The Constitution is center stage for midterm elections

Yesterday was a big day for Publius 2.0. He celebrated the 223rd anniversary of the day in 1787, when Federalist 1 appeared in a New York newspaper. Happy birthday, Federalist Papers!

Maybe Publius 2.0 partied too hard. Today, the midterm elections hang over his head like a sobering cloud. As he reflects on the campaign, he’s amazed at how central the Constitution has been to this year’s contests, amazed and a little perplexed. It’s put him in an ironic mood.

The document that embodies a set of values that unites us as a people – our belief in such things as individual liberty, equality, limited government and the rule of law – seems only to have heightened our disagreements.

Publius 2.0 noted in an earlier post that Americans were born arguing. The bitter “invectives” and loud “declamations” that Alexander Hamilton said characterized the contest to ratify the Constitution have attached to constitutional arguments ever since. And when we argue over matters of principle, which is what constitutional arguments by definition are about, the area for agreement seems to narrow, not expand: You’re either with me on this, or you’re against me. It’s a matter of principle! You’re either my friend, or my foe. So the document that unites us, serves to push us apart.

The document that unites us, serves to push us apart.

Here’s another irony: While the Constitution embodies a set of unchanging principles, applying them in practice will forever be a matter of interpretation. The framers knew that the Constitution they created would change over time. They created a process of amendment expressly for that purpose. “That useful alterations will be suggested by experience, could not but be foreseen,” Madison wrote in Federalist 43. “It was requisite, therefore, that a mode for introducing them should be provided.”

It’s not just that the framers knew that their creation wasn’t perfect and that the kinks would have to be worked out. They made the Constitution amendable to keep it open to the future, a framework flexible enough to remain relevant in changing times to changing needs.

Which brings us to questions that have been much-discussed this election cycle: What’s the right size of government? How much federal power is too much? It’s tempting to think that we can simply pull a copy of the Constitution out of our pockets and point to the answer. But that’s not possible. It’s not even what the framers intended.

Discussing the power conferred by the Constitution on the national government, Madison said in Federalist 44 that it would have been impossible for the framers to list every power the government would need to do its job:

“Had the convention attempted a positive enumeration of the powers necessary and proper for carrying their other powers into effect, the attempt would have involved a complete digest of law on every subject to which the Constitution relates.”

And that list of powers, he continued, would have to have accommodated “not only the existing state of things,” but also “all the possible changes which futurity may produce.”

In other words, the Constitution was written with intentionally broad strokes. It leaves it to us to figure out how its words apply to our present circumstances. So here’s a question for today: Does any one group have a monopoly on what those words mean?




  1. Leonard A. Lucenti says

    I read your article as published in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, and differ with the following statement….
    “The big challenge 200 years ago was to make a fractious people into a united nation…..but we disagree about today’s issues with the same passionate intensity.

    Two hundred years in the history of man on earth is a very short time frame. In the course of human experience on earth, it rates as a speck of dust in a field.

    However, these two hundred years are the most dynamic and destructive of all, thus rendering us complex and divergent.

    Our founding fathers may have differed as much as we do today, but their convictions often resulting in physical attacks on themselves, as evidenced by Alexander Hamilton’s gun dual that caused him incomparable pain prior to his death.

    That a few elite leaders going back two hundred years ago, would fight to the death on issues they supported stands in sharp contrast to today’s egomaniacs that have permeated the air waves and would never become as visible as those men were.

    We stand at a point in time where important decisions must be made to save ourselves, our planet , and future generations. Nobody I see today is willing to stick his neck out far enough as the founding fathers did.

    We need to get moving, with vigor, on a course that heals earth so that billions of people can enjoy the benefits of a healthy planet, and can find personal gain and viable employment in so doing.

    This our elected leaders must stand in cooperation and promote…before it’s too late.

    Leonard A. Lucenti

  2. says

    Mr. Frank,
    I am responding to your article in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer where you conclude with questions asking if our elected leaders will settle their differences for the betterment of the country and, if not, whether we can still elect leaders who will do so. Unfortunately the answers are no and no until the country reaches a severe crisis point. Our elected leaders are only concerned about retaining their positions and delving into the $200M per month Bill Moyer says is being spent on them by lobbyists. A politicians’ time horizon is the next election and his motivation is how current legislation will impact his future electability. Neither party will address the loss of American manufacturing in the “one world” economy as the primary reason for our economic woes: escalating debt at all levels and job loss. Our present economy, based upon services, housing and financing, merely swirls our diminishing wealth among these sectors while our increasing debt is slowly killing us. Nobody notices. Americans are so used to living beyond our means that any politician suggesting fiscally responsible measures be taken now would be unelectable. It is a tragic legacy we are preparing for our children and theirs.
    John Waring