A New Message: III. On The Constitution
JULY 01, 1976 by JACKSON PEMBERTON
This continues a series of articles in which the author draws upon the extensive collection of the thoughts of the Founding Fathers and lets them speak to us relative to the problems we face in the United States today.
There are those among you who heap fault upon your heads, and declare you derelict for your shallow knowledge of the basis and workings of your government. While it is true that you evidence a dangerous lack of understanding of those most significant principles of your own prosperity and political security, yet I shall not judge you, for I know not but that I myself might have had the same fault had I been born in your day. Had we enjoyed the peace and wealth you have now even in all your troubles, we may have slumbered as well as you. Then too, our condition was such that our choices were painfully clear; when we received the report that King George had said, "The die is cast, the colonies must submit or triumph", we recognized that as a clear declaration of war.
In your day, those who would draw honor and power to themselves have confused your minds with conflicting reports, inconsistent principles, and deliberate deception; all of which imbues you with a feeling of hopelessness and indifference. Nay, while I must admit your apathy, yet there is cause for it; which makes a declaration of guilt an uncertain pronouncement.
One matter is clear however: should you remain in your present condition; filled with discontent and disdain for your government, yet surrounded by the information and facilities needed to reform and restore it; and then go on about your lives with a halfhearted hope that things will somehow improve; then another time will reveal your guilt, and it will be said that you, with a little work could have discovered the technique of restoring a good, old government to its former brilliance, but you were too lazy to have the honor.
You have much reason to be discouraged, even frightened; but you have more to be confident. You are surrounded by troubles and problems, but your most crucial illness is the easiest to cure, and while it is virtually hidden from you, I see it before I recognize any other. You are ignorant!
You know neither the source nor the substance of your rights, but you know they are being violated. You do not know the proper bounds of your government’s operation, but you know it has gone beyond them. You do not know the foundation of a stable currency, but you know yours is floating out of your hands. You do not know the rules of free enterprise, but you know your businesses are being crippled. You do not know the correct principles of foreign trade and alliances, but you know you have been made the fool in your foreign affairs. You do not know the Constitution, but you know that when it was followed diligently, it rewarded you abundantly with peace and prosperity.
Yes, you are ignorant, and while it is understandable, yet the day of reasonable excuse is gone, for you are aware of your danger. It is the nature and extent of your trouble and the way out of it that still escapes you; but you will find to your delight, that only a little effort is required to rid yourselves of the ill effects of that deficiency which now dampens your spirits and clouds your minds. Only a little effort for such wonderful rewards! How a tiny lamp dispels a great darkness!
There is a feeling generally among you that the workings of government are extremely complicated and the guidance of it must be left to those who are well educated in the science of politics. That is a consequence of the vanity of those who would like you to worship their political wisdom, for they love to impress you with their vast intelligence, yet if they were but half so wise as they pretend, you would have no need to hear from me. The full truth of the matter is that the basic principles of liberty and free enterprise are simple; but these political pretenders have manipulated them so much, that they, more than anything else, have confused the issues, bewildered themselves, and entangled all of you in their shortsighted expediency programs.
We knew, even as you do today, what it was that we did not want in our government. We had had our fill and more of oppression on the one hand and anarchy on the other. The Almighty had thus trained us in the evils of both extremes through our experience with the tyranny of the Crown and the turmoil of the Articles of Confederation.
Oh, those were dark days! The colonies had struggled as partners and a real sense of unity had emerged from our common effort to secure our liberty, but in a few short years we were writing to one another in the discouraged tones of forlorn patriots who had discovered to their dismay and alarm that the nation was not at all prepared for its new freedom and that too little government was as despairing an evil as too much.
In those dismal days between the routing of the British and the launching of the Constitution, amidst a disastrous inflation and frightening civil turmoil, some of us assembled in Philadelphia in convention. As we were only getting under way, one of the delegates said that measures to alleviate existing conditions and repairs to current laws would be more acceptable to the people than any thoroughgoing actions. At that, the President of the Convention, Mr. Washington, arose and declared earnestly, "If, to please the people, we offer what we ourselves disapprove, how can we afterward defend our work? Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair; the event is in the hand of God." Thus he crystallized our desire to build a new government upon liberty and strength, and sent us on the long, toilsome task of creating a new national charter.
We determined to form a government which would at once be able to discharge its necessary functions, but which, even under the hands of ambitious and self-seeking men, would be virtually unable to encroach upon the native rights of the citizens. That we were successful is evidenced by the fact that it has required nearly a century for men of precisely that stamp to twist and violate that Constitution to bring you to your present condition of rising alarm. But I find still deeper satisfaction in the knowledge that in spite of the awesome control now wielded by your government, yet you have in the Constitution all the tools you require to bring it carefully down to its proper size and function, for that was one of our goals. We sought for a golden mean between anarchy and oppression, for contrivances which would give government its requisite authority, yet place fixed and enduring bounds upon the activities that men would seek to have it perform for their own selfish benefit.
It was toward that objective we strove in the miserable heat of the summer of 1786. For more than a month we expounded upon one principle after another with some contention and seeming little progress. Then, near the end of June, in the midst of a hotly contended issue, our eldest statesman made a speech which both shamed and inspired us.
Mr. Franklin said, "The small progress we have made after four or five weeks is, me thinks a melancholy proof of the imperfections of Human understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own want of political wisdom, since we have been running about in search of it in this situation, groping as it were in the dark to find political truth. How has it happened sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of Light to illuminate our understanding? I have lived, sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?"
Mr. Franklin proposed that a reverend be retained as chaplain for the Convention, but his motion could not pass as we had no funds. Nevertheless, the occasion served to bring us up short, and to cause us to recognize and to remember our dependence upon the Almighty. Had He not guided and inspired our generals? Was it not He who answered our prayers with the hurricane which demolished the French fleet in Boston harbor before the war had even begun?
Had not every step by which we had advanced been distinguished by some token of providential agency? How soon we forget!
From the day of Mr. Franklin’s observation forward, we were led to an understanding of the mechanisms necessary to the preservation of liberty under the effective but limited federal plan. In order to thwart the designs of self-seeking men, we set up three branches of government, each equal in power but separate in authority and function, and each with certain limited but effective sanctions upon the other two.
We reserved most of the powers of government to the states, thus dividing those powers and placing them as close as possible to the inspection and control of the people, for history had abundantly shown that centralization of power and tyranny were but different titles for the same monster. There was no question but that the plan was somewhat inefficient. We desired that, for we were well aware that the most efficient government is despotism. The deficiencies of decentralized government (which are not so extensive as your Tories would have you believe) is but a small price for the people to pay for control of their government.
It has been reported among you that we founded your government upon the emergencies of our day, and that our work was the conclusion of manifold compromises. While it is true that each of us brought our personal objectives and opinions to the Convention, we found that we agreed that most of those goals were not only worthy but necessary to the security of the nation.
There was great unity in our purpose; our compromise was between too much and too little government. The lengthy deliberations were not the result of disunity, but a meticulous searching for correct principles among governments from the most ancient to our own time. When we had finished our work a wonderful feeling of harmony and peace came over us; we knew we had been instruments in bringing a miracle into being.
Another head which deserves attention is the story that "the Constitution was designed for an eighteenth century agrarian society." That is a myth I now take pleasure to debunk!
The Constitution is based on three timeless truths. First, it is founded on the fact that it is necessary in a society, that the citizen must either control himself by his own moral self-discipline, or he must be restrained so that he cannot abuse his freedom. Second, it is the nature of man to seek recognition, then influence, and then power in his relationships to his fellows. Third, it is the nature of man to work untiringly for himself when he is confident in the usefulness of his effort. Those are the footings of the Constitution and there is nothing there that is either eighteenth century or agrarian! To say that we designed the national charter for an agricultural economy is to display a palpable desire to deceive (or a profound ignorance), for you will notice that those who promulgate that fable would replace constitutional principles with laws which would give them great authority over you. Thus do their words reveal their motives.
Nay, we founded the Constitution upon an exquisite recognition of one great decisive reality; human nature: a recognition of the dual disposition of man: his propensity for good and his capacity for evil. Our first and foremost consideration was to place the forces of human nature in a framework which would cause those forces to lift man, to protect and release his conscience, his will, his talents, and his noble desires, and at the same time would discourage and punish him in his vices. That this mechanism was successful is written in the glories of your history. I do not claim perfection for it, but I will justly assert that it is the most nearly perfect system for the elevation of man that has ever existed among governments.’
But let me explain those three footings of the Constitution a little more, for now we are at the very basis of good government.
First, it was abundantly clear to us that if the time should come when he citizens would turn from morality and good religion, they would also turn from freedom; for if man is to be free, he must control himself lest his society circumscribe his freedom to protect itself from his abuse. It was therefore our desire that religion should be thoroughly protected and even encouraged. That does not mean that we wanted any particular religious philosophy to have the advantage over another, but that the citizens’ rights to complete liberty of private and public belief and practice should in no way be infringed; for if those rights be trammeled by government, then it establishes the state philosophy of irreligion, which must signal the beginning of the demoralization of the people and the accompanying loss of liberty. I shall discuss this matter in greater detail when we examine the Bill of Rights. It will suffice to say here that we intended, through careful protection of religion, to secure the only enduring basis for freedom: individual morality and self-control.
Secondly, we set up the plan of government so that its powers were restricted, separated, and dispersed throughout the states in order to defeat the tendency of men to consolidate power and ordain themselves rulers over the people. Then we applied the checks and balances to set each branch of government as a watchman over the other two, and gave each certain prerogatives so as to place the ambition of self-aggrandizing men in opposition to the ambition of other similar men. Thus we placed human nature in control of human nature, and gave the states and the people the final determination, by ballot, of which men would be allowed to bring their natures into the government.
Finally, we recognized that man is most inclined to produce an abundance when his property rights are held inviolate. Man, by nature, will strive with great energy and innovation to improve himself, his circumstances, and his relationship to his neighbors, so long as he has confidence that he will be allowed to enjoy the fruits of his labors. But as soon as he loses that assurance, so soon will he begin to do as little as may scarcely suffice him. Our study of history testified that excessive taxation and regulation, an infringement of property rights, was ever the cause of slackening productivity, while the freest economies were the greatest source of plenty.
There you have founding principles of the most successful government on the records of civilizations, and they, in turn, are based upon that most crucial reality: human nature. That is the groundwork of the Republic; but in spite of all our careful effort, we knew that it was not sufficient to merely launch the ship of state correctly, it needed to be tended by an alert, informed, and jealous citizenry. But history, like nature, travels in cycles; both freedom and oppression contain the seeds of their own destruction. Our success has brought the security which put you to sleep.
Now, basking in the dimming brilliance of the lights of liberty, you have been neither vigilant nor informed, and only recently have you begun to realize the correctness of your rising jealousy for your rights. Let those feelings of jealousy well up within you and cause you to alert yourselves to your true condition.
Your executives have taken upon themselves to form foreign alliances and make domestic regulations without proper authority. They have violated your most fundamental law. Your judiciary has ignored the amending process and altered the meaning and intent of the Constitution they were sworn to defend. They have betrayed your most fundamental law. Your congress has been watchful, yet not of the encroachments of the other two branches, but for opportunity to gain influence by purchasing your favor with your own money. They have ignored your most fundamental law. And you —you seek for a remedy while it stares you in the face! You have lost the vision of your most fundamental law. Let me show you.
You call the national charter "the Constitution of the United States," and that simple phrase contains both the totality of your plight and the seeds of your salvation; for in those six words you reveal your feeling that both you and your law are subject to your government. You are not the slave of government at all, but because you think so, you may as well be! Nay! The Constitution is your servant and the master of your government. It is not the Constitution of the United States, it is the Constitution of the people, and for the United States! It is not only the law by which you are governed, it is the law by which you may govern your government! It is not the law by which highhanded politicians may impose their collective will upon you, it is for you to impose it upon them! It does not belong to the government, it belongs to you! It is yours! It is yours to enforce upon your government. It is yours to read to those self-wise do-gooders; and if you will hold it high in your hand, they will quail and flee before it like the cowardly knaves they are, while those who are your true friends will rejoice in your new commitment. And so may you divide the government goats from the statesmen sheep; but beware of the cunning deceit of those who pretend to serve you while they betray your trust. Civil government has always suffered the intrusions of self-seeking men, and while they may not always be detected, they may at least be controlled. And that is part of the miracle of the Constitution.
Yes, you bear a multiplicity of problems: usurpations, alterations, violations, centralizations, plundering of the rich, corruption of the poor, inequities in the courts, irresponsible economic policies, disastrous foreign stratagems, and on and on. It is overwhelming, bewildering, and discouraging; a disease seeming beyond remedy. It is clear that the individual citizen has no hope of discovering all the errors, to say nothing of forming and applying corrections. What can one man do?
Ah! There are miracles in the Constitution! There is wisdom in the Republic! It is not necessary that you understand all the intricacies of your regulatory agencies, your welfare bureaucracies, and all the legal vagaries. Only four things are required of you, and although each of them demands deliberate effort, they are easily within your reach and crucial to your political salvation:
· 1) See that you are a blessing to your society; furnish your own livelihood; associate only with that which is noble and uplifting; obey the law; give your government no excuse to make new laws or to infringe your rights.
· 2) Study the Constitution until you know its fundamentals in the spirit we intended; we were careful to an extreme, you will not be disappointed.
· 3) Seek out and elect wise, successful, honest, and most of all, humble men for officers; your system fails you because your politicians seek office, but the offices are yours to fill; therefore, you must seek out the men you desire to serve you. · 4) Watch your public servants, encourage them, counsel them, see that they understand the Constitution and keep the oath of their offices; when they show themselves approved, honor and trust them; above all, be charitable with them especially now while their burden is heavy. Only a part of them deserve your disdain.
You have every reason to take heart. The basics of good government are not difficult at all. We managed to acquire them in our day, and although we were the most educated men of our time, our knowledge was vastly inferior to yours (we only looked on the moon). Once you have gotten a comprehension of the fundamentals of free government, you will have a standard to which you may hold any of the proposals of your day and ascertain whether you ought to support or oppose them.
So simple it is! Have faith; act; and you will soon behold the miracle! Can you see that the Constitution we formed by the light of the divine lamps of liberty can save both you and itself? Is that not a miracle? It is a magnificent thing, our ship of state; but you must tend the rudder and mend the sails.
There are voices in the land even now which expand upon the vices of your government in order to defame the Constitution. The words go forth from those who fancy themselves worthy to rule you that you must drastically change it or even replace it if you are to survive the crises of your time. With what will you replace it? Our nation is still far and away the freest under heaven. Have you forgotten the source of so great a liberty? To whom will you turn for an improvement upon the inspiration of Almighty God? Do you know your own history?
When the government was held within its proper bounds by the chains of the Constitution our nation was the fulfillment of the vision of liberty that dwelt in the hearts of freedom-loving people in every quarter of the globe. Will you now continue your course from such freedom back to oppression? Will you cast aside that instrument which has given greater liberty to the hearts and hands of more of the children of God than any combination of times and governments you may please to conceive? A supreme act of folly at best; and a fall into the pits of despotism at worst! Nay! Away with that!
The nation has already come from under the hands of a tyrannical aristocracy into the light of liberty, and now drifts again into the clouds of oppression. Then listen together! Let the cry go up! Restore the Constitution! Restore the free exercise of the rights of the people! Reverse the drift! Put down again the anchor of liberty and fasten to it the ship of state by the chains of the Constitution! Let every man learn his duty and perform it with diligence!
Is there a cause more just, a goal more worthy, a need more dear, or a pastime more sweet than this; to bind up the wounds of the national charter, to reassert the natural rights of man, and to secure the blessings of liberty to yourselves and your posterity? You — my Sons of Liberty; ponder it in your hearts, speak of it in your gatherings, and pray for it in your secret chambers! Let the cry go forth throughout the land and echo across a world groaning and starving under the crush of tyrants: restore the rights of man!
Oh hear the voice of your Fathers! Rise up my people and lift up your heads! Come out of darkness into the rightful day of your glory. Secure and cherish the liberty wherewith we made you free! You are free; for we declared you free and bought your liberty with our blood!
Next: IV. On The Bill of Rights
1 This mechanism is rather like a ratchet and pawl wherein upward movement is completely free and downward movement is stopped by the pawl. The Constitution has thus resulted in the citizens lifting their society to unprecedented heights. Your upward progress has lately been seriously impeded, however, by the stifling effects of too much government (which discourages personal initiative in the citizens), and by the "liberation" of the baseness of man which even now is disengaging the pawl and allowing your civilization to slide, nearly unhindered, back down to the meanness and anarchy which resembles the uncultured, uneducated, and undisciplined tribes of primitive societies.
Out of the web of conflicts and contests of those years emerge the principles of liberty. They are, we may believe, enduring principles, not something invented by a generation of outstanding men. Indeed, the principles of liberty could probably be rediscovered by any man who would put his mind to the matter for long enough. But that is not necessary; they have long since been clearly discerned and written out. What distinguishes the Founders is that they were able to incorporate them into the fundamental laws of the land.
CLARENCE CARSON, from the book, The Rebirth of Liberty.