Constitution Day 2012: Read the Manual for Self-Government

You’ve seen U.S. Senators brandishing the little booklet, like some octogenarian Red Guards. After several years of trying, the late Sen. Richard Byrd (D-Va.) got a law passed creating a new Federal holiday and mandating a special curriculum for all public schools in the United States to mark the birthday of the document.

The law establishes Sept. 17 as U.S. Constitution Day and requires all schools receiving Federal funds and all Federal agencies to provide materials about the Constitution. Or rather, to study what the ruling political class promotes as their interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.

Fortunately, the law has no enforcement power, nor does it allocate any money for the project. Libertarians nevertheless point out the law itself is unconstitutional, since no where in the Constitution is Congress given the authority to mandate school curriculum.

“There’s irony in using an unconstitutional measure to promote Constitution Day,” said Roger Pilon, vice president for legal affairs at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington.

It’s no surprise Congress would pass a law it has no authority to do. Politicians have been ignoring the Constitution for much of its 226 year history. How else could they justify telling you how much water you can have in your toilet bowl tank?

The next time you’re writing your Congressman about a bill they’re proposing, ask him or her where in the Constitution does it give Congress the authority to do what’s proposed in this bill. But don’t hold your breath waiting for an answer.

More than likely, you’ll get a comment like “Are you serious.”

Yet despite being alternately brandished like a club, or ignored when it gets in the way of expanding and increasing government control, the U.S. Constitution is the oldest governing document of any nation today.

The Constitution of the United States of America was written in Philadelphia between May and September 1787 by 55 delegates from 12 states. Rhode Island never sent representatives.

The ideas delegates expressed in the document were not new. They were part of their political tradition as Englishmen. They drew on hundreds of years of political thought about the “inalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and tempered by the practical experience of exercising these rights and protecting them from tyrants.

In just four handwritten pages, 4,400 words, they created an “owners-manual” for self-government.

There’s an apocryphal story told that when Benjamin Franklin was leaving the Constitutional Convention after the signing, he was asked “What type of government have you given us, Mr. Franklin?” He replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Franklin would be sadly appalled at what passes for American government today.

The “little red book” Senators and Congressmen usually flash is the document produced by the Cato Institute. Significantly, the Cato book contains the text of both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Why? Because the documents compliment one another.

In the preface, Roger Pilon writes, “To better understand and appreciate the form of government we have… it is important to look first to the Declaration, where the Founders outlined their moral and vision and the government it implied.”

In other words, to first understand the U.S. Constitution you must understand the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration proclaimed the moral vision of government and the Constitution established its practical application.

That moral vision was simple, self-evident; at least to the founders of our nation. Maybe not so much to politicians today.

We all are created equal, we all have rights that can’t be taken away from us and these rights include, but are not limited to, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The only purpose of government is to protect these rights, but only in ways the people agree to.

At the core of that moral vision was a fundamental distrust of government. “Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master,” said George Washington.

As 2004 Libertarian presidential candidate Michael Badnarik noted, if government is fire, than the U.S. Constitution is a fireplace. You can find a simple proof of that in many of the writings of the delegates, especially James Madison, widely accepted as the author of the document.

In the Federalist Papers, essays written to support of ratification, he wrote, “… the general government is not to be charged with the whole power of making and administering laws: its jurisdiction is limited to certain enumerated objects, which concern all the members of the republic …”

In 1794, as a member of Congress, he voted against an appropriation of $15,000 for French refugees. “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents,” he said.

That is also why the words “no” or “not” are used to limit government power 24 times in the first seven articles and 22 more times in the Bill of Rights.

The Constitution established a government with limited and enumerated powers. That meant a government that could only do certain things that were specifically stated.

To make that point even stronger, the states ratifying the Constitution added the Tenth Amendment, which said powers not “delegated to the United States” or “prohibited to the States,” are “reserved to the States, respectively, or to the people.”

Another part of the limitation on government power most politicians forget, or ignore, involves the discussion of “rights.” It’s amusing for libertarians to listen to the arguments of conservatives or liberals defending this or that right and watch as they vainly “look” for those rights in the Constitution.

They can’t find them because – they are not there. Politicians take great pains to convince you that your “rights” are granted by their beneficence. They’ve lost the manual.

One of the phrases most often cited to justify something Congress wants to do which they’re not specifically empowered to do is the “general welfare” clause. However, Madison explained that the term must be read “qualified by the detail of powers connected with them.”

“To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators,” he said.

In Federalist Paper No. 41 he asked, rhetorically, “For what purpose could the enumeration of particular powers be inserted, if these and all others were meant to be included in the preceding general power?”

For what purpose indeed. For the purpose of providing the modern equivalent of “bread and circuses” in order to buy votes.

But don’t take my word for it. Read the manual. Here are some resources:

The Founder’s Constitution

The Cato Institute Constitutional Studies Reading List

The National Archives

The Federalist Papers – Essays written supporting ratification of the Constitution

The Anti-Federalist Papers – Essays written opposing ratification.

Constitution Day website

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