Ultimate Constitutional Interpretation Depends on We, the People

We were taught in civics class – back when such studies were standard high school fare – that America was a constitutional republic. We watch every four years when a president takes the oath of office to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Occasionally we see reports of a U.S. District, Appeals or Supreme court opinion striking down one appropriately legislated state or federal law as “unconstitutional” for one reason or another.

You would think, based on its clear importance, most Americans would be knowledgeable about the Constitution of the United States.

How wrong you would be!

In 1997, a national poll conducted by the National Constitution Center found that:

  1. 91% of Americans believe that the U.S. Constitution is important to them; and

  2. 84% believe that to work as intended, our system of government depends on active and informed citizens, BUT;

  3. More than half of Americans don’t know the number of Senators;

  4. About 1 out of 3 don’t know the number of branches of the Federal Government;

  5. 20% believe that only lawyers can understand the Constitution;

  6. Almost one-quarter cannot name a single right guaranteed to us by the First Amendment.

Public knowledge of the Constitution hasn’t improved much since then. In March, Newsweek published the results of a survey it commissioned showing 38 percent of Americans would flunk a standard U.S. citizenship test. When media pundits and cultural elitists pontificate about the ignorance of the American people, there is a grim grain of truth when it comes to citizen’s knowledge of the Constitution.

So, when the federal government proceeds to abuse our Constitutionally-protected rights, will most Americans know it? The inescapable answer is: No. If the Supreme Court decides to rationalize away our 2nd Amendment rights to keep and bear arms – a situation that’s potentially just one presidential appointment away! – will the people just meekly accept the twisted rationale? Well, you can’t fight bad logic with uninformed statements.

Does this lack of knowledge seem prudent to you? I think it’s fair to say that most Chattanooga Tea Party members believe a lack of Constitutional knowledge not only unwise, but dangerous. After all, who keeps government honest, if not the people? Certainly not the media.

In business, when a contract is established between two parties, what’s the risk to the party that fails to inform himself about the terms of the contract? It could be catastrophic, right? If I’m a renter who does not adhere to the terms of my rental agreement, I might face anything from not getting back my security deposit to being evicted. If I’m a businessman who does not hold up my end of a business agreement, I might be sued in court and lose more than just my investment. Why should the contract that establishes our federal government be any different?

The Constitution is a contract established for “We, the People” by the states which limits the powers of the central government to those specifically enumerated. If the states don’t stand up for their rights under the 10th Amendment, can we expect a functionally illiterate public to make a stand?

That’s why the first step to recovery from leviathan government is to read and understand the Constitution. Reading the Constitution doesn’t require much time; at 4,543 words, it takes most people about a half hour. That’s a lot fewer words than the Obamacare law. Understanding the Constitution takes more time and study, but it’s worth it. And there are plenty of good resources available to help readers understand the Constitution as it was written by the framers.

One such resource is a very readable book, “The 5,000 Year Leap: A Miracle That Changed the World,” by W. Cleon Skousen. It reviews the history of mankind and compares the progress made to the founding of the Jamestown colony – finding that colonists were hardly more advanced in their tools than ancient civilizations – with the progress we made through the free enterprise system in the 200 years since the founding of the republic. It also features the 28 Principles of Freedom that our founders believed must be understood by the people to help safeguard our liberties.

A more recent source of information is Glenn Beck’s new “The Original Argument,” which condenses and updates some of the key arguments made by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay in “The Federalist Papers.”

Another fine book – more of an encyclopedia, really – is “The Heritage Guide to the Constitution,” which offers an in-depth explanation of the document, clause by clause and amendment by amendment.

One of many good online resources is the website for the National Center for Constitutional Studies, which published “The 5000 Year Leap,” at www.nccs.net. It offers several “Making of America” live and recorded seminars.

Another excellent resource is The Federalist Society, which is was founded in 1982 as a conservative and libertarian answer to efforts by leftist-leaning law schools to stimulate and influence legal and judicial activism in America. As the website explains, “It is founded on the principles that the state exists to preserve freedom, that the separation of governmental powers is central to our Constitution, and that it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be. The Society seeks both to promote an awareness of these principles and to further their application through its activities.”

The government defers to the U.S. Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution. Part of the Tea Party’s job is to help educate citizens on a traditional, originalist understanding of the Constitution so that significant departure from that understanding, in terms of policy and programs, can more readily and vigorously be opposed. Just as nobody can defend your interests as well as you, it’s also true that nobody can defend individual liberties as well as individual Americans. That is part of our heritage of self reliance. If we can return to that more practical and responsible approach to self government, we’ll have achieved a major cultural reversal that will help secure liberty for future generations.

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