Happy 229th birthday America.
While most people celebrate July 4 as Independence Day (from England) as the nation’s birthday, it is rightly celebrated Sept. 17. On this day in 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia met for the last time to sign the document they had created over a four-month period to change the U.S. government from the flagging Confederation it was to a new federalized republic.
At the time, it was highly controversial and contentious as it was essentially a non-violent overthrow of the existing government system but it would prove to be the next great step in Democracy and American exceptionalism. It proposed to shift power away from sovereign states to a more centralized and federal government.
Assuaging fears, the Constitution’s principal author, James Madison, stated, “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”
But Republican Thomas Jefferson cautioned that “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground.”
Our Constitution and the federal government framework of powers and branches it describes remains written in the same words as it did in 1787 (with the added Bill of Rights and Amendments). Today, the rub has come in how the Constitution is viewed.
Is the Constitution a “living” document whose meaning evolves over time and that has been re-interpreted by judges and superseded by international treaties, or does the Constitution’s plain meaning words, intent and national sovereignty remain as “delegated and enumerated” 229 years ago?
That is the nature of the very real divisions between today’s progressive socialist view and conservative constitutionalists’ more literal interpretations. Does the Constitution mean what it actually says or should hidden meanings and modern progressive’s more evolved thinking prevail?
Today’s partisan politics reflect the differing opinions as to whether the U.S. government should be a big, all powerful, bureaucratic “nanny” state or whether individuals should enjoy their freedom and responsibility to govern their own affairs. Do rights come from God and remain inherent in “We the People” or do they come from (and can be rescinded by) government? We see this playing out across the country and within each state today with the progressive elitist attitude that “government experts” know best and can protect everyone, especially we “rubes” (and unredeemable deplorables) that don’t know what’s best for us.
Of course the conservative take questions why government is intruding on our liberties and privacy. Why can’t government leave us, our property and our money alone and let us decide how we want to live our lives and spend our money?
The U.S. Constitution and our freedoms remained mostly unchanged its first 100 years, overcoming even a traumatic and divisive “War Between the States.” The Union, Constitution, and citizen rights and freedoms was preserved, if not strengthened, with the war’s conclusion and the Republicans’ abolition of slavery though the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.
The idea of a “living” Constitution got its real start through the Progressive movement during Democrat President Woodrow Wilson’s administration in the early 1900s. The Progressives’ push to change the commonly understood meaning of the Constitution, institutionalize the idea that science and intellectual elites in government agencies knew more than the common man, and especially the poor, ignorant, mostly Catholic “huddled masses” of immigrants flooding the country that were providing the industrial revolution’s cheap labor.
President Wilson with his Democrat controlled Congress was able to enact the 16th Amendment – the federal income tax – over Republican objections. The growth of the federal government, the taxes needed to fund it and the usurpation of our freedom and liberty mostly through the negation of the 9th and 10th Amendments hasn’t stopped since. Democrat institution of everything from FDR’s “New Deals,” Johnson’s “Great Society and War on Poverty” welfare programs, the Roe v Wade abortion ruling, to today’s Obamacare mandates and executive orders all run counter to what is actually written in the 229-year-old Constitution.
Jefferson’s warning about our Constitutional liberties yielding to government power was prescient and perhaps we should now heed Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater’s 1964 warning: “A government big enough to give you everything you want, is a government big enough to take away everything that you have.”
Greg Beck is a retired Army officer. He lives in Leavenworth.