It would be a hopeful sign if the Senate could get away from its obsession with abortion on demand and consider, during its Supreme Court confirmation hearings, what the Constitution is and what it isn't.
Some people seem to be under the erroneous belief that the Constitution grants us our rights. It does no such thing. To understand the Constitution, you have to remember the Declaration of Independence, which preceded it by several years. It is the Declaration that contains the philosophy of the American Revolution. The Constitution merely implements that philosophy.
The philosophy of the American Revolution contains three basic premises. One is that rights come from God and are unalienable. Two is that men create governments to protect those rights. Three is that when government fails to protect those rights and becomes abusive of those rights, men have a right and even a duty to overthrow that government and create a new one.
Some Americans have so neglected their study of American history that the idea of violently overthrowing a government strikes them as, well, communist or some such. Of course, if the Founding Fathers had not violently overthrown the colonial government of Great Britain in North America, we would not be an independent nation.
If you read the Constitution with those three premises in mind (and both documents were written to be read by ordinary folks, not legal scholars), it makes perfect sense. The main part of the Constitution simply establishes the framework for the federal government and its three parts, defines their respective duties and establishes what the federal government can do and what the states can do. None of that has anything at all to do with individual rights or with social issues.
The Bill of Rights, which is a set of amendments added after ratification to reassure opponents of the Constitution that the new government would not usurp their rights, simply forbids the new federal government from abusing or abridging already-existing rights. The right to free speech and all the others existed prior to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The language of the First Amendment tells what the intent was: "Congress shall pass no law." Only the new federal government had a Congress.
The Second Amendment does not grant people the right to keep and bear arms. They already had and continue to have that right. It simply says the already-existing right cannot be abridged. You can't abridge something that doesn't exist. Remember, too, that the same people involved in the Constitution were involved in the Revolution. Obviously, if you believe people have a right to overthrow a government, then no government must be allowed to disarm them.
It is also good to keep in mind that the Constitution is a textual document, not a "living document." That was a false metaphor intended to provide cover for judges to legislate and amend by interpretation so that the Constitution would mean whatever they said it meant. Not so. It means what it says. It cannot be amended by interpretation or by Congress ignoring it, though modern politicians have committed both sins.
The Constitution is a written contract between the sovereign people and their government. It was ratified by the people, and only the people can change it through the amendment process. Every single American, liberal or conservative, should be fiercely adamant on that point. Otherwise, we have a nation of men, not of laws.
Finally, keep in mind that the Constitution was never intended to deal with moral and philosophical issues, such as abortion. The Founding Fathers properly left those to elected legislatures. That's why Roe v. Wade is a profoundly flawed decision. The court usurped the powers of the 50 state legislatures and, by interpretation, created a right to privacy that the words of the Constitution do not support.
It is said that when the Constitutional Convention ended, a lady asked Benjamin Franklin what kind of government they had given the people. "Madam, we have given you a republic — if you can keep it," was the reply. That is still an open question. If Americans continue to allow lawyers and academics to tell them what is so and not so, instead of thinking for themselves, then most surely we won't keep it.
September 19, 2005
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.
© 2005 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.