Will The Great American Experiment Succeed?
Thomas Jefferson, in his First Inaugural Address, enumerated what he called ‘the essential principles of our government … which ought to shape its Administration.’ He then stated:
“These principles form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. The wisdom of our sages and blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment. They should be the creed of our political faith, the text of civil instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust; and should we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.”
When asked by a curious citizen after the adjournment of the Constitutional Convention what kind of government had been structured by the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin is said to have answered: “…A REPUBLIC, IF YOU CAN KEEP IT.”
The extensive Constitutional republic they envisioned, in reality, became a place of liberty and opportunity for countless millions of people from all over the world. Their ideas worked, because they were based on enduring principles which recognized human imperfection and the need to structure a limited government of laws, dependent upon the consent of a people who, themselves, understood the principles.
The Distinctiveness of the American Experiment as Laid Down by the Founding Fathers:
- It acknowledged that individual rights are derived from a Creator.
- It was based on enduring principles compatible with “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.”
- It recognized human imperfection and that a tendency to abuse power is ever present in the human heart.
- It restrained those in power through a written Constitution which carefully divided, balanced, and separated the powers of government and then intricately knitted them back together again through a system of checks and balances.
- It left all powers with the people, except those which, by their consent, the people delegated to government and then made provision for their withdrawing that power, if it was abused.
What Has Happened to the Philosophy and Principles Held by the Founding Fathers?
Have we kept faith with their ideas of republican (representative) government and of the virtue which must underlie such an institution? As Andrew Jackson observed: “It is well known that there have always been those amongst us who wish to enlarge the powers of the general government…and…to overstep the boundaries marked out for it by the Constitution.” Such is certainly true in 20th Century America! Not only do the various branches of government seek ways to expand their power by changing the Constitution, but there are well – organized and heavily-funded organizations actively at work to make serious changes in the Founders’ system.
Can America Lose Her Freedom?
An examination of the history of civilization reveals that nations have risen, and they have fallen. Governments have been formed, and they have been dissolved. People have become free, and they have fallen into slavery again. Toynbee observed that 19 of the world’s 21 significant civilizations disappeared from the face of the earth – not from assault by outside forces, but from deterioration within the society.
Many would contend that America has departed from the intentions of its Founders in a number of significant ways. Others, whose judgments are less categorical, at least would acknowledge that there are valid reasons for such a judgment.
Some Major Departures From The Original Philosophy, Principles And Intent Of The Framers Of Our Constitution:
- Increasing Centralization of Authority in the National Government
Through liberal judicial interpretations of the necessary and proper” and “general welfare” clauses, as well as the commerce clause, the national government has gained sufficient power to intrude into virtually all concerns and areas which were originally intended to be within the domain of the states (See: Part V, Federalism). What is more, the courts, through the process of ‘selective incorporation,’ have used the Fourteenth Amendment to nationalize and apply the Bill of Rights to the states. Various Amendments have also served to weaken the state governments, albeit indirectly. For instance: the Sixteenth Amendment, through its provision for federal income tax, has made the states, to a great extent, dependent on the national government. The Seventeenth Amendment, which changed the Framers’ intent as to the manner in which the Senate would he determined, has served to reduce the influence and balance of state interests in the national councils.
- Erosion Of Principle Of Separation Of Powers
The Framers believed that it would be the Legislative branch, armed with the most important powers of government, which would pose the greatest danger to the separation of powers. For this reason, they divided the legislature into two houses and strengthened the Executive and judiciary branches. Over time, however, the Congress has delegated much of its authority to the Executive branch or to independent regulatory bodies. On the other hand, the judiciary, which the Founders believed to be the weakest of the branches, has asserted the doctrine of judicial supremacy-that its interpretation of the Constitution is authoritative and binding on the other branches (an idea clearly not held by Jefferson, Madison and others). In addition, the courts have in fact ‘legislated’ to bring about changes which they contend are mandated by their interpretation of the Constitution (See: Part V, Separation of Powers). These “positive resolutions” on the part of the courts are seen to run counter to the Founders’ idea of representative (republican) government, because they represent a usurpation of the legislative function, and ignore the voice and consent of the people through their elected representatives. This bypasses the slow and deliberative amendment process provided by the Constitution for making changes to that document.
- Departure From The Basic Values To Which The Founders Subscribed
Although the word “rights” remains an important part of the political and social vocabulary, the perception that individual rights are of divine origin has been largely excluded from public discourse. What was once the very cornerstone of the philosophy of freedom expounded by the Declaration of Independence-that a Creator endowed human beings with rights and the liberty to enjoy those rights – has virtually disappeared from the textbooks of the nation and from the public statements of many leaders. Indeed, rights are now thought of as man-made and emanating from government. As such, the concept of rights not only has been secularized but trivialized as well. After all, what is the authority for such rights? Any self-proclaimed entitlement to special treatment, privilege, status, or benefit conferred by government can, by inference, be withdrawn. Moreover, the modern notion of man-made rights does not embody the natural law injunction that the exercise of a right embodies a corresponding obligation to observe the rights of others, nor does it recognize the “laws of nature and of Nature’s God” described by the Declaration of Independence.
In this connection, the rights specified in the Bill of Rights frequently have been interpreted in an arbitrary manner without regard to the tradition or values which they were designed to protect and preserve. For instance, the First Amendment’s provision that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” has been ‘interpreted’ in a manner not in keeping with Jefferson’s idea that the “liberty to worship our Creator” had been “proved by our experience to be its [government’s] best support.” In this and other areas, rights are upheld quite apart from the Framers’ concerns for civil or ordered liberty, or for the ends of government, especially those set forth in the Preamble. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s scathing critique of Western moral values, and those which have gained currency in the United States in particular, drives this point home:
“Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime and horror.”
Professor Lino Graglia, a harsh critic of the Supreme Court and its interpretation of the Bill of Rights, makes much the same point in another context:
“The Court has created for criminal defendants rights that do not exist under any other system of law-for example, the possibility of almost endless appeals with all costs paid by the state and which have made the prosecution and conviction of criminals so complex and difficult as to make the attempt frequently seem not worthwhile…By undermining effective enforcement of the criminal law…the Court has diminished our liberty to walk the streets of our cities with a degree of security”.
- Destruction Of The Founders’ Monetary System Based On A Money With Intrinsic Value
One of the primary concerns of the Founders was the establishment of a sound monetary system which would provide stability and would assure the citizens that government could not manipulate their currency and confiscate their earnings through inflation, a problem with all unbacked paper currencies of the past. By various legislative and judicial actions, United States citizens no longer possess a currency with its own intrinsic value. Unbridled government spending and debt plague the nation. Since the withdrawal of gold coins in 1933, the nation has experienced a cumulative inflation of over 821%.
- Loss Of Citizen Understanding Of Constitutional Principles And The Philosophy Underlying Them
“Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people…” said John Adams. And Thomas Jefferson declared: “Whenever the people are well-informed they can be trusted with their own government…The boys of the rising generation are to be the men of the next, and the sole guardians of the principles we deliver over to them.”
Early generations of Americans were taught the principles upon which their nation had developed its Constitution. The Founders believed that the real security for liberty would be a people who could understand those ideas which are necessary to preserve liberty and who could perceive approaching threats to their freedom. For that reason, a primary purpose of the schools was to teach boys and girls to read and write so that they could study the ideas of freedom. A popular textbook for children was entitled “Catechism on the Constitution.” Written by Arthur J. Stansbury and published in 1828, it contained questions and answers on the principles of the American political system.
Tocqueville’s Democracy In America , written in the 1830’s, described America’s aggressive process of universal education on the Constitution and the political process:
“It cannot be doubted that in the United States the instruction of the people powerfully contributes to the support of the democratic republic; and such must always be the case, I believe, where the instruction which enlightens the understanding is not separated from the moral education ….” The American citizen, he said, “..will inform you what his rights are and by what means he exercises them .. In the United States, politics are the end and aim of education … every citizen receives the elementary notions of human knowledge; he is taught, moreover, the doctrines and the evidences of his religion, the history of his country, and the leading features of its Constitution …. it is extremely rare to find a man imperfectly acquainted with all these things, and a person wholly ignorant of them is a sort of phenomenon…. It is difficult to imagine the incredible rapidity with which thought circulates in the midst of these deserts [wilderness]. I do not think that so much intellectual activity exists in the most enlightened and populous districts of France.”
Research shows that, beginning in the early 1900’s, the teaching of the philosophy undergirding the Constitution and the principles incorporated in it began to be eliminated from the public schools of America. Consequently, several generations of Americans have not been taught the principles which would enable them to be guardians of their own liberty, and they have not been able to serve as “watchmen on the walls” who could recognize encroachments when they occurred. Even most of the law schools do not train the nation’s law students in the philosophical foundations of the Constitution.
It must be remembered that the principles of the Constitution and the philosophy undergirding those principles represent:
- The ultimate standard of measure for all government action.
- The ultimate protection for the people from the excesses of government.
If the people do not have an understanding of these basic things, then they will be incapable of preserving them.
Does The Constitution Provide The Means Of Recovering The Original Intent?
Without a doubt, those departures from the Framers’ intent listed above, and others as well, result in serious questions about the ultimate success of their experiment. We should note, however, that the Framers built well, and the Constitution, despite the buffeting it has taken, is still extremely viable in one crucial respect: namely, the channels for restoration remain open. Nothing – not even Amendments – has altered the distribution of powers or the basic institutional relationships set forth by the Founders. This means, in effect, that the PEOPLE can operate through Congress to bring the system back into line. If the people, through knowledgeable, good judgment, select members of Congress who have the courage to act, the Founders’ system can be restored.
A determined Congress, for instance, is more than a match for a judiciary bent upon advancing the doctrine of judicial supremacy and encroaching upon the Legislative prerogatives intended by the Founders. Such a Congress could, as it has done in the past, limit the appellate jurisdiction of the Court. The Senate could carefully screen presidential nominations to the federal courts, particularly the Supreme Court, and refuse to con, firm those who support judicial “activism.” Or, at the extreme, Congress could impeach and remove those justices who, to use Alexander Hamilton’s terminology, habitually exercise “will” (the intended prerogative of the Legislature), not “judgment,” in interpreting the Constitution. In sum, Congress is equipped with all the weapons to win any “shoot out” with the Court. In all likelihood, if history serves as any guide, the mere threat of their use would suffice to restore the proper relationships between the branches called for by the separation of powers principle.
Congress also possesses ample means to restore some semblance of balance with respect to state-national relations. Much could be accomplished simply through legislation, or through a more discreet use of congressional powers to allow the states greater latitude. Congress could, probably through legislation (or amendment, if need be), assert the sole authority to enforce the “due process” and “equal protection’ clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment through appropriate legislation, thereby depriving the courts of the means to impose their will upon the states. This corrective measure would, by itself, go a long way toward restoring vitality to the federal principle, while simultaneously putting the judiciary back into its proper constitutional place.
While the Constitution provides the means of restoration, clearly the process is a difficult one.
What Is Necessary To Bring About Such Restoration?
As demonstrated above, restoration of the Founders’ formula for preserving liberty is, indeed, possible through the mechanisms provided by their Constitution. But what must take place in order for such restoration to occur?
THE PEOPLE MUST:
- Prize and cherish Creator-endowed liberty above all (as did the Founders).
- Study and develop understanding of the IDEAS and PRINCIPLES which, alone, lead to security and true liberty.
- Study and develop understanding of the kind of deliberative, representative government (democratic republic) structured by the United States Constitution. Become familiar with its safeguards for liberty – so that they may recognize threats to their freedom under whatever disguise they may come.
- Use their Constitutional knowledge and understanding to elect and support an ongoing majority in Congress and an Executive who are devoted to Constitutional principles and who will see that those appointed to the Judiciary are committed to preserving the integrity of the Constitution.
- Exert their will and Constitutional privilege to recall elected officials who, once elected, support legislation which expands government power in violation of Constitutional principles.
- Understand that the price of freedom is continual vigilance and accept personal responsibility for that vigilance.
- See that the IDEAS and PRINCIPLES, as well as the passion for liberty, are passed on to future generations by requiring that they be taught in their local schools.
Will There Be Restoration?
For the first time in many years, there are encouraging signs that some important changes may be emerging. Although the teaching and study of the Founders’ ideas had virtually disappeared from the curriculum of the schools for many decades and partially, as a result, from public discussion, there is renewed enthusiasm and interest in those ideas among a vital and committed segment of the population. Some signs of this renewed emphasis on the ideas of liberty are:
- The reappearance in print of writings of the Founders, among them, THE FEDERALIST, collections of the writings of Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Adams, Washington, and others.
- The appearance of campus groups who focus attention on study of the Founders’ writings, the Constitution, and their relationship to current political thought.
- Serious questioning of the role of the courts and of the constitutionality of judicial activism. Many members of Congress now oppose such judicial activism on the part of the Court.
- Increased questioning of the capacity of the national government to solve major economic and social problems. A move in many areas toward privatization of previously public services, toward greater local autonomy and toward a renewing of the concept of limited government.
- Growing confidence in the free market economy and in deregulation as the best way to secure prosperity.
- Serious questioning by the public of the educational establishment’s role in curtailing and changing the teaching of American history and the ideas upon which our democratic republic was built. This questioning has taken the form of books; public statements by religious and political leaders; the formation of citizen groups to remedy the situation; and test cases in the courts of several states.
- Explosive growth of private and home schools where traditional values and the teaching of history are emphasized.
- Growth explosion among church groups which emphasize traditional values, study of the Constitution, and the relationship between the political order and religious belief.
These and other signs are encouraging, but, at best, are just the beginning of a long journey to rediscover the greatness of our Constitutional philosophy and principles and to redirect efforts in their proper restoration.
Will The Experiment Succeed?
It was John Adams who said: “The foundation of every government is some principle or passion in the minds of the people.” Clearly, the Founders’ passion was liberty, and in order to secure that liberty, they sought out and incorporated into the United States Constitution those ideas and principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence.
The French historian, Guizot, once asked James Russell Lowell, “How long will the American republic endure?” Lowell replied: “As long as the IDEAS of the men who founded it continue dominant” Herein lies the answer to the question, “Will the Experiment Succeed?”
It can and will succeed IF the motivating “principle or passion in the minds of the people” is LIBERTY, and if that passion causes them to exert the determination and will to complete the needed restoration of the IDEAS upon which the great American experiment was based.