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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

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Op-Ed: Constitution–Concrete or Clay?

Bertram Halbruner

By Bertram Halbruner

As I write this from my home near Woodbine, autumn is fast approaching. Each year around this time my mind wanders back to my days in school. For it was in these weeks preceding Thanksgiving that we always studied early U.S. History. It was then that I developed my love for the history of our nation. I enjoyed colonial history. Hence, my interest in the Constitution, civics, and such.
The United States Constitution, ratified in 1791, is the foundation and blueprint for our nation’s government and the civil liberties of its people. Having been written and ratified more than 230 years ago, some today, may wonder if it is still relevant. Should we view the Constitution as a solid foundation like concrete, or should we see it as clay in the sculptors’ hands? Is it static or something to be redirected with every wind of change? Should we hold it dear and cherish its precepts? Or should we replace it with something more contemporary that reflects the diversity of today’s culture.
It has been said by historians, that the men who gathered to write our Constitution, where perhaps the greatest collection of intellectual minds the world has ever known. While perhaps not having university degrees, they were nonetheless some of the greatest minds ever gathered in one place at one time. They were also patriots. These men had fought a revolution and made indescribable sacrifice to bring about the nation we now live in. Their dedication to the principals and ideals we hold dear, was to them, worth dying for. They gave us those principals and ideals in the greatest legal document ever to have been written: The United States Constitution.
Our founding fathers experienced things that we, today, do not and never have. They had spent long years fighting a revolution. They had lived, since landing on Americas shores, under the rule of King George. They had never truly known the freedoms we enjoy today. Unlike us, expressing a dissenting opinion could get you arrested. This was the case with Alexander McDougall. In 1769, he wrote and published, “The Betrayed of New York, a criticism of a vote by the New York Colonial Assembly. Subsequent to its publication, McDougall was arrested and imprisoned for a few months, for “liable.” While colonists enjoyed a measure of free speech, it was not wise of one to be critical of the government! 
The Colonists also experienced heavy taxation. The Sugar Act greatly increased the already burdensome tax on molasses. The Stamp Act required most printed material, in the Colonies, to use paper produced in London, which bore a “revenue stamp” or what we know as a tax stamp. Then there was the Tea Tax, which resulted in the Boston Tea Party. There were colonial assemblies for governing the colonies, however their powers were strictly limited by England, for fear they would become autonomous. Hence the term “No taxation without representation” was born.
Colonists believed they should enjoy all the rights and privileges of British citizenship, but found however, they did not. Instead, they were treated by Britain as second-class citizens.  In 1768, British troops arrived in Boston to support officials appointed by the King. They were also there to enforce unpopular “Parliamentary Legislation.” When 300-400 colonists protested the soldiers’ presence by harassing them, throwing snowballs and such, the soldiers opened fire. We know this today as the Boston Massacre! In essence, tyranny was a way of life. We see similar in many countries even today. Yet because it is not here, in America, for us to endure, we cannot fully comprehend its darkness. Nor can we fully appreciate the freedoms and protections afforded us by our Constitution.
When the framers of the Constitution drafted this document, they had good reason, and firsthand knowledge of why they needed such a thing. The concepts and ideals they placed within it were themselves, revolutionary. A government controlled by free men, to serve the needs of freemen.
Today one might suggest that we have no idea what the framers intended. We surely cannot read their minds, nor understand their intent both then and for future generations. Surely, we cannot comprehend the relevance or importance, if any, of the Constitution, in relation to today’s cultural diversities and political landscape.
This is not, however, an entirely accurate assessment. Many of the framers of the Constitution took up the pen and put to paper their thoughts, feelings, and intent in writing the Constitution. They explained what it meant and why it was needed.  Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote 85 articles and essays explaining the Constitution and encouraging its ratification by the people. These writings covered an array of topics including, but not limited to, The Dangers of Foreign Force and Influence, Dissention and Hostilities Between States, Commercial Relations, Economy In Government, Preserving the Union as well as The Difficulties of the Current Government, i.e. The Continental Congress. These writings are known today as The Federalist Papers. 
Their importance in explaining the Constitutions intent cannot be overstated. As of the year 2000, The U.S. Supreme Court had noted and referenced the Federalist Papers 291 times in issuing opinions regarding Constitutional interpretation and intent.
Many other contemporary statesmen, like Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson, expounded upon the Constitution, its need and intent, in their own writings and memoirs. All of which are available to us today. We simply must read them if we desire a window into the minds of our Constitutions authors.
Perhaps we as a nation should reach back into our past to determine the course our future should take. As one writer stated, “the future is the past.” Should we adhere to the Constitution as it is written? This is a concept referred to as “Originality of Text.” Or should we interpret the Constitution in light of current trends and social issues. Is the Constitution a fixed point in a changing age or is it a protean organism taking on whatever form a transient majority may wish?
Today, there are some in Washington who are suggesting a Constitutional Convention for the purpose of “re-writing the Constitution.” Our founding fathers provided for us a mechanism to change the Constitution through amendments. A lengthy and laborious process to say the least. Perhaps intentionally so. We may do well to look to this avenue before we think about re-writing the entire document. Rewriting the Constitution may be a road we would do well not to travel. For heaven alone knows what we may end up with!
We today, have never known or experienced in our lives, that which brought our forefathers to revolution, to declare independence, and to bring forth a constitution for establishing and governing a free people. Perhaps because we today, have never known true tyranny.
 In America, we take for granted the rights, privileges and guidance the Constitution affords us. Nor do we recognize the severity of losing its protections.
Think of how our lives might be if we had no electoral process for selecting those who represent us in government. Instead, our governors would be appointed by a higher authority to whom they owed their allegiance, not to those they govern. Think about how different our nation might be if the First Amendment were to be repealed. No freedom of speech, no freedom of religion, no freedom of press.
 To live in a nation where speaking your mind might land you in jail or worse. A nation where you worshipped as the state tells you to worship, if you were allowed to worship at all. A nation where the press is controlled by the government and reports only that which the government tells it to report. A nation where peaceful protest is insurrection or treason.
I recently listened to a talk show during which a lady asked the question; “Why are Americans so obsessed with preserving the Constitution”? In order that we might answer that question accurately, perhaps, we should study our history more closely. 
Likewise, nations similar to America forfeited or lost the freedoms we have become so accustomed to. Perhaps we cannot know the actual intent of the Constitution or exactly why the famers wrote it as they did, because we have not lived as they did. Perhaps we are better off not knowing. For in order that we may know fully and understand completely, we must first submit to the tyranny which the Constitution protects us from. Is this a road we wish to travel? Or should we leave well enough alone?
Halbruner writes from Woodbine.

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