Time Magazine’s cover story this week for the July 4th holiday is a nearly 5,000-word screed about the United States Constitution. The piece, titled, “One Document, Under Siege,” actually seeks to debunk the notion we are in a constitutional crisis. According to author Richard Stengel, the idea the Constitution is under attack is a right-wing myth. Since, as he points out, none of the founders could have envisioned the world in which we live today, we must, as liberal jurists have done for much of the last half century or more, reinterpret and re-write the Constitution to suit our current needs.
The object of his derision is not, however, so much the limitations of the Constitution’s authors, but those who defend it today against the forces seeking to grow our already out-of-control government: the Tea Party movement.
Stengel is correct when he says limiting the power of government was not the entire focus of the framers. The federal government had to be created first in order to be limited. So to say James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, the two men who were the driving forces behind the Constitution’s composition and its passage, wished to enhance the power of the federal government at the expense of the states is to merely state the obvious. But they also were very careful not to let any one branch, let alone one person, dominate the structure they so carefully erected. Their abhorrence of unchecked power, the hallmark of modern liberal governance, may seem quaint to those who believe the ideological fads of any moment ought to be able trump constitutional principles. Though it is true they could not have envisioned the challenges that face their successors in 2011, the guidelines they left behind still should inform our decisions. The vast expansion of entitlements and spending to feed the leviathan that our national government has become are contrary to the spirit of the Constitution in that they further diminish individual liberty and create unaccountable bureaucracies.
Time magazine is right when it says these debates are not new. Sometimes, as when Abraham Lincoln ran roughshod over the Constitution in order to defend it against a war launched by rebel secessionists, the innovators were correct. But most often, as is the case in our own day with government health care programs and other vast spending mandates which intrude upon individual rights, it is those who seek to stand firm on constitutional principles who are in the right.
The need to defend our constitutional liberties against intellectuals and politicians who believe they are so smart they ought to be allowed to tell us all what to do has never been greater. For all of the hunger that exists for free government money for entitlements, most Americans still believe they live in a country where the individual takes precedence over the collective. As we witnessed last year during the 2010-midterm elections, whether Time likes it or not, there is a vast constituency of Americans for whom such issues resonate.
On this 236th glorious Fourth of July in our history, it is an apt moment to recall the principles upon which our government was founded and to rededicate ourselves to their defense.