September 20, 2005

Constitution Day Speech: What Constitution Are We Talking About Senator Byrd?

Delegates to the Constitutional Convention gave their assent to the document on September 17th, 1787. Today, I'm scheduled to be the key-note speaker at our University's Constitution Day celebration. Here is the text of my speech. I think it might ruffle a few feathers.

What Constitution Are We Talking About Senator Byrd?

On September 17, 1787 all 12 state delegations present at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention approved the document that they had been working on since May 25th of that year. Of those present at the end of the Convention, 39 of 42 delegates sign it. Today, we celebrate the signing of that document, the oldest written Constitution on the planet and the envy of the world. The Constitution of the United States of America is a model for how governments ought to be organized. It is a model of government so powerful that even The Islamic Republic of Iran, a country founded on the notion that America is the ‘Great Satan’, copied the fundamental structure of government set up in The Constitution.

It is ironic then that this model document for how good government ought to be organized is so little known by our own people. It is doubly ironic that the celebration of Constitution Day was mandated by Senator Robert Byrd, who is a self-proclaimed ‘Constitutional Scholar’ who’s only qualification on the subject seems to be that he has been in the U.S. Senate since the Eisenhower Administration. That, and also the fact that he is a former leader of the Klu Klux Klan.

This University was sent a packet from some organization or another giving us helpful hints on how we ought to celebrate Constitution Day. Included in the packet were a number of statistics, all of them designed to make the point that the average American is woefully ignorant of their own Constitution. To this I will not object. The average America is indeed woefully ignorant of this great document. Any of you who have had the unfortunate experience of taking my American National Government class knows how much I bemoan this fact and, if you passed my class, you are sure to remember one thing, if nothing else—the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States which I force all students to memorize.

But to say that the American people know little about how their government is organized is not really to say a whole lot. This is nothing new. I suspect that the average farmer living on the frontiers of Upstate New York had little knowledge about the Constitution in 1789. I suspect that a meat-packer in Chicago at the turn of the century had little knowledge about the Constitution. I suspect a dirt farmer living in the Oklahoma pan-handle had little knowledge about the Constitution even as Roosevelt held his fire side chats in the 1930s. That is to say, there is nothing new about the majority of the American people taking their Constitution for granted. People are just like that, we have lives to live and things to do. The intricacies of the Supremacy Clause are of little concern when you have kids to feed.

However, what is new in America is that while the masses have always been largely ignorant of the Constitution, it is a very recent phenomenon that elites in our society—those with a college education—also have little knowledge about this document. There was a time in the not too distant past that having a college education meant not only greater upward mobility and a larger income potential, but also meant a greater amount of core knowledge than those without one. Why it is today that educated elites are almost as ignorant of the Constitution as those who did not have the privilege of going to college is something of a mystery to me. But that it is a fact seems clear.

For instance, last year I was downstairs in the (name of building) when some organization or another was having a book sale. It was evident that the books were donated by the Arts and Humanities faculty and among the books I found was an old American National Government textbook. The book dated to the 1950s. Inside, some one had left a copy of one of their exams. Here it is. Let me read a portion of it to you, and you who have taken the same class from me and have complained endlessly about how hard it is please listen carefully.

(Read question I: Explain the entire process involved in preparing, modifying, approving, and superviseing the national budget. Include in your discussion the significance of the various organizations within the executive and legislative branches which play a major role in formulating and implementing the national budget.)

That was question I. You don’t want me to read question II, it is very-very long, and we have limited time here today. But the point is that as college education has gone from being something only the privileged few had access to gaining, to something that we all can do, something was lost. The idea was that opening up the doors of higher education to the masses would make the masses more educated, and to some extent that has happened. That is, that the masses would be more like the educated elite. But the opposite has also happened; today the educated elite are acting very much like the uneducated masses. This is a ubiquitous phenomenon, from the lofty towers of Harvard right down to the local community college you are much more likely to hear conversations about Brittney Spears’ new child around campus than you are to hear students debating the merits of the flat tax or the epistemology of Plato versus Kant.

Now, let us return to Senator Byrd and elites in the U.S. government in general. They realize, rightly, that the American people—all of them—are woefully ignorant of this great document, the Constitution of the United States. So, what is their answer to it? They pass a law. The federal government of the United States of America requires the (name of university), a state institution, to celebrate Constitution Day.

The grand irony in all of this is that this is an abject violation of the very document which they purport to revere! Why is this? Because the Constitution embodies a number of fundamental principles in it: the first and foremost principle found in the Constitution is that the federal government is one of limited powers. As Hamilton argues in his objection to a Bill of Rights in Federalist #84, there is no need to specify what the federal government should not do, because that list would indeed need be a lengthy one, instead we have a federal government that can do nothing except where they are given permission.

Having a Bill of Rights, the authors of the Federalist papers argued, would imply that the federal government could do things not expressly listed in the Constitution itself. For instance, if there is no provision in the Constitution which authorized the federal government to prohibit free-speech, what is the use of adding a clause which protects speech? Wouldn’t that imply that the federal government was one of unlimited powers, only restrained in a few areas instead of a government of limited powers, only authorized to do a few and basic things?

So, where in the Constitution, I ask you, does it give the Congress of the United States the ability to tell a state government what it must do? For that is exactly what is happening here today: the federal government has ordered us to celebrate the Constitution of the United States. The fact that we ought to be celebrating the Constitution of the United States anyway, without this order from on high, is really beside the point. A master may tell his slave to do something that he ought to do anyway, yet the relationship still violates basic principles of human equality.

If the first great principle of the Constitution is one of limited federal power, then the second great principle of the Constitution is the idea of federalism. So, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay lost the Bill of Rights argument. But they did not go down without a fight. Madison, the man most responsible for the Constitution snuck a couple of Amendments in there, just to reemphasize the basic point. Of note, and most relevant to this particular talk, is the Tenth Amendment, which reads simply:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Now, if you actually take the time to read the document—and not do what Senator Byrd did when he went to law school (and what all lawyers actually do) which was to read Court cases about the Constitution—and go home today and read, you know, the actual Constitution itself, then I dare you to find anything in the document which would give the federal government authority to force a state institution to implement this or any other program like it. To do so would be to admit that the very document we are here to celebrate today is utterly meaningless, that it does exactly the opposite of the plain meaning of its very words, and that it means only what we want it to mean.

So, despite the good intention of Senator Byrd and elites in our government that want college educated students to have a deeper understanding of the Constitution, the method they have chosen is ill suited to the task. If they really wanted the American people to know more about the Constitution then I recommend starting with members of Congress first, and then some time in the future moving on to college students, and only then if they could do it without violating the principle of state sovereignty. And to show I’m not all talk, I’m willing to fly out to Washington, D.C. at any time and help Senator Byrd and the other 99 members of the Senate unlearn all the garbage they were taught about the Constitution in Law School.

The Constitution is not a series of cases decided by the Supreme Court, it is a document written in 1787, ratified in 1789, and which has been amended exactly 27 times. We’ll begin by sitting down and reading the document that all of them like to pull out of their pockets and wave in front of cameras.

I would recommend all of you do the same.

By Rusty Shackleford, Ph.D. at 08:06 AM | Comments |