Tea party gatherings on the Fourth mix the educational and the patriotic

Fernanda Correia, 13, of Fredericksburg shoots an antique firearm with the help of Karen Williams with the James River Black Powder Club at "An American Event," a "tea party" gathering in Bealeton, Va.
Fernanda Correia, 13, of Fredericksburg shoots an antique firearm with the help of Karen Williams with the James River Black Powder Club at "An American Event," a "tea party" gathering in Bealeton, Va. (Dayna Smith For The Washington Post)
By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 5, 2010

BEALETON, VA. -- "Tea party" activists across the nation tried to put the "independence" back in Independence Day this weekend with festivals and other gatherings focused on the Constitution -- and how to use it for political gain.

Coupled with an upsurge in organized classes and book clubs, the trend reflects a growing effort among conservatives to teach supporters how to do political battle using an inviolable weapon: the nation's founding documents. It's a change in emphasis for a movement that rose to prominence with spirited and sometimes unruly protests across the nation.

But it's one that organizers hope will yield real political results by arming supporters with the detailed knowledge to back only those candidates who are loyal to their ideals.

"The rallies were a start, but the goal now is to get people to stop and really think about things," said Kerry Scott, an organizer of the Alexandria Tea Party, one of several hundred conservative activists who attended "An American Event," a Fourth of July festival for "God and country" staged by a local farmer on rolling farmland in the foothills of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains this weekend.

Amid Civil War reenactors, a reading of the Declaration of Independence and booths selling Native American artwork, Scott handed out strips of white paper, each printed with quotations from such American luminaries as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington.

"With knowledge, there is power," she said. "And having an understanding of the Constitution can lead to electing people who will uphold it."

The view that the Constitution does not permit such federal actions as the passage of health reform, the regulation of the environment or the imposition of educational mandates on the states is, of course, a controversial one. Where the tea party sees an encroachment of states' rights, the left sees a valid interpretation of the mandate, described in Article 1, Section 8, to provide for the "general welfare."

Nonetheless, there is ample evidence that this renewed emphasis is making its way into the broader political conversation; in the recent Senate hearings to confirm Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, a flurry of questions about her interpretation of the Commerce Clause seemed pulled directly from the talking points of the tea party movement.

Scott and others look primarily to the Constitution's 10th Amendment, which grants to the states all powers not specifically given to the federal government. Like those on the left, they also point to Article 1, Section 8, which enumerates Congress's specific powers, including the right to tax and to regulate commerce. In these two passages, conservatives find the evidence that Congress and the executive branch have dramatically overstepped their authority by enacting health reform and regulating the environment, among other things.

Some conservative activists also point to the 17th Amendment, but in this case they oppose it. That amendment established direct election of U.S. senators by popular vote rather than appointment by their state legislatures. The thinking in that case is that the amendment removed the powerful Senate from control by the states.

"The founding fathers were very afraid of a central government," said Rick Buchanan, an organizer of the Fauquier County Tea Party who last started up a 12-week class on the Constitution and advertised it at "An American Event."

Similar events were staged elsewhere across the nation to focus attention this holiday weekend on the founding principles of the tea party movement. As is typical of the movement, there was no central organizing effort but a number of local festivals organized individuals and scattered groups.

They go beyond reenactments of Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty" speech or public readings of the Declaration of Independence. Groups distributed pocket-sized copies of the Constitution and advertised 12-week classes they've organized to study it. They also promoted weekly book clubs, where they are reading such titles as "Capitalism and Freedom," economist Milton Friedman's manifesto on free markets, and "The Five Thousand Year Leap," in which anti-communist W. Cleon Skousen asserts that the United States is a Christian nation whose founders were guided by the Bible.

"So many people have already studied this stuff, and now they're looking for more," said Ken Vaughn, an organizer of Northern Virginia 912 who recently prepared a course of study on the financial crisis for interested members. "We want change, but we don't just want empty change. We want a government that's more accountable to the people."

Groups such as those affiliated with the 9-12 Project, begun in 2009 by talk show host Glenn Beck, and the Campaign for Liberty, started by former presidential contender Ron Paul, have focused on the teachings of the Constitution for well over a year now. But the effort is spreading to tea party groups and others who simply call themselves conservatives.

"I've read the Constitution 20 times in the past two months," said Brock Price, the Fauquier County, Va., farmer who organized "An American Event" Saturday. "People are ignoring it. Politicians do not know anymore what's right and what's wrong."

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