Yesterday a friend of mine posed a question on Facebook that I would like to now pose to you: “Is our Constitution dead? Who killed it; the politicians who don’t honor it or the people who don’t know it?” I wonder how many reading this got a sudden twinge of discomfort when they read that? If I might perchance make a guess, I’d say that might be your conscience’s talking to you.
You know, I think deep down inside people know that, for the most part, they are ignorant. However, I also think they have hidden that truth from themselves under piles of useless trivia and the fact that every four years they pay a bit of attention during the election process that selects who will become the next president.
The other day, my better judgment failed me and I asked someone at work a question. This person was wearing a hooded sweatshirt that said California Republic on it, so I asked him if he knew what a Republic was. His answer was, and I apologize if the words offend you, “Fuck you man, I don’t have time for this shit; I don’t know and I don’t care.” Well, at least he was honest.
The thing is, these same people would become quite upset if you even suggested they not be allowed to vote until they had obtained a fuller understanding of how our system of government is designed and the powers that were given it. You’re trying to take away my rights they would cry; never realizing that every right comes attached to the responsibility to exercise it wisely.
After all, you have the right to drive a motor vehicle, don’t you? But you can’t just hop in a car at age 16 and start cruising around; you have to prove that you are knowledgeable about the rules of the road before you are given a drivers license. Why should voting be any different; why should you not be required to prove that you have a working knowledge of the Constitution and Bill of Rights before you are allowed to vote?
I want you to read three quotes; all by former Presidents’ one you’ve most likely heard me use, the other two, maybe not. The first is from James Madison and it comes from a letter he wrote to W. T. Barry in 1822, “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps, both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” The second comes from John Quincy Adams, “Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.”The final one comes from Theodore Roosevelt’s autobiography, “A vote is like a rifle; its usefulness depends upon the character of the user.”
I know some of my readers are far more educated than I am, but to those who aren’t; do those quotes cause you to feel even the smallest amount of guilt? They should, for they strike at the answer to the question I posed to you at the very beginning of this article.
A great deal of the blame for the ignorance of the people of this country can be laid at the feet of those who go around calling themselves educators; for they fail to heed the words of our nation’s first real educator, Noah Webster, “But every child in America should be acquainted with his own country. He should read books that furnish him with ideas that will be useful to him in life and practice. As soon as he opens his lips, he should rehearse the history of his own country; he should lisp the praise of liberty, and of those illustrious heroes and statesmen, who have wrought a revolution in her favor.
A selection of essays, respecting the settlement and geography of America; the history of the late revolution and of the most remarkable characters and events that distinguished it, and a compendium of the principles of the federal and provincial governments, should be the principal school book in the United States.”
Yet the fault isn’t theirs alone to bear, it also lies with parents who do not care that their children are not being given a comprehensive understanding of our nation’s history and a working knowledge of its system of government. Let’s face it, children have always represented the future of their parents, and if the parents don’t care if their future is based upon sound principles and a certain amount of virtue and integrity, then whose fault is it if the world implodes when their kids take control of things?
You certainly can’t blame it on the kids; for they are only going by what they’ve been taught. You can blame the educators for lying to them about things, but in truth the fault lies with the parents who didn’t raise their voices in protest against the lies their kids were taught, and demand that those teaching them give them a thorough and comprehensive education.
I may not have been the best parent in that regard, so I’m not without a certain amount of blame in that regard. But I can say that I attended every Open House and I made sure I spoke to each of my son’s teachers about my thoughts on the curriculum they intended to pursue. In fact, when my son was beginning his 8th year in the Public Fool System I had a lengthy conversation with his Civics teacher about the things I thought they should be discussing during the semester. At the end of the conversation he told me something I found quite shocking; he said, “You know, you should be teaching this class; for it’s obvious you know far more about the subject than I do.”
While I found that to be a compliment as it pertains to what I’d learned over the course of my own studies, I also found it disturbing that a parent was more knowledgeable about a subject than the teacher whose job is to ensure our children leave his classroom at the end of the school year with a thorough understanding of the subject they were taught. How can that happen if the instructor does not have a thorough understanding? How can that happen when school boards and district supervisors get involved in deciding the curriculum; what is to be taught and what is to be disregarded?
Simple answer, it can’t. It’s up to us as parents to fill the gaps and to set our children straight as to the facts. And how can we do that if we ourselves are not thoroughly educated on the subjects?
One could begin by sitting down in a quiet area and reading the Constitution; see what it says and then ask themselves if it even begins to describe the government we have today. But if the Constitution is one thing, it is a document that is subject to the interpretation of those who read it. After all, that is how the first political parties came into existence; over differing beliefs as to the extent of powers given the government by that very document.
One could read the Federalist Papers, but one would have to realize that they were not written as the definitive explanation of our system of government; they were a marketing tool to get the people of New York to vote in favor of ratification. Trusting the authors of the Federalist Papers is like trusting a used car salesman to tell you about the defects in a car he is trying to sell you.
One could attempt to read Joseph Story’s monstrous book Commentaries on the Constitution, but once again that is just one man’s opinion on it; and a Supreme Court Justice nonetheless. I’d say there was a certain amount of conflict of interest in having a Supreme Court Justice expound on the meaning of the document which granted him the position he held in our government. After all, Thomas Jefferson did say this about the Supreme Court, “The judiciary of the United States is the subtle corps of sappers and miners constantly working under ground to undermine the foundations of our confederated fabric. They are construing our constitution from a co-ordination of a general and special government to a general and supreme one alone.” So again, that may not be your best source if you want to know what the Constitution actually means.
One could read Madison’s Notes on the Constitutional Convention if they were so inclined. But then they would have to realize that Madison was the driving force which led the delegates to that convention to overstep their delegated authority by scrapping the Articles of Confederation and writing an entirely new document which created a wholly different form of government. Then there is the fact that Madison’s notes were not released until after his death, and it is said that he constantly revised them to make himself look good for historians who would later write about those events. So, even Madison’s notes may not be the best source for finding out what the Constitution means.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t read those things, I’m just saying that if you do, you should keep in mind the purposes for which they were written and the mindset of those who wrote them. I have all of them on my bookshelf, and I’ve read them all more than once; in fact the binding on my copy of the Federalist Papers is becoming worn out from frequent use, and I may have to replace it soon.
So if those aren’t the best sources for one to discern the meaning of the Constitution, what is? Well, before I answer that, I need to expound upon what the Constitution meant back in the time it was ratified. The constitution, in 1787 was merely a proposal for a new system of government; it held no legal authority to bind anyone. That came after it had been given life by the consent of the people in the various State Ratification Assemblies.
If you really truly want to know what the Constitution means, you have to know what it meant to those who were directly involved in ratifying it. They were the ones who agreed to it, so to understand what the constitution means you have to know what it meant to them; not what it means to anyone after its ratification.
I have idea what people think happened back in 1787. Do they think the Constitution was written, and then a week or so later it simply went into effect and our government was born? Do they not realize that the debate over its ratification lasted for more than a year? Do they not know that there were a great many prominent men who opposed its ratification…for various reasons? Do they not know that subterfuge was frequently used; especially in the early ratification assemblies? Do they not know that many a prominent newsman supported its ratification, and therefore would not allow any dissenting views to be printed in their newspapers? Do they not know that in Albany, New York, protesters took to the streets and burnt copies of the proposed constitution because they feared the government it created would end up destroying their liberty?
In the period between the final writing of the Constitution and its ratification in 1789, it was the subject of discussion throughout the States; it was discussed at home, at work, and in the taverns and pubs where people congregated to enjoy a few adult beverages. Nowadays you can hardly get someone to devote 5 minutes of their time to a discussion of what it says.
Yet if you really do want to know what the Constitution means, then you are going to have to seek out what was said in the various State Ratification Assemblies; both for and against it. Only then can you see whether those who supported its ratification were correct in their beliefs that our liberty would be secure under the system of government it proposed, or if those who opposed it were correct in their fears of the dangers it posed to our liberty.
Even James Madison, who it could be said about that the Constitution was his baby, later said, “…Whatever veneration might be entertained for the body of men who formed our constitution, the sense of that body could never be regarded as the oracular guide in … expounding the Constitution. As the instrument came from them, it was nothing more than the draught of a plan, nothing but a dead letter, until life and validity were breathed into it, by the voice of the people, speaking through the several state conventions. If we were to look, therefore, for the meaning of the instrument, beyond the face of the instrument, we must not look for it in the general convention, but in the state conventions, which accepted and ratified the constitution.” (Source: Speech in Congress, 6 April, 1796)
Is what I’m asking you to do a lot of work; does it take a lot of time; and does it ask you to use your mind beyond what you’re used to using it for? Of course it does, it has taken me almost 20 yrs to get to where I am now; and I’m not where I want to be yet. But if you want to be informed that is the price you must pay; otherwise you may as well get a tattoo on your forehead that reads: I’m an ignoramus and I vote anyways.