The Timely Constitution
Adults may not know whether the Constitution matters, but thankfully some students do.
12:00 PM, Jul 4, 2011 • By TONY WOODLIEF
Time magazine is nothing if not direct. Featuring a picture of the Constitution, the bottom half of which has been run through a shredder, today’s cover asks: “Does it Still Matter?”
Inside the magazine, Time Managing Editor Richard Stengel spends nearly 5,000 words explaining that it kind of does, except when it doesn’t, though who is to say when, exactly, because it doesn’t tell us anything specific about terrorists and health care and collateralized debt.
It’s a dull method of eliding the question, to argue that a principle doesn’t give specific direction, since that is the whole point of a principle in the first place. To argue, as Stengel does, that we can’t know what James Madison would have thought about Obamacare because people in his day used leeches, is sophomoric.
But wait, I’m being unfair to sophomores. For the past five years, we at the Bill of Rights Institute, an education non-profit devoted to teaching students about the words and ideas of America’s Founders, have conducted a nationwide essay contest to ask high-school students what it means to be an American. Over 80,000 students, representing every state in the union, have written essays describing the principles that make America unique. After reading Mr. Stengel’s assertions, we decided to turn to some of our student essays to see what they might say in reply.
In response to Stengel’s claim, for example, that the Constitution “sure doesn’t say” that it was intended to limit the federal government, Kansas student Timothy Cahill, Jr. rightly observes that this is precisely what the founders intended:
Where Stengel writes that “a constitution in and of itself guarantees nothing,” New Jersey student Sashwat Chugh says:
To Stengel’s argument that “we cannot let the Constitution become an obstacle to the U.S.'s moving into the future with a sensible health care system, a globalized economy, an evolving sense of civil and political rights,” we find a rebuttal in the essay of Pennsylvania student Ryan Shymansky, who understands the solutions to America’s ills lie not with a federal government that needs unshackling from the Constitution, but with individual citizens whose entrepreneurialism is protected by that self-same Constitution:
Likewise does California student Michael Tharratt dispense with the notion that its the Constitution holding us back from a good and prosperous future:
Stengel does admirably end his Time essay with a stirring notion, which is that “the Constitution does not protect our spirit of liberty; our spirit of liberty protects the Constitution.” There is certainly truth in the second clause, though if the Founders thought all that was needed was a spirit of liberty, they wouldn’t have bothered with a Constitution or Declaration of Independence in the first place. This is why James Madison famously wrote about the necessity of a constrained government in Federalist Paper #51:
And that spirit of liberty is flagging, arguably because government has stretched so far beyond the boundaries intended by the Founders. In a national Harris Interactive survey commissioned by the Bill of Rights Institute last year, we found that nearly one in five Americans believe Karl Marx’s famous dictum, “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs,” can be found in the Bill of Rights. Among young people, thankfully, only six percent made that mistake.
Perhaps even worse, sixty percent of Americans couldn’t identify the fact that our government derives its powers from we citizens as a feature that distinguishes this nation from most others. Richard Stengel may be willing to count on the spirit of liberty to protect the Constitution, but as for me, I like Madison’s “auxiliary precautions,” which is to say the divided and limited government delineated by the U.S. Constitution.
Stengel looks at the Constitution and sees an important document that has served its purpose in the American past, but which can’t be allowed to obstruct our future. He seems to believe that the world has changed beyond the capacity of constitutional principles to keep up. But these principles were first and foremost about man’s relationship to man, and to his government. Our problems may have changed, but our nature has not. We are still self-interested and short-sighted, and prone to forming groups for the purpose of taking things from one another.
And our politicians, regrettably, too often reflect the worst of those human tendencies. Does the Constitution still matter? So long as men are not angels, Madison would reply.
Stengel’s desire for a Constitution that does not get in the way of his policy preferences is not uncommon, of course, as our students -- thanks to the good work of the thousands of teachers who use our curricula in their classrooms -- well know. Missouri student and aspiring Supreme Court Justice Nora Faris noted as much in her essay:
May it be so, Ms. Faris. May it be so.
Tony Woodlief is president of the Bill of Rights Institute.