Digital

Exclusive online content

The Birthday of Our Constitution

By: Larry P. Arnn
September 17, 1998

The birthday of this Constitution would seem to be an occasion for national rejoicing. In fact, if this is the typical year — and, so far, it is — the President will say nothing about it. The evening news tonight will not mark the occasion in any way. The morning newspapers I have read have let it slip by without any notice.


The causes of this run deep. A distance of practice and understanding has grown up between us and the Constitution. To have our celebration well, the best thing to do is to understand why this has happened and how to fix it. We have not changed the words of the Constitution very much, but the practice is different in some important respects.

The government described in the Constitution is strong government, a government with an executive who can exercise lethal force, a government with a Congress that can legislate on all matters of national interest, so long as they are enumerated. Enumerated is the key — the enumerated powers of the constitution.

The system set up in the Constitution is a federal system. In 1935, 55% of every dollar you gave to the government was raised and spent inside the confines of cities and towns, not states, not counties, and not the federal government. That was more than half. Today, the number is 16%. Most of the rest is in Washington. For almost all of our history, the total public sector budget has been less than 12% of the gross domestic product of the country, even in wartime. Today, if you add it all up, you get close to 50% — half of the dollars produced in the economy.

The specific feature of this government is that the powers are enumerated. It is just these things that it may do and not others. This government has changed in two respects. It has become large and it has become centralized. Both these things are forbidden in the Constitution.

These changes are so vast that we must stop and ask ourselves whether it is practical to change them. The several regulatory agencies that govern firearms and tobacco are part of a system that reaches into every village and home in the land. Millions of people are employed in the work. Democrat and Republican Presidents, Democrat and Republican Congresses have supported this regulation for a generation. The courts have upheld much of it in cases decided over decades. My children know nothing else, and I hardly do.

Not only habitual are these changes in the government, but the country itself seems to have changed massively. These are modern times. The Constitution was written more than 200 years ago. Back then, the nation comprised 3 million people. They traveled by horse and wagon. They had no telephone, no television, no internet. No representative of the government, set up under the Constitution, saw — much less lived near — the Pacific Ocean. Almost 20 years after it was put into play, it was a small band of people, occupying a strip of land along the Eastern seaboard.

Times have changed and because of this, we must ask: Are not these Constitutional objections raised by Mr. Heston and Mr. Herschensohn in vain? Everything is so different now. How can that old standard be relevant? These are the questions that make it difficult to celebrate this birthday. Until we answer these questions, there are two things we cannot do.

First, we cannot have a celebration. Second, we cannot live under the Constitution. Once one begins to ask these questions, radical thoughts come to him. If it were actually to be a government limited by law — that law written down was a list of the things that are enumerated — everything would change.

Social Security — where is that in the Constitution? That is a big thing. There would have to be another way to do it. The regulatory state at the federal level — where is that in the Constitution? It would change. It would change radically. It takes your breath away. No one in politics today, or in recent memory, has advocated such a change — with the partial exception of Bruce Herschensohn, who almost got elected to the Senate.

What are we to do? We are in the condition now that is to be found and described in some writings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, under the Soviet regime. He once wrote an essay criticizing the physicist Sakarov, but he made the criticism mild. He said, "We have been unconscious for a long time. As breathing and consciousness return, as we begin to see again how it is we should be governed, we will be for a time like groggy men and we will not make much sense. But later, we will wake up and these early arguments will be improved by consciousness."

That is where we are now. We are taking the first step. To sustain the first step, we should come to understand why it is so important that we go.

The greatest American contribution to political science is a book full of newspaper articles written to persuade people how to vote. Madison, Hamilton, and Jay wrote newspaper articles to persuade the people in the state of New York to ratify the Constitution. Every American citizen should read these newspaper articles. These things are wonderful. You have to see what the claim is that they make for the Constitution and revolution, generally.

Think back: 200 years ago, a few people, huddled along the border of a great continent that they had not yet made a map of, just having squeaked out a victory against the greatest power on earth.

"It has been frequently remarked," says the first page of the documents, "that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether society's men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice."

What a thing to say! All societies of men — it is for them, all of them, that we are seeking to vindicate the possibility of political happiness here on earth. That is the first sentence. The people who adopted the Constitution were thinking like that, and we cannot remember the birthday.

Mr. Heston and Mr. Herschensohn have called for unpopular measures, in the name of the Constitution. Guns are controversial. People kill with them. They are implements of violence. Surely, if there is a rule in the Constitution that says that the government may not forbid them, the rule must be obsolete. We do not live on the frontier anymore. Hardly any of us kill our own food anymore. What is the point?

The point is found in another of the most important things written in The Federalist Papers. If you do not understand anything else about the Constitution, understand this: "What is government," wrote Madison, "but the greatest of all reflections on human nature. If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on the government would be necessary." 

Angels and men. Did you ever read the Declaration of Independence? Did you know that God is in there four times? He is in there as the author of the "laws of nature and of nature's God." That is the legislative branch. He is in there as the "Creator" — he is a founder. He is in there as the "supreme judge of the world" — the judicial branch. He is in there as the "Divine providence" — the executive. If you put all three branches of government in the hands of any man, he would have to be like God because if he is like us, you could not trust him.

Men are not angels. That is why we must have government. Angels do not govern men. That is why we must have constitutions.

Guns are dangerous in the hands of anyone. But each of us is responsible for his own life. Guns are dangerous in the hands of men, even if the men happen to work in the government. It is not any different. What is at stake, then, is not efficiency. It is not prosperity. What is at stake is not even only freedom. It is also morality. The moral position of the human being is that he is below God and responsible to Him for his actions and above the beast because responsible for his actions.

The Constitution sets up a system in which we can live in peace with each other and learn to be happy and pursue our happiness. Despotism does not pursue that. It becomes really important, then, if the government is doing a thing that is not delegated to it. It is, in each case, a breakdown in the rule of law.

That is what is at stake today. We are waking up to that. Read the newspaper. What is going on there? We must bring this government under control and the method of control is written by the greatest political minds who ever lived. They happen to be our forefathers. Let's do what they said.