The Constitution of the United States of America was, at the time of its ratification in 1787–1788, the focus of a conspiracy theory that interpreted the new political system as a deliberate effort to reverse the liberty won in the American Revolution. Contemporary conspiracy theories concerned with the Constitution, however, are more likely to see a plot to enforce an illegal, centralist interpretation of the Constitution, while at the same time clinging to the individual liberties asserted in the Bill of Rights.
Radical Anti-Federalists and Constitutional Ratification
When the U.S. Constitution was drafted in Philadelphia in 1787 and subsequently ratified by conventions in the several states, it replaced the existing political system of the Articles of Confederation, which mandated a very limited form of federal government and left most powers to the states. A vocal group of nationalist politicians had long argued in favor of a stronger federal government, and had successfully persuaded Congress to call for a Federal Convention in order to revise the Articles of Confederation.
Fearing a nationalist plot, some prominent revolutionary leaders like Samuel Adams protested against the Federal Convention and declined to serve as delegates; Patrick Henry refused to participate because he “smelt a rat.” Their fears were proven partially right when the Convention produced not a revision of the Articles of Confederation, but an entirely new constitution.
Drawing on revolutionary traditions, opponents of the Constitution—known during the ratification years as Anti-Federalists—argued that centralized power was inherently corrupt and that the Constitution would serve to eliminate the states’ autonomy along with individual liberty.
In a worst-case scenario they feared this would create the despotic government that Americans had fought the British to prevent. Radical Anti-Federalists went so far as to interpret the Constitution as the tool of a conspiracy fomented by the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization of veteran Revolutionary War officers, to introduce a hereditary aristocracy or even a monarchy in the United States.
Such radical and also more moderate charges had considerable impact on the ratification procedure. In several states, the Constitution was ratified by a narrow majority, and only after urging various changes that were later condensed into the Bill of Rights of 1791.
Contemporary Conspiracy Theories of Constitutional Decay
In the more than two hundred years since ratification, the Constitution has grown into one of the most venerated symbols of the United States, to the point where it is practically impossible to reject the Constitution and still make a claim to patriotism.
As a result, contemporary conspiracy-minded critics of strong federal power typically do not attack the Constitution per se, but put forward conspiracy theories that claim the Constitution has been deliberately misinterpreted, subverted, or ignored, to the point where the result is harmful to the freedom of U.S. citizens.
Such conspiracy theories of constitutional subversion are most typically endorsed by right-wing religious or libertarian groups and individuals, who feel that the federal government in the course of the twentieth century became the tool of secularism, social collectivism, feminism, multiculturalism, and racial equality.
In The Constitution: Fact or Fiction, Eugene Schroder of Colorado claimed that the U.S. Con- stitution has effectively been suspended since 1933. Franklin D. Roosevelt allegedly assumed emergency powers that have been expanded by successive administrations, who justified increased executive federal power with the necessities of World War II and the cold war. Consequently, Schroder claimed, Americans have lived under martial law for many decades.
Likewise, members of the diverse militia movement that came to the attention of the U.S. Congress in the 1990s often argue that while they are patriots who believe in the Constitution, the political order of the United States has been perverted away from its original meaning. These critics point to legal abortions, gun-control laws, federal social programs, and the United Nations as signs of such corruption, and in many cases claim it to be the work of Jewish or Satanic conspirators.
Some groups, such as the Posse Comitatus, react with oppositional readings of the Constitution, claiming the right of sovereign citizenship and accepting no legitimate government above the county level. At the same time, it is often claimed that no constitutional amendments beyond the first ten are actually valid.
The Bill of Rights plays a central role in the conspiracy theories and fears of the contemporary Right. While many groups and activists reject the structure of the federal government, or at least its contemporary role, they are highly concerned about freedom of speech and freedom of religion, the right to bear arms, and the protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, which are guaranteed by the First, Second, and Fourth Amendments, respectively.
Activists point to the actions of federal law enforcement at Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, as examples of the suspension of constitutional rights by a conspiratorial elite deeply entrenched in the power structure of the federal government.
The Second Amendment is often seen as the constitutional right most attacked by conspiratorial forces. Even though the amendment was originally intended in order to guarantee the states some military autonomy, activist groups like the National Rifle Association insist on an unrestricted individual right to bear arms.
In the conspiracy theories of the militia movement and other right-wing and libertarian groups, it is one of the most urgent interests of conspirators in the federal government to disarm the U.S. people through gun-control legislation and the use of federal law enforcement agencies such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.
The eighteenth- and twentieth-century conspiracy theories about the Constitution stem from similar roots. While radical Anti-Federalists attacked the Constitution itself, contemporary right-wing and libertarian conspiracy theorists attack the present-day constitutional reality.
They offer an alternative reading of the Constitution that revolves strongly around the Bill of Rights, which was a major Anti-Federalist achievement in the first place. However, while conspiracy-minded radicals constituted only a slight minority of Anti-Federalists and eventually reconciled themselves to the new political system, the ubiquity of conspiracy theory among the contemporary Right does not seem to offer a similar perspective.