How should we interpret the Constitution?

Posted: September 23rd, 2010 by Gadget42

by Michael Maharrey, 10AC

The Constitution, when followed as intended by the framers, provides a bulwark against overreaching governmental power.

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Lord Acton wrote those words in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887. Acton was an English historian and political philosopher. He held a deep distrust of governmental power.

“The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern.”

Acton understood what few Americans seem to grasp today; concentrated power poses a grave danger to the liberties of the people. Even the well intentioned can easily slide down the slippery slope toward tyrannical behavior when placed in positions of authority.

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves, therefore, are its only safe depositories.”

The founders of the United States understood the dangers of concentrated power all too well. They lived with it and spilled blood to end it. As a result, they endeavored to create a government, framed by the Constitution, with limited power. Further, they divided those powers among three branches, creating a series of checks and balances.

The founder’s fears were quickly proved valid. The Alien and Sedition Acts passed in 1798, just 11 years after adoption of the Constitution, made it clear that federal power would tend to expand.

The problem stems from a tendency of those in power to stretch and pull on limits in order to satisfy their own ends. Each of us believe our ideas best. And while we may recoil at the notion of others imposing their ideas on us, we seldom fail to rationalize that our own program possesses such overriding benefit that a little coercion would be OK in that particular case. It’s for their own good, after all, we reason.

The recently passed federal health care legislation provides a vivid case in point. Most recognize the problems in our health care system. Most agree that changes are necessary. But to legitimize the huge federal power grab progressives deem necessary to fix the problem, proponents must bastardize the commerce and the general welfare clauses to an extent that virtually grants the federal government limitless power.

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

In the Virginia Resolution of 1798, a response to the Alien and Sedition Acts, James Madison warns of the dangers of expanding phrases beyond their original intent and meaning.

The General Assembly doth also express its deep regret, that a spirit has in sundry instances, been manifested by the federal government, to enlarge its powers by forced constructions of the constitutional charter which defines them; and that implications have appeared of a design to expound certain general phrases (which having been copied from the very limited grant of power, in the former articles of confederation were the less liable to be misconstrued) so as to destroy the meaning and effect, of the particular enumeration which necessarily explains and limits the general phrases; and so as to consolidate the states by degrees, into one sovereignty, the obvious tendency and inevitable consequence of which would be, to transform the present republican system of the United States, into an absolute, or at best a mixed monarchy.

In other words, the Constitution must mean what it means.

Constitutional interpretation is not as mysterious and complicated as many would like to make it. The founders, framers and ratifiers wrote volumes on the subject, revealing not only the meaning of each article, but the principles underlying the document itself.

Instead of interpreting the Constitution through the lens of a progressive “living breathing” framework, which quickly devolves into pragmatic justification for expanding powers, we must understand the Constitution through the eyes of its creators. Otherwise, the document loses all real meaning, ripping down the bulwark protecting our liberties.

Jefferson summed it up nicely.

“On every question of construction let us carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or intended against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.”

Michael Maharrey [send him email] is the state chapter coordinator for the Kentucky Tenth Amendment Center

Copyright © 2010 by TenthAmendmentCenter.com. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given

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