On May 29th 1790, Rhode Island became the last of the original thirteen colonies to ratify the Constitution. It did so by the narrowest of margins, 34-32. The journey that began three years earlier in Philadelphia was finally coming to an end, and a new journey, spearheaded by the United States Constitution, was just beginning. The Constitution has been the bedrock of our body politic for more than 200 years. Since its inception however, its contents have been hotly debated and many a politician has, over the years, cursed its supreme power over our government.
Some Americans bristle at the idea of a 230 year old document setting the rules for policy-making in today’s world. Lawmakers attempt to bend and contort the language of the Constitution to fit their legislative demands. Activists write elaborate and emotional articles about its supposed faults, regaling stories about how things are done in other countries where there is no such document. Even federal judges openly regard the Constitution with little respect. Citizens are bombarded with public opinion polls about gun control and free speech, two of the most important aspects of the Constitution, asking them how they feel about the matters.
Luckily, the Constitution does not care about any of this.
The antique parchment constructed by men like James Madison and George Washington does not care about feelings or opinion, and for this fact, we should be thankful!
The obstructive nature of the Constitution is the key to its very brilliance. In Federalist numbers 18-20, 47, and 48, James Madison’s thorough investigation of other forms of government throughout history is clear. He discusses the pitfalls and benefits of direct democracy, republicanism, federalism, confederalism, checks and balances, and a whole host of other themes integral to building a strong, yet limited government. Madison knew that the passions of men would not allow them to lead unrestrained.
“The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.”
In choosing a layered structure filled with checks, balances, and divisions of power among the various branches of the federal government and the states, the founding fathers sought to create the ultimate protection against tyranny. Their vision was of a government that would, by definition, be managed by men and women of the highest quality and qualification, whose ultimate goal would be the protection of liberty, not the pursuit of power.
The hurdles laid out for the passage of legislation prevent lawmakers from threatening liberty. Bills must pass through both houses of Congress, be approved by the President, and withstand scrutiny by the Judicial Branch if challenged. In this way, the Constitution acts as a hindrance to reactionary legislation.
This is not at all to say that the Constitution is completely unmovable. Obviously, there is an amendment process, and for the most part the Constitution has grown in legitimacy and quality since its first draft. See amendments 13, 14, and 19 for specific examples.
There have been hiccups of course, (see the 18th Amendment) but the places where our country has faltered the most are the places where we have ignored it’s wisdom in favor of our own opinions on what is best, where the hurdles were seemingly too small to quell public demand for action, and where citizens and officials disregarded the sage advice from Mr. Madison. Three examples come to mind specifically:
- In 1942 President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans against their will for fears that they were not loyal to the United States during WWII. Shockingly, this action was ruled constitutional in Korematsu v. United States, 1944, although an ex parte ruling forced the internment to end in 1945.
- In 1858, Supreme Court Chief Justice William Taney ruled that a slave had no standing to sue in federal court in Dredd Scott v John FA Sanford. The majority opinion that Judge Taney delivered however, went two steps further in ruling that the federal government could not prevent slavery in the territories and that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. While ignoring his oath of office and trying to single handedly stave off a war, Taney inadvertently lit one of the matches that ignited the Civil War.
- From 1877-1965, the Jim Crow era showed yet again how cruel humanity could be. The idea of “separate but equal” is abhorrent today, but was the law until Brown v Board of Education desegregated schools in 1954 and other legislative action was taken over the next decade.
Our country is less than 75 years removed from the federal government rounding up its own citizens at gun point and putting them into guarded camps.
It is less than 65 years removed from school children of different colors not being able to drink from the same water fountain.
The warnings given by the founding fathers were right.
“Without liberty, law loses its nature and its name, and becomes oppression.”
– James Wilson.
Even the men and women sworn to protect the Constitution cannot always be trusted to do so and are subject to popular cultural thought. Opinions, both those of the general public and the private legislator cannot always be trusted. People are broken, they make bad decisions, and as such, the best protection is the Constitution- the timeless, emotion-free document, written to protect us from ourselves. When citizens curse it aloud, they need to take note that it is the very paper they are cursing that allows them to do so! Simply put, we must, as citizens, hold up the document as the key to the country’s successes and freedoms. When we hold laws to its rigid demands, liberty abounds. When we do not, liberty suffers.