There is an argument that seems to resurface repeatedly that the Constitution has failed, and, as a result, American politics are out of control. I have seen these arguments posited by journalists, professors, and Supreme Court justices. The standard argument declares two failed intentions for the Constitution: The Constitution was intended to (1) limit the power of government over the citizenry and (2) limit the power of each branch of government.
However, the purpose of the Constitution as expressed by the drafters and ratifiers is not to “limit” the central government but to “define its limits.” And that distinction is critical. Much like a stop sign defines the place at which a vehicle must stop, yet no stop sign has ever stopped a vehicle.
James Madison, historically referred to as The Father of the Constitution, described these boundaries in Federalist #45: “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined…will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected.”
Madison, knowing that it is impossible for the Constitution itself to limit anything at all, posits this rhetorical question: “Will it be sufficient to mark, with precision, the boundaries of these departments, in the constitution of the government, and to trust to these parchment barriers against the encroaching spirit of power?”
Madison refers to the Constitution as a “parchment barrier,” a mechanism of mere ink and paper. He knew that the Constitution had no power of its own and, therefore, could not limit the power of the government over the citizenry.
The Constitution could not prevent the branches of government from expanding their own power beyond the grant of the document. The Constitution could not prevent one branch from taking power from other branches. If it could, then we could rightly blame the document for allowing what we see today.
John Adams, as he was addressing the Massachusetts Militia in 1798, knew like Madison that this was not so. Adams understood clearly where the blame would lie and that it would not be with an inanimate parchment that had the simple task of directing animate actors where to stop: “We have no Government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by morality and Religion. Avarice, Ambition Revenge or Galantry, would break the strongest Cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Adams was warning that unless the people are moral and constrained by a higher moral authority, the nature of the Constitution would not and indeed COULD NOT be an obstacle, nor any limit at all, if those in government wanted to ignore it for their own power, greed, or ambitions. Adams is alluding to the real and tangible limit to government, and it’s not the words on a piece of paper, it is the PEOPLE collectively who have chosen not to adhere to those words.
If we look out and see failure in the halls of government and across the political landscape, it is not the Constitution that failed us, it is we who have failed the Constitution. No rational person blames a clearly printed, well-placed stop sign for a driver who fails to press the brake pedal.
In the “Anti-federalist” document titled Letter From a Federal Farmer to the Republican #6, we see that the drafters of the Constitution expected the “jealousy and vigilance” of the People to be the guardians and limits of government power, as the “strongest guard against the abuses of power.”
Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist #33: “If the federal government should overpass the just bounds of its authority and make a tyrannical use of its powers, the people… must appeal to the standard they have formed, and take such measures to redress the injury done to the Constitution…”
It ought to be obvious by now it is not the Constitution that has failed, it is the People who have failed to maintain the limited and defined federal government the Constitution created. Why do corporate lobbyists control our federal representatives, senators, and presidents? Because the people have failed to control their representatives, and the representatives, lacking knowledge and virtue, refuse to be controlled.
The people have failed to enforce the limits of the Constitution and have failed to be their own lobbyists for Liberty and Individual Rights.
KrisAnne Hall is a constitutional attorney and former prosecutor. Read full article at krisannehall.com.
The Language of Liberty series is an outreach project of Center for Self Governance to educate citizens in the principles of liberty. The views expressed by authors are their own and may not reflect the views of CSG.