Thursday, March 4, 2010

Is America Exceptional?--Part 3 The Constitution

No meditation on the exceptional nature of the United States of America would be complete without an analysis of the Constitution. While the Declaration of Independence is the verse that inspired the birth of the nation, the Constitution is the plodding prose that instructs its citizens on how to remain true to the spirit of the verse. The Constitution obviously cannot be discussed thoroughly in this forum, as volumes of the very best scholarship have been produced over the centuries. I will restrict my comments to the uncommon nature of this document, its often overlooked central principles and main features of what its authors hoped would be sustainable, and some commentary on the effect the document had on the character of the nation.

A written document describing the governing principles of a polity--a constitution--was not altogether unique in the Colonial Era. John Adams was the primary drafter of the Massachusetts State Constitution, and Thomas Jefferson was the primary drafter of the Virginia State Constitution. However, in the summer of 1787 both men were thousands of miles away--Jefferson in France and Adams in England--representing the United States' interests in those countries. The act of constructing the document in America was the realization of the vision that Adams described during his fateful speech in the First Continental Congress urging the ratification of the Declaration of Independence.

Adams had always asserted that a new people in this new land had the best opportunity to create a society that empowered its citizens to direct its government and not the other way around. The colonies with their disparate motivations had known authoritarian governance, and how authoritarian predilections had ironically sprung from the people most literate in the affairs of republican governance and the rule of law--the British. The early citizens of the United States had been wary of central authority of any kind by initially creating an excessively weak central government through the Articles of Confederation, which preserved the great levers of power with the individual states. Although the weak national government was enough to prosecute a successful war, albeit with Herculean exertions on the part of a great many individuals, it shortly became clear after the war's end that its charter was unworkable for an expanding and dynamic nation.

While the most experienced scholars in charter construction were absent, other equally gifted students of politics, both young and old, were engaged in the deliberations--James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington. Additionally, there were other scholars whose shoulders all the founders stood upon: Aristotle on the central role of reason, rhetoric and dialogue in the proper operation of societal governance, Cicero on the rule of law and on the mechanics of legislature-centric governance structure, Augustus Caesar on the value of an energetic executive with great respect and deference to the legislature, and John Locke on the division of power to minimize its corrupting influences. The Constitution of the United States was the manifestation of over 2,500 years of western thought and experience, and it was in the hands of men who were keenly aware of their endeavor's importance and potential impact on posterity. The Founders knew that much of the philosophical heavy lifting had already been done for them, and that the great weight of western thought required their charter to respect the individual by maximizing his liberty in the resulting governing structure.

The proper manner to preserve maximum liberty is to create a system of governance that prevents a concentration of power. James Madison captured the principle best in Federalist 51:
"...the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others...Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither the external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions."

Redundant provisions for the restraint of the new government's power was uppermost in the Founders minds as they formed the Constitution. That is why they split the national government's power into three co-equal branches; that is why they enumerated the powers the government had. First, in Article I (Legislative), Section 8:

(1.) to lay and collect (excise) taxes, provide for the common defense and general welfare of the U.S.;
(2.) to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the several states;
(3.) to establish a uniform rule of naturalization and uniform laws of bankruptcy;
(4.) to Coin money, regulate its value, and fix standards of weights and measures;
(5.) to provide for the punishment of counterfeiting;
(6.) to establish a Post Office and post roads;
(7.) to promote the progress of science and arts through provision of patents and copyrights;
(8.) to establish federal courts inferior to the Supreme Court;
(9.) to define and punish felonies committed on the high seas;
(10.) to declare War;
(11.) to raise and support Armies;
(12.) to provide and maintain a Navy;
(13.) to make rules and regulations of the land and naval forces;
(14.) to provide for calling forth the (state) militia to execute the laws of Union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions;
(15.) to govern the Federal District (Washington D.C.);
(16.) to make all laws necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the forgoing powers.

The President's powers are enumerated in Article II:
(1.) He is Commander-in-Chief of all armed forces; and has the power to grant reprieves and pardons;
(2.) He has the power to make treaties, the power to appoint ambassadors, judges and officers of the U.S. govt--all with the advice and consent of the Senate;
(3.) He has the power to fill vacancies during a Senate recess, but the officer's term will expire by the end of the next session;
(4.) He shall give Congress information on the State of the Union, he shall on extraordinary occasions convene both houses of Congress or either of them; he may adjourn the Congress until such time as he thinks proper; and he shall take care that the Laws be faithfully executed.

Article III basically establishes the Supreme Court's jurisdiction as the final remedy of appeal in disputes with a national or international scope. The reason I wrote down these powers is to illustrate that there are basically only twenty. That's it! These are the only powers conferred on the national government. As a further check on the concentration of power, all powers not enumerated in the Constitution are conferred on the States per Article IV and Amendment 10. Thus, we do not have a national government, but a Federal government which derives its enumerated powers from the consent of the States and the people.

The Federalist Papers are a tour-de-force; a blue print for the motives, origins, and proper construction of a constitution-based democratic republic. This voluminous work--85 letters published in newspapers in New York City from October 1787 to August 1788--were written for the purposes of persuading the citizens of New York to ratify the new Constitution. After reading these articles, which have gone down in posterity as the most robust explanation and validation of democratic republican government in history, the citizens of New York ratified the Constitution by the thinnest margin of any original state (37-30), driven largely by their misgivings of vesting and concentrating too much authority in a national government.

The rebellious attitude toward the accumulation and concentration of authority in one entity has been inculcated in the American culture. Our antipathy toward increasing government encroachments has become reflexive in nature. However, over the ensuing 222 years since the National Charter was formed, power has increasingly accumulated in the Federal Government. First, as a consequence of the Civil War and the issues surrounding slavery. Secondly, as a consequence of the Great Depression and the opportunistic nature of politicians to vest the national government with increasing levels of authority. An energetic executive branch with super-majorities in the legislative branch was able overwhelm the legitimate misgivings of the judicial branch on unlawful extensions of its authority.

Americans again find themselves bearing witness to the muscular exertions of an aggressive federal government. Reflexively, a plurality of Americans appear to be rejecting these exertions. As a nation, the United States is one of the youngest in the world in terms of national identity, but it is the oldest in the world in terms of government charter. The durability of that charter has much to do with the exceptional nature of the document and the men who formed it, but the better part of its durability is due to the exceptional nature of the American people who respect it and exert great energy to preserve it.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting read. I've got a lot of time on my hands now, so I will check out the other posts.