Sunday, September 14, 2014

Why the Constitution?

September 17th is Constitution Day. Did you know that? For most people, the anniversary of this document that changed the world forever passes unnoticed. Why is it important? Does it really matter in our modern world? Is it still relevant?

You can read the whole document in 20 minutes or less. You can understand it pretty well with maybe an hour of thought. This document has guided and shaped our nation and influenced governments and people around the world. The principles it reflects have guided great thinkers and philosophers for hundreds of years – it simply put those principles into a framework that would create the most powerful, prosperous and free people the world has ever seen.

The greatest thinkers and statesmen we have ever seen have been unanimous in their praise for this document. Daniel Webster said “I regard it as the work of the purest patriots and wisest statesmen that ever existed, aided by the smiles of a benignant (gracious) Providence…it almost appears a Divine interposition in our behalf…” He also said “It is hardly too strong to say that the Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intentions. There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good master, but they mean to be masters.”

In this short and clear document, basic concepts that allow good government and discourage bad government and tyranny are laid down. Just a few of these concepts allow us to see the brilliance and good will of those who crafted it.

One branch of government, the legislative, is responsible exclusively for the creation of law. The other two branches may not do this. Their duties include the enforcement of law (executive branch) and interpretation of the law and punishment of law breakers (the judicial).

The system of checks and balances provided that no one branch could overwhelm or diminish the power or effectiveness of the other two branches. They would be confined to the responsibilities granted and if one began to usurp ungranted powers, either of the other two could stop that usurpation.

Each state will have a republican form of government (not the party – the system of representation). They can make their own rules, as long as those rules do not conflict with the Constitution. They must honor the contracts made in the other states, even if their laws do not agree.

The government can raise money through taxation, import and export duties or tariffs and can print money, establish post offices and raise and support armies and navies for the general defense. Funding for the military can only be determined for up to two years at a time.

All elected (and many appointed officials) as well as all military employees must affirm by oath their support for and willingness to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. This is true even if they are serving on the local or state level.

There are many other great concepts presented, but the document lays out the foundation of greatness for a nation and its people. Next time we will consider how it protects our freedoms through the Bill of Rights.

The Bill of Rights

Most people think the Bill of Rights (the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution) are part of the original document. They actually were added briefly after the Constitution was written and ratified by the states and after serious debate about the wording and content of each Amendment. There were originally 20 Amendments, but only 12 survived the debate in the House and Senate and were sent to the states for approval. Of those 12, only 10 were ratified by the necessary two thirds of the states. One of the remaining two was eventually ratified some 200 years later as the 27th Amendment. Where the body of the Constitution created a framework of government responsive to the people and mostly under their control, the Bill of Rights was added to guarantee the “unalienable” rights that the government was formed to protect and defend for each citizen. Each of the items presented in this group of guarantees is worthy of an article by itself, so this article will portray the basic concepts that are addressed and how those concepts make us more free, more prosperous and a more happy people when they are protected and honored.

Protecting the freedom of thought, opinion and communication – The 1st Amendment specifically addresses freedom of religion, speech, the press (printing or broadcasting what you think), assembly and disagreeing with the government (redress of grievances). While this covers a lot of ground, the common theme is that it is none of the governments business what you believe, think or say unless you do damage to others, and then only if that damage is based on provably false statements. Throughout this document, it becomes evident that the founders agreed with the motto, “Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” They wished to grant the greatest freedom possible in keeping with the peace and well-being of the citizens.

Protecting the right to defend our selves, families and property – Specifically addressed by the 2nd through the 8th Amendments, we have the right to rebut accusations, not be intimidated by others or by the government, not to give testimony against ourselves or our spouses and be reasonably well treated while under accusation unless and until convicted of an offense. We are also protected from “cruel and unusual” punishment

Protecting our right of privacy and to not be put upon or abused by the government – The 4th Amendment is the gold standard here as it states clearly that the government cannot collect, look at or use our personal information (persons, houses, papers, and effects) without warrant issued by a judge and that the warrants cannot be issued except by probably cause “supported by Oath or affirmation”. In my opinion, the current collecting and sifting of our communications and movements by the NSA is a clear violation of this right. Amendment 3 also addresses this issue.

Protecting our right to defend ourselves against accusations or charges – Amendments 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 make it clear that no punishment can be affixed to us unless the government can prove beyond reasonable doubt and without resorting to dishonest or coercive actions that we are guilty of a crime.

Protecting us from out-of-control government and tyranny – Amendments 9 and 10 make it clear that these are only a few of our unalienable rights and that it is the duty of the government to recognize all of those rights and not assume it has the right to define them to enhance their own power. All of the Amendments in the Bill of Rights address this issue, but perhaps the most critical is the 2nd Amendment which allows citizens the right to keep and bear arms – not just to hunt and target shoot, but to defend themselves from all enemies, foreign and domestic – including their own government if, in the words of Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration, it “becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” An unarmed populace cannot defend “the security of a free state”. We need to understand and defend these freedoms as the founders did.

The “New” Amendments

The Amendments to the Constitution after the 1st ten (the Bill of Rights) are a mixed bag of good and bad ideas, clarifications or definitions, and attempts to overcome the protections that the Constitutionoriginally guaranteed the citizens of the United States. Only two additional Amendments were ratified before the end of the Civil War in 1865 and only three more from that period until 1913 when the first of a number of questionable Amendments were created. In all during that 100 years we have created and ratified 12 more Amendments, some of which have either been bad ideas or unnecessary. I abide by and respect the law created by these 12, but disagree with and am working to rescind a few of them, just as we rescinded the 18th when we realized it was a bad idea.

Good ideas and clarifications - #11 clarified the role of the judiciary in lawsuits, #12 defined and clarified the process of electing the president and vice president, #13 outlawed slavery, #14 clarified equal rights and protections and applied them to all citizens, defined requirements for the election of members of Congress, and identified what is and is not a valid debt of the government. #15 extended the vote to all male citizens and #19 extended it to women, while #26 extended it to all citizens over age 18. #24 restricts the government from stopping anyone from voting because of failure to pay a poll tax or any other tax.  #20, #22 and #25 identify the terms of office for elected Federal officials and the way successors to the President should be chosen in case of death or inability to continue.

As you can see, most of these amendments were designed to make the government work better, correct problems that were politically unfixable at the time the Constitution was written (slavery, etc.) or expand the number and type of people allowed to vote. In general these are all good ideas with the possible exception of allowing people to vote and decide the direction of our country that have not studied the candidates and issues and become educated as to the history, freedoms and responsibilities of an informed electorate.

Two amendments, #18 and #21, cancel each other out as we outlawed alcohol and then realized the concept was a failure and simply created a criminal element instead of stopping people from consuming it. #23 allows the people residing in the District of Columbia to have representation in Congress and in the choosing of our President, but without the full benefits or responsibilities of being a separate state. The 27th Amendment disallows any pay increases to take effect during the current election cycle, thus decreasing the incentive for Congressmen to vote themselves pay increases. It seems to have not had the desired effect, since they are continuing to increase pay, even though they already receive much more than the normal citizens and “retirement” pay that is by far above what most of us receive.

The worst amendments are #16 and #17. They were both passed in the same year, 1913, and were part of a systematic effort to fundamentally change our system of government. In my opinion, those changes were much for the worse and have precipitated many of the problems we now face. For more info, read the book “1913” by Oliver DeMille and Orrin Woodward. #16 created the IRS and allowed for an individual income tax. Up until that point, all efforts to tax the income of individuals were struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. The government could not control or penalize your income, as long as that income was legally created. This was the basis of the success and prosperity of the citizens of the US, especially in comparison to the general citizenry of any other country. The 17th Amendment took the rights and protections of the individual states away and gave election of Senators to the general public. This sounds like a good idea until you realize that the Senators were a check and balance on the excessive promises of the generally elected House of Representatives. With that check and balance removed we now have out of control debt and laws that pander to special interests and the “gimme” mentality instead of looking at the long term effects of spending without restraint for unnecessary or unwise programs and redundancies.

All in all, most of the Amendments are good or at least non-destructive. A few, however, have set in motion things we really don’t want and should be rescinded.

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit

The Declaration of Independence is one of the greatest achievements of man in history. It is great not only because it gave birth to a nation, but because it created a framework of liberty and a clear statement as to why liberty and freedom are necessary to the greatness of humankind. It also creates an understanding of the proper role of government and lays the foundation upon which the Constitution was built.

Here are just a few of the great truths that continue to gain honor today because Thomas Jefferson and our founders were so educated, insightful, articulate and inspired.

Mankind has unalienable rights – granted by their creator and not by government. Governments do not create these rights nor do they have the right to take them away from law abiding citizens. These rights include (but are not limited to) life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. You may notice that happiness is not a right granted by government or God, but the ability to pursue happiness is. One other unalienable right that was mentioned in the first draft was “Property”. While Jefferson and others felt that ownership and personal control of property that had been created or legally purchased was one of these rights, it was argued that some might think that governments would need to be in the business of “providing” property to citizens which was diametrically opposed to the right they did believe in – the pursuit of happiness which included the creation, ownership and control of property without government interference as long as the rights of others are not impinged upon.

Governments receive their power to govern (just powers) from the consent of the governed. In other words, the people have the right of self-government and only the powers that they, the people, collectively agree to allow the government to exercise are permissible to that government. The government is rightly there to serve the people, not the other way around.

It is the purpose and duty of government to protect the safety and the rights of the governed.

When government becomes abusive of these rights, that government should then be changed or abolished. Abolishing or separating from a government, especially by violence, should never be done lightly or without extensive evidence of the “absolute despotism” of the offending government.

These founders (56 in all representing all the colonies) pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to these principles of freedom. It is evidenced by the mention of deity four times in this document, that these great leaders and courageous statesmen agreed in general that God is involved and properly referred to in the affairs of men and states.

These concepts are the basis upon which our understanding of the Principles of Freedom have come about and they are the basis of what we need to do today to maintain and recover those freedoms and that liberty for which they and many others in our history have paid so great a price. We should examine our own level of commitment and understanding to see if we are creating for our children and their children a world of freedom or allowing that world to slip into servitude, debt and sorrow.