A Republic – 9.0 U. S. Constitution
“The existence of fundamental rights and the proper conduct of government ultimately depends on inner conviction – not a constitution”
There is a lot of stuff written about our constitution. It has become as much a myth as a document. That is good in a way because it truly is the wisest, best, governing document in the world and I will argue that point with anyone who is knowledgeable enough to do so.
However, please remember that the Declaration is the foundation. It holds the promise, the idea, and ideal of America. It is the guiding document. The Constitution just tries to put a system in place that will achieve that promise. Don’t confuse the system with the reason for it.
That is not to say that you should not study the Constitution. It sets up a brilliant system that uses human nature against itself to achieve a balance. This allows us to avoid having a few people in charge to boss everyone else around. The system that the Constitution sets up itself forces a balance in the society and keeps us in check. That perhaps is the most important thing to know about the Constitution. It is about controlling human nature more than it is about government. That is why it is just as current as if it was written yesterday. Our government may have changed, our ways may have changed, but basic human nature has not changed. It has not changed in the 4000 odd years of history that people have been able to discover. That is why our experimental government is so important. So far in history only humans have been able to control their baser nature by putting one (or a few) person (people) in charge of the rest to force everyone to be “good”. Trouble is, most of them became corrupted by their power owing to that same human nature. That in turn has lead us mostly to war and destruction. The American Dream is to end this practice, to be able to govern ourselves using reason and reflection. The goal is to build a civilization where all can follow their own paths back to their Creator with only minimum and necessary interference from the government that they themselves set up and watch over. The Constitution sets up a system that uses our own natures against ourselves to allow this to happen. That is its brilliance. That is why it is current to this day.
The Constitution, brilliant though it is, though should not be the focus of our civic education efforts for the majority of citizens. That should be how to work together in your local communities to come to agreement on the common good and how to elect and keep good representatives. This is your real job. The three keys to knowing if you are doing it well are:
1. If the people on Elm St. in your town can learn how to take down the old elm tree there without breaking up the fabric of the community.
2. If you are able to consistently elect people based on character and capability to run your town.
3. If you elect the best of these to higher office and watch them to make sure they remain grounded and unselfish.
The lawyers and other Constitution buffs will continue to have a field day with the Constitution, as they should. Luckily it is so brilliant that it continues to defy their efforts to mess it up. What is that old saying, ”God looks after fools, drunks, and the United States of America”? Please pray that God continues to do that and help as much as you can by doing your jobs as citizens.
Just to save you time and help you do your job, here are a few things you should know and remember about the Constitution:
1. It is about human nature, not government. That is why it is as good today as when it was written.
2. It is deliberately simple and general. That is so you can read and understand it. Please do that. Plus it makes it flexible enough to bend with time while not breaking.
3. It is much more than a legal document. You must understand the spirit in which it was written to use it well. This Constitution sets up a great experiment in human government. You are part of that experiment. It is brilliant, but will work much better if you work with it and with your fellow citizens. It will be a huge step forward for humanity if it can be made to work right. Do your job knowing that all future humanity is depending on you.
4. It requires you to be able to compromise and harmonize your differences to come to reasonable decisions for the common good. At the local level you do this directly in concert with people you know whom you elected to serve you. At the higher levels you pick people who have worked well at the local level and let them make it work at the higher level.
5. The Congress is the greater among equals. They are supposed to set domestic policy and the President carries it out. They are responsible for your economy and your commerce, and your transportation, etc, not the President. By the way, they do make laws so it makes sense that you should elect some lawyers to Congress. But should all representatives be lawyers?
6. We put way too much faith and responsibility on the President. The President is not the ruler. You are through the Congress. The Congress is the greater among equals. They are like a board of directors setting policy and direction for the country. The President is only supposed to go in that direction and make those policies work. He/She is, however, responsible for the military and foreign policy. So you should try to elect Presidents who are good in these areas. It was OK to elect anyone when the USA was a small and isolated nation, but now it is a world leader. Try to elect good world leaders as President.
7. Judges should be independent in order to be a good check and balance on the legislature and protect minority rights. However there is a fine line between interpreting law and making law. They are NOT supposed to make law.
8. The Constitution separates religion and state, not God and state. The specific clause that does this says, “… no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States” It was put there to prevent the establishment, official or not, of a state religion. These had proved to be big problems in the past. If you read the Declaration, God is very much there. It seems clear that the Founders meant for God to rule this country through his people, its citizens, regardless of their religion. If there is only one God, there are only one people. The United States exists to unite people not separate them.
9. The Constitution gives you a number of extremely valuable rights that you should defend and keep. Just remember that for every right there is a responsibility. Democracy is about growing up. Growing up is about being responsible for yourself. When you get your own place for the first time you find it is really great. But you also find that you are then responsible for keeping it clean. When you get freedom of speech, religion, whatever, it is the same thing (See Chap 10).
That does not mean you should not read and be familiar with your Constitution. It is deliberately short so you can do that. But, if you want to do that, first get the principles of the Declaration firm in your mind. It is the founding document. The Constitution seeks to put it into effect. Then see in general how the Constitution works and why.
This is what you need to do as citizens, because as Jefferson says it is this inner conviction, mythical or not, that really counts in the long run. Try to separate the myth from the truth. As I said earlier I was amazed when I found out the truth about our country instead of the myths I was taught. The truth is much better.
There are lots of books you can get in your library that do this very well. Many new books have recently been written that tell this truth. I have a little list of some that have been helpful to me in the back of this book just as some suggestions for you. It is by no means complete. There have been hundreds of books written about the Constitution. Most of them are very good. Read as many as you wish. The story of our country and why and how it was formed is fascinating. As I said the truth is much better than the myth. So read all about your country and your constitution in any book you want to your hearts content.
For those who do wish to do some serious study about the Constitution, I recommend a book called “The Federalist Papers”. This book along with Aristotle’s “Politics” contains the philosophic and scientific basis of the American form of democracy, which is still quite different from most other forms of democracy found in the world. In it the Founders themselves outline exactly why they did what they did. They wrote it to explain to the American people of the day why they should vote for this Constitution. Since this Constitution has changed very little it is still valid. It is not easy reading because these men were highly educated and had to write to communicate. There were no telephones so they had to write many letters a day. Their writing is very good, but very complex by modern standards. Nonetheless, in my view, it should be required in every college and university political science course in the world that wants to teach about the American form of modern democracy. To those who feel so inclined, I say, “go for it”.
The other biggest thing about the Constitution you should know is that you have job called citizen. It is the highest and most important job under the Constitution. You should learn to do it well and do it regularly.