The United States Constitution

How it began and how it might end

The signing of the Constitution via Wikimedia Commons

We, in the United States, are engaged in a vigorous dispute over the political direction of our country. The actual arguments of the dispute are far less important than how that dispute is being conducted. In their impatience to win their arguments and their way, some politicians seem to be willing, intentionally or unintentionally, to sacrifice our Constitution in the process.

A Little Constitutional History

Constitutions are rarely long-lived things. The United States Constitution was ratified on June 21st, 1788. It will be 234 years old in the summer of 2022. The average national constitution lives less than 20 years without being replaced. That makes the United States Constitution pretty unusual — but not invulnerable to threats.

In December of 1860, sectional differences precipitated the temporary dissolution of the American union by factions that had lost patience with constitutional processes and chose to create their own country. It took a 4-year Civil War, and the determination of President Abraham Lincoln to honor his oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States”, to overcome that threat. Many of the political stresses and factional politics that led to that constitutional crisis are in evidence today.

The United States Constitution, and the nation that it made possible, date from the Constitutional Convention that approved it on September 17th, 1787. That document focused on how the government would be constituted and operate. It was more concerned about the roles of the national government relative to the states — than with the rights of individuals.

Too few Americans know how it was created and how it was intended to work. Even fewer know what it says, what the words mean, and what our Constitutional “rights” really are. For many Americans, the Constitution is more of a myth than a working, living document — and sadly, that fact may permit political extremists to destroy it.

At 81, Benjamin Franklin was the oldest delegate to the Constitutional Convention — an inventor, scientist, and diplomat — highly respected in North America and Europe, and the man who brought France into the Revolution on America’s side (probably a key ingredient for ultimate victory).

At the convention, his opinions and influence were second to none. Ultimately, he was selected to introduce the resolution to approve the draft Constitution and submit it to the various states for ratification. Here is what he said when he introduced the resolution that ultimately created the United States:

“I confess that I do not entirely approve of this Constitution at present, but Sir, I am not sure I shall never approve it: For having lived long, I have experienced many Instances of being oblig’d, by better Information or fuller Consideration, to change Opinions even on important Subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow the more apt I am to doubt my own Judgment and to pay more Respect to the Judgment of others.”

“Most Men indeed as well as most Sects in Religion, think themselves in Possession of all Truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far Error. Sir Richard Steele, a Protestant, in a Dedication tells the Pope, that the only Difference between our two Churches in their Opinions of the Certainty of their Doctrine, is, the Romish Church is infallible, and the Church of England is never in the Wrong. But tho’ many private Persons think almost as highly of their own Infallibility, as that of their Sect, few express it so naturally as a certain French lady, who in a little Dispute with her Sister, said, I don’t know how it happens, Sister, but I meet with nobody but myself that’s always in the right.”

“In these Sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution, with all its Faults, if they are such: because I think a General Government necessary for us, and there is no Form of Government but what may be a Blessing to the People if well administered; and I believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a Course of Years, and can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other. I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution: For when you assemble a Number of Men to have the Advantage of their joint Wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those Men all their Prejudices, their Passions, their Errors of Opinion, their local Interests, and their selfish Views. From such an Assembly can a perfect Production be expected?”

“It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this System approaching so near to Perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our Enemies, who are waiting with Confidence to hear that our Councils are confounded, like those of the Builders of Babel, and that our States are on the Point of Separation, only to meet hereafter for the Purpose of cutting one another’s Throats. Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best. The Opinions I have had of its Errors, I sacrifice to the Public Good. I have never whisper’d a Syllable of them abroad. Within these Walls they were born, & here they shall die.”

“If every one of us in returning to our Constituents were to report the Objections he has had to it, and endeavour to gain Partizans in support of them, we might prevent its being generally received, and thereby lose all the salutary Effects & great Advantages resulting naturally in our favour among foreign Nations, as well as among ourselves, from our real or apparent Unanimity.”

“Much of the Strength and Efficiency of any Government, in procuring & securing Happiness to the People depends on Opinion, on the general Opinion of the Goodness of that Government as well as of the Wisdom & Integrity of its Governors. I hope therefore that for our own Sakes, as a Part of the People, and for the Sake of our Posterity, we shall act heartily & unanimously in recommending this Constitution, wherever our Influence may extend, and turn our future Thoughts and Endeavours to the Means of having it well administered.”

“On the whole, Sir, I cannot help expressing a Wish, that every Member of the Convention, who may still have Objections to it, would with me on this Occasion doubt a little of his own Infallibility, and to make manifest our Unanimity, put his Name to this Instrument.”

Benjamin Franklin to the Constitutional Convention, on the 17th of September, 1787

What Was Franklin Saying to the Convention?

At the age of 75, I feel some understanding and empathy for what Franklin was saying. Living long enough can grant, to some, the advantages of context and perspective — things that are harder to come by in the passions of youth. Like Franklin, my opinions and my certainty in their correctness are much less absolute than when I was 25 or even 50 years old. If you will grant me the courtesies of age, I will try to explain what I believe that Franklin was saying to the convention:

  • The Constitution is not perfect and was the result of necessary compromises among people with their own experiences, opinions, passions, local interests, and prejudices. Perfection, from any individual perspective, was impossible. A representative republic is by its very definition an exercise in compromise.
  • He was astonished that the system defined by the Constitution was as close to perfect as it was—and that the majority of delegates had been willing to compromise their individual opinions and interests to the need for creating a functioning nation.
  • The older he had become, the less certainty in his own opinions and the more respect for others’ opinions he had — providing another justification for respectful compromise.
  • The Constitution is a work in progress, not a set of commandments carved in stone. It is an experiment in representative democracy — and honest men of goodwill would need to adjust it as the country grew and as they learned more from the experiment.
  • A federal government is necessary for the United States, and if it is well-administered, will be of benefit to the people. He believed it would be well-administered until the people themselves became so corrupted as to need despotic government, as they had become incapable of any other. He hoped that respect for the Nation and the Constitution would prevent that from ever happening.
  • The strength and efficiency of any government, for delivering what the people need, depends on the general good opinion of the quality of that government and the wisdom and integrity of its officers. That requires cooperation and goodwill from the individual factions. Putting factional interests above the nation is destructive of good government.

Washington, on the Constitution and Political Factions

George Washington was unanimously elected President of the Constitutional Convention and presided through to its conclusion. More so than almost any other individual, he was knowledgeable of the issues, compromises, and resolutions embodied in the Constitution. He demonstrated his knowledge of and respect for the Constitution in his two terms as our first Constitutional President.

At the voluntary end of his presidency, as the first man to govern under the new Constitution, Washington used his Farewell Address to defend the Constitution and warn of dangers to it:

  • He made the case that “the alternate domination” of one political party over another and coinciding efforts to exact revenge upon their opponents “is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism.” From Washington’s perspective and judgment, political parties eventually and “gradually incline the minds of men to seek security… in the absolute power of an individual”, leading to despotism.
  • Washington continued his defense of the Constitution by stating that the system of checks and balances and separation of powers within it are important means of preventing a single person or group from seizing control of the country. He advised the American people that, if they believe that it is necessary to modify the powers granted to the government through the Constitution, it should be done through constitutional amendments not through force.

George Washington’s example went a long way to set the tone for our Constitutional government and contributed to building respect for that Constitution. His self-imposed limit of two presidential terms was honored by all of his successors but one and has since been enshrined in the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution.

What Is Today’s Great Political Dispute?

It is the same dispute that has gone on throughout human history (and probably before recorded history). It is the fundamental argument between two facets of human nature. Two sides we all have in varying degrees. Our conservative and our liberal sides. Indeed, most of us tend to be liberal with family and friends, and conservative with others. Seeking a moral balance between those competing instincts is a never-ending challenge for both individuals and for governments.

We should pray that neither side ever totally triumphs over the other — for the same reasons we need to temper justice with mercy. Too much of a good thing can be a very bad thing. To cope with the complexities of the world, life, and our own human nature we need balance — and we need to use all the tools our Creator gave us. Removing a wood screw with a clawhammer can be done, but as the wrong tool it makes a terrible mess of it.

What Has Changed Since the Constitution Was Written?

When the Constitution was ratified and the United States was born, our entire population was slightly less than 4 million. Most Americans lived on farms and rarely traveled further than a horse could be ridden out and back in a day. It was important to get along with the people in your immediate community, because if you were sick or your barn burned down it was their help you depended upon. You had probably known most of them your whole life.

Today the U.S. population is more than 332 million, and most Americans live in urban and suburban areas. For most of my life, I’ve worked more than 50-miles from my home. I have lived under the differing laws of the states of Rhode Island, Virginia, North Carolina, California, Oklahoma, Michigan, Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. I suspect that more than a few of today’s Americans have traveled further than a horseback ride from where they were born and not too many live on farms anymore. I personally know very few of the myriads of people upon whom my safety and well-being depend.

Things have changed since the Constitution was ratified and its drafters could not possibly have imagined the degree to which they would change. In that time, the Constitution itself has changed — through amendments, but even more so, through interpretation. As America, and as we Americans, have changed, we’ve understood the words of the Constitution through the filter of our times and our culture. Some may consider that a bad thing, but it is one reason that our constitution has survived so long while so many other constitutions have failed and disappeared.

The Fundamental Genius of the Constitution

The genius of the Constitution is that its framers understood the necessity of compromise for any government to work. They understood that the compromises they had made in order to create a constitution were imperfect, as was the Constitution itself.

And just as importantly, they built into the Constitution the rules and procedures for peacefully amending it when necessary. They made those rules difficult and time-consuming so that the Constitution could not be amended frivolously or in the heat of the moment. So far, that has worked pretty well. In fact, what most Americans consider their Constitutional “rights” were not written into the Constitution at all. They are in the first 10 amendments to it.

What’s the Threat?

In the 1850s, America’s political parties, and our elected officials and legislators, lost their willingness to compromise on serious political issues. They were so passionate over their political opinions that they refused to cooperate across party lines to make our government work. The tragic result was the dissolution of the Constitutional union and a bloody Civil War.

Today’s political tensions have risen to a comparable level, and a similar unwillingness to compromise is evident. Just as in the 1850s, runaway partisan media are fanning tensions with hyperbole and misinformation. If you get all your news from one outlet or political perspective, what information can you really trust? Which “alternative facts” are really facts?

The danger to the Constitution comes from those in elected office who have become so impatient, and so fixated on their own view of the Constitution, that they are willing to abandon its checks and balances, and its lawful mechanisms for amendment, in order to get their own way. Some of those elected officials appear willing even to tolerate violence against the government and our citizens — so long as the perpetrators of that violence share their own factional views. Again, shades of the 1850s.

Those very same elected officials are so averse to compromise with their political opponents that they are willing to block the necessary activities of government in order to tarnish their opponents. That diminishes governmental effectiveness and deliberately exacerbates factional tensions.

The real power of the Constitution depends upon the respect in which it is held by the elected officials who have sworn to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States”. The actual power to enforce the Constitution resides in the Executive Branch and the interpretation of its meaning with the Judicial Branch. That can be problematic when the two branches do not agree: “[Chief Justice] John Marshall made his ruling. Let him enforce it.” President Andrew Jackson

Once too many elected officials choose to ignore the Constitution because they have the power to do so, it will lose its ability to protect us. That is a terrible price to pay for short-term political advantage. The last time we fell into that trap, America paid with the bloodiest war in our history — faction against faction. Can we afford such elected officials, even if we happen to support some of their views?

Wrapping Up

As long as our Constitutional processes survive we can experiment and even make mistakes with laws and government, because we will still have the power to fix our mistakes. Once we destroy those Constitutional processes, it will be hard to go back and fix things — because neither mobs nor dictators care about the rule of law.

Thank you for reading.

For your reading pleasure: The Constitution of the United States

Food for Thought as You Pick Your News Sources

Modern political media outlets and methods build upon marketing techniques learned on Madison Avenue over the past 70-years. Techniques that exploit confirmation bias — the tendency of we humans to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values. People display this bias when they select information that supports their views, ignoring contrary information, or when they interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing attitudes.

Biased search for information, biased interpretation of this information, and biased memory recall, have been invoked to explain four specific effects:

1) Attitude polarization (when a disagreement becomes more extreme even though the different parties are exposed to the same evidence)

2) Belief perseverance (when beliefs persist even after the evidence for them is shown to be false)

3) The irrational primacy effect (a greater reliance on information encountered earlier in the time sequence, ignoring more recent contradictory information)

4) Illusory correlation (when people falsely perceive an association between two events or situations).

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