Friday, May 27, 2011

In Order To Defend It, Study It

It is encouraging that so many people have recently taken a renewed interest in the United States Constitution.  Even though many of these people have only taken a superficial interest, so far, I suspect that because they have recognized the value of the Constitution, many of them will now be receptive to information on it; presenting such information (with the help of the readers, who I hope will take an active interest and role in our studies) is the purpose of this site.

They are right to recognize the excellence and value of the Constitution.  This Constitution, including its amendments (which are a part of the Constitution, according to Article V. of the 1787 document), is more than a simple Charter of Liberties for the United States.  Beginning with rightful liberty as the rule, the Constitution states what are or ought to be the sole exceptions, where the federal government is concerned -- for what purposes it may exercise that traditional governmental power to ascertain the boundaries of our rightful freedom and other genuine rights, and to make or perfect rules where reason alone calls for them, but provides none.  The Constitution states the objects of Congress' legislative power, with the understanding (and then the rule, expressly stated) that only in these matters may the freedom of the people of the United States be impaired by the federal government, pursuant to a valid law passed by Congress; and that, then, other than to whatever extent the remaining freedom is limited by a state, the people, as individuals, are entitled not only to discrete, listed freedoms, but to their just freedom in its entirety.

(There is a problem with this system due to 1) federal overreach and 2) state overreach -- where the states are concerned, the established view is that state legislatures, like the United Kingdom's Parliament, are "omnipotent," and are entitled to make any law they wish that is not contrary to some provision of their state constitutions.  I understand why a court might shy away from striking down a statute on natural law grounds, but the courts certainly should not sanction and dignify the idea that a state legislature may freely command and abuse the citizens of the state other than where the framers of the state's constitution were far-sighted enough to guard against it.  No state, composed of free or sane people, would consent to every invasion and abuse, and every act against natural justice, that might be perpetrated by its government, with the only exceptions being those few which might be named in its constitution.  Nevertheless, the idea of a government with a few defined powers, with the balance of that power, in the form of freedom, belonging to individuals, is an excellent idea, and it is much more humane and just than the conception of rights as rare exceptions to a rule of governmental omnipotence, which must be explicitly and individually declared in a constitution in order to be recognized.)

To provide a few extra layers of security, of course, the Constitution does declare and protect certain rights -- not only in the Bill of Rights, but also in the body of the 1787 document and the later amendments -- and set certain procedures and requirements concerning the operation of the government.  It is remarkable, and perhaps unfortunate, that after about 220 years, this Constitution is still state-of-the-art in the world -- unfortunate, because the cause of this is the loss of the art of constitution-making, which the Founders advanced so greatly during their lifetimes.  (However, I intend for us to recover that art, here, together.)

It is important that we ensure that the Constitution is once again treated in practice -- as it is almost universally in theory -- as the paramount chapter of the Supreme Law of the Land.  To do this, we have to insist that it is interpreted accurately, beginning with and emphasizing the text of the document.  Though, in some cases, genuine questions may be raised concerning its meaning and effect, we must insist that any admissible interpretation be the plausible result of an honest attempt to discern what rule the makers of the provision in question believed they were making.  Anything less would be implausible and/or dishonest.

In addition to that, however, we have a duty to study and understand the origin of the Constitution and the elements of which it is composed.  Despite what many of its new defenders have claimed, the Constitution does not answer every question, nor is it a complete statement of principles.  It is the Supreme Law of the Land, and an instrument for instituting, organizing, and controlling a government.  Even if we were to follow the Constitution to the letter, it would still leave a great deal to our discretion.  The people who created the Constitution made certain assumptions about the nature of the law and the knowledge and beliefs of those who would administer government under the Constitution.  Fortunately, the body of knowledge that the Founders held in common is available to us -- particularly now, due to efforts to "digitize" old books, allowing us to download electronic versions of these books, which consist, in many cases, of the images of the very pages that John Adams, for example, read -- and that knowledge, and those tenets of philosophy and law without which the Constitution might be said to be incomplete, are ready to be recovered by us.  (Of course, this is not to say that our goal is to return to the late 18th century; to conserve is not to prevent all change, but rather to prevent good things from being casually discarded.  "Change is the means of our preservation.")

To succeed in this, much will be required of us.  Some of us already know a good deal about the Constitution, but there is more to be learned than any lone person would be likely to learn.  Others are rightly enthusiastic about the Constitution, but they do not know much about it, or else they know things that are not true.  (More than once, I have even come across people who have said that the 27th Amendment should be repealed.  This suggests to me that they do not know what the 27th Amendment is.)  Everyone who is genuinely interested in learning more about the Constitution and the best of the philosophy of the American Revolution, and who is not a troll, is welcome and encouraged to read, to comment, and to participate in our discussion.