Most of us love our country. Why is this? Why do we love America? We love the story of the Pilgrims and, later, Paul Revere and the American Revolution. We love that our Founding Fathers, who wrote our Constitution, were so smart and well educated and gave us a Constitution that has protected so many of our freedoms. We love the great American spirit of equal justice, equal rights, and equal opportunity for a better life. We are saddened by the wars whose battlefields have killed so many innocent people. But we love that we won, that we remained secure in our freedoms, and that our citizens had the creative genius to invent and produce those things that have made us stronger than our enemies.
We know now that the love we have for all of these things had a beginning and a reason. Can we say what it is? Can we write it down? Can we explain it to our children? Do we explain it to our children?
I read Professor Paul Woodruff’s Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue (2001), which quotes from Protagoras, a great pre-Socratic thinker:
Whenever they gathered into groups [early human beings] would do wrong to each other because they did not yet have the knowledge of how to form society. As a result they would scatter again and perish. And so Zeus, fearing that our whole species would be wiped out, sent Hermes to bring reverence and justice to human beings, in order that these two would adorn society and bind people together in friendship. Plato’s Protagoras, 322 c.
Before reverence and justice were distributed, ancient cities were battlefields. Without reverence and justice today, our nation will become a battlefield. The challenge is to rekindle reverence and justice by restoring faith in the people and to replace our current politicians with statesmen who put freedom, reverence, justice, and the best interests of the whole country first and their ambitions last.
Today, we are engaged on a battlefield of ideas. It is a battlefield whose outcome is freedom or tyranny. Our elected representatives in Washington have allowed their love of power to displace their love of country and to diminish the wisdom of the people. Our interests are not being protected. The result is that the checks and balances given to us by our Founding Fathers have become ineffective. The competing interests in our pluralistic society are fueled more by the flaws of human nature than love for our country. Our leaders have deluded us and try to convince us we can sustain ourselves by spending more than we make and that federal planners are more knowledgeable about where we live and what is good for us than local citizens. Businesses are portrayed as the bad guys, even though they are really just us. We should not forget that. We are the workers. We have chosen a system that allows smart and educated leaders who know what they are doing to run the businesses and that encourages financiers to supply the money. We do this because we trust them to perform and provide benefits for us greater than could be obtained from any other system.
This system has made America the greatest engine of production in the world and lifted the standard of living for everyone. Yet, the federal government makes our businesses look bad and, because of the immoral deeds of a few who gain headline notoriety, imposes regulations on all of our businesses, thereby slowing down the great engine of production by making it go uphill. These regulations reinforce an illusion mentality that business is bad and government is good. What is required is balance, which is decided by the people, who can choose to buy or not to buy. No one person, committee, or government can define and achieve the optimum balance necessary to keep our production engine running smoothly without consuming our freedoms. Our freedom to choose is the best regulator, but government is also necessary to prevent fraud and other injuries in appropriate cases.
On this battlefield of ideas, there are many persons competing to be our leaders. Some say they are Democrats or Republicans. Others say they are progressives or liberals or conservatives or neo-conservatives. Yet, nobody but the intellectuals have much of an idea what these terms mean. And whatever each of them stands for likely has some good and some bad. So, waging the contest on a battlefield of nomenclatures is not likely to do much good. I realized this in 1977.
December, 1977, was the two hundredth anniversary of the Revolutionary Army’s encampment at Valley Forge. Reports in the paper at the time caused me to pause and reflect on our country and its history. I remembered my dad telling me once that he was summoned for jury duty, and every time someone offered an excuse to get out of it, the judge would say, “Remember the frozen feet at Valley Forge,” and the complainants would then sulk back and perform their duty.
I decided not to complain but to do something. I ran for office several times but was not successful. However, the experience did give me an incentive to learn and to use what I had learned as an architect would do, to fix our country by working on its systems and not competing for authority to exercise the powers they provide or taking the systems for granted.
In 1982 I wrote a business plan for Campaign Constitution, which was not much different than the one I have now. Yet, I could not interest anyone in helping me push this campaign along. I set it aside and went back to being a worker like everyone else. Even so, I continued to collect every idea that crossed my desk on how our Constitution could be improved by amendments and continued to give the subject the benefit of my own thinking.
In the meantime I grew more and more frustrated with our leaders. I remember listening to presidential debates in 1992 between George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. In two lengthy debates I heard three offhand references to the word “freedom.” In other words, the most important word we have in the governance of our affairs was largely taken for granted, with no comments or questions on the impact any of their ideas might have on our freedom. And if that was true, then the Constitution itself likely was also taken for granted. Twenty years later, we now hear the word “freedom” more often, but it is asserted with little determination.
During the past thirty years the issue in the competition for power has always been how much the government could do for us. It was not about acting on Abe Lincoln’s injunction that we should help those who cannot help themselves or defending our country, but how we could have a universal system of social justice that would benefit everyone and, since it was universal, justify taxing everyone. Yet, the actuarial discipline that keeps insurance companies solvent was not a discipline of the federal government as our large national debt now affirms.
So, what was I to do? I could join the ranks of those who take freedom for granted. Or those who hope everything will work out fine. Or those who are resigned to accept whatever may come. Or I could dust off my Campaign Constitution plan and do something about a broken system that few of our leaders address. I decided to do that and allay the fears of those who worry that they or their progeny will someday be like Shukhov, who, while in a Russian labor camp, said that guessing how the authorities would next “twist the law” to extend his sentence was like “pitch-forking water.”
What follows is my proposal to fix the system by reforming the Constitution. If you share even a few of the ideas here set forth, I hope you will roll up your sleeves and work on your state legislators to make the changes we so desperately need.
In 1987, Americans celebrated the bicentennial, or 200th anniversary, of the signing of the Constitution of the United States. This document, which has served as "the Supreme Law of the Land" for more than two centuries, is the world's oldest written constitution still in use.
The United States Constitution is a system of basic laws and principles that defines the rights of American citizens and sets limits on what the government can and cannot do. It provides the framework for the federal (national) government and establishes a system of federalism, by which responsibilities are divided between the national government and the states' governments.
One of the important principles on which the Constitution is based is the separation of powers, which divides power between the three separate branches of the federal government. The legislative branch (represented by Congress) has the power to create laws; the executive branch (represented by the president and his advisers) has the power to enforce laws; and the judicial branch (represented by the Supreme Court and other federal courts) has the power to dismiss or reverse laws that it determines are "unconstitutional."
Why the Constitution Was Written
When the United States won its independence from England in 1781, a majority of Americans felt a stronger allegiance to their individual states than to their new country. Most people did not wish to create a strong national government, far away from their homes, over which they felt they would have little or no control -- they had just fought a long and bitter war to free themselves from such a government. In response to these suspicions, leaders organized the new American government according to a document known as the Articles of Confederation. The Articles gave each state a great deal of independence and represented little more than a league of friendship between them.
The main purpose of the Articles was to establish a system by which the states could co-operate if they needed to defend themselves against a foreign enemy. The Articles established a Congress that could raise an army and a navy, but only when the states gave permission. Congress also had the authority to issue and borrow money and to handle foreign and Indian affairs. Congress could also pass laws, yet it did not have the power to make the states obey them. Nor was it able to control citizen uprisings, such as Shays' Rebellion, which occurred from 1786 to 1787. Farmers in western Massachusetts staged violent protests against their state government. As a result of this and other similar revolts, many people began to feel that a stronger national government might be necessary after all.
In 1786 leaders in Virginia passed a resolution calling for delegates from the 13 states to meet in Annapolis, Maryland, to discuss the nation's problems. Their goal was to amend (change) the Articles to make the national government more effective. But only twelve representatives from five states attended this Annapolis Convention, so they resolved to call another meeting the following year.
The Constitutional Convention
On May 14, 1787, delegates from twelve of the states (all except Rhode Island) began to gather in Philadelphia, and the Constitutional Convention opened in Independence Hall on May 25th. In attendance were many remarkably talented scholars, philosophers, war leaders, and politicians. Alexander Hamilton, representing New York, was largely responsible for arranging the Constitutional Convention. Benjamin Franklin, representing Pennsylvania, freely offered the incomparable wisdom of his 81 years. Gouverneur Morris, also from Pennsylvania, headed up the committee that actually wrote the Constitution. George Washington, from Virginia, took the chair as president of the convention. And James Madison, also from Virginia, earned the nickname "Father of the Constitution" because time and again his brilliant ideas and tireless energy kept the convention moving toward its goal.
Almost immediately after the convention opened, a struggle developed between the delegates of the large and small states as to what form the new government should take. The more populous states supported the Virginia Plan, which proposed that representation within the government should be based on the size of a state's population. The plan was designed to give states with large populations a proportionately large share of decision-making power. Less populous states, however, supported the New Jersey Plan, by which every state, regardless of size, would have the same representation within the government.
The convention came to a standstill until the delegates from Connecticut devised an ingenious way to settle the dispute. The Connecticut Compromise (also known as the Great Compromise) called for the creation of a bicameral (two-house) legislature, or Congress. One of the two houses of the new Congress (the House of Representatives) would be elected according to the states' relative populations. The other house (the Senate) would give equal voice to each state no matter what its size. Once this breakthrough had occurred, the delegates agreed more readily on most of the remaining issues.
On September 17, 1787, the Constitution was signed by 39 of the original 55 delegates. Several had left the convention altogether. Three others — Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts and George Mason and Edmund Randolph of Virginia — refused to sign because they lacked confidence in the document's ability to rule the nation. But although no one realized it at the time, the document the delegates signed that day not only gave rise to the government of a new nation, but became a symbol of hope for oppressed peoples all over the world.
Ratifying the Constitution
The Constitution was signed by most of the delegates who created it. Yet the task still remained for the states' governments to approve it. The Constitution itself specified that 9 of the 13 states would have to ratify the document before it could become effective.
Delaware had the honor of being the first state to approve the Constitution on December 7, 1787. But the remaining drive for ratification was far from easy. In three of the largest states — Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia — the contest was close. And the founders knew that the new government would have no chance of succeeding without the support of these large states. So they mounted a campaign in defense of the Constitution by publishing a series of essays in New York newspapers. These essays, which came to be known as The Federalist, were written under the name Publius, a pen name adopted by the authors James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay.
People who opposed the Constitution, known as anti-federalists, launched a campaign to defeat ratification, believing the Constitution would make the national government too powerful. But mostly they objected that the document did not contain a bill of rights, which would guarantee citizens certain privileges that the government could never take away from them. Anti-federalists published their own series of essays, under such pen names as Brutus, to discourage ratification.
In response to the opposition, John Hancock at the Massachusetts ratifying convention proposed that a bill of rights be added as the first group of amendments to the Constitution. Ratification in Massachusetts and almost all the rest of the uncommitted states depended on the understanding that adopting a bill of rights would be the new government's first order of business.
On June 21, 1788, the Constitution went into effect when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the document. New York and Virginia followed suit soon thereafter, thus ensuring the new government would have the support it needed to succeed.
Amending the Constitution
The first Congress to conduct business under the authority of the new Constitution met in New York City on March 4, 1789. The issue of a bill of rights was proposed at once, and the new government began following constitutional procedures to change, or amend, the document. According to the Constitution itself, amendments must be approved by at least two thirds of the members of each house of Congress and by three quarters of the states. (There is also an alternate amendment process that has never been used.)
In 1791, the first ten amendments, collectively known as the Bill of Rights, were added to the Constitution. These ten amendments define and protect the rights of the American people. Each of the 16 amendments that followed over the course of the next two centuries reflects, in its own way, the needs and desires of the ever-changing American society. The power to amend the Constitution is the primary reason the document has been able to survive the turbulent changes throughout the past two hundred years.
L. Sandy Maisel
Professor of Government
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