Last week I was asked to address the folks down at the Heritage House on the Constitution. I thought that was an appropriate time as this date marks the formal presentation of the Constitution to the Congress on Sept. 17, 1787.
I do not claim to be a Constitutional scholar. I am just an American citizen trying to live under one of the greatest documents ever produced by man.
Alexander Hamilton wrote, “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.”
That is quite a loft goal and yet those funny old English Parliamentarians came very close to achieving it. They did it by spelling out in the original document just how this Republic might work. Here, for the first time, a government made a written contract with its people. It has been attempted many times since but seldom equaled and never surpassed.
I am frustrated by people today who try to divine what the framers of the Constitution meant to say or would have said if they were faced with today’s problems. They gave us the answers. The famous Federalist Papers, written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison, laid down the reasons why we should have a Constitution and the dangers we may face.
They wrote about “dissension between the states” and yet we had a civil war. They wrote about dangers from foreign influence and yet influence is a commodity-traded daily in Washington and they wrote of the power of the federal government in relation to the powers of the states.
The Bill of Rights was intended to protect the people from the power of the government. These 10 articles guaranteed our right to free speech, bear arms, protected us in our homes, our person from illegal prosecution and guaranteed the right of the states.
Patrick Henry said, “The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people. It is an instrument for the people to restrain the government lest it comes to dominate our lives and interests.”
My question to the folks at the Heritage House was simple: How did we get from the straightforward government designed under the Constitution to the form of government we live under today?
I believe the first major expansion of federal power came during the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln suspended Amendments IV (illegal searches), Amendment V (indictment by a Grand Jury) and Amendment VI (speedy trial). Many Confederate sympathizers found themselves thrown in prison after their homes were searched and imprisoned without ever being charged. These offenses were overlooked because we were at war with ourselves.
But the cork was out of the bottle. During the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt the federal power was expanded and the tide was racing in favor of federal expansion. This was all made possible because of a seemingly harmless, and very popular, piece of legislation known as the Interstate Commerce Act. This act was designed to curtail the power of the railroads, which were openly fixing the rates and controlling interstate commerce.
President Grover Cleveland’s administration argued that the act was constitutional under Article I, Section 8; Clause 3 which gave the government the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the several states. This became known as “Commerce Clause.”
Now the Constitution became the subject of the Superior Court’s rulings. FDR used his Court to ram through his new deal, for better or worse. Soon the government, as Patrick Henry feared, was dominating our lives and interests.
Strictly speaking, the federal government has no right determining our educational policy, our view on reproductive rights or marriage.
When the clerk of courts in Kentucky was hauled off to jail recently she rightly asked what law she had violated. The truth is there is no law, only a Supreme Court ruling.
Does the government have the right to dictate our health care needs? No but a cagey Congress passed a tax bill instead, which is authorized by the Constitution. (Remember, the Court did strike down the single payer option).
Judge Clarence Thomas wrote, “allowing Congress to regulate intrastate, noncommercial activity under the Commerce Clause would confer on Congress a general police power over the entire nation.”
How far we have strayed from that simple document, written so long ago by plain speaking men with a dream.
I leave the last word to President Lincoln. “We, the people, are the rightful masters of both Congress and the Courts, not to overthrow the Constitution but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution.”