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Constitutional Ignorance Forfeits Our Rights

September 16, 2008

September 17 is Constitution Day, marking the anniversary of its 1787 signing. Schools will teach about the Constitution, but not for the obvious reason. Their reason will be that it is now required of every educational institution receiving federal aid. However, they won’t teach about the irony of that requirement, which came from the man described as the Senate’s leading Constitutional scholar, yet clearly conflicts with the Constitution.

In 2004, Senator Robert Byrd (D.-W.Va.) inserted the requirement into a pork-filled spending bill that was blatantly inconsistent with Americans’ general welfare, which is the Constitution’s rationale. It also clearly overstepped the 10th Amendment’s restriction of the federal government to only its enumerated powers.

His ’solution’ aside, however, Senator Byrd is correct about our insufficient Constitutional knowledge. In one National Constitution Center poll, while two-thirds of adults said detailed knowledge of it was ‘absolutely essential,’ only one in six claimed such knowledge.

Unfortunately, Americans know too little about our Constitution to maintain the freedoms it was designed to protect. Instead, our ignorance leads us to sacrifice rights out of undue deference to majority rule.

America’s Constitution is a far cry from establishing majority rule. Our founders did believe in voting to select who should be entrusted with the power of government, but the more important question they asked was what powers will ‘We, the people’ delegate to the federal government to exercise on our behalf? That is why so much of the Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights, is devoted to what the government is not allowed to do, regardless of majority sentiment. As Jefferson said, our founders fought not for democracy, but for government ‘tied down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.’

The Constitution contains multiple non-majority rules to protect Americans against federal abuses, such as presidential veto power and the supermajorities required to change the Constitution. Its defense is the rationale for the Supreme Court’s power to strike down unconstitutional laws, regardless of how many congressional votes they received. That reflected our founders’ antipathy toward pure majority rule.

James Madison said ‘democracies…have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.’ Thomas Jefferson warned that ‘[an] elective despotism was not the government we fought for,’ and that ‘The majority, oppressing an individual, is guilty of a crime, abuses its strength, and by acting on the law of the strongest, breaks up the foundations of society.’ Alexander Hamilton asserted that ‘Real liberty is not found in the extremes of democracy.’

However, many today feel that our founders’ opposition to unlimited democracy can be squared with political determination of everything by saying, ‘also protecting the rights of the minority.’ But our lack of Constitutional knowledge means that believing in protecting the rights of minorities does not actually protect them when they are outvoted.

 

Since Americans don’t clearly understand their Constitutional rights against government abuse, the habit of deference to political majorities results in those rights being steamrollered whenever more than 50% vote to do so. Examples are plentiful because, despite the Constitution’s imposition of strictly limited, enumerated federal powers, there is no area it does not now reach, if not dominate. And with our protections eroding, majority voting controls more and more of what our founders thought they had put off limits to political determination.

Americans’ inattention to the highest law of the land puts our essential rights and liberties at risk, as we can’t effectively defend what we only vaguely know. Unless we begin taking them as seriously as our founders and vigorously defend the Constitutional safeguards that maintain them, our system of self-government will continue eroding. But when we don’t even recognize the irony of a federal mandate to promote understanding the Constitution, when that mandate is inconsistent with the Constitution, we are far from that point.

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