Constitution Day 2009: Perpetuation of Our Institutions

On September 17, 1787, thirty-nine of the delegates at the Constitutional Convention, having met for four long, hot, and humid summer months in Philadelphia, had finally completed their task. On that day, they lined up and signed their names to the completed document.

The debates had often been heated and the disagreements significant, concerning the powers of the national government, the representation of the states, and, of course, slavery. Yet in the end, the final version was a Constitution that has endured for over 221 years. It is the longest surviving, working constitution in the world today.

The Constitution is indeed worthy of respect and honor because of its long survival. But survival of a regime and survival of a constitution is not good in and of itself; just as survival of a tradition isn’t good for its own sake. The perpetuation of a tradition or a Constitution must be judged on what it is, not simply on its endurance. We can all think of many examples of governments around the world that are surviving, but that we (as well as its citizens) would certainly prefer to see fail.

Abraham Lincoln delivered the eulogy for a man he admired greatly: Henry Clay. Clay was an early leader of the Whig party, to which Lincoln was a member before the Republican Party emerged. In his eulogy, Lincoln said of Clay: “He loved his country partly because it was his own country, and mostly because it was a free country; and he burned with a zeal for its advancement, prosperity, and glory, because he saw in such the advancement, prosperity, and glory of human liberty, human right, and human nature. He desired the prosperity of his countrymen, partly because they were his countrymen, but chiefly to show to the world that free men could be prosperous.”

Henry Clay was patriotic toward his country. But his patriotism was not a blind faith loyalty based simply on the fact that he resided here. It was a loyalty to both the principles of the founding and the Constitution crafted from those principles. Lincoln shared this loyalty and dedicated his presidency to the preservation of the Union and its Constitution. However, Lincoln would have been the first to admit that had the Union not been worth preserving (because of what it was about), it certainly wouldn’t have been worth the loss of over 600,000 lives in the Civil War in order to preserve it. So what was and is so significant about our Constitution that Lincoln was convinced that waging a lengthy war at the cost of so many lives was indeed worthwhile.

When we discuss the significance of the struggle to preserve the Constitution, we need to be clear on two things: first, what exactly are we preserving; and second, what is the nature of the attack that is being made against it.

Be clear, our Constitution is under attack. The center of the attack is made against the two things Lincoln thought were so important to save: the Constitution and the concept of the “rule of law” that is essential to the Constitution’s preservation. The method of attack is two-pronged. The first is to debunk the text and original meaning of the Constitution. The second line of attack argues that we can re-interpret the text whenever we deem it necessary and when it suits our purposes.

Today there are two primary and competing schools of thought when it comes to Constitutional interpretation. The first school is described well by former United States Supreme Court Justice William Brennan.

In a speech delivered at Georgetown University in 1985, Brennan claimed that “the genius of the Constitution rests not in any static meaning it might have had in a world that is dead and gone, but in the adaptability of its great principles to cope with current problems and current needs.”

What Brennan was in fact saying was that the text of the Constitution really has no meaning, or a least no meaning other than what we happen to decide to give it today, regardless of whether our modern interpretation has any resemblance to the intent of its authors. This perspective is also unconcerned as to whether or not our interpretation will be completely different in 50 years, 20 years, 1 year, or even tomorrow. What Brennan describes is a school of constitutional interpretation that favors a “living” or “evolving” constitution. The meaning of the text is no more than what we choose to give it, and we grant ourselves great latitude to change our interpretation any time public opinion has changed.

It is this school of interpretation that has given us the remarkable constitutional “reasoning” in several recent cases of, “the evolving standards of decency.” This argument has been put forth most notably in recent capital punishment cases. To see how this works, considering two recent cases will suffice. In 1989 the Supreme Court concluded that it was constitutional to execute individuals with low I.Q.s. The majority concluded this because there did not exist at the time a consensus among the states as to whether or not such practice would offend the 8th Amendment. However, just a few years later in 2002, the Supreme Court concluded that we could no longer continue this practice. Why? Because of the “evolving standards of decency.” According to this interpretation of the Constitution, the 8th Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment is completely dependent upon public opinion! Thus the rightness or wrongness is not determined by the text of the constitution, the principles behind it, or the intent of its authors. Rather, it is simply the adaptive interpretation as exhibited through public opinion. This understanding assumes that constitutional interpretation is simply majority will and that this will determines the rightness or wrongness of something. Of course, if we follow this argument to its logical conclusion, the institution of slavery was right, as long as it had popular support!

The competing school of interpretation argues that rather than having a living and evolving meaning, the Constitution has an “original intent”, and that American jurisprudence is based upon it. With this understanding, our application of the laws, and interpretation of the Constitution is bound by the intentions of those who ratified it. Obviously, this interpretation is in stark contrast to the constitution of Brennan that has no “static meaning”, and is forever adaptable.

If we view our Constitution as meaning only what we want it to mean, when we want it to mean that, we are violating the principles of rule of law and constitutionalism. Rule of law is based upon the need to have consistency of law, equal treatment of the law and everyone being “under” the law. Central to the need for consistency of law is that the law, and more importantly, the Constitution from which our laws are crafted, has a sense of permanence that is not easily altered. I am, of course, not making the argument that our Constitution is perfect, nor am I saying that improvements to it are impossible. The point is that there is a proper and deliberate method of changing the Constitution through amendments. The answer to changing the Constitution is not to have five Supreme Court justices simply redefine the terms for us, nor for we as the citizens of the Constitution to be disinterested or apathetic and idly watch as infringements on our Constitution take place through executive and legislative fiat.

Lincoln warned us that the greatest threat to the Union would not come from an outside force, but instead, from within. In his famous Lyceum Address, he stated: “At what point, then, is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.”

The title of Lincoln’s Lyceum address was: “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” His audience was somewhat stunned that he would question the survival of the Union and her constitution. When he delivered his speech in 1838, most of his audience had concluded that the country was a well-oiled machine with no chance of faltering. Of course, it was not long after that speech that the Union did face its crisis of survival. Lincoln believed that the seeds of the movement toward secession, when the South refused to accept the results of the constitutionally held election of 1860, were sown decades earlier, when a growing mindset of disobedience to law and a weakening of the loyalty to the Constitution was growing.

My point is not to be an alarmist. Rather, it is to have us return to Lincoln’s concern for the nation: does she reverently hold to the hard work laid out by the founding fathers, the principles of the Declaration, and the Constitution created in order to establish a More Perfect Union? Failing that devotion, a breakdown of constitutionalism and rule of law are certain to take place.

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