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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
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If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

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:

I believe that strict adherence to the Constitution is necessary in determining the law. However, many skeptical citizens question the validity of a document they view as archaic and detached from modern culture... By resolutely promoting the ability of the Constitution to serve as the basis for modern jurisprudence, I will restore the public's faith in the law.

May it be so, Ms. Faris. May it be so.

Tony Woodlief is president of the Bill of Rights Institute.  

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