Here are a few things the framers did not know about: World War II. DNA. Sexting. Airplanes. The atom. Television. Medicare. Collateralized debt obligations. The germ theory of disease. Miniskirts. The internal combustion engine. Computers. Antibiotics. Lady Gaga.
People on the right and left constantly ask what the framers would say about some event that is happening today. What would the framers say about whether the drones over Libya constitute a violation of Article I, Section 8, which gives Congress the power to declare war? Well, since George Washington didn’t even dream that man could fly, much less use a global-positioning satellite to aim a missile, it’s hard to say what he would think. What would the framers say about whether a tax on people who did not buy health insurance is an abuse of Congress’s authority under the commerce clause? Well, since James Madison did not know what health insurance was and doctors back then still used leeches, it’s difficult to know what he would say. And what would Thomas Jefferson, a man who owned slaves and is believed to have fathered children with at least one of them, think about a half-white, half-black American President born in Hawaii ? Again, hard to say.
The framers were not gods and were not infallible. Yes, they gave us, and the world, a blueprint for the protection of democratic freedoms freedom of speech, assembly, religion but they also gave us the idea that a black person was three-fifths of a human being, that women were not allowed to vote and that South Dakota should have the same number of Senators as California, which is kind of crazy. And I’m not even going to mention the Electoral College. They did not give us income taxes. Or Prohibition. Those came later.
Americans have debated the Constitution since the day it was signed, but seldom have so many disagreed so fiercely about so much. Would it be unconstitutional to default on our debt? Should we have a balanced-budget amendment? Is it constitutional to ask illegal immigrants to carry documents? The past decade, beginning with the disputed election of 2000, has been a long national civics class about what the Constitution means and how much it still matters. For eight years under George W. Bush, the nation wrestled with the balance between privacy and security while the left portrayed the country as moving toward tyranny. For the past three years under President Obama, we have weighed issues of individual freedom vs. government control while the right has portrayed the country as moving toward a socialist welfare state.
Where’s the Crisis?
A new focus on the Constitution is at the center of our political stage with the rise of the Tea Party and its almost fanatical focus on the founding document. The new Republican Congress organized a reading of all 7,200 words of an amended version of the Constitution on the House floor to open its first session. As a counterpoint to the rise of constitutional originalists , liberal legal scholars analyze the text just as closely to find the elasticity they believe the framers intended. Everywhere there seems to be debate about the scope and meaning and message of the Constitution. This is a healthy thing. Even the framers would agree on that.
So, are we in a constitutional crisis? In a word, no. The Constitution was born in crisis. It was written in secret and in violation of the existing one, the Articles of Confederation, at a time when no one knew whether America would survive. The Constitution has never not been under threat. Benjamin Franklin was skeptical that it would work at all. Alexander Hamilton wondered whether Washington should be a king. Jefferson questioned the constitutionality of his own Louisiana Purchase.
Today’s debates represent conflict, not crisis. Conflict is at the core of our politics, and the Constitution is designed to manage it. There have been few conflicts in American history greater than the internal debates the framers had about the Constitution. For better or for worse and I would argue that it is for better the Constitution allows and even encourages deep arguments about the most basic democratic issues. A crisis is when the Constitution breaks down. We’re not in danger of that.
Nor are we in danger of flipping the Constitution on its head, as some of the Tea Party faithful contend. Their view of the founding documents was pretty well summarized by Texas Congressman Ron Paul back in 2008: “The Constitution was written explicitly for one purpose to restrain the federal government.” Well, not exactly. In fact, the framers did the precise opposite. They strengthened the center and weakened the states. The states had extraordinary power under the Articles of Confederation. Most of them had their own navies and their own currencies. The truth is, the Constitution massively strengthened the central government of the U.S. for the simple reason that it established one where none had existed before.
If the Constitution was intended to limit the federal government, it sure doesn’t say so. Article I, Section 8, the longest section of the longest article of the Constitution, is a drumroll of congressional power. And it ends with the “necessary and proper” clause, which delegates to Congress the power “to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.” Limited government indeed.
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