Thursday, September 19, 2013

Constitution Day

Yesterday, in case you didn't know it -- and why would you, really, since virtually none of our Main Stream Media mentioned it and the federal government ignores it as well? -- was Constitution Day: the anniversary of the 1787 signing of the Constitution of the United States. I can't imagine a more appropriate day to celebrate with a federal holiday...but we don't have any such holiday, do we?

Just yesterday, Ace wrote as follows:

I didn't know this was a day, actually.

But now that I've heard "Constitution Day" I'm wondering why we don't make it an official holiday. Give the federal bureaucracy an extra day off (and maybe don't give them as big of raise in recognition for that).

And then citizens can privately lobby their employers to elevate Constitution Day to a "real holiday" and give them the day off.

Put it in August, a month with no holidays.

I know this is Symbolic but symbolic is not synonymous with "without effect." There is something to be said for elevating the Constitution higher in what might be termed the American Secular Pantheon. We essentially get days off to recognize the contributions of our Secular Saints (Washington, Lincoln, MLK, Jr., the signatories of the Declaration of Independence). And if we're recognizing the Saints of American Republican Democracy, we should also formally recognize their creed.

Our creed.

Plus, frankly, the liberals will hate it, and that's a useful lesson to them, because liberals have to start asking themselves, one of these days, when they went from celebrating the Constitution to despising it, and why they did so, and what that makes them now.

If we can't stick in another paid federal holiday -- Cannibalize Labor Day. Oh man would that set off a firestorm of dishonest argumentation. On one hand the Smart Set Liberals would attempt to denigrate the push for a Constitution Day by saying "this is all silly partisan symbolism aimed at validating a particular worldview" and in their next breath they'd scream about how we're destroying the Symbolism of Labor Day.

I always hate-laugh at that argument. With one fist they club you with the demeaning attack that you're basically mischievous and ill-mannered children too smitten with symbolic gestures. But with the fist they cling desperately to their own symbolic validations.

We don't have a well-publicized, publicly commemorated Constitution Day for a simple reason: our political elite doesn't want us peones thinking about the Constitution. Especially not the whys and wherefores thereof.

Sarah Palin suggested on Twitter that we commemorate the signing of the Constitution by reading the document. It's not a bad idea; quite a lot of Americans haven't done that even once. But quite a lot of Americans who have read it, perhaps many times, despise the document and wish it would vanish from our history.

What follows will be "previous work" for the great majority of the Gentle Readers of Liberty's Torch. It might be of some value to you even so; rephrasings of old ideas often lend them currency and refresh their power to persuade. Anyway, here I go.

The United States, such as it was before the ratification of the Constitution, was chartered under the Articles of Confederation, which were adopted by the Continental Congress in November, 1777 and came into effect with their ratification by Maryland in March, 1781. They remained in force until March, 1789, with the inauguration of George Washington as president under the newly ratified Constitution.

A close reading of the Articles reveals both virtues and flaws. Here's one of the greater virtues:

Article II.

Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.

Note the critical word expressly, which was unwisely omitted from the Tenth Amendment. And here's one of the critical flaws:

Article VIII.

All charges of war, and all other expenses that shall be incurred for the common defense or general welfare, and allowed by the United States in Congress assembled, shall be defrayed out of a common treasury, which shall be supplied by the several States in proportion to the value of all land within each State, granted or surveyed for any person, as such land and the buildings and improvements thereon shall be estimated according to such mode as the United States in Congress assembled, shall from time to time direct and appoint.

The taxes for paying that proportion shall be laid and levied by the authority and direction of the legislatures of the several States within the time agreed upon by the United States in Congress assembled.

This statement of Congress's "taxing power" neither created an enforceable obligation nor specified the matters for which Congress was authorized to tax. That was in part a consequence of a larger problem: the reluctance to create an executive, which would have control over a federal authority empowered to enforce the collection of taxes upon the states.

After the Revolutionary War had been won, it became clear that several provisions of the Articles, notably the provisions for discharging the war debt and for coining money, were unworkable by virtue of the Articles' omissions. Overall, the Articles had left the federal government too weak and the states too much independent sovereignty. That gave rise to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, though its original mission wasn't to create a new Constitution but to revise the Articles.

Numerous problems with the Articles moved the delegates to the Convention to "start from a clean sheet of parchment." They eventually imported many allocations of power, and many specific phrases, from the Articles, but they did so in a more structured fashion that emphasized their understanding of the nature and mechanics of government:

  • A government is expected to codify and revise laws (Legislative function);
  • And to enforce those laws (Executive function);
  • And to decide cases and controversies arising from those laws (Judicial function).

However, it was clear from recent history that to repose all three functions in a single, consolidated authority is a short road to tyranny. Absolute monarchs had possessed all three functions and had used them, with distressing frequency, to oppress and plunder their subjects. This gave rise to the principle of separation of powers, which was reflected in the allocation of authorities in the original Constitution.

The delegates, like other men of their time, were attached to their respective states both emotionally and on principle. Not only did they reject the idea of absorbing the states' governments wholly into a national government; they perceived an advantage in using the states to check whatever excesses might arise from the national government. Several provisions of the Constitution reflect that notion: the Senate; the state militias; and the limitation of funding for a standing army to no more than two years at a time. However, they also recognized that state governments are capable of oppressing their residents, which produced the several restrictions on the powers of the states in Article I.

The careful engineering of checks and balances, both among the branches of the federal government and between the federal and state governments, is how the Constitution uses structural and procedural provisions to limit the likelihood of a new, homegrown tyranny.

Many Americans were unsatisfied by the original Constitution. They distrusted a purely procedural approach to the guarantee of their liberty and property rights. That distrust underlay the drive for an explicit Bill of Rights, which would guarantee unambiguously the citizen's rights to his life, liberty, and property. Though the original, un-amended Constitution was ratified by all thirteen of the original states, the demand for the Bill of Rights was too strong to be ignored. After some contention over specifics, the Bill, consisting of the first ten Amendments to the Constitution, was composed and ratified in 1791.

The Bill of Rights expanded the principles that underlie the Constitution by adding substantive weight to its procedural aspects. In light of the Bill, the Constitution's procedures and allocations of authority could only be viewed as provisions for the preservation of liberty. It could not thereafter be taken as a license for a political elite to do whatever it pleased as long as it observed all the proper forms and procedures.

That having been said, there's an even deeper significance to the conjunction of the Bill of Rights to the Constitution that eludes all but the most thoughtful student:

Meaning cannot inhere in procedural matters.

This only becomes obvious to most persons after strictly procedural methods have been tried and failed. That's a striking indication of the depth of insight of the men who demanded that as ingenious as the Constitution's design for a national government was, it needed to be augmented with explicit guarantees of individuals' rights.

Tempora mutantur, and not all the changes have been good ones. Nevertheless America retains a fingernail grip on its Constitution and the principles it enshrines. That we have a Wannabe Tyrant in the White House, effectively unrestrained by Congress or the federal judiciary, is surely a terrible thing, but as Aristotle has told us, there is no loss without a corresponding gain. In this case, the gain is in the ever wider reaction against him and his conduct: the realization that there are absolute rights and wrongs; that the Republic was founded in recognition of those absolutes; and that no matter how seemingly good-hearted a politician may be, he must still be confined to the powers explicitly granted to the office he occupies.

Yes, read the Constitution, by all means. But reflect on it. Why was it deemed necessary to have a Constitution, or the Articles of Confederation that preceded it? Why wasn't it deemed enough to create a bunch of offices and set rules about elections, such that transitions of power might be accomplished nonviolently? Why, in particular, was the passion for a Bill of Rights too strong for Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists to beat it back?

In this connection, I can recommend two excellent books:

Read and reflect.

May God forever guard and guide these United States of America.


Weetabix said...

I'm in the middle of Albert Jay Nock's "Jefferson" right now.

Apparently when Jefferson came back from France in 1789, he was dismayed at the way politics were being conducted just two short years after the Constitution was adopted. The non-producing classes (bankers, mercantile interests, et al) were consolidating their political power to shear the producing classes (farmers, primarily).

Nock also comments on how the Constitution was additionally an economic instrument. I'm not sure I understand that fully yet. Must remember that Nock is pointedly anti-State.

I think Jefferson's prescriptions for constant vigilance and for revolution every 20 years are critical to the success of the Constitution. And a strong allegiance to the 2nd amendment.

Anonymous said...

interesting. My wall calendar refers to Sept 17th as "citizenship day", whatever that is, and it follows the 16th, referred to as "Independencia de Mexico".

Perhaps it would be better to celebrate the Articles of Confederation Day?
I view Article VIII not as a flaw, but as simple genius. How could one enter into an unwise war with no means to pay for same?

Clearly the Constitution was formed through conspiracy to re-install a system just overthrown. The country had been warned through the anti-federalist papers, warnings brushed off by the federalists as impossible, yet those warnings have proven to be correct. And here we are.

Russell said...

You elect a 3rd world politician to the highest office, you get a 3rd world government.

Question becomes how to survive him and his sycophants and how to start to undo the damage.

Tar and feathers in theory are always an interesting topic to discuss. For the analysts reading, we have no willpower to do such a thing, we have no desire except to sit on the couch and watch approved TV shows.