“We the people of the United States of America, in order to form a more perfect union…”
Initially, the delegates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, no doubt were concerned that the 13 little countries that were the states would cooperate better under a single Federal government that would be more secure and more efficient than the fragile “league of perpetual friendship” offered under the original Articles of Confederation.
But it’s also the point of our original national motto found on the Great Seal of the United States; “E pluribus unum” which in Latin means, “out of many, one.”
We are not all Germans, or Spaniards or Magyars (Hungarians). We are a nation of immigrants. We are English, Dutch, French, Russian, Italian, Polish, Greek, Lithuanian, Senegalese, Chinese, Portuguese, Korean, Malaysian, Nigerian, Somalian, and don’t forget Sioux, Navajo, Inuit and Cherokee. Americans are by our very definition, a blend, a mix, a hybrid.
We need to come together in spite of our differences, political, religious, philosophical, linguistic, cultural, gender, age and economic. Singles have different interests than couples and families. Retirees have different interests than children or those of working age. Civilians have different needs than military personnel. Rural has different needs than urban. Urban different than suburban.
But somehow we still need to overcome out differences, hash-out and negotiate compromises until we settle on common-ground so that we can coexist and better yet work together toward common goals… goals like, oh I dunno, just grasping for anything here… “justice, domestic tranquility, common defense, the general welfare,” and just maybe “the blessings of liberty.”
United we stand, divided we fall. There’s power in numbers. We’re all in this together.
Sure we all want to be independent, but to remain independent, we need to lean into our interdependence for the sake of our common goals and interests.
I’ll tolerate debate and discussion about degrees of sharing and balance, but be careful when toying with concepts like nullification, interposition and especially secession because Americans gave their last full measure of devotion to help maintain this union.
Best selling business author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek is making a mint lately talking about his “golden circle.” In the outer ring is WHAT you do. The next ring in is HOW you do it. The bull’s eye target of his circle is the WHY. Why do you do what you do?
Sinek’s secret has even been making big buzz in the Ed biz among teachers hoping to motivate students to learn. Over 240 years ago in Philadelphia the founding fathers were also focused on why.
Lots of Social Studies and Government teachers point out to their students that the U.S. Constitution contains six principles including; popular sovereignty, federalism, separation of powers, checks-and-balances, judicial review and limited government.
These are vital to understanding the Constitution, but I’d argue that these six principles are the WHAT. The Preamble of the Constitution provides the WHY.
If you don’t have the 70’s School House Rock song memorized, you owe it to yourself to try. Why? (pun intended) Because the Preamble is our national Mission Statement.
You know how many businesses (usually motels and restaurants) hang a mission statement behind their from counters? Think of the Preamble as “Our Promise to our customers” or “Our pledge to you.” We the people can use the six principles found in the Preamble to hold our representatives accountable.
Everything we do as a country ought to align with these six goals. Always ask yourself if any given bill, law, program or policy promotes at least one of these six principles. Ask if anything our leaders do or promise impedes or prevents us from reaching any of these goals.
- Form a more Perfect Union
- Establish Justice
- Insure Domestic Tranquility
- Provide for the Common Defense
- Promote the General Welfare
- Secure the blessings of Liberty
It’s a short list. I bet ya could memorize it pretty easily. Because this is what the Constitution is all about, Charlie Brown!
These are the promises of out social contract, these are our shared-principles which make us one nation, since our nation (unlike others) isn’t based on common ethnicity or lineage. We don’t share bloodlines, we share principles. These are what we claim to fight for, not just fighting to show we’re the greatest or for something vague and unspecific like “our rights” or “freedom” or “our way of life.” These six principles are the she specific forms which rights and freedoms or “the American Way” take.
My hope is to have six more blog posts, one about each principle.
After studying the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence, I showed my 8th grade classes the Broadway musical ‘1776.’ James Wilson seemed like the weak side-kick to the film’s villain, going along with everything the Tory loyalist said or did- but it turns out, he wasn’t such a wuss after all.
Don’t be too quick to “judge” Judge James Wilson, delegate from Pennsylvania just because he seemed like John Dickinson’s wanna-be in the move ‘1776.’ On reason it seemed that way is that he studied law under Dickinson when he immigrated to Philadelphia from Scotland in 1765.
Before you choose to remember him as the guy who reluctantly cast the final vote on Independence because he DIDN’T want to be remembered, remember this: In 1774 he published a pamphlet that asserted “all power is derived from the people- their happiness is the end of government.” (Maybe not as big as Thomas Paine’s ‘Common Sense,’ but more like Jefferson’s take on the Social Contract than not.
He wound up being a BIG player at the Constitutional Convention. In fact, only one delegate spoke more than Wilson. Wilson believed that the American people should get to vote directly for President, whereas a lot of delegates thought the President should be appointed by Congress. He also thought that we should get to vote directly for both Representatives & Senators (until the 17th Amendment inn 1913, Senators were appointed by state legislators).
In 1789 George Washington appointed Wilson one of our first Supreme Court Justices. So much for being a wishy-washy shy guy.
After studying the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence, I showed my 8th grade classes the Broadway musical ‘1776.’ John Dickinson seemed like the film’s villain, opposing John Adams every chance he got- but it turns out, he wasn’t such a bad guy after all.
Remember this guy, Pennsylvania delegate John Dickinson who almost sunk the Declaration? He showed courage by enlisting in the army to fight on the American side, even though he opposed independence. Guess what- before he left, HE WROTE THE ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION! Be that as it may, he went on to become governor of BOTH Pennsylvania and Delaware and attended the Constitutional Convention in 1787 because he himself recognized that the Articles of Confederation were too weak!
I don’t know about you, but this election season it’s been driving me crazy whenever presidential candidates or their supporters accuse each other of ignoring the Constitution or promising to stand for the Constitution in ads and stump speeches but then support proposals or policies which are diametrically opposed to Constitutional principles or worse, flagrantly violate people’s Constitutional rights.
So if you’ve got a minute, here’s a quick review of some of your Constitutional rights as explained by an Eighth grade Civics teacher. Now, if you don’t trust me or come to this blog with your own set of political perceptions, by all means, I urge you to read the amendments for your self- here’s a convenient link to let you do so.
Two quick things before we begin- Let’s face it, people of good conscience are allowed to disagree; keep in mind at all times that individual voters, politicians, their parties, Constitutional law professors and the U.S. Supreme Court all have different interpretations of all of these rights and amendments. Also it’s important to remember that Amendments ARE part of the Constitution. To amend is to alter or change, so when we’re talking about the amendments we’re talking about Constitutional rights, not something separate or different or in addition to the Constitution, this stuff IS the Constitution.
- The 1st Amendment- includes freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly & petition
- Lots of people get confused by the religion part, perhaps because it’s so important or perhaps because everyone seems to not want others to tell them what they should believe but at the same time everyone also seems to want to tell everyone else what they should believe. It’s a control issue. Here’s how it breaks down:
- The “Establishment Clause” says that the government is not allowed to endorse any one religion over another. There is no official religion of America. Taxes don’t pay to to support churches and public schools aren’t supposed to take advantage of their captive audiences to try to convert their students. After eons of religious wars in England and Europe, Americans thought they might give pluralism a try. So in a way, there is freedom from religion.
- The “Free-Exercise Clause” on the other hand says that the government may not prevent you from believing what you believe, how you believe it or exercising your faith whenever, wherever, however. I tell students to feel free to discuss their faith and even to pray, I just can’t initiate or lead the prayer since I’m a public school teacher and just like any other topic, if I try to facilitate the discussion, it’s just going to be to make sure it’s pertinent to what we’re learning about and doesn’t pose a substantial disruption. The establishment clause doesn’t preclude the exercise clause and vice versa.
- Like all the other rights I’m about to talk about, the best way to protect your rights is to protect the rights of others. If as a Lutheran. Methodist or a Catholic, I don’t want Pentecostals, Southern Baptists, 7th day Adventists or Mormons telling me I have to believe everything they believe, I kinda have to allow Jews, Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, Muslims, Amish, secularists, atheists, agnostics, Wiccans, and even Satanists to believe what they want to believe. That’s the hard thing about living in a pluralistic society. As a Christian myself, I tend to lean on Jesus’ parable of the weeds and wheat growing in the same field (see Matthew 13:24-30) to help me with this one. Like so many other things in life, it’s all about control, I don’t want you trying to control me, so I guess I’m better off not trying to control you. If I really believe God is in control, does He really need my help? See, that whole omnipotent thing kinda puts me in my place… anyway-
- Freedom of Speech- does not mean say whatever you want, however you want to whomever you want whenever you want. The First Amendment does not protect you from the consequences of your tactlessness and it can’t protect you in a civil suit if you’re accused of slander (deliberately spreading lies about someone in order to hurt their reputation). However, it DOES mean, that you ARE free to speak your mind on political, social, economic, cultural and religious matters without fear of being locked up, exiled, or otherwise punished or persecuted by the government. We ARE allowed to criticize public figures and officials and their positions, policies, and programs. We’re not necessarily allowed to incite violence or bully or harass people.
- BTW FYI over the last couple hundred years the Supreme Court has really expanded “Speech” into “Freedom of Expression,” so yard signs, bumper stickers, hair styles, music, piercings, tattoos, clothing, holiday decorations on your house, yadda yadda yadda pretty much all covered.
- ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM- Campaign finance reform, Political Action Committees (PACs) and Super Paces, & “Dark Money”- in 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court Case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Court declared that money IS speech and that corporations are at least “associations of citizens” so Republican candidate Mitt Romney wasn’t just talking out of his a** (pardon my French) when he told one voter at the Iowa State Fair back in 2012 that “corporations ARE people, my friend.” The problem with this decision is that while at one level it is logical to conclude that campaign contributions are a way of expressing one’s beliefs and therefore protected by the First Amendment, it ought to be glaringly obvious to anyone that some people have a helluva lot more freedom of speech then others making this decision horrifically unfair to the vast majority of Americans. Meanwhile state governors like Minnesota’s Scott Walker and others work to revoke collective bargaining rights of public employees and undermine unions so that wealthy investors have power in numbers through corporate investing or interest groups, but most poor, working class and middle class people don’t have the means to pool their resources. Sorry for being so blatantly nonobjective on this one, I hope that even if you disagree with obvious bias, I’ve helped explain the controversy with ‘Citizens United’ a little.
- Freedom of the Press- This is incredibly important not just so that we have the right to publish what we think, feel & believe, but perhaps even more importantly, so that we can have access to a variety of ideas and opinions. Mark Twain once said, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” One might paraphrase this today to say that the person who only gets their news from one news source (say a TV network) but refuses to listen to any other outlets and doesn’t want to be bothered by looking up anything to read about the issues is pretty much allowing themselves to be brainwashed. Oh, um, sorry, got a little carried away there. Got that subjective momentum going in the last paragraph and it can be hard to turn off. Point is this- in a participatory representative democracy like ours, voters need to be informed in order to make the best decisions. If you have a vast buffet in front of you but all you eat are hot dogs, you’ll end up malnourished.
- PS- Time and technology have probably evolved this right as much as the Supreme Court has. Let’s face it, in 1791 freedom of the press was for publishers who ran printing presses. Today we generally assume that “the Press” is synonymous with the media. But these days all of us are self- publishing every time we blog, micro-blog, comment, post and perhaps even when we text and email.
- Freedom peaceably to assemble- Like speech and press, this has been expanded to mean freedom of association. In other words, it’s not just about attending a protest march or a sit-in. It also means belonging to a union, a political party, a movement, a special interest group, caucus, club, organization or religion. So as a matter of fact, as much as some of us may not like it, Americans DO have the right to be Communist, or Muslim or White supremacist. The Tea Party, the #OccupyWallStreet and the #BlackLivesMatter movements are all covered by this right, but so are the NRA, the AARP, the NAACP, and the 4-H and FFA.
- And finally the right to petition the government for redress of grievances– These words are eighteenth century legal jargon that in plain 21st century English mean to ask the government to help make things right. Petition= to ask or request. Redress=”to correct (something that is unfair or wrong*).” Grievance= feeling like you’ve been treated unfairly. (*see http://www.merriam-webster.com).
- More bias on my part- it’s pretty hard to ask the government to help you if you dismantle that government. I agree to a degree with limited government, but I don’t agree with eliminating it or making it so powerless that it can’t help you. A lot of politicians use fear to get us to vote for them. Not just fear of terrorists, but fear of the government, as if it is an entity unto itself and that entity is our greatest enemy. But WE are our government- thus the words ‘We the People.’ Government itself is an instrument, apparatus, infrastructure- a TOOL for people to collectively work together toward common goals. That’s why I get irritated when politicians tell us that you can’t trust government- they’re saying that they don’t trust US! Don’t they agree with President Lincoln that government is OF the people, BY the people, and FOR the people?
- So BEWARE most of the time when people start talking loudly about the Constitution, they actually would be opposed to the Constitution if the Constitutional Convention were held today. Whether it’s to protect corporations & the wealthy from regulation, promote what they see as states rights or personal liberty or justify their latent bigotry- most of them could actually be classified as anti-federalists or even pro confederacy. Maybe they even THINK that they support the United States or the Constitution, but anyone who is opposed to equality, civil rights or social contract theory are actually opposed to the most basic Constitutional principled. It may be hyperbole to accuse them of treason or even of lying- but I think that when they tout their allegiance to and reliance on the Constitution, as Inigo Montoya in the ‘Princess Bride’ might say, “you keep on using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.” Frankly, if they’re opposed to Constitutional principles, I wish they’d just own that and be honest with themselves and the rest of us about it.
Once again, my “quick” examination has gotten a lot longer than I intended (and this time, WAY more opinionated that I had intended) be that as it may, I hope it’s gotten you thinking about some of the things that politicians claim to be talking about, when they pretend to be upholders of the Constitution. Next time, Amendments 2-26.
A number of Presidential candidates and their supporters will often accuse the current administration of destroying the Constitution and promising to restore the Constitution if they are elected. It seems to me that perhaps while they carry around a copy in their suit pocket, under their flag pin, they either haven’t given it much more than a glance or they’re in denial about what some of it means. Frankly, I sometimes suspect that they’re only giving it lip service so that they can accuse others of disrespecting it and make themselves sound like they themselves wrote the thing.
As a public service, I’d like to offer a SUPER BRIEF review of of the U.S. Constitution here now. I majored in History in college and have taught 11th grade U.S. History and currently teach 8th grade Civics. But if for any reason you don’t trust me, or suspect bias, by all means please read over the entire Constitution itself; here’s a link you can click on right here.
Article One sets up the Legislative branch (Congress) which write law.
I’d like to highlight a couple of parts that members of Congress seem to mislead voters about during Presidential elections-
- Section 8 paragraph 1 gives only Congress the power to raise or lower taxes- NOT the President
- Sec.8 paragraph 2 give Congress (NOT the President) power to borrow money (ie raise the national debt).
- Sec. 8 para. 4 gives the Federal government (NOT states, county sheriffs or local police departments) authority over naturalization and immigration.
- Sec. 8 para.18 is sometimes called the “elastic clause” because it gives the Federal government the power to make whatever laws that are “necessary and proper” to carry out their duties. Fans of limited government sometimes have a hard time with this. People who HATE government usually just tend to ignore it.
- Sec.9 Para.2 talks about the “Writ of Habeas Corpus” not being allowed to be suspended except in times of war- that’s supposed to mean that you can’t detain (hold someone’s person, habeas corpus) without charging them with a crime and providing the whole due process thing. A lot of people are concerned that ever since 9/11 and a law called the “Patriot Act,” this provision is frequently ignored.
Article Two sets up the Executive branch (President) who’s job it is to carry out (execute/enforce) laws & of course represent us to the rest of the world
Article Three sets up the Judicial branch, who’s role it is to make sure that laws are applied fairly & equally.
Articles Four through Seven pretty much lay out the general structure and function of the Federal government including a the separation of powers an a system of checks and balances so that none of the three branches become more powerful than the other two.
I promise I’m not speeding through to hide anything, I just promised you this would be “brief” and it’s already getting pretty long. Again, read it for yourself, click here for the U.S. Constitution. But I do want to highlight something that gives fits to people who hate the Federal government whether they’re Antifederalists, States Rights advocates, Corporatists who oppose regulation, Libertarians, Anarchists or Tea Party activists-
- Article 6, Paragraph 2 is called the “Supremacy Clause” because it makes clear that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land and while the whole point of Federalism is to share power with the states and local governments, ultimately any law or government action must align with the Constitution. This is important when we start talking about Constitutional rights provided by the Bill of Rights and other Constitutional Amendments.
Don’t let candidates tell you that they’re the ones who will follow the Constitution in one breath and then misquote, misinterpret, misapply, or violate it with an irresponsible policy or position in the very next breath. Since this has already gotten longer than I intended, I’ll save a discussion on those rights and amendments for another post. Please contribute to civil discussion or ask questions below, but don’t be a troll. I’m not here to fight, just to get people thinking. Thanks.