Rand Paul is a gift to historians. As a candidate he embodies some of the longest-lasting, most picturesque -- and most reactionary and dangerous -- elements of the American political tradition: contempt for government; veneration of personal property over all else; freedom defined as the absence of restraint, meaning the 'freedom' to exploit.
Like his father Ron, Rand Paul is schooled in the late-modern ideology of libertarianism (Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman). But learned discourses on "capitalism and freedom" hardly matter to their base, which wouldn't know Hayek from a hole in the wall. When they rouse audiences, they appeal to currents in American life that predate Friedman's "free markets" utopia.
The real ancestors of the Pauls, Sarah Palin, and the rest of the Tea Partiers are the antebellum Jacksonian Democrats, who drew on the "Old Republican" tradition of Southern slaveholders. Deeply concerned about threats to their way of life, they accused national government supporters of "monarchical" tendencies, and authored the doctrine of states' rights and nullification of federal authority. Sound familiar?
Like today's Tea Party, Jacksonians considered themselves the inheritors of the American Revolution. Above all, they venerated private property of two types. First was the land they had extorted at gunpoint, following massacres, from the Southern Indians, who mistakenly thought federal treaties protected them. The second form of property was the slave labor that turned the forests of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana into the "Cotton Kingdom" after Jackson's armies expelled the Indians. Led by Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis, the men who rose to power on the wealth slaves created broke up the Union rather than accepting Lincoln's victory.
Jacksonians like Davis believed in their rights, as white men, over everyone else--their women, children and slaves, the Indians, the land itself. They asserted that this was America's identity: conquering nature, accumulating wealth and ruling over others. They wanted only enough government, under their control, to protect them in these endeavors. Anything else they viewed as treason. To libertarians and Jacksonians alike, freedom belongs to those who can take it, and practicing freedom means having the liberty to make money any way you can.
No wonder Rand Paul called Obama's criticism of BP and the Massey Coal Company "un-American" and told Rachel Maddow that government had no business deciding whom restaurant owners must serve. The sanctity of "private property," no matter how you got it or the societal effects of how you use it, is the dogma animating this kind of "constitutional conservative."
I'd really like to know Paul's views on the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments -- respectively, the abolishment of slavery in 1865, the creation of government-enforced equal citizenship in 1868 and requiring the states to let all black men vote in 1870. My gut tells me that's not the "Constitution" he has in mind!
The Jacksonian attitude toward the rule of law also prefigures today's Tea Partiers. As Daniel Walker Howe points out in his 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winner What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, Jackson "did not manifest a general respect for the authority of the law when it got in the way of the policies he chose to pursue." A notorious duelist, Jackson regularly executed without trial his own soldiers and Indians, and he used his 1835 State of the Union address to endorse mob violence against abolitionists while gangs burned black churches in New York and Philadelphia.
It is a short move from that brand of vicious demagoguery to Palin's telling white rural audiences in 2008 that only they were the "real Americans" and instructing her followers after health care reform passed: "don't retreat, just reload." The Pauls' antigovernment rhetoric about the income tax and the Federal Reserve stokes the Patriot movement, which denies the authority of the federal government entirely. The benighted "Patriot" trucker Jerry Kane and his son, who both died in a shootout with police May 22, are only the most recent casualties in the long history of Jacksonianism.
"States' rights," a glorification of the private interest over the public good, and race hatred are certainly, historically speaking, American, but there's nothing "constitutional" or "conservative" about them. So, I would like to thank Rand Paul for bringing history so vividly to contemporary light, if only I didn't think these elements of our history were far better left in the past.