One of the greatest challenges in teaching History is to convey the uniqueness in its conception of something that through the passage of time has become an accepted part of everyday life. When something has been around longer than we have it’s hard to realize that it wasn’t always there. It takes a conscious effort to understand that yesterday wasn’t today only earlier and tomorrow won’t be today only later. The permanence of the now is an illusion which helps us walk as if the shifting sands of our lives are really the solid shore of the sea of time.
When Americans organize anything of importance they immediately write a construction. In most cases American organizations include a president, vice-president, and a legislative type board. From the classroom to the boardroom from Main Street to Wall Street this is just the way we do things. The idea that there needs to be a written constitution is assumed. And looking at our history this only makes sense. For hundreds of years and for generation after generation we have lived lives of peace, prosperity and power under the shade of the most remarkable secular document to have ever come from the hand of man, the Constitution of the United States.
The birth of our Constitution shines as an almost miraculous event in the story of mankind. From the beginning of time might had always made right. One strong arm after another elbowed their way to center stage. Once there eventually their descendants grown fat on the plunder of the helpless became in turn plunder for the next strong arm. Those who managed through the passage of time to become fixtures in their culture reigned as monarchs saying God gave them a divine right to continue plundering those under their sway conveniently forgetting it was the strong arm of their less noble ancestors that slaughtered their way to the top. They may have arrived in chariots, but they were chariots of steel not fire.
A few centuries before the founding of the English colonies in America the people of England began to put limits on their king. They used violence and economics to wrest the guarantees of some basic individual rights, the recognition that the king was not absolute, and that there were some checks upon his power. The Magna Charta, the Petition of Rights, and the Bill of Rights were snatched from the king’s chain-mailed fist. Through the passage of time they became the accepted rights of all Englishmen. And when our ancestors founded Virginia, the first among English colonies the charter granted by the king stated that those who came to the New World were granted all liberties, franchises and immunities as if they were abiding and born within England. The colonists believed this and acted accordingly. With loyalty to the King and Parliament they set about organizing the land. Local assemblies, republican in nature were democratically elected. And it was only when George III and his ministers seemed to have forgotten that the colonists had rights that Americans took up arms to secure those rights.
After the Revolution, when it came time to create a government the Framers turned to a written constitution. In the birth of nations this was something new. England does not have a written constitution. Ours was the first; a unique attempt to limit government in order to preserve liberty. Most constitutions in the world today model themselves after ours. And if their authors did not consciously model their written document after ours the very concept of a written constitution is of American origin.
This earth-shaking event has become mundane. This ground-breaking experience now seems so common it’s glossed over with the boring presentation of a high school history class, memorize some names and few dates, regurgitate it for a test and forget it. For the first time a people had founded a government of the people, by the people and for the people. And to ensure the tranquility and safety of the people they limited that government through the separation of power into three branches and the maintenance of a unique federal system of sovereign states united as one. This is the source and the summit of American greatness: the Constitution which established and maintained a limited government providing for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Using the ideals and moral standards of the present to interpret the past is known as Presentism. Using presentism as a lens, many citizens today believe the Constitution is a living document meant to be reinterpreted with each passing generation. Others echo the former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales point of view, “The Constitution is what the Supreme Court says it is.” Instead of changing the document through the established amendment process they believe they can change the document through court decisions, precedent and legislation.
Twenty-first century America has been called post-Christian, post-capitalist, and post-racial. I would suggest that if we continue on the path we’ve chosen the future may refer to twenty-first century America as post-constitutional. For if the leaders of the present can impose unconstitutional laws then we’ve ceased to have a government of laws and have instead a government of men. One Congressman summed up the arrogance of our leaders perfectly. When asked where in the Constitution he finds the authority to impose the burden of purchasing health care on the American people he answered, “I don’t worry about the Constitution.” Since he doesn’t we should.
Dr. Owens teaches History, Political Science, and Religion for Southside Virginia Community College and History for the American Public University System. http://drrobertowens.com © 2010 Robert R. Owens [email protected]