In recent years, many Americans have become refocused on the Constitution in a spirit of returning the country to its original objectives and values.
This is not surprising. The US has deteriorated, both economically and governmentally, to such a degree that the very structure of the US is in danger of collapse. Small wonder that many Americans are hoping for a return to the simplicity and unified focus that can be found in the country’s original “business plan.”
The framers of the American Constitution borrowed ideas from historical governmental structures, particularly the Roman Republic. They added a few new ideas and came up with a document that may well be the finest concept that has yet been written by which to govern a country.
It is difficult for us to grasp today that, at the time the new Republic was created, it was viewed by the rest of the world as an experiment. Not even the framers of the Constitution were convinced that the Republic would last. After all, the country was broke from having fought a major war, they had no currency of their own and none of them had previously held political office.
It has been stated that the Constitution is brilliant in its brevity; that it had not become bogged down in reams of detail. This is true. One only need look at the weighty Constitution of the European Union as an example of how not to write a constitution.
The implication of the simplicity of the Constitution is that the framers were fully in agreement on the basics, and, that they felt that the rest could be sorted out later by the Legislature. This is partly true – thankfully, the framers were not politicians and they did believe that simplicity was better. But the document is also brief because the committee of ten that wrote it disagreed so extensively on some basic concepts that it was difficult to get anything on paper that they could all accept.
They did agree that they would form a Republic and that it would be run by democracy. (Today, these words have, to some extent, lost their meaning. A republic is a form of government in which each citizen possesses stated rights… while democracy is only a means of governing, in which each citizen has an equal vote. The US is no longer a republic and it can be argued that it is no longer run by true democracy.)
From the beginning, the primary disagreement was the role of the Federal Government.
John Adams, who later found the Federalist Party and became the first Federalist president, argued that a strong central government was essential to hold the states together (at that time, the word “state” meant “country”). Jefferson disagreed, arguing that “That government governs best that governs least,” and sought to have as minimal a central government as possible. Jefferson later helped found the Democratic Republican Party and became the first Democratic Republican president. To a great degree, Jefferson won out backed by the Constitution’s principle author, James Madison, and others.
However controversial the founding concepts were, we assume today that once the Constitution had been signed, that was it, done deal. But this was not so. Almost immediately the various factions began to “interpret” the Constitution and even recommend amendments… each seeking to bend the Constitution into the direction that would allow him to achieve his personal goals for the union. (Does this sound familiar?)
From the start, Alexander Hamilton (first Secretary of the Treasury) sought to create taxation. When Jefferson admonished him by saying that they had just fought a war to end taxation by King George, Hamilton responded that this taxation was different, as they would be the recipients of the money, not the king. This event should remind us that in every country, in every era, there will always be those who adjust their ideals according to whether or not they themselves are in power. At that time, Hamilton also attempted to create the Bank of the United States — a federal bank.
To Americans today, Jefferson has emerged as the hero of the Constitution and deservedly so. As president, however, when he had the opportunity to purchase Louisiana for the bargain price of $15,000,000… he couldn’t resist. He had previously often argued that the central government should not make major expenditures and then pass the bill to the states. Yet at the time, the Louisiana Purchase was the greatest expenditure that had yet been considered by the Federal Government.
Jefferson made possible the western expansion of the US by making the purchase. But in doing so, he allowed future presidents to take on huge expenditures. Was he right to sacrifice his own principles in order to do so?
This trend continues today on a grand scale. Even the most conservative politicians have their pet projects they feel should be fully funded… while de-funding the projects of others. Tea partiers see themselves as the Jeffersons of today, fiercely arguing that church and state must remain separate. Yet they argue just as fiercely that gay marriage and abortion must be constrained — for moral reasons. They, too, ignore the Constitution when it does not support their pet issues.
Human nature dictates that while we may strive to agree on basic principles, as soon as we have agreed, we begin making exceptions. Human nature also dictates that power corrupts. In the early days of the union, Washington, Jefferson and even Adams believed that to accept public office when called upon was a duty… but… that having completed a term or two, it was time to return to the farm. Yet they all found that once having been in office, they were reluctant to leave.
So, where does this leave us today? Has nothing changed? Actually yes, there have been significant changes… each one for the worse.
First, beginning with John Quincy Adams, the concept of career politician has come into existence. Ideally, each candidate for office should have had an alternate career prior to running for office. At the very least, this would provide some objectivity. But career politicians generally have a very poor grasp of the real world, because they have never worked in it.
Second, the bureaucracy has become so ponderous that the bureaucracy itself routinely takes precedent over the best interests of the country in the present day, pork is still being seen as more important to legislators than a balanced budget.
Today’s politicians are seemingly divided into two camps – those new recruits who cry out for a return to the original Constitution document… and those who have been in office for a while and, who, almost to a man, choose to ignore its existence. I say “seemingly” because, generally, after a term or two the new recruits join the second group.
The US is now entering the greatest period of crisis since the creation of the union itself. What will be the fate of the Constitution? Will it be discarded? Will there be revolution?
I believe that the answer will be that the Constitution will remain… but will have ever-decreasing significance. The reasons are these: First, politicians of today no longer represent the voters. They represent those who pay for their campaigns. These groups are already in control of the country and, to them, the Constitution is irrelevant. Second, all Americans receive benefits of some kind from the federal government. (Yes, even the Tea-partiers.) They can wave the flag all they want, but when their pet entitlements are threatened, they will scream bloody murder. The fact that the entitlements are not allowed for in the Constitution will have little significance.
In the end, with or without electoral shakeups, with or without a second revolution, Americans will argue in favor of their own entitlements and against the entitlements of others.
This is not an issue that will reach a resolution. Just as in ancient Rome, once the republic had become watered down to the point of corruption on the one side, and entitlements on the other, the republic had run its course and the slow collapse began. Concurrently, the “barbarians” (the third-world of their day) took the lead both economically and governmentally and Rome became a backwater.
The writing of the American Constitution was a high-water mark in governmental history. Today, however, the truth is that not even those who profess to honor it would be prepared to make the sacrifice necessary to live by it. Just like the Romans before them who settled for “bread and circuses”, rather than economic recovery, Americans will choose the inevitable decline of their country rather than give up “entitlements.”