“We may be tossed upon an ocean where we can see no land – nor, perhaps, the sun and stars. But there is a chart and a compass for us to study, to consult, and to obey. The chart is the Constitution.” – Daniel Webster
I begin the two part series with the American Constitution. With all the dizzying rhetoric wrapped around the constitution these days let’s begin with a fact.
The American constitution is probably the best written, best though out, best forward thinking practical “ideological white paper” of all time.
Take a look. Read it. Maybe even reread it. The stuff <thoughts, ideas, words> that they had the foresight to build into the document is boggling to the mind if you think about it.
(this link is to the transcript but it also has images of the original document: http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_transcript.html )
I began writing about the constitution because it is being so misused and abused by politicians it is making Madison, Jefferson, Washington, Hancock and any forefather you want to name , who actually participated in the tea party, turn over in their grave.
And how it is being discussed (tearing it apart word by word) is frightening … because … well … while the writers were extremely thoughtful with regard to individual words <incredibly so> the document was written with the intent to be taken in its entirety.
As the sum of its parts.
I let the people on the Supreme Court figure out any nuances … they get paid the big bucks and, frankly, they have bigger brains. They were given a job and similar to the guy who was given the job to supervise the jack hammer construction workers, who I assume knows jack hammers better than I ever could, they have better skills at their job than I would.
With that rant being aired out let me take a minute and share some information about the Constitution.
We the People.
What an opening.
We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, inure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, 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.
And with that opening I interpret some personal responsibility. “Personal” being you & I. And a responsibility to know the Constitution.
Research continues to show that the vast majority of Americans cherish the U.S. Constitution … but do not know much about it. if this isn’t an example of “choiceful ignorance” I don’t know what it. Why do I say that?
The same research indicates that most of us believe that the health of our Constitutional democracy depends on active and informed citizenry.
some facts from a survey done by the National Constitution center:
- 91% of Americans believe that the U.S. Constitution is important to them
- 84% believe that to work as intended, our system of government depends on active and informed citizens
- More than half of Americans don’t know the number of Senators <100 senators … 2 from each of the 50 states regardless of population … and as a bonus … The House of Representatives has 435 members … I think>
- About 1 out of 3 don’t know the number of branches of the Federal Government <ok. I admit. I am embarrassed to say that I didn’t know this off the top of my head … there are three branches of government: The Executive Branch, The Legislative Branch, and the Judicial Branch. The Legislative Branch is Congress, Senate & House of Representatives, making laws. The Executive branch executes the laws made by the Legislative. Think the president as the Executive Branch. The Judicial branch big kahuna is the Supreme Court which is made up of nine justices. Each branch functions as a checks & balance for the system. Basically, the Legislative branch creates laws, the Judicial Branch interprets laws, and the Executive branch executes laws>
- 1 out of 6 believe that the Constitution establishes America as a Christian nation <not even close … freedom of religion, including islam, was encouraged and a number of documents from the founding fathers – Washington, Jefferson, Adams – support this belief>
- 20% believe that only lawyers can understand the Constitution <interpret portions maybe … but it is one of the most straightforward documents you will ever read>
- Almost one-quarter cannot name a single right guaranteed to us by the First Amendment <freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly & petition of grievances … I usually miss press, assembly and grievances>
- 84% believe that the U.S. Constitution is the document that states that “all men are created equal” <that is the Declaration of Independence>.
When asked to describe in their own words what the U.S. Constitution means to them, Americans refer to the Constitution as the bedrock upon which our society and laws are based.
Q.: What Does The U.S. Constitution Mean To You?
- Freedom (34%)
- Basis of our rights (20%)
- Our system of laws (11%)
- Established this country (7%)
- Established our government
- Determines our quality of life (3%)
- Everything (3%)
Yet, more than three quarters (83%) admit that they know only “some” or “very little” about the specifics of the document.
So more people need to pay attention to the Constitution.
Reading & interpreting it.
People can generally agree on what the words of the Constitution says. Typically we struggle with interpretation.
Generally speaking, there are two main ways in which court justices, judges, and legal analysts interpret laws and constitutions:
- As living documents that evolve as the culture changes
- As fixed documents whose meaning never changes from the time that they were written until now.
Simplistically most who lean toward a more liberal perspective tend to think of it as a living document and a more conservative perspective thinks of it as a fixed document <note: that is a generalization>.
But I say that to help highlight why so much heated discussion takes place over a variety of issues important to America … and how the constitution is being used, and abused, to further people’s initiatives.
Anyway. If you are interested … there is an excellent paper written by Yale Law Review called “How To Interpret the Constitution (and How Not To) by Michael Stokes Paulsen which provides an excellent perspective with sources, of course, to aim you toward more reading if you would like. (http://www.yalelawjournal.org/pdf/115-8/Paulsen.pdf)
It is interesting to note that he suggests the best book of all time explaining the constitution is actually The Federalist written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison. I say interesting because it was written so long ago and yet a contemporary Yale Law Journal contributor believes it to be so.
Ok, moving on.
States, federal & balance
It seems one of the wackiest discussions happening today centers on federal government (or how big and what role it should play).
And the popular rhetoric surrounds states and state’s rights.
Ok. Let’s be clear. I am not a big government guy.
Nor am I a state’s guy.
I am a balance guy. And a guy who believes the balance today will be different from the balance tomorrow.
And actually our forefathers were also <I am not suggesting I am as smart as any of our forefathers>.
Let me discuss “states’ rights” first (then how politicians abuse this issue … how we permit them to abuse it … and then the whole ‘rights of individuals themselves’).
Ok. What about states’ rights. It is the hot topic du jour.
Many people suggest that The Tenth Amendment limits Congress to those areas in which the Constitution explicitly empowers it to act. And all other responsibility resides with the states.
But … well … no. <sorry … couldn’t figure out how else to say it>
The Constitution was actually written to provide balance (10th amendment included).
And the flexibility to provide different balance depending on different situations.
And it also has a variety of checks & balances with it (think of the Supreme Court decision making as the ultimate decision maker on balance).
All that said let’s take a minute to look at how balance between the Federal government and states is organized in the Constitution. The issue of states’ rights was very important to a key author of the Constitution, Thomas Jefferson. He was the main arguer for the amendments we know as ‘The Bill of Rights’ where the ‘Tenth Amendment’ strikes a crucial balance between State and Federal power.
- Amendment 10 – Powers of the States and People – Ratified 12/15/1791.
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
In addition, the powers of the Federal government were limited by design see ‘Section 8 Powers of Congress.’ The Federal government was intended to be the glue to hold the states into a nation.
The Federal government responsibilities?
According to the Constitution the Federal government should only handle things that must go into and between the state and national borders. Settle disputes between states, provide a unified defense, foreign and trade policy. War, immigration, postal system, currency and banking.
Oh. And the “biggie” … “promote the general Welfare.”
All other powers are reserved to the States or to the people.
And before we start saying things like “the constitution suggests the government shouldn’t be in the business business (like car manufacturers).
In fact early forefather type governments recognized the government HAD to helps support some businesses until they got on their feet. Thankfully it was that attitude, and actions, that made America the global economic power that it is today.
States and people.
We the people.
Clearly stated. Clearly defined.
States are always stated as “United States” in some document we like to call the Constitution. Oh. And the constitution replaced the articles of confederation (which was basically a states driven government constitution) to strengthen a federal government to balance the states’ rights.
Here’s the deal (number 1): States.
States. States have rights as long as the individual parts strengthen the whole (the United States).
Federal. The federal government has rights as long as it strengthens the whole (the United States).
And they have the ability to step in when they see individual parts harming, or weakening, the whole. Individual parts may not like that and they may shout and stamp their feet and have a temper tantrum but someone (the federal government) has to look at the bigger picture.
Sorry. That’s the <American> gig.
If you don’t like that … well …
Here’s the deal (part 2): politicians (elected officials)
Politicians need to step up to the plate. Because here is where our selected politicians are failing us. They are elected to balance our individual needs (their direct constituents) and the wholes needs (the USA). That means sometimes they need to tell the truth to their local constituents (the ones who voted them in).
Yeah. Something like “wow. It would be good for us but in the scheme of things what would be good for us may not represent the best for the whole (the USA). ”
Whew. That doesn’t get you reelected (because it is not selfish enough).
But it is telling the truth.
Ok. Where am I going with this?
Here’s the deal (part 3): Us
We the people. Us. You and I. Because in the end it comes down to us. Seeking the truth and accepting the truth. We the people are not “I the people.”
“The people make the Constitution, and the people can unmake it. It is the creature of their own will, and lives only by their will.”
John Marshall, Chief Justice of The Supreme Court
Do we care what happens to us as individuals? Surely. As we live eat and breathe.
Do we need to weigh government <national> decisions as we versus I? Surely <as much as it may pain us to do so sometimes>.
We need to remember that ‘We the people’ is the United States. And despite any despicable behavior of elected constituents we need to take responsibility for their behavior.
And seek to encourage the behavior that reflect honesty so we can truly judge what is best not just for I but for we (no matter how painful that may be).
And today more than ever this is truth because we are making important budget decisions that are inevitably going to hurt somewhere at a local level (it would be naïve to suggest budget cuts are cutting ‘big government’ and that isn’t really ‘local jobs/business’).
But truth be told … the decisions will hurt at a minority of the local level.
And these budget decisions help the whole.
Let me go back to the ‘does this hurt a minority’? Yup.
It is really easy to look at things that hurt your own wallet. And your own house. And your own family. And are you wrong? Well. No. And yes.
No in that your first consideration should be your own family and your own immediate needs.
Yes in that there is a bigger picture.
And what may hurt you today (and your family) may actually be okay in the end (several years from now).
And I imagine the reason I wrote about the constitution is that I believe not only has the everyday person (you & i) lost sight of what it meant when it was written but I also believe the politicians have lost sight of why we elect them.
We elect them to not only represent our personal needs but also to explain to us the greater needs. And this is maybe where we fail them.
Because all we seem to focus on is “me” (or I depending on your grammatical preference).
Because, frankly, what is an elected official to do? Tell us the truth or rather fight to do something to benefit us (even if it is not in the nest interest of “us” – we the people.).
And that is where they sometimes elect to bastardize the constitution.
They play us (and shame on us for permitting that to happen).
They play the ‘rights of the state’ card versus the federal government point of view card.
There is no “pick one side or the other.” It’s balance.
And the politicians who stand up and thump their chests and create some diatribe on one or the other is screwing with you.
Sometimes the state carries the day and benefits what you need (and is right for the bigger picture). Sometime the federal government sees the bigger picture and it hurts people locally but is really good for the bigger picture.
So we , the people, need to get our heads out of our asses and see the bigger picture and quit shoving something up our local representations ass trying to get something done (so he/she gets re-elected) and let them do what they were elected to do.
And that is what our forefathers desired … fair state representation, all the time, keeping the USA in mind (the bigger picture) … all the time.
Another thing (as we read the constitution).
Democracy, Republic, Socalism & Pluralism
We seem to forget some things.
We are a republic … not a democracy.
In a republic, the citizens do not rule directly but, instead, elect officeholders to represent them and conduct the business of government in the periods between elections. Thus, the United States is a republic, not a democracy.
Yup. Our form of government is called a Republic, not a Democracy where a majority rules. Here is a factoid for you.
The Founding fathers kind of disliked the idea of a pure democracy.
Thus they set up a system of limited government that was a federation of states.
We need to remember that the Constitution was not written to protect the principles of the majority. James Madison, key writer of the Constitution, understood that in a democratic republic the rights of the majority need no such protection. In fact Madison and his fellow founding fathers believed that the greatest threat to American liberty would be the tyranny of a majority – a tyranny in which “the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker.”
Think about this.
Because it is tricky.
Make sure the majority has the ability to live life to its fullest and yet insure the majority doesn’t ‘oppress the weak’ … oh … and not be a socialist or communist system.
It becomes easy to see how those who opine actually have something to opine about.
All that said.
The constitution is a brilliant document.
And it is brilliantly crafted to enable balance.
And it implies a governing with a lack of selfishness in mind.
Governing with a greater good in mind.
Because the constitution, whether states’ rights believers or federal government believers, clearly has America’s greater good in mind.
Interpret it. Discuss it. And hold elected officials accountable to truth.
On to the next post and the next document (and the last in this series).
The next document doesn’t have a country in mind as the ‘greater good.’ It goes completely to the other end of the spectrum and focuses almost solely on a completely different interpretation of ‘we the people.’ It focuses solely on the greater good of people almost in a ‘global community’ frame of reference as nation boundaries
The Communist Manifesto.
Speaking of people driven rules of the road you would have to be silly to ignore the communist manifesto. Ignore all the trappings of “communist” and focus on the words.
It represents words of the people.
And it resonates as well today as did it then.