Constitution? What Constitution?

by Derrick G. Jeter

Sitting on one end of my desk is a medallion commemorating the bicentennial of American independence. Across the top is the simple, but profound, word, “Freedom”; and across the bottom are the dates “1776–1976.” In the center is an image of the Liberty Bell. I bought this when the family and I were on our Great American History Tour and we stopped in Philadelphia to see Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. Sitting on the other side of my desk is a iron casting of Uncle Sam. Made as a doorstop, he sits on my desk because I don’t want the strips of his red and white pants to lose their paint. He wears a blue morning jacket, a white vest, red bow tie, and a top hat with a blue band with stars around it. Sam carries an American flag in his right hand.

Such patriotic symbolism I suppose is hokey, especially for a grown man—but I don’t really care. I love my country and am grateful that God allowed me to be born an American. And these little nick-knacks, as well as the American flag that stands in my office (and other Americana bric-a-brac), serve as a reminder that individual American liberty is not to be taken for granted.

Our freedom has been much on my mind lately, as news reports flood the airwaves about the “Cash for Clunkers” program, in which the federal government guarantees payment of $4,500 to new car deals for citizens who bring in their old cars and buy a more fuel efficient new car, and about the ever increasing heated debates about healthcare reform. Both of these subjects have led to a myriad of questions: Why should taxpayers subsidize someone else’s purchase of a new car? Could the billions of dollars set aside for the “Cash for Clunkers” program have been better spent on other environmental initiatives? Where is the money coming from to pay for the “Cash for Clunkers” program—I though we were already running up an astronomical about of debt and the deficit is already mind-numbing? How can we afford universal, government run healthcare when the best estimates put the cost in the trillion dollar range over ten years? Should we, or should we not, have a public option in health reform? What exactly is the single payer system? The United States Government is notorious for budget overruns and inefficiency, what makes anyone think that universal healthcare will stay on budget and run smoothly—just look at Medicare and Medicaid? Will universal healthcare look like Canada’s or Great Britain’s?

And on, and on, and on the questions go; there are as many questions as their are citizens in the United States. But, the one question I’ve yet to hear anyone ask, including our members of Congress, is the most important question of all—is it Constitutional? What is the constitutionality of the “Cash for Clunkers” program or of universal healthcare?

On September 7, 1803, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Senator Wilson Cary Nicholas, regarding the purchase of Louisiana from France.

Our peculiar security is in possession of a written Constitution. Let us not make it a blank paper by construction. I say the same as to the opinion of those who consider the grant of the treaty-making power as boundless. If it is, then we have no Constitution. If it has bounds, they can be no other than the definitions of the powers which that instrument gives. It specifies & delineates the operations permitted to the federal government, and gives all the powers necessary to carry these into execution. Whatever of these enumerated objects is proper for a law, Congress may make the law; whatever is proper to be executed by way of a treaty, the President & Senate may enter into the treaty; whatever is to be done by a judicial sentence, the judges may pass the sentence.1

It seems to me that we no longer listen to men such as Jefferson, and are more apt to listen to men like FDR, who reportedly stated after the inaugural ceremony in 1937, “When the Chief Justice read me the oath and came to the words ‘support the Constitution of the United States’ I felt like saying: ‘Yes, but it’s the Constitution as I understand it, flexible enough to meet any new problem of democracy—not the kind of Constitution your Court has raised up as a barrier to progress and democracy.’”2 And yet, after listening to town hall debates regarding healthcare and watching reports on the “Cash for Clunkers” program I wonder whether the Constitution ever enters anyone’s mind—whether the strict reading of Jefferson or the “flexible” reading of Roosevelt. But if we cannot debate on Constitutional grounds—on the written Constitution, and not a made up one depending on who is in power—then what security do we, as free citizens, have? All the questions that have swirled in the hot air of this summer are completely off point; they are practical and utilitarian but have missed the critical center: What does the Constitution say? What has been asked and answered is the proverbial questions of whether we want the deck chairs over here or over there while the ship is sinking. Who cares? We are losing our country and no one is is bothering to ask why the ship is sinking, or how we can prevent the ship from sinking, or how was can patch the ship and pump out the bilges.

All of this (and more) has brought me to the conclusion that virtually all of our members of Congress and certainly our President, and most of he members of the media, as well as much of the American public would respond to an actual Constitutional question with a dumbfounding lilt in their voices and inquire: “Constitution? What Constitution?”

  1. Thomas Jefferson to Wilson Cary Nicholas, September 7, 1803, in Memoir, Correspondence, and Miscellanies: From the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 4, ed. Thomas Jefferson Randolph (Charlottesville, Va.: F. Carr and Co., 1829), 3.
  2. Franklin D. Roosevelt, quoted in Marvin Olasky, The American Leadership Tradition: Moral Vision from Washington to Clinton (New York: The Free Press, 1999), 225.