Lincoln’s Constitution and Ours
Fred Schwarz made my blood boil in his review of Lincoln and the Triumph of the Nation (“Lincoln’s Constitution,” January 23). Does the expression “The ends justify the means” sound better when conservatives dress it up, as Mr. Schwarz does in his final paragraph, than when totalitarians and their apologists use it nakedly? “Fiddling with the Constitution must occur only in response to a great emergency or a severe long-term problem where every other avenue has been exhausted . . .”
Who gets to decide whether an emergency is “great” or not? Who says whether a problem is “severe”? The people, imperial presidents, or unaccountable judges? Who says how long is “long-term”? When, in a republic with representatives accountable to voters, is “every other avenue” ever exhausted?
If we the people (conservatives especially) do not demand better reasoning than this from presidents and the judges they appoint, the tyrants will win, and very soon we will have no Constitution to bend.
Fred Schwarz replies: If we insist on applying all the usual rules during a war, when insurrectionists and terrorists lurk at every corner and the central government needs to act with much greater vigor, or in a situation such as the civil-rights movement, where large groups of citizens had been unable for many decades to exercise their constitutional privileges, then we will no longer have a country and a Constitution to defend. The Founders recognized this and wrote the Constitution with enough vagueness and wiggle room to provide flexibility in an emergency.
As for the question of who decides when an emergency is great enough, the final defense against abuse of power in a democracy lies with the people, as the authors of the Federalist Papers pointed out on numerous occasions. If a power-mad and unscrupulous despot is determined to set up a dictatorship, a paper constitution will not stop him. But in every real-world case where the U.S. government has expanded its powers in a crisis, legitimately or not, the people have either approved the expansion or reined in the government, sometimes immediately and sometimes when the crisis was over.
Conservatives must recognize the need for occasional fiddling, or they will shrink to a tiny rump admiring each other in righteous isolation. But by keeping the fiddling to a minimum, reserving it for cases when the need is greatest, and reversing it as quickly as possible, they can set an example that (hopefully) will discourage recourse to this extreme by others, except when nothing else will work.