Tuesday, January 20, 2009

'A more perfect Union'

Brilliant young Kevin Vance at The Weekly Standard has a long post about Barack Obama's invocation of the Declaration of Independence at Philadelphia, and calls attention to this passage of Obama's speech:
It was these ideals that led us to declare independence, and craft our constitution, producing documents that were imperfect but had within them, like our nation itself, the capacity to be made more perfect.
Kevin skips past this to talk about the right to life, but what strikes me is the absurd (though now altogether commonplace) misinterpretation of the Constitution's phrase "a more perfect union" that Obama foists upon us.

Why did the Framers gather in Philadelphia in 1787? The were called into convention, sent as delegates by their states, to amend the original Articles of Confederation. The Articles had formed the original compact of the 13 colonies during the War of Independence, but the government established by that document proved unworkable. Convened to amend the Articles, the delegates quickly realized it would be best to start from scratch and draft a new system.

Among several other problems under the Articles, there were competing state currencies and states were imposing tariffs on goods imported from other states, preventing the citizens from reaping the economic advantages of a commercial union. This is the original meaning of the constitutional clause authorizing the federal government to "regulate interstate commerce" -- that is to say, the federal government would guarantee the orderly flow of goods and services across state lines, preventing the states from mucking things up with encumbering regulations and tariffs. Yet, in the 20th century, judicial activism twisted the word "regulate" in the Commerce Clause to mean that Washington could step in and muck things up in ways that certainly the Framers never intended.

Just as the Commerce Clause has been wrenched out of historical context to mean the exact opposite of what was originally meant, a similar alchemy of meaning has been practiced on the phrase "a more perfect union." Here is what the preamble of the Constitution says:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, 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, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Now, as I said, the 1787 convention had been called to amend the Articles, so that the delegates had somewhat overstepped their commission in crafting an entirely new plan of government. Therefore, in presenting their plan, they began with a sentence intended to explain and justify their unauthorized action. Since the Constitution, if it was to become binding, required the ratification of the several states, the preamble says that it is "We the People" who "ordain and establish" this new framework. If the states hadn't ratified it, it would not have been ordained or established, so the "We the People" phrase -- however inflated with mystic significance by civics teachers over the years -- was written more in expectation of ratification than as an expression of the document as a manifestation of popular will.

So, what of this first avowed purpose, "to form a more perfect Union"? Well, the union of the states under the articles was manifestly imperfect, with the states working at cross purposes as if they were rival European duchies. Especially by establishing a common currency and reserving the regulation of interstate commerce to the federal government, the Constitution aimed to create a more amicable and mutually beneficial relationship among the states -- "a more perfect Union." Q.E.D.

What the Constitution did not do, and what the Framers certainly never intended by that bland and opaque phrase, was to suggest that the federal government engage in an endless project of social improvement, a perpetual process of "more perfect" and "more perfect" until Union gave way to Utopia. And yet this is exactly what the modern misreading of the phrase -- a misreading evidently shared by our new president, a Harvard Law graduate -- would have us believe.

The best single-volume treatise on originalism, M.E. Bradford's Original Intentions: On the Making and Ratification of the United States Constitution, includes a foreword by historian Forrest McDonald in which he contrasts the original "nomocratic" view of the Constitution (i.e., establishing a basic legal framework of government, a Rule of Law) with what he and Bradford call the "teleocratic" view:
The alternative, teleocratic view is one that has come into fashion only during the last few decades and has all but destroyed the original Constitution. This is the notion that the design of the Constitution was to achieve a certain kind of society, one based upon abstract principles of natural rights or justice or equality or democracy or all of the above. It holds that specfic provisions of the document are of secondary importance or none at all; what counts are the "principles" it supposedly embodies, usually principles based on the Declaration of Independence or Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, neither of which has any standing in law.
In his epilogue, Bradford has sport with liberal author Mortimer Adler's ridciulous little book about the Constitution, We Hold These Truths, "whose weaknesses are specified by the very title," i.e., because Adler's title phrase comes from the Declaration, not the Constituion. Bradford writes:
After Adler identifies the Declaration as a "preface" to the Constitution, we know how the argument will tend: that in the end the Declaration will, if allowed, swallow up the Constitution -- except for the Preamble, as ideologically construed.
And so it goes. The teleological conception of the Constitution as chartering an unlimited federal authority that functions as an irresistible engine for achieving abstract ideals -- always "more perfect" and "more perfect" with no end in sight short of absolute perfection -- makes a mockery of the Framers' intent to "secure the blessings of liberty."

There can be neither security nor liberty without a fixed Rule of Law, but by misreading the phrase "a more perfect Union," the teleocratic view requires that the rules be constantly changed and updated, always to grant more power to Washington, centralizing authority in ways inimicable to liberty.

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