The simple truth is that many citizens, some elected officials, and sadly, some Justices on the Supreme Court, do not understand what it means to have a written Constitution for the United States. The Constitution is, as it calls itself, “the supreme law.” That means it should be read, understood and obeyed by all, including Justices on the Court.
George Washington correctly described the importance of the Constitution in his Farewell Address to the American People. He wrote that the Constitution was “sacredly obligatory on all” until and unless it was amended “by the authentic act of all the people.” In plain terms, that meant that when it was necessary to amend the Constitution, that should be done only by the Congress and the state legislatures as stated in the Constitution itself.
So, the purpose of the Owner’s Manual is to present in plain English the essential points of the Constitution not just for lawyers, but for laymen, to understand how the Constitution was designed to work, and why it is important, even in the 21st century, for us to understand, respect, and follow, that document. For those reasons, the American Civil Rights Union prepared this presentation.
America’s Owner’s Manual author and ACRU Counsel John Armor, dressed as Benjamin Franklin, recently spoke at a Tea Party discussing constitutional values. Below is the video.
The Founders of our Country gave us a great Constitution, which established the structure of our government and the principles for operating it. But the Constitution does not belong to the government; it belongs to the citizens of our nation. That is why it begins, “We the people.” To enable us to understand and use the Constitution, the American Civil Rights Union has published an “Owner’s Manual,” which explains the various provisions of our Founding Document and how it affects us all. In an entertaining and informative way, the Constitution becomes real for the listener. It is an invaluable tool for constructive citizenship and the preservation of liberty.
James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay wrote the 85 Federalist papers as articles to be printed in New York newspapers, to favor the ratification of the Constitution in that state. They wrote under the pseudonym of “Publius,” though research since then has assigned most of the articles to the individual author of each.
From the Federalist, No. 1, by Alexander Hamilton. [This relates to the Introduction.]
” It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.”
From the Federalist, No. 10, by James Madison. [Concerning all the elected offices in the federal government, this relates to Articles I and II.]
“The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.”
In short, the Framers believed that they had designed a system in which reason, rather than passion, would rule, and the evils of political divisions could be prevented. They believed they had removed politics and political parties from government. History has proved that to be dead wrong.
From the Federalist, No. 30, by Alexander Hamilton. [ Concerning the need for national taxation, this relates to Article I. It also states the reason why the first government of the United States, the Articles of Confederation, was an abject failure.]
“Money is, with propriety, considered as the vital principle of the body politic; as that which sustains its life and motion, and enables it to perform its most essential functions. A complete power, therefore, to procure a regular and adequate supply of it, as far as the resources of the community will permit, may be regarded as an indispensable ingredient in every constitution. From a deficiency in this particular, one of two evils must ensue; either the people must be subjected to continual plunder, as a substitute for a more eligible mode of supplying the public wants, or the government must sink into a fatal atrophy, and, in a short course of time, perish.”
From the Federalist, No. 41, by James Madison. [A reply to opponents of the Constitution who argued that certain powers given to the federal government were inconvenient, or dangerous, this relates largely to Article I.]
” It may display the subtlety of the writer; it may open a boundless field for rhetoric and declamation; it may inflame the passions of the unthinking, and may confirm the prejudices of the misthinking: but cool and candid people will at once reflect, that the purest of human blessings must have a portion of alloy in them; that the choice must always be made, if not of the lesser evil, at least of the GREATER, not the PERFECT, good; and that in every political institution, a power to advance the public happiness involves a discretion which may be misapplied and abused. They will see, therefore, that in all cases where power is to be conferred, the point first to be decided is, whether such a power be necessary to the public good; as the next will be, in case of an affirmative decision, to guard as effectually as possible against a perversion of the power to the public detriment.”
From the Federalist, No. 45, by James Madison. [Concerning the relationship between the federal government being created and the pre-existing state governments, this relates to the broad issue of federalism – the 10th Amendment.]
“The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.”
This was the assumption of the Framers about the nature of federalism. Any modern observer can easily see from the respective budgets, the numbers of employees, the volume of laws written, the nature of court cases decided, that the federal government has long since breeched the constitutional levees in Congress, the Courts and the Presidency which were intended to maintain this balance.
From the Federalist, No. 49, by either Hamilton or Madison. [Concerning the checks and balances within the federal government, this relates to Articles I, II, III, and V.]
“As the people are the only legitimate fountain of power, and it is from them that the constitutional charter, under which the several branches of government hold their power, is derived, it seems strictly consonant to the republican theory, to recur to the same original authority, not only whenever it may be necessary to enlarge, diminish, or new-model the powers of the government, but also whenever any one of the departments may commit encroachments on the chartered authorities of the others. The several departments being perfectly co-ordinate by the terms of their common commission, none of them, it is evident, can pretend to an exclusive or superior right of settling the boundaries between their respective powers; and how are the encroachments of the stronger to be prevented, or the wrongs of the weaker to be redressed, without an appeal to the people themselves, who, as the grantors of the commissions, can alone declare its true meaning, and enforce its observance?”
Articles I, II, and III give each of the separate branches of government some controls over the behavior of the other two. The assumption of the Framers was that these controls would allow the other two branches to prevent or thwart attempts by the third branch to seize powers beyond its constitutional scope. The final control in Article V was that the amendment process belonged to the people, through the specified amendment process. No. 49 does state that when two branches of the federal government choose to violate the constitution, the breech is likely to succeed. The McCain-Feingold Act on election “reform” demonstrates that when all three branches of government choose to violate the Constitution, the violation is unstoppable.
From the Federalist, No. 68, by Alexander Hamilton. [Concerning the Electoral College method of choosing the President of the United States, this relates to Article II.]
“The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States. It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.”
This is another example of the intent of the Framers not working as they had intended. Without naming names, Presidents have been elected who exhibited talents for low intrigue and the little arts of popularity. However, not since the second election of George Washington has the Electoral College functioned as designed. Since then, Electors have been pledged to party candidates, rather than exercising their independent judgment.
From the Federalist, No. 78, by Alexander Hamilton. [Concerning the authority of the federal judges, this relates to Article III.]
“Whoever attentively considers the different departments of power must perceive, that, in a government in which they are separated from each other, the judiciary, from the nature of its functions, will always be the least dangerous to the political rights of the Constitution; because it will be least in a capacity to annoy or injure them. The Executive not only dispenses the honors, but holds the sword of the community. The legislature not only commands the purse, but prescribes the rules by which the duties and rights of every citizen are to be regulated. The judiciary, on the contrary, has no influence over either the sword or the purse; no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society; and can take no active resolution whatever. It may truly be said to have neither FORCE nor WILL, but merely judgment; and must ultimately depend upon the aid of the executive arm even for the efficacy of its judgments.”
Thomas Jefferson reached an exact opposite conclusion, that the federal judiciary was the “most dangerous branch,” because when it seized additional power, there was no authority available to restrain it again. This is not quite true, as there are controls other than impeachment which Congress can employ, and very rarely has employed, to restrain federal judges. Still, the issues of how much power federal judges should have under the Constitution, and how to rein them in when they exceed those limits, are important subjects to study concerning the design and function of the Constitution.
About the Federalist: The US Supreme Court has frequently recognized, less frequently in recent decades, that the Federalist is a seminal treatise on politics in general, and in particular on the meaning and purpose of the provisions in the Constitution. All who wish to study the Constitution would do well to read the Federalist. It is available in paperback in all book stores, and here is a link to a searchable, on-line text of the Federalist.