Sunday, June 20, 2010

Founding Principles For Dummies

Sometimes people think that this nation's founding principles are inaccessible or difficult to understand. Actually, they are dead easy.

We have two main documents: The Declaration of Independence, and The United States Constitution. The Declaration of Independence (the preamble, mainly) describes the principles and values that the founders embraced (the why). The Constitution is the specification for the government that would implement those values (the how).

Here is the why:

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. --Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former systems of government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.

(Emphasis mine). The document then goes on to list the grievances against King George and the government of England. This is why we fought the American Revolution. I quoted the entire preamble, because it is as beautifully written English as I have ever seen.

The highlighted section describes the simple principles to be specified by the Constitution and implemented by the federal government. Thomas Jefferson (the primary author) asserts that it is a given that all men are created equal, and not birth station, race, or gender sets them apart. That they have unalienable rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, to name only three (the actual number is infinite, and cannot be listed). Unalienable means that no man and no government can bestow or deny these rights, because they belong to the individual.

Therefore, the only powers that a government has, must come from individual citizens delegating their authority to the government. The US Constitution enumerates the powers that each of the three branches government has -- about 26 in all. All the rest (an infinite number) belong to the states, or the people. Because the list is infinite, it is only possible to list the ones we grant to the government, and not the other way around. The states and the people ratified the US Constitution, thereby agreeing that We the People delegate to the federal government, 26 of our unalienable rights. For the government to take on more rights and responsibilities without officially amending the US Constitution would amount to usurpation and alienation of our rights.

Many of the states feared that politicians could not be trusted not to usurp their authority. There was fear that some states would not ratify the Constitution without a Bill of Rights. James Madison, the primary author of the Constitution, felt that the enumerated powers and the consent of the governed would be sufficient to prevent usurpation. He felt that listing certain rights would focus attention on those rights, and thereby make usurpation of other rights just that much more likely. Madison relented; therefore, the first ten amendments comprise the Bill of Rights. Just to make sure, though, the tenth amendment says,

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
Re-iterating Madison's contention that the government can only assume rights and responsibilities delegated to it by We the People.

It turns out, James Madison was right: Over the past 100 years, the federal government has usurped rights without our consent; without any corresponding constitutional change granting that power. Politicians' lust for power and control is so pervasive that enormous bureaucracies have usurped so many liberties, that we are now fighting just to protect the scraps in the Bill of Rights. For example, the first and second amendments are in serious danger with things like the Orwellian "fairness doctrine", "net neutrality" and gun control.

The Constitution Is a "Living Document" -- Not!

As an outgrowth of the post-modernist movement (the philosophy that there is no objective truth, and that everything is relative), comes the "progressive" claim that the US Constitution is a "living document". Post-modernism raises self-serving B.S. to the level of an academic philosophical movement that claims that everything means pretty much whatever you want it to mean -- even things written in the past by authors who had a very specific meaning in mind. Post-modernists claim that it is possible to "discover" meaning that even the original author did not envision. It strikes me more as a license to make stuff up, than any sort of rigorous discipline.

I don't know if post-modernism grew out of a conscious effort to deconstruct the Constitution, or if "progressives" picked up on post-modernism as a tool to misrepresent its original intent. I have to doubt that even the "progressives" believe that the Constitution is a living document, though they might have convinced themselves through constant repetition.

One has to wonder, though, what use any constitution is, if it can mean whatever anybody wants it to mean -- in particular, those in power. What protection does it afford against tyranny? Balancing liberty and government power was the original intent of the Constitution. Deconstructing the Constitution renders it inoperative, and endangers everyone's liberty. If parts of the Constitution have become obsolete, we amend it according to the procedures specified therein -- by the consent of the governed.

The Slavery Issue

"Progressives" like to argue that the founders were hypocrites for all this lofty talk about liberty, yet they owned slaves. This argument is so easily refuted, that I find it interesting that they still use it. However, most people are not familiar with any evidence to the contrary. Why is something so important not taught in school?

John Adams recalled in 1822, how the Continental Congress arrived at the decision to have Thomas Jefferson draft the Declaration of Independence:

The subcommittee met. Jefferson proposed to me to make the draft. I said, 'I will not,' 'You should do it.' 'Oh! no.' 'Why will you not? You ought to do it.' 'I will not.' 'Why?' 'Reasons enough.' 'What can be your reasons?' 'Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can.' 'Well,' said Jefferson, 'if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.' 'Very well. When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting.'

A meeting we accordingly had, and conned the paper over. I was delighted with its high tone and the flights of oratory with which it abounded, especially that concerning Negro slavery, which, though I knew his Southern brethren would never suffer to pass in Congress, I certainly never would oppose.

(Emphasis mine). Well, I had never heard about this before. What did Jefferson say about slavery? A few seconds after Googling "declaration of independence first draft", I had this. Near the end of the list of grievances, Jefferson writes:
he [King George] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
Those do not sound like the words of a man who endorses slavery! I never saw that in school! What I do see is all kinds of sordid innuendo about Thomas Jefferson and his slaves by "progressive" historians. Why then, did Jefferson own slaves? Well, life isn't simple. He inherited them. Jefferson knew that he could not simply free his slaves without a viable environment to release them into.

The reality is that it was politically unfeasible to abolish slavery at the time of the revolution. Before we could do that, we had to win our independence. Then we had to get a Constitution ratified. Neither of which could have happened if the founders had forced the slavery issue. Even with the principles of liberty and freedom in the founding documents, it nearly destroyed this country when we finally did get around to it. The United States was one of the first nations officially to abolish slavery. The founders were among the first to propose the ideas of individual liberty and self-government, implying the abolition of slavery as part of a system of government. It took a while for policy to catch up in practice.

The founding documents are crucial to our continued liberty and protection from tyranny. The US Constitution is still the official specification for our United States. It protects liberty and justice for all, your individual liberty and your property rights. Any regime that distorts or disregards its original intent is untrustworthy and dangerous.

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