September 17, 2012
To My Fellow Citizens:
It is Constitution Day again. Two-hundred-and-twenty-five years ago, on this day in 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Independence Hall in Philadelphia signed the document which, when ratified by the people, would become the “supreme Law of the Land.” This act was the culminating episode in the historic drama begun in the same hall 11 years earlier when the Declaration of Independence, appealing to the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” proclaimed to the world the experiment in self-government being inaugurated by the newly sovereign American people.
In 1776, the American Revolutionaries had pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to what Lincoln would later call America’s “philosophical cause.” At the heart of that cause was the central idea from which all other American political ideas radiate, the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal.” These most American words contain within themselves the idea of limited self-government—the idea of political freedom itself: All men are equally endowed with certain unalienable natural rights, governments are instituted with the limited purpose of securing these rights, and the just powers of government are derived from the consent of the governed.
In 1787-88, in the greatest constitutional conversation the world has yet seen, the American Framers would author and the American people would authorize a Constitution intended to establish forms through which Americans might more perfectly achieve the ends set forth in 1776. The Constitution would be an instrument by which the sovereign consent of the American people might govern not willfully, but reasonably, as the cool and deliberate sense of the country. Governing ourselves through the forms of the Constitution we would make ourselves a constitutional people, demonstrating to ourselves and to the world, as it had never been done, the capacity of mankind for self-government.
One-hundred years ago, in his successful 1912 presidential campaign under the banner of the “New Freedom,” Woodrow Wilson repudiated this American constitutionalism and the American Constitution itself as outmoded ideas that needed to be replaced by continually new ideas to fit continually new times. He repudiated the Founders’ appeals to the laws of nature and to natural rights in favor of the laws of evolution, the laws of History and Progress. More than any other figure, Wilson became responsible for bringing directly into American political life the idea of a “living constitution,” a constitution to complement a government whose powers must continually “evolve” and expand to meet continually evolving and ever-expanding needs. Wilson’s New Freedom was the first wave of progressivism in what would become in decisive respects a progressive century.
The New Freedom was soon followed by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, in which FDR, bringing up to date the famous first 10 amendments to the Constitution, proclaimed a “second Bill of Rights”—an “economic bill of rights”—that continues to set the progressive agenda to this day. These alleged “rights”—which include, among other desirable things, a well-paying job, recreation, a decent home, a good education, and adequate medial care—have in the eyes of progressives assumed constitutional status under the living constitution. They achieved the status of “entitlements,” not through any amendment procedure authorized by the Constitution, but through the mysterious amendment process of history with a capital H and progress with a capital P. To secure such vast entitlements, with which we are allegedly endowed by History and Progress, government must become vast—it must become the “welfare state,” which has replaced the limited constitutional government constructed by the Founders to secure our natural rights and the civil rights following from them.
A generation after Roosevelt’s New Deal, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society aimed not only to complete the New Deal, but to expand it immeasurably. “The Great Society,” said LBJ, “is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents . . . where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect . . . where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community. . . .” LBJ’s Great Society aimed not only to relieve all material needs, but to provide spiritual fulfillment to all Americans. To secure these hitherto unimaginable new entitlements would, of course, require government without limit. Limited constitutional government responsive to the cool and deliberate sense of the citizenry was buried under multiplying labyrinthine bureaucracies, staffed by supposed experts.
These three great waves of progressivism, each one offering new transformations of the Founders’ Constitution, justified by endlessly evolving History and Progress, constitute an evolutionary revolution that has in the course of a century made limited constitutional government in America almost invisible. “Hope and Change” was intended as the next progressive wave. Barack Obama’s promise just before his election in 2008 was perfectly in keeping with the spirit of his progressive predecessors: “We are five days away,” he vowed, “from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” He wasted no time proving he meant exactly what he said.
The determined progressivism of the new President and his party sparked a widespread movement among American citizens to restore limited constitutional government in America. The historic 2010 elections brought into office a House of Representatives that insisted in unprecedented ways on respect for the Constitution. The constitutional seriousness of this movement and this Congress was greeted by progressive politicians and intellectuals with arrogant contempt. The arrogance came from the essential progressive article of faith—the belief that, above all, beliefs must go unquestioned—that history with a capital H and progress with a capital P are irrevocable, that “you can’t turn back the clock.”
But this could not be true, if the moral and political axioms of the American Revolution and Founding are true. Self-government and political freedom are not a wind-up clock. Repealing the President’s disastrous progressive Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) would be one effective way of proving this point, among innumerable other possibilities that present themselves to citizens and their representatives who are not frightened by the bogeyman of “History” and “Progress,” and are determined and happy to think for themselves about what might be best for the country. And so, a constitutional conversation began.
This is the kind of conversation the American people characteristically have at pivotal moments in our history—about the foundations, purposes, scope, and form of our government, about the rights and duties of citizens, and the responsibilities of their representatives. This series of essays modestly hopes to contribute to this urgently necessary American conversation.