American Abstract

Reimagining the Republic

Whither the Constitution?

To the People of the United States of America:

After an unequivocal experience of the inefficiency of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on the wisdom of continued adherence to the Constitution on which it stands.  The question is of the first importance, for the very future of our Nation, indeed, the very future of the idea of America is bound to it.  Yet the question of the utility and viability of our continued union, as currently constituted, and as it has been since March 4, 1789, can no longer be prudently put off.   In these dark days of the Republic, where trust in not only government, but in the financial sector and the media – the three are increasingly seen as for all relevant purposes indistinguishable – are at all time lows, we would be remiss in our obligations if we did not investigate with sufficient diligence every possible source of our misfortunes and every possible solution.  The American way of life is in critical condition, and we have become convulsed by discord, over who is responsible for endangering our way of life, who should be charged with restoring it to health, and most troubling, what actually constitutes the public good.  And yet there is pervasive and growing agreement that our representatives, elected to their positions of authority and powers according to the terms delineated in our Constitution, have not protected any conception of that public good recognizable to the majority of citizens.

This official failure has bred the popular movements that now demand our attention, movements fueled by anger, frustration, and no little love of country.   The first of these, coalescing and quickly commanding the national consciousness not more than two years ago, the subsequently dubbed ‘Tea Party’ has railed against the alarming size, fiscal reach, and profligacy of the federal government.  These Americans rightly fear that such a centralization of political power threatens individual liberty, a fear sown into the fabric of the American consciousness from its primordial beginnings four centuries ago.  The prospects for a pleasing multiplicity of ways of life, for the freedom to pursue new experiments in living, the room and encouragement to find new answers to the fundamental human question of “How to live?,” are all diminished as money, power, and authority are continually annexed by a government remote from the great majority of its people not only in space but in spirit.

The American chorus of discontent has not been assuaged however, despite the Tea Party’s efforts; it has instead grown broader, deeper, and louder.  To their voices now belong the ‘Occupy Wall Street‘ movement, and its critique of the extradorinary and increasing inequalities in income and influence that have characterized America over the last thirty years.  They see an unjust economic system, awarding the extremely wealthy, who though comprise but a fraction of the total citizenry, claim the lion’s share of social and political power, subsequently using it to buy the federal government to do its bidding.  Prosperity appears reserved for the few whose ambition and skill is directed towards the accumulation and management of wealth, while those whose aspirations and gifts have suited them to be teachers, nurses, police officers, and firefighters slide proportionally closer to poverty, if not unemployment.

Their respective grievances are interrelated – however much they might appear inconsistent – and certainly any adequate solution to our ills must be seen to address both.  Arriving at such a solution is the great question before us, and the future of the Republic will be decided in the bargain.  But where will such a solution be found?  It has been oft repeated in certain quarters that the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements can and should be distinguished in terms of the nature of the remedy seek.  The former, these voices note, have sought to change the political landscape by Constitutional means, entering the political fray by putting forth and supporting candidates for elected office that promise to prescribe the medicine our sickly nation so sorely needs.  The latter, by contrast, so it is alleged, reject that lawful heritage, preferring to bring an end to our hallowed political system, or amend and alter it in radical ways.

I confess to seeing little evidence for these claims about the recent protests that have started in New York and have spread across the country; certainly the behavior of the majority of the citizens involved – freely assembling to engage in political speech – are Constitutional prerogatives.  As for seeking redress through electoral channels, as their Tea Party forebears have done, it seems only sensible to reserve judgment until the ensuing 2012 election cycle (beyond the Republican Party Presidential nominating process) is well underway.

And yet this charge of anti-Constitutionalism, however specious in its application, should, I suggest, make us pause and consider its merits; not, to repeat, the merits of the charge, but the merits of the means.  That the prosperity of America these past 222 years has depended greatly, as John Jay claimed it would, on its Union no one could plausibly deny.  Yet our present difficulties are so great that it would be stubborn foolishness and misguided loyalty to refuse to contemplate the question of whether it still so depends.  Might our Union, enlarged and varied far beyond anything the Founding Federalists could have realistically imagined, have become a millstone round our collective necks?  Has our Union become too big, too disparate to succeed?

The question is as difficult for any American to ask as it is to answer.   Some will object to the question being raised at all.  But to a serious and reflective mind, it must be allowed that among the most formidable obstacles which this most essential discussion will have to encounter will include a certain class of person in whose obvious interest it is to resist all changes which may hazard a diminution of the power, profit, and benefits of the offices they hold under federal establishments, and the perverted ambition of another class of persons who both hope to aggrandize themselves by the continued confusions of their country, and who flatter themselves with fairer prospects of elevation from the preservation of coordinated authority in one ever-enlarging federal government than from the subdivision of the empire in several partial and more autonomous confederacies.  The echo of Alexander Hamilton’s wise council to his contemporaries is aptly suited to ourselves.

In 1787, in the midst of the great American conversation about the merits of the newly proposed Constitution, and the abandonment of the Articles of Confederation, an unidentified anti-federalist using the pseudonym ‘John DeWitt’ urged his fellow citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to “be cautious” and not so quickly accept the new form of government and the attendant relocation of power and authority on the federal level that the new Constitution promised and that those calling themselves ‘Federalists‘ advocated.  “It is much easier to dispense powers,” he warned, “then recall them.”

Here, too, is advice for us to heed; the practical obstacles to such extraordinary change are profound.  But that is not sufficient reason to forsake serious discussion of its merits.  I propose to commence that discussion here, by revisiting the central arguments of our Constitutional discussion that preceded its ratification in 1788, and reflecting on the degree to which they might still speak to us today, in the very Nation that Constitution begat.  I invite you to join me.  All the while let us not forget John Jay’s sincere “wish that it be clearly foreseen by every good citizen, that whenever the dissolution of the Union arrives, America will have reason to exclaim, in the words of the poet: “FAREWELL! A LONG FAREWELL TO ALL MY GREATNESS.” But let us not shrink out of fear of the answer from asking if the greatness Jay would have us lament has not taken leave of us in any case, nor should we refuse to harbor hope that a new, perhaps more modest, greatness awaits us still.

John Q. DeWitt


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3 thoughts on “Whither the Constitution?

  1. Thoughtful post. As a federalist, I would contend that it is not the size of the union that is the issue, but rather that the founders failed to anticipate a time when the federal government would be so rich that the states would sell their sovereignty and the people their liberty for money.

    A constitutional amendment that limit federal revenue to a percentage of GDP or all officials coming up for re-election are banned from running and that defines “general welfare” to be within the confines of national defense and commerce would go a long way to eliminating that unforeseen power grab.

  2. John Q. DeWitt on said:

    Thank you, Ken, for your reply. Are you suggesting a 1 term limit-at-a-time? For all elected offices? And while I’m quite sympathetic to a conception of the general welfare that by definition constrains the remit of the federal government, I’m dubious that a general reference to ‘commerce’ will suffice. Indeed, I worry that it is precisely the lack of any more substantive conception of the general welfare (or ‘good’) that creates the vacuum that commerce naturally fills. Commercial interests, understood broadly, were among the most influential arguments for the greater sense of union that the Constitution provided; but it is precisely the interrelated commercial interests of the Nation that make so many vulnerable now than might otherwise be.

    • The limit would only apply for currently sitting officials and the next election (ie, it would leave senators not up for re election in office for up to another four or six years) and would not prevent them from running in a subsequent election or for another position. The idea would be to very strongly encourage them to balance the budget but not necessarily destroy the government by making everything new at once. It might wreak havoc on the house though. I doubt it would ever come into play – the threat would be enough.

      As far as the “general welfare” and abstract “commerce” clauses in the constitution, I think it was Alexander Hamilton that argued in the federalist papers that if it were not kept vague, it would be to easy to manipulate around it. After raising a number of children and watching how adept they could be at “bending” rules, I am inclined to agree with Hamilton.

      What needs to be more concrete is an absolute maximum to the amount of money available to the federal government so they cannot tempt states and individuals to prostitute themselves for federal handouts.

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