority of the governor and the General Assembly,” McBerry said. “I believe that the original purpose for the National Guard was not overseas deployment anyway. I think it’s being abused and misused.”
This is not a gauntlet other Republicans are likely to pick up, and a vision of America that most of us would have to think twice about.
For instant updates, follow me on Twitter.