Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

Programs for Citizens

Letters from an Ohio Farmer

A Constitutional Conversation

February 10, 2011

To the Members of the 112th Congress:

I write in all humility as your sovereign—I mean as one of the millions of American citizens who together bear the ultimate responsibility for this land of freedom that you and we love. I write as your new session gets under way because I am convinced that this is a pivotal moment in our country’s history, when our choices and yours hold tremendous consequences for America’s future, for our children and grandchildren.

To begin your session, newly elected Republican members put the Constitution in the forefront of Congress’s deliberations— scheduling an unprecedented reading of the Constitution on the floor of the House and proposing that every bill be required to cite constitutional authority for its enactment. Some Democrats and some in the media criticized these actions. I would like to think that the actions and the criticism may be hopeful signs, that they may mark the beginning of a conversation in the country that is overdue—a long, probing conversation among friends, with no holds barred.

The people should be active participants in this conversation. In earlier fateful moments in the life of the country—the Revolution, the debate over the Constitution, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Era—the nation rose in serious and sustained argument about the foundations, purposes, scope, and form of our government. It seems to me that this is just the kind of conversation—a constitutional conversation in the broadest sense—that the country needs to have today. This is the first in a series of essays modestly hoping to contribute to this distinctly American conversation.

Who is the Ohio Farmer? He is not one person. In the manner of the Federalist Papers back in 1787-88, the Ohio Farmer letters will be written singly and jointly by different concerned citizens who would like their arguments to speak for themselves and to be judged on their merits. Like Publius, we candidly avow our political sympathies: We are partisans of the Constitution. But what does that mean? It is my hope in forthcoming letters to answer that question thoroughly.

To begin: it seems to me that one of the great errors of recent decades is the supposition that constitutional questions are matters only for lawyers and judges to decide. The Constitution begins with “We, the people,” not “We, the judges.” It belongs to all the people, and to all three branches of government. Thinking about the Constitution is a responsibility of our citizenship as it is of your statesmanship.

So, as you go about your business as members of Congress, it seems altogether fitting and proper not only to show reverence for the Constitution—or to criticize such shows of reverence, if you think that better serves the Constitution—but to express your own constitutional views as they bear upon your business—our business—and to argue in public on behalf of those views. This would seem to be fully in keeping with the oath you recently took to support and defend the Constitution, an oath I expect you will take with solemn seriousness, and in honor of which you will daily strive to make your conduct as legislators conform to the limitations and principles of the Constitution, as you understand them.

I am inclined to think that the best hope right now for developing a fruitful constitutional deliberation in the country arises from the political spirit of the citizenry that led to the historic recent elections. In those elections we expressed, I think, the greatest human power active in the world today, a power handed down to us—secured for us in revolution, preserved for us through civil war and world wars—through the generations since 1776. It is our constitutional responsibility to speak with such power—a power derivative from a source prior even to the Constitution, our fundamental right of revolution—and it is our constant prayer that our wisdom will somehow equal our authority. I think the freedom of this country, and the cause of freedom itself, depends on this prayer being favorably answered.

But, of course, we are not wise. As everyone has seen, we were roused in a historic way in these recent elections. In large numbers, we tore ourselves away from the private concerns of family and work to go into the public square, to join our neighbors in giving hours and days to the affairs we hold in common, to the common good of the country. But we brought our human and American limits and imperfections to these elections, as to all others.

We acted in some ways uncertainly and ambiguously and incompletely. We spoke with many millions of voices in several hundreds of separate elections just at the national level. And of course our minds will change as we see events unfolding and decisions being made in the coming months and years. That seems to be the nature of the sovereign you serve—not easy to please, often not easy to understand. But nonetheless the one you answer to and whose cool and deliberate sense you seek to represent.

So what did we mean in this election? What do we hope for from you? What do we have a right to expect from you? What does your and our constitutional duty require of us? In the course of these essays, which will appear weekly or with greater frequency as circumstances permit, I hope to consider conversationally these questions and the whole range of questions of mutual interest to sovereign citizens and their elected representatives.

But let me say again that I write in humility—humbled because the honor of being sovereign over this dear country is so great and the responsibility so momentous; humbled by my own limitations, limitations I and my fellow citizens readily acknowledge even while speaking, as we are bound to do, with sovereign gravity.

Ohio Farmer