Press "Enter" to skip to content

Down on the Ground with the Constitution

By George Sibley

At the coffee shop a few months back, one of the local Tea Partiers slapped a petition down on my table: “We want all government officials to adhere to the Constitution of the United States.”

Well – what’s to disagree with there? I signed it. But I was left with the uneasy feeling that I should have asked some questions first. Like, which government officials do you think are not adhering to the Constitution? What do you mean by “adhere”? Et cetera.

To the best of my knowledge that petition never went anywhere, but a month later, the same guy was petitioning to recall all of our County Commissioners – for, among other sins, not adhering to the Constitution. I didn’t sign that one.

Since then, I’ve heard a lot of people talking a lot about the Constitution – in ways that would have shocked and horrified most of the Founding Brothers. Invoking God in the same sentence with the Constitution? Calling it a Christian document? As though the Constitution was another book of the Bible, carried off Mt. Washington on stone tablets? Some of these people were running for public offices; some were even elected; others are stars in what passes for American media.

I got my introduction to the U.S. Constitution teaching a freshman interdisciplinary course at Western State College – “The American Experience.” Fortunately, we had an able mentor at Western for preparing to lead our freshman barbarians into it – Dr. Paul Lowdenschlager, a political scientist of a conservative bent for the best of reasons: he thought like James Madison.

Dr. Lowdenschlager believed that the best approach to understanding our Constitution was to look at the documents surrounding it, the written record of the Founding Brothers’ intentions and hopes. First among these documents were “The Federalist Papers” touting the Constitution, as well as the critiques that could be lumped together as “the anti-Federalist papers.” Then there were the letters, editorials, and the delivered and undelivered speeches that Constitutional scholars assembled around every Constitutional clause in a set of volumes, The Founders’ Constitution.

For those who want the Constitution to be part of their religion, the Founding Brothers’ surrounding discussions about it give their desire no more support than the Constitution itself – which never mentions God in the text, and pretty explicitly prohibits the establishment of a state religion in its first amendment. One realizes that whether God existed was not the issue for the Brothers. Their concern was the oppressive absence of godly behavior in states organized around “divine right” principles, and perhaps the absence of any recent evidence of heavenly intervention at all in the affairs of humankind.

There’s James Madison’s famous statement, for example, from Federalist Paper No. 51: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” But they were “framing a government to be administered by men over men,” and the absence of angels was an underlying assumption for the Founding Brothers. Centuries of “divine right” chicanery, inequity and abuse had driven most Americans of that day from the Old World to the New, and they weren’t about to accept that old pattern.

I realize, of course, that pointing out unassailable facts that contradict the “Religious Constitutionalists” is a waste of time. They don’t listen. But I wonder if the Constitution doesn’t get more reverence than the Founders would have wished, even from those of who don’t see God’s fingerprints on it – overly impressed by the way it rises majestically for brief viewings (not enough time to read it) in its regal setting at the National Archives. Back when it just a piece of paper courting adoption, some of the Founding Brothers were vigorously opposed to it. Patrick “Liberty or Death” Henry, for one Tea Partyish example, called its centralizing federalism “the most fatal plan that could possibly be conceived to enslave a free people.”

Today they might wish that we would look a little more searchingly at the two criteria that Madison set up in Federalist No. 51 for a successful “government administered by men over men. You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

I’m going to skip the first criteria there, to look (too briefly) at the second one, since that seems to be the one that has the “Constitution worshipers” most exercised today: obliging the government to control itself. The strategy of the Founding Brothers for addressing that – and they were as phobic about too much government as any Tea Partier – was to build enough checks and balances into and between its law-making, law-executing and law-evaluating entities so that those various branches would be able to exert control on each other. Thus, the government would “control itself.”

On occasion this has worked admirably; other times it has sort of worked. But since the recent turn of the century, we have seen, first, a strong president totally dominate and bully a weak legislature. And, in the process, convert the supreme judiciary into a reactionary rubber-stamp outfit for the foreseeable future. We watched that president lie us into a war, and drive our debt to record levels in order to create a plutocracy (government by, for, and of the wealthy – get used to that word).

Now, today, we are seeing a single strong party in the legislature thoroughly dominate a weak president and his party, in the process of further consolidating the plutocracy. That party speaks the talk of making the government control itself – less debt, less government. But its first action – even before being installed as a majority – is to force the weak president and opposition party into accepting a $900 billion expansion of the national debt? Whatever the plutocrats want.

Mr. Madison, your checks and balances are not working out so well in making the government control itself.

Madison’s most prescient observations on the other problem – the government controlling the governed, and vice versa – came in “Federalist No. 10,” a dissertation on the necessity for a “well-constructed” government to be able “to break and control the violence of faction.” There’s not space here to look at that, too, but we would find the same thing: the 18th-century strategy of the Founding Brothers is no longer working to “control the violence of faction” – as evidenced by the ascendance of an increasingly ruthless plutocracy.

The truth is – as the Founding Brothers themselves often observed – they were deeply invested in an experiment, and the magnitude of their undertaking is right up front in their preamble: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution.”

Consider the tensions and conflicts lurking in that “bucket list.” Martin Luther King Jr. and friends disrupted the “domestic tranquility” of the nation in order to better “establish justice.” That effort eventually worked out relatively well, as our slightly more perfect union evolved to somewhat more equitable levels of both domestic tranquility and justice. But there are other unresolved tensions: the “general welfare” of all the people has long been sacrificed to provide for an “uncommon defense” with an imperial global tone. And today we continue to sell out the “general welfare” in order to secure for rich and poor alike the blessed individual liberty to either get stinking rich or sleep on sidewalks, your choice. From that conflicted preamble to the often contradictory amendments, our Constitution is not a revelation from God, but the infrastructure for a perpetual national debate – which we can only have if we take it out of its glass case.

Personally, I think the question, as to whether we are evolved enough for “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” has not yet been conclusively answered in the American experience. And the current trend away from reason, away from reasonable accuracy in judgment, away from reasonable allowance for the beliefs of others, makes me despair for the experiment. And our Constitution only really helps us to the extent that we think of it as a working document – from men, not angels. There are dangers inherent in that, to be sure – but maybe more danger if reasonable people accord it more reverence than relevance.

“What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” Madison asked – and one has to wonder today, under the growing shadow of rage and incivility, if his dark view of human nature was dark enough.

George Sibley was born in Western Pennsylvania, but was conceived in Colorado by Colorado natives, and thus considers himself to be a native Coloradan.