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Thoughts on the Constitution

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POSTED: April 7, 2010 2:23 p.m.
Let me share some things with you that you may not have learned in school.
Our Founders believed that human beings are flawed and are morally weak, and if we were given the opportunity to consolidate power and use it for our own benefit, we would do it. I have had people say to me: “Oh, no, I’m not like that. I would never act like that.” I always ask them the same questions. Have you ever made someone do something they did not want to do, either by force or by browbeating them? Have you ever gossiped behind someone’s back when you knew what you said would hurt them? Have you ever “set someone straight”, or as my grandmother would have said, “given them their comeuppance”? If you have done any of these things, then you have, in a small way, abused power. I have to admit that I am no different. If I could snap my fingers and command people to do what I want, the temptation to do so would be overwhelming.
Our Constitution is a complex and negative document. I say negative because from beginning to end the document is shouting NO! NO! NO! As this country was being organized during the revolution, our Founders realized we needed some form of government to protect us from each other.
Our Constitution was written to accomplish just a few things. It was to define the form of government we would have. In our case it is a “republic” not a “democracy.” Our Founders believed that an unrestrained democracy could morph into a form of mob rule; a condition where a majority could run roughshod over a minority. That condition has been referred to as the “tyranny of the majority.”  In addition, they believed that the people needed to be protected against the intrusiveness of a strong central government. People remembered and were disenchanted with the heavy handed rule of the European monarchies and wanted a form of government which would not have the power to control people’s lives. They wanted freedom.
As the form of government, a republic, is determined in the Constitution there are limits placed on the power of government to act. Each of the three branches of the government, (legislative, executive and judiciary) were originally designed as roadblocks to limit the power of the other two. No one branch of the government was to be more powerful than the other two.
There are two legislative bodies, the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Senate was, in earlier years appointed by the legislatures of the various states (changed by the 17th amendment), but the House was directly elected by the people of a state and for “short” terms. The Founders wanted the House to be directly responsive to the people of their state, and the terms were “short,” two years, so they could be thrown out quickly if they failed to represent the will of their constituents.
It was never the intention of the Founders that politicians should rule for life.
The two legislative bodies were to have different powers and responsibilities, and they were designed so one could not rule over the other. Since a bill must be passed by both before it can be signed into law by the President, they effectively could veto each other. There is an interesting story about how Thomas Jefferson wanted to have only one legislative body. He thought that a House and a Senate were redundant and a waste. It is reported that George Washington asked him why he poured his tea from his cup into his saucer. Jefferson was reported to have said that he did that to cool it off because it was too hot. Washington replied that the purpose of the Senate is to cool the “hot blood” of the House and bring “reason” rather than “emotion” into the process of governing.
Our Founders agonized over the “Bill of Rights,” the first 10 amendments to our Constitution. They believed that these rights flowed not from earthly laws or governments. They believed that these rights were bestowed by God; were inalienable, and could not be rescinded by men or by governments. In the first amendment there are five of these inalienable rights. Let me focus on just one of them.
The right to free political speech. You cannot be jailed for writing or speaking out against the government.
I have heard people say that the Constitution should be viewed as a living breathing document that should be flexible and change with the needs of the times.
Our Founders foresaw the need to be able to change the Constitution; to have it evolve with the needs of the times. It is called “the amendment process.” It is not an easy thing to do. In fact, it is quite difficult. A super majority of both the Senate and the House is required, and it also requires a super majority of the state legislatures. This cumbersome process was created for a number of reasons. They knew that political power would ebb and flow with election cycles, and they did not want the amendment process to be so easy that the document could be rewritten every time there was a change in political leaders. In addition, they wanted to assure that a radical minority could not force its will on the American people. It’s ironic, in a sense, because the Founders, themselves, were a radical minority who forced their will onto the colonists, most of whom did not want to separate from England.
If the Constitution were flexible and could easily change with the needs of the times then this right to free speech and all of the other rights could not be guaranteed because the assumption of who controls the guarantee would change. This model assumes that the guarantee comes from men or the government, and governments can change and evolve with time. Tyranny can come from the political right, and it can come from the political left. It is perfectly at home in both camps.
My grandfather was schooled only as far as the third grade, but he was a very educated man, a voracious reader. He and I were discussing the Presidency and the Constitution one evening about two years before he died. I was a congressional aide at the time, and I did not understand the profound depth of my grandfather’s thinking. I will never forget what he told me.
He said that when you vote for the President you are handing over your proxy to a government official to act and make decisions in your name. You are granting great power; the power to do good as well as the power to do evil. The person to whom you give your vote can use that power to create opportunities so every citizen can develop themselves to the fullest of their potential. On the other hand that official could set a course with which you do not agree, and he could use that power to marshal the police agencies of government to force you and everyone else to bend to his will and make you do what he wants. He said that the history of this planet is replete with examples of both, so choose wisely.
When a government of men and women comes to the belief that they, and only they, know what is best and that people should be controlled and coerced to do what the government wants, tyranny is not far away, and tyranny will not tolerate the existence of dissenters who speak out.
In this country our history is short. Our patience is short, and our national view is both short and shortsighted. If the long view of history has anything to teach us it is this. Every time a national government anywhere has consolidated power, the people in charge have been reluctant to let go. They have resorted to “any means necessary” to keep their positions of power and privilege and have “controlled” their people, suppressed free speech and the press, and have “done away with” those who dissented publicly and loudly.
There are those who say: “It can’t happen here.”
Let me share a couple of thoughts with you. When our country was founded the vast majority of people did not want to separate from England. They had relatives there. They felt a loyalty to the King. A small, committed group of revolutionaries started a war because they knew that once England invaded, the people would fight to protect their homes if they felt threatened, and Thomas Paine and other writers made sure they felt disenfranchised and threatened.
In “Great Russia” during the communist revolution, there were probably no more than twenty or thirty thousand committed revolutionaries in a population of many millions. They started a war against the Czar and at the same time started a political campaign among the people. They promised food, free housing, and free health care. They promised to take everything from the rich and divide it up among the people. The lure of the promises was irresistible, and the people joined the fight.
The Socialist Utopias and Worker’s Paradise Governments have been tried, and they have all ended badly. To forestall a potential objection from a friend of mine I need to point out that the socialist kibbutz collective farms in Israel are local townships and not a national government.
British Lord Acton very wisely said: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Please do not even entertain the thought that it cannot happen here.
It can.

Freeman is a Richmond Hill resident.

 

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