In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson
The Constitution of United States of America was signed on September 17, 1787. This year we will celebrate Constitution Day on Friday, September 16th. We’ve submitted two blog posts in honor of Constitution Day. Some of this has appeared in prior posts, but it seems fitting to repeat some points on a week that starts with memorials for 9/11 and ends with a celebration of our Constitution.
The design of the government under the Constitution was not haphazard. Our Founding Fathers understood that governments can oppress people. They knew it from their own experience—and they knew it from their extensive scrutiny of governmental forms throughout history. Concentrated power was more than dangerous … it was life threatening.
Concentrated political power frightened the Founders. They believed that only by limiting government could liberty survive the natural tendency of man to dictate the habits of other men. The balanced separation of power with checks was designed to prevent tyranny. Each branch was given delineated powers, and then each of these powers was limited and checked by another branch or entity. The system was purposely designed to slow governmental actions enough to allow due deliberation. This frustrates those who want the government to always “do something” about every problem, but it also hampers the government from doing something grievous that affects our life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.
The Constitutional Convention debated long and hard about whether to call out each power individually or, alternately, to list restrictions on general powers. Basically they had to decide whether to write down what the federal government could do or what the federal government could not do. Because they feared they might forget some crucial restrictions, the delegates decided it was safer to define the powers, instead of the limitations. Additionally, monarchies had general power, and since they had just escaped a monarchy, they would give their national government only clearly specified powers. This was the safer route because if they made an error, it would leave the authority closer to the people.
The national government was not restricted for all time to the enumerated powers. Non-enumerated powers were retained by the states or the people, but the Founders included an amendment process which the people could chose to use to delegate additional powers to the national government. The 16th Amendment is an illustrative example. Article I, Section 8 gave the national government the power to “lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises,” with the caveat that “all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.” The 16th Amendment expands national authority to “lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived,” which authorized the infamous income tax. It doesn’t matter if this was a good or ill-conceived expansion of national powers. What matters is that it was done in the proscribed manner defined within the Constitution, and thus is a legitimate expansion of national power. Unfortunately, this is a rare case of the national government receiving a legitimate expansion of power. In almost all other instances, Americans have witnessed authority simply being usurped by the national government.
We often hear laments that our politicians no longer honor their pledge to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. This is backward. The Constitution was never written for politicians. Our political leaders have no motivation to abide by a two hundred year old restraining order. Americans must enforce the supreme law of the land. The first outsized words of the Constitution read We the People. It’s our document. It was always meant to be ours, not the government’s. It is each and every American’s obligation to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.