The moment came in the Indiana Senate in mid-January.
U.S. Rep. Mike Pence—the anti-government crusader who was deliberating whether to run for governor or president—offered his interpretation of American history.
“As Ronald Reagan said, I believe it is time again to remember that ‘the federal government did not create the states; the states created the federal government,’ and to again ‘demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the federal government and those reserved to the states or to the people,’” Pence said.
State Sen. Mike Delph, who has spent a lot of time flirting with the idea of challenging icon U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar in the GOP primary, gushed about Pence’s remarks.
“His understanding of the role of federal government and the role of the state government is spot on and I wish more people in Washington, D.C., had that understanding,” Delph said.
Now, I should say here that Pence and Delph are two of the nicest people in public life. They both are bright and generous men who are dedicated public servants.
That’s what makes what they say so disturbing.
It’s not that both have embraced the anti-government rhetoric of the Tea Party. They’re entitled to do that. Our system always has allowed people to adhere to their beliefs, regardless of how strident those beliefs may seem to others. One even might argue that it is in the public’s interest to have a movement fueled by so much rage, as the Tea Party is, led by human beings as moderate in temperament as Pence and Delph are.
No, what is troubling is the fact that they turn history on its head.
Consider the statement that Pence quoted approvingly and Delph applauded: “The federal government did not create the states; the states created the federal government.”
Perhaps that is why the preamble to the U.S. Constitution reads, “We the States of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Oh, it doesn’t say that?
It actually says, “We the People”?
That’s a problem, because it means the states didn’t create this country. The American people did.
It’s not the only problem.
Both Pence and Delph are Republicans, men who aspire to lead the party of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, of course, is America’s greatest president, the leader who saved the Union by guiding us through the bloodiest civil war in human history.
The states’ rights argument that Pence and Delph advance is the one Lincoln waged war to defeat. Neither man seems to see the irony in having a Republican update Jefferson Davis’ argument for the 21st century.
Interpreting America’s history in ways designed to support one’s current political positions is nothing new, but each time it happens there is a cost. When we distort the past, we strip away history’s power to teach.
The arguments about states’ rights weren’t just talking points. Paired with America’s original sin—slavery—those arguments prompted brothers and cousins to kill one another by the tens of thousands.
Abraham Lincoln spoke to the immensity of that tragedy when he tried to define what the struggle to preserve a national government meant:
“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
The pity is that so many people who now represent Lincoln’s party don’t seem to have grasped Lincoln’s point.•
Krull directs Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and hosts the weekly news program “No Limits” on WFYI-FM 90.1. Send comments on this column to email@example.com.