The Austin Chronicle

Page Two: Constitutional Conventions

A document birthed in controversy is understood by few and respected by fewer

By Louis Black, June 9, 2006, Columns

In the past week, on television, I saw both a politician and a preacher make reference to the signing of the Constitution in 1776. Unfortunately for them, that was the Declaration of Independence. This is not just simplistic nitpicking; a relatively accurate grasp of history is crucial to understanding the Constitution's purpose, as well as the final draft's design.

The American Revolution ended in 1781 at the Battle of Yorktown, though the peace treaty wasn't finished until 1783. In 1777, the Second Continental Congress had passed the Articles of Confederation (not ratified until 1781), which established this country as a confederation of 13 largely independent states, each with its own essentially autonomous government. Ideologically and practically, although from the country's founding there were those in favor of a more centralized government, overwhelmingly the population's loyalty was to its states; most of the population viewed a federal government as a nearly George III-esque intrusion.

Almost as soon as the Articles passed, problems with the Confederation's attempt to function as a nation of 13 political entities became apparent. Among the most pressing of these problems were international, as well as intrastate, political, and economic relations; the need for a single currency; how to politically develop U.S.-controlled territories; and the massive debts owed by each of the states, as well as by the Confederation itself.

The Articles had already been amended several times when the Constitutional Convention was convened in Philadelphia in May of 1787 in order to attempt a substantial and permanent repair. Only seven states were represented at first; that was just enough for a quorum. The need for a centralized government and for the states to be made whole politically must have been overwhelmingly obvious. As controversial as it must have been, the Convention soon abandoned the Articles, drafting instead a Constitution and mandating a more powerful central government. The battle lines formed between the Federalists, who favored a strong national government, and the Anti-Federalists, who acknowledged the need for redrafting the Articles but were opposed to the Constitution. Along with this major issue, there was an astonishing number of other disagreements, representing a vast diversity of conflicting opinions, both between these two factions and, even more, within their separate ranks.

Drafting the document was contentious, with things often looking as though they would fall apart, saved only by bitterly negotiated compromises. When the Constitution was finally drafted, no one was entirely happy with it.

Then, for the document to take effect, nine states had to ratify it. There were numerous leaflets, newspaper editorials, and speeches arguing one side or the other. Finally, it was ratified (eventually by all the states, except Rhode Island and North Carolina).

I'm going into this detail because central to the Constitution is that not only is it a document birthed in controversy, compromise, and ideological restraint; it is also one that represents nothing so much as an extraordinarily brilliant attempt to preserve and perpetuate those conditions.

The Constitution actually does little more than structure three separate but equal branches of government, define each branch's powers, and then specifically delineate the powers of the states and the federal government, as well as the relationship between them.

Consistently and concurrently with those definitions, it clearly and intentionally sets up a system of checks and balances designed to make it not too difficult to stall or even derail governmental direction, whether driven by one branch in conflict with the others or by all harmoniously together.

The Constitution's focus on these limited areas is emphasized by the Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments to the Constitution) – driven by the Anti-Federalists' commitment to responsive, representative government and their accompanying concern about one that was too centralized, powerful, and controlling. Equality of all citizens, as is made clear in the body of the Constitution, is brought home in the Bill of Rights. Economic and social differences between classes were not concerns at the time, nor were they addressed, but distinctions or inequalities within the public arena were – especially in regard to any class-specific privileges or restrictions. The document does not just confirm the equality of all citizens. It specifically denies and disallows any and all inequalities, differences, and conveyed or vested privileges when it comes to citizenship, politics, immunities, rights, and the law. There is no single group, class, religion, or ideology that is on a different level from any of the others. The broad idea was governance by constant, argumentative discussion, negotiation, and compromise. Ideally, almost all citizens should be unhappy with the government some, perhaps much, or even all, of the time.

Unfortunately, the Constitution, as a living, ever-renewing document, has been ignored, sidestepped, or denied. Turning their backs on this truly great document, today's so-called conservatives have instead demonstrated surprisingly unquestioning, partisan support of our current administration. The president and his party have become more important than the Constitution's philosophical intent.

Not just standing by, right-wing true-believers have been, and continue to be, enthusiastic and vocal cheerleaders for the current administration's ambitions to elevate the power of the presidency, diminish the effect of the judiciary, and abridge the constitutional rights of all citizens – especially in regard to dissent, due process, and enfranchisement.

But the attack is not just from the right. One of the most striking things about the Constitution is not just its clear distrust of direct democracy, but the consequent protections against it, built in throughout the document – not just in its insistence on the balance of power, but also in its clear distancing of the president, Congress, and judiciary from public opinion and shifting national mood.

"Democracy" is one of those sacrosanct terms that, simply by being uttered, atmospherically encapsulates and deflates discussions. Being "pro-democracy" is good, as this position supports the power of the people as determining participants in government. Conversely, "anti-democratic" ambitions are evil, as that term implies a desire for inequality and the arbitrary imposition of law and power.

Yet not so fast; stop and take a moment to consider. Sex is about as sacred as the human experience gets. Yet, rendered pornographically, it can be morally corrupting, spiritually debasing, personally destructive, and profoundly inhumane. In an analogous way, direct democracy and citizen-championed legislative propositions sound like ambitious acts of democratic purification but actually represent its corruption and negation.

Whereas when drafting the Constitution the founders were clearly concerned with the issues of power gained by bloodline and vested privilege, there was equal trepidation among them about the fickle nature of public opinion, accompanied by a genuine fear of "mob" rule.

The United States was cast as a constitutional republic, rather than a democracy, very specifically to remove government from the mundane fray, protecting it from demagoguery and capricious whims by limiting the direct ability of voters to influence or override legislators. The Constitution assumes that elected officials will operate in the country's best interests. It is designed to give them plenty of insulation, in order to deliberate and legislate according to what they consider best for the United States and its people, no matter how controversial or unpopular their actions.

Obviously, many sitting legislators do not fulfill this constitutional idea. Sorry – it is not because they are inherently or have been corrupted; it is because they are human beings with human traits. It is time to stop focusing solely on the flaws of the government and those who do the governing, as though they are inherently aberrant, immoral, and diseased. The proposition that if only dogs and cats gave milk like cows, life would be easier, is no more fantastic and irrational than expecting human beings to act like noble, imaginary saints. It isn't going to happen; nor should it.

The seemingly overwhelming, all-too-human, and now systemic failures in governance, administration, and implementation of universal social, economic, and political equality do not demean the noble experiment of the United States of America. The genius of the Constitution and this country is in how far it has gone toward allowing a vast, inherently disparate, ideologically, religiously, and morally diffuse and diverse population to live as much as it does in negotiated, agreed-upon civic harmony.

The past is more than a fiction; it is a lie.

People are constantly lamenting how this nation and the world have changed for the worse. This is reactionary romanticism, a pasteurized, homogenized, idealized Dick-and-Jane version of America's past – when doors were left unlocked, families went to worship together, and towns looked liked Norman Rockwell as rendered by Currier and Ives. At some point I will go into this much more.

The future is unknowable.

The present is misunderstood, out of focus, and more mundanely distorted than a warped fun-house mirror.

The truly remarkable and almost completely neglected miracle is how well our government has worked and how representative it is. The bedrock of this country is the Constitution. Everyone pays it lip service; fewer read it, and even fewer really respect it.

The right has mounted a frontal, all-out assault on most of the values and rights that define us. But promoting term limits, campaign-finance reform, the abolition of gun ownership, legislation by citizen-originated and -approved propositions, and casual impeachment, among any number of other issues, finds the left not very far behind. end story

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