The Change We Need: A Return to the Constitution

by Derrick G. Jeter

As the day draws near for the 2008 presidential election, a speech I once heard comes to mind.


Today we celebrate the mystery of American renewal . . . in the world’s oldest democracy that brings forth the vision and courage to reinvent America.


When our founders boldly declared America’s independence to the world and our purpose to the Almighty, they knew that America to endure would have to change. Not change for change sake, but change to preserve America’s ideals—life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. Though we march to the music of our time, our mission is timeless. Each generation of Americans must define what it means to be an American.1


Sounds like Barack Obama, doesn’t it? It wasn’t. This was from the introduction of Bill Clinton’s 1993 inaugural address. But Obama could have spoken these words because change is the order of the day . . . again. However, Bill Clinton ran and governed as a centrist—he didn’t change much. Barack Obama is running as a liberal—one could say, a socialist. How would he govern? To the far left if he is awarded a Democratic House and Senate. He would change much. He would reinvent and redefine America.


All of this came to mind recently after an exchange of emails with a friend of mine who borrowed my DVD series of John Adams. Here is some of our conversation.


John

We watched “John Adams goes to France” last night. Painful. Good golly the Frenchies were (are) weird.


Derrick

At least we can give the French their due. They’ve maintained their rich traditions, from Adams’ time to today—fine food and wine, an elegant language, a love of art, skepticism about America and Americans, and yes their penchant for the unusual. This is more than we can say, however, for American traditions, from Adams’ time to our day.


John

In one sense I agree. We have certainly lost much of what characterized our nation when it was founded. However, I also think that since our nation was founded as a rebellion against another power, a change from the status quo, that the embrace of change might be part of that old tradition. Our tradition then is that there is none, at least none that is lasting. I wouldn’t suggest that’s what Adams and the boys were going for, but rather that it might be the end result of the break. It’s very hard to start new traditions out of brokenness.


Derrick

Very perceptive. Historically, as far as America is concerned, I agree, it is hard to start new traditions out of brokenness or rebellion. Though I think Adams and the boys attempted to do so after the rebellion when they formed first the Articles of Confederation and then the Constitution—to codify a governmental tradition. I’d argue that we have become unmoored from this tradition, the tradition of governing by the Constitution, which is to say self-rule.


Later in the series you’ll see a scene with Adams, Abigail, and Jefferson discussing the French Revolution. Jefferson delivers his famous line that the tree of liberty must occasionally be watered by the blood of tyrants and patriots. I think as far as Jefferson was concerned he believed in the tradition of rebellion. I wonder what he and the other Founders would think about the recent bailout bills and the drift toward an ever intrusive tax system which concentrates more power in the government’s hands—remember, taxation was a central issue for their rebellion. Our tradition may be the embrace of change, which is certainly clamored for these days, but change to what end? The Founders embraced change slowly and then only when they thought it necessary to unshackle the burden of taxation so they could be free from governmental restraint. Our current call for change is just the opposite—we’ll give up freedom for what we think is security. As Franklin is attributed as saying, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”2 Securing freedom is difficult. Ordering freedom is challenging. But maintaining freedom is impossible if we lose sight of the Constitution and the ability to govern ourselves.


John

I agree about the changes and the kind of aimless direction that has seeped into our society in the last several decades. At least people still cite the Founding Fathers as an authority. Though if they don’t know what they said, that doesn’t help all that much.3


It also doesn’t help all that much if we the people don’t read and understand the Constitution or its commentary the Federalist Papers.


America’s timeless mission isn’t change, renewal, reinvention, or generational definition. Our timeless mission is to govern our own lives and uphold the Constitution of the United States—to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”4 What does this mean practically? A few general constitutional ideas come to mind:


Taxes—cut them and keep them low

Government—cut it and keep it small

Defense—protect us from foreign and domestic enemies

Immigration—welcome to America, legally

Abortion—stop the wholesale genocide of whole generations

Gun rights—keep your powder dry and copy of the Second Amendment in your pocket

Judiciary—interpret, don’t legislate


If Congress and the President would advocate these principles that would be change indeed . . . change we need.


1. William J. Clinton, “Inaugural Address” (January 20, 1993), in The Presidents Speak: The Inaugural Addresses of the American presidents, from Washington to Clinton, ed. Davis Newton Lott (New York: Henry Holt, 1994), 366.

2. Benjamin Franklin (attributed), quoted in Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York: Simon and Shuster, 2003), 169.

3. John Adair, email to author, October 22, 2008. Used by permission.

4. Preamble to The Constitution of the United States of America.

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