Monday, January 28, 2008

A humble reminder about the Constitution


There's a little "trick" interviewers like to play, most recently Stephen Colbert, on right-wingers advocating the display of the Ten Commandments in public spaces. They ask these nearsighted evangelicals to simply name them. All ten. It's a fair enough question. If these precepts are literally gospel truth you shouldn't have too much trouble memorizing them before shopping them around to everyone else. Yet, as Colbert revealed, they can't do it. The same goes with politicians and the Constitution. If a candidate evokes our Nation's most esteemed document in an interview or on the campaign trail one of the first questions that should be asked is can you name the Bill of Rights? I doubt if McCain or Romney could. Obama and Clinton probably, although I doubt if they believe in them. I guess that's the general difference between the two parties in a nutshell. The majority of Democrats pay lip service to the Constitution. The majority of Republicans do not.

But this is a new phenomenon, right? If we take a trip in the way-back machine we'd find a true reverence for the Constitution. Or will we? Was Woodrow Wilson worshiping at the feet of the first amendment when he championed the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act? Or did FDR embody personal freedom when he interned the nation's Japanese-American population (but not Germans or Italians)? How about our third President, John Adams, who, out of paranoia over Irish Immigration and the French Revolution, passed the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798? These are some of the most famous examples, but there are vulgar violations through out history, often committed without remorse.

In fact, the Bill of Rights was a controversial addition to the Constitution in the first place. Alexander Hamilton opposed it saying the Constitution was enough and did not restrict anyone's freedom. But the people fought for its inclusion. Maybe that's why those first amendments have been so flexible in the minds of our leaders. The body of the Constitution, which defines governmental powers, inspires a little more obedience. Freedom of speech and assembly are beautiful concepts with pretty words, but when the Constitution grants the Congress the power to tax or to honor voluntary contracts or to suspend habeas corpus these passages by comparison are divine and immutable.

It was in the interest of the Framers -- white, land-and-slave-owning rich men -- to first liberate themselves from King George then create a solid federal government in order to secure foreign investment. Madison and Monroe, for example, wanted to buy land from the Indians but didn't possess the start-up capital. No foreign investors, such as France, wanted to take the risk of lending money because no mechanism like a judicial branch existed to ensure the cash would be returned. But the Founders couldn't do it alone. They needed to acclimate the middle class to there revolution. They needed soldiers and a buffer from the property-less poor who had carried on a protracted campaign of rebellion against our ruling class. Their solution was to include language of liberty, equality and protection.

Even a cursory glance tells you they didn't mean it. The wealthy doesn't want equality, especially during the time of the Constitution's writing. Black men were property, Indians were something less than human and so were women. You couldn't vote unless you had property which means the interest of renters were rarely represented.

This is why the Constitution provides for a republic and not a democracy. Madison distanced the decision-making powers from the people after looking at how uppity we get when charged exorbitant prices or denied paper money. Madison wrote:

"In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place. If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. The Senate, therefore, ought to be this body."

It is obvious who the minority was, and Madison along with many of the Founding Fathers, didn't have any use for the functions of democracy with its system of discussion, proposal, counter-proposal, decision and dissent. They preferred an electoral college and representation of the remaining number of men who were allowed to participate in the system.

It took centuries of blood to enjoy the luxuries of today. The Bill of Rights set the standard and we have yet to achieve its ideals. A great companion to the Constitution is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The language of the Constitution may have been insincere but it remains a terrific destination. Remember, no piece of paper gave you your rights, no matter how many times you're told just that in the year to come.

See also:
A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"The language of the Constitution may have been insincere but it remains a terrific destination. Remember, no piece of paper gave you your rights, no matter how many times you're told just that in the year to come."

You are aware that the Constitution is a piece of paper that structures and codifies the Govt? It is the people's contract with the replaceable officials.

You didn't acknowledge as much so I had to be Mr. Obvious and point that out.

You are right on with the Land-Owner vote aspect of early America. Most today don't realize how just how many people then had no say in their governance.

As long as we keep electing "approved" candidates we'll never get to enjoy the fruits of the pursuit of the ideals embodied in the Constitution & Bill of Rights.