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Yes, the Constitution still matters (Part I)


Guest post by Joshua Charles, responding to Time magazine’s Managing Editor Richard Stengel and his recent attack on the U.S. Constitution.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” -- Declaration of Independence: July 4, 1776

Did the person who wrote this know about sexting, miniskirts, or Lady Gaga? Because if he didn’t, I’m not entirely sure we can take him seriously. Clearly he has not updated a Facebook newsfeed in a while. Well, I just did, and I learned which of my friends like to sext (don’t ask) and plenty about the importance of miniskirts and the artistic profundity of Lady Gaga. Now I feel empowered and justified to completely reevaluate and reinterpret what that guy wrote up there! That would be my attitude if, like Time Magazine’s Managing Editor Richard Stengel, I assumed that certain ancillary – and ultimately banal -- things like sexting, miniskirts, or Lady Gaga, were somehow on par, or should even be uttered, in the same sentence as something as fundamental as our Constitution.

Now, while I have disagreements with Mr. Stengel, I do respect him. Let no amount of bluntness be used to put such a thing in doubt. The fact of the matter is simply this: as the managing editor of perhaps the most well-known magazine in the world, Mr. Stengel owes his fellow citizens much more than the piece he wrote in the Time Magazine issue with a cover had a picture of the Constitution being shredded, with “Does it still matter?” boldly placed in the foreground. While, no doubt, some of what he wrote is true, much of it was only half-true, some even less. As someone who has read and studied the Constitution, the writings of the Founders, and been honored to write a book with Glenn Beck about the Federalist Papers, I found myself wondering throughout, “Has this man even read the Constitution?” Simply because of his position , by default, Stengel is declared an “expert.” (I highly recommend you read his article for yourself before reading my response.)

It is important that during this perilous time of cultural disillusionment, political polarization and gridlock to remember what makes America great, what has made it great. Our Founders were not perfect, but can any of us lay claim to accomplishing what they accomplished, not just for our country, but for mankind? It’s about time we stop acting like children when it comes to understanding our own history, understanding our own founding documents, and understanding our own Constitution. We must no longer allow ourselves to be spoon-fed historical and Constitutional nonsense by the elites who see the Constitution and its authors as obstacles, footnotes on a dusty history book.

But in order to do that, let’s first set the record straight for Mr. Stengel.

To issue a response and clear every falsehood and half-truth would require far more than a few web articles, so I will focus on three particularly abhorrent aspects in Mr. Stengel’s article. First, his misrepresentation of the Founders -- and one Founder in particular (Benjamin Franklin). Second: his claim that the Constitution does not establish a limited government. And finally, his contentions concerning Libya and Obamacare, of which the latter will be my primary focus.

“Does it still matter?”

You betcha.

Those Founder guys…

Mr. Stengel starts by taking on some of the apparent absurdities the Founding Fathers gave us, among them the three-fifths clause, equality of representation in the Senate (which is “kind of crazy” to him), and the Electoral College, apparently so absurd that Mr. Stengel can’t even bring himself to tell us why. Then, as if emerging from the dark age of America’s Founding, we apparently enter the brighter, more enlightened world of the income tax and prohibition. The implication is clear. Mr. Stengel views one of those lists with disdain and the other with mild-mannered open mindedness.

Mr. Stengel provide numerous examples that display an underlying disregard, and ultimately a rejection in principle, what the Founders’ accomplished in the Constitution, opining, for instance, that “It was written in secret and in violation of the existing one [the Articles of Confederation]” and that “Benjamin Franklin was skeptical that it would work at all.”

My reaction to the first “fact” provided by Stengel would simply be to suggest that he read Federalist No. 40. The proceedings of the Constitutional Convention were kept secret, but the authority by which the Constitution was written, ratified and ultimately established were sound. As for my reaction to the second, I’ll let Poor Richard respond himself:

“…there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and [I] believe farther that this [the Constitution] is likely to be well administered for a course of years and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other.”

Mr. Stengel would have us believe that Franklin thought the Constitution itself was the problem. But is that what Franklin says in this quote, which is the source of Mr. Stengel’s assertion? No. It is well known that not a single Founder thought the Constitution perfect. But on what, or rather, to whom does he assign responsibility if the Constitution should fail? THE PEOPLE. Franklin believed the Constitution wouldn’t last forever, not because the Constitution was hopelessly flawed, but because he knew that the citizens would one day forget why we established the Constitution for in the first place: “…[to] secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”

Before anyone is too quick to dismiss these assertions as Tea Party rubbish or Republican spin, I would ask them: when was the last time they viewed the Constitution in this light? It is, after all, specifically stated as being among the Constitution’s aims in the Preamble. Since when was the “Blessings of Liberty” supplanted as the Constitution’s primary aim by the idea that we can simply “interpret” it in whatever way we deem will benefit us (or our party) the most? Since when did we stop viewing the Constitution as a means to engage in, as Samuel Adams called it, “the animating contest of freedom”? Does the document provide some sort of comforting excuse for each of us to get our very own personal goodies and benefits? When looking at everything our country is experiencing right now, in looking at our Constitution, in looking at our Founders, it seems that “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” has become the forgotten phrase among the American people. Have we forgotten that we have government to protect our rights and liberty, not to dole it out, as if rights and liberty we held up in some government safety deposit box just waiting to be set loose by Congress, all along while its people wait with earnest expectation to be bestowed with those things their government sees fit to bestow upon them? As John Adams wrote to his fellow Bostonians in 1765:

“Let it be known, that British liberties are not the grants of princes or parliaments, but original rights, conditions of original contracts, coequal with prerogative, and coeval with government; that many of our rights are inherent and essential, agreed on as maxims, and established as preliminaries, even before a parliament existed.”

No. Despite what Mr. Stengel attempts to paint one of the most eminent Founders of doubting the Constitution, we realize that upon an actual analysis of Mr. Stengel’s source, the Constitution was never the fundamental problem for Franklin. We were. But Mr. Stengel used this to cast doubt on the Constitution. Now that we know the truth who should we doubt?

Joshua Charles is co-author of The Original Argument: The Federalists' Case for the Constitution, Adapted for the 21st Century

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