Civics Lesson

Judging from some of the rhetoric emanating from Washington DC, I think this would be a good time for a refresher about Civics and History.  No matter what your position is relative to the political divide the key element to remember is that this is a country of laws, not of men.  The country’s structure is based on a legal system that has been crafted through debate, compromise and, ultimately, consensus.  The country is not ruled by the whims of a monarch or even the transitory desires of the “majority.”  

If you’re under forty the chances that you received proper instruction in civics and history are seriously in doubt.  So we’ll go back to some of the basics about the founding of the country.  If this is repetitive for some of you please bear with me, I’ll do my best to keep it short.  This is a review worth the time and effort.

        “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

George Santayana

The Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution were written and ratified by men of great intellect and education.  They drew upon the greatest thinkers of the time, Locke, Montesquieu and others, to create a document that was radical relative to the historical tradition of monarchies and tyrants.  By signing the Declaration of Independence the signatories sealed their own death warrants.  If they had not prevailed in the war for independence from Great Britain their possessions and lands would have been confiscated, their families incarcerated and they themselves would have been hung as traitors.  For the sake of liberty they put everything on the line.

The framers of the Constitution never assumed that they had achieved perfection or that it could survive indefinitely without revision, so they built in the flexibility to respond to societal changes by means of a carefully considered amendment process requiring a high degree of consensus.  The wisdom of this was borne out by the fact that they immediately needed to amend the original document to achieve ratification by the states.

Were the framers angels incarnate?  Of course not.  They were human with all the frailties and fallibilities inherent to humanity.  Benjamin Franklin was a notorious womanizer, and he wasn’t alone in that.  A large number of the Founding Fathers were slave owners, they were all “White Men”, minorities and women took no direct participation in the process.  And while we may find this unacceptable by current moral imperatives, it is a mistake to judge the past through the evolving lens of the present.  Historical context is always important.

Many of the framers thought the finalized version of the Constitution was complete, that all the issues of concern were addressed directly or by implication.  But it never would have made it through the ratification process.  What many of the signers thought was a comprehensive document others thought failed to properly delineate certain rights and protections.  They knew what they wanted, and they needed to have it spelled out.  

This is how the first ten amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, came into existence.  Twelve amendments were proposed, ten were ratified.  These ten amendments embody the most important portion of the Constitution.

The Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation (1781) which attempted to perform much the same function, but was inadequate and ultimately failed.  Six years later The Constitution, with the Bill of Rights attached, was successful and formed the foundation for all laws relating to the Federal Government and a paradigm for the constitutions of the States.  Everyone, high and low, was to stand equally before it.

It’s important to remember that the Federal Government is an institution that was created by the states.  Each state is a sovereign entity, not a province or territory.  The Federal Government was not intended to be the all powerful central authority.  Its primary functions were to afford oversight and management of interstate trade and provide for the common defense.  The newly minted states needed to band together to defend themselves from the predatory great powers of the time, principally Great Britain.

The states sent representatives to Washington to advocate for their states and people and the country as a whole in the proper functions of the Federal Government, not to become part of a ruling class overarching and dictating to the entire Union.  Most in elected office have lost sight of this duty.

My intention here is not to do an in depth study of the Constitution.  It’s easy enough to read it for yourself.  It is not a large document, the language is fairly accessible even if somewhat antiquated.  If this stimulates additional interest there are any number of excellent books and commentaries on the subject.  The contemporaneous Federalist Papers provide perspective and amplification of the thinking behind the words of the Founders.  But there are some specifics that need to be touched on here.

The first amendment spoke directly to many of the issues that brought the colonists to the New World in the first place: free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of peaceable assembly and so on.  All of these things had been forbidden or seriously limited in their native lands.  The citizens of the new United States of America were not about to follow the European model.

Freedom of speech applies most specifically to political speech.  It gives all citizens the right to express their views.  It does not protect anyone from inciting a riot or, famously, shouting “fire” in a crowded theater.  The purpose, along with freedom of the press and peaceable assembly, was to promote the free exchange of ideas and encourage unfettered debate.  It does not ensure a “right to be heard” or favor any one side of an issue.  The remedy for “bad” speech and “bad” ideas is more speech and debate, not censorship.

The second amendment specifically addressed a single issue: the right of self defense.  It is remarkably succinct and clear to even some of its most vocal opponents.  It is one of the shortest amendments.  It could easily have been included in the first amendment but the founders felt it so important that it deserved to be specifically addressed.  It reads, in full:

A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free

State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be      infringed.

The right of the people to defend themselves and their own State was considered that essential.  It is important to emphasize that “State” here is not a reference to the Federal Government but to the individuals’ own sovereign states.  

We could go down the line amendment by amendment but that is not the purpose here.  Some amendments rectified inequalities that couldn’t be reasonably addressed at the founding, like slavery with the 13th and 14th amendments, or corrected government overreach like the 21st repealing Prohibition, or the 22nd limiting the presidency to two terms. This stands as clear proof that the basic structure is sound and the opportunity to make well considered adjustments is a mechanism that works. 

Some critics of the Constitution have referred to it as a list of negative rights.  This is both accurate and misleading.  In a sense it is negative in that its intent was to limit the power of government.  But, conversely, it is positive in the sense that it was intended to maximize the freedom of the individual.

Serious, if subtle, efforts to undermine the Constitution began almost before the ink was dry.  

When the 28th President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921), took office efforts to fundamentally restructure the Federal Government were well under way.  Wilson was a proponent of replacing our representative republic as constituted with a parliamentary system.  The legislative branch would be reduced to a debating society with the entrenched bureaucracy really in charge of the government.  Wilson thought the Constitution was an anachronism and quaint despite only being a little over a hundred years old at the time.

Today, many who are elected to federal offices only give lip service to their oath of office.  The oath requires them to adhere to and defend the U.S. Constitution.  It’s doubtful that they have even read it.  

These politicians take more of an a la carte approach, some provisions they like and some they don’t.  With their special vision they see things written between the lines in invisible ink that fulfill their personal preferences.  Provisions are applicable in some situations but not in others, depending on what individuals or groups might be involved.  If you are on the other side of the political divide some of your constitutional rights may be out of reach.    

There was a time when holding office was considered a duty and a privilege.  It wasn’t a vocation or a career.  It was a service you performed for your city, county, state or country.  Over time we have developed a “professional political class.”  Often times right out of school, commonly law school, they go from office to office, climbing the ladder of influence.  It’s not unusual for members of congress to have little or no experience in the private sector.  And yet they sit on committees, hold hearings and make pronouncements on subjects despite having  little practical knowledge, much less expertise.

Apparently there is a belief that holding office in the DC beltway automatically confers a level of intellect and wisdom beyond the grasp of the average citizen.  Outsized egos and arrogance are quick to follow.  The self-congratulatory echo chamber reaffirms their intellectual and moral “superiority”, they deem themselves the “Best and Brightest.”  From there it follows naturally that the citizenry as a whole is to be mollified, patronized and distracted with empty promises while they do their “important work.”  It devolves into a Bread and Circuses approach.  It’s possible to respect the office without respecting the office holder.  Perhaps it’s time to put their feet to the fire.

Comfort the troubled, and trouble the comfortable.

Dietrich Bonhoeff

Complacency was something the founding fathers were concerned about.  As much as they desired to return to their everyday lives they were too well aware that with the loss of revolutionary fervor the Federal Government could easily devolve into a despotic system.

The tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with 

the blood of patriots and tyrants.

Thomas Jefferson

In the throes of the revolutionary war Jefferson may well have meant this literally but it works metaphorically as well.  An informed and involved electorate is essential to the preservation of liberty and the defeat of tyranny.  This requires awareness, interest and a degree of dedication.  Freedom isn’t free.

Know who your representatives are.  Pay close attention to what they do and less to what they say.  Demand transparency as much as possible in all aspects of government.  Don’t assume an office holder knows what they’re doing, incumbency does not equal competency.  Turn over brings fresh eyes and perspectives to the process, entrenched incumbency leads to disconnection from the electorate.  Remind them that they serve the public and not the other way around.  And be especially aware of the Law of Unintended Consequences, there are no unmixed blessings.