Americans generally recognize that our fiscal affairs are in grave disarray and that we are near bankruptcy. They are aware that the world has grown increasingly dangerous. Yet the gravest problem we face — perhaps the greatest challenge we have ever faced — is the decline of constitutional government in the United States.
“Are you serious? Are you serious?” was then–House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s infamous answer when asked what provision of the Constitution authorizes Congress to require Americans to buy health insurance. Her press spokesman confirmed: “You can put this on the record: That is not a serious question.”
A new Congress, under new management, launched an effort to make it serious: “For too long, Congress has ignored the proper limits imposed by the Constitution,” proclaimed House Republicans in their campaign platform, “A Pledge to America.” The Republican how-to manual for new members of Congress advised them to “read and re-read the Constitution” and to “be prepared for two eventual questions every time you cast your vote on the House floor: Did you read the bill, and is it constitutional?”
It turns out that following the Constitution is easier said than done. The federal government is vastly out of its proper relationship with the Constitution. The liberal welfare state is deeply entrenched, and unraveling today’s regulatory regime will be extremely difficult. The administrative web of government policies and procedures that covers America amounts to a new form of rule by bureaucratic experts.
This underlying problem of our politics is not about to change anytime soon, the result of one congressional session or presidential election. It is the work of many generations. Yet the restoration of the principles and practice of constitutional government must be at the heart of any effort to renew America. How are we to proceed?
In this wonderful little treatise, Hillsdale College president Larry Arnn explains that the key to understanding the problem of the modern state and revealing the solution of the Founders’ design has been there all along, bound up in the midst of the country’s title and deed, so to speak. The American story has unfolded in the way it has because of the interweaving influence of two brief but powerful documents: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Writes Arnn: “The way we talk, the way we stand, the way we dance or sing — all are influenced by the laws of our land and the principles behind them, and our laws and principles spring from these two documents.”
Modern liberalism has managed to sever the documents from each other and mutate them, turning the Declaration’s self-evident truths into constantly evolving rights claims and the Constitution’s clear commands into meaningless generalities. This intellectual sham is well advanced, especially among our elites, and increasingly in the citizen body.
Arnn calls on us to rediscover and re-embrace both documents, and sets out to explain their deeper meaning and their integral unity: The universal and timeless claims of the one are intimately connected to the forms and institutions of government established by the other. “The Declaration,” he writes, “acquires a practical form and operation that do not seem to come from it alone. The Constitution soars to the elevation of the natural law, and its arrangements are reinforced with that strength.” The combination of those principles and that form is central to the project of creating a just system of government — something understood by the Founders and still available for those who wish to ignite an American restoration.
The Declaration, in Arnn’s correct and moving description, is grounded in the very nature of things. Its words reach back to both classical philosophy and Biblical theology; “the Laws of Nature” and of “nature’s God” represent a profound agreement between reason and revelation about man and politics. Its understanding of natural rights is a continuation of both the English republican tradition of Locke and Sidney and a natural-law tradition dating back to medieval thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas and to classical thinkers such as Aristotle and Cicero. Properly located in this nature, man is his own natural ruler, with the capacity to govern himself, to make decisions about how to live his life and conduct his affairs.
In discussing the structure of the Constitution, Arnn recalls The Federalist’s famous argument for “auxiliary precautions” and its “republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government.” Rather than relying on a predominance of virtue and civic responsibility — which would have been a dangerous assumption for constitution-makers — the Founders designed a system that separated power and provided for checks and balances. The goal was to harness man’s competing interests — not to debase politics to a discussion only of questions of narrow self-interest, but to make up for what the Framers called “the defect of better motives.”
Americans of all political persuasions should take this timely reminder to heart. Progressives belittle the Constitution. Among conservatives, the Constitution is seen too often as merely a legal document rather than as a framework of self-government, its clauses parchment mechanisms for judicial experts rather than the rules for constitutional politics. Yet the essence of what Madison achieved is not to be found in the technicalities of the Constitution as much as in its operational form — not so much in what it says, but in how it works.
Consider the “citation rule” of the current Congress: Every law must cite its constitutional authority as a requirement for consideration. I strongly advocated the idea and had a hand in its formulation. It’s a great teaching tool, intended to encourage deliberation and debate about legislative powers under the Constitution. But in the current context, it has quickly become — as many of us warned that it might — a thoughtless exercise in box-checking. The citations are mostly broad references, with no argument or creativity. The first (and thus far only) debate under the new rule was on the monumental and riveting question of patent reform.
The Founders didn’t rely on the enumeration of powers alone to limit government, and neither should we. The better path is for each branch of government to be responsible (and held responsible) for its actions according to the structure and distribution of government powers set out in the Constitution.
The reconstruction of constitutional government will not occur all at once, across the board. We must think strategically if we are to relimit government, defining and pursuing a realistic path that focuses government on its primary obligations, restores its responsibility and democratic accountability, and corrects its worst excesses. This is the task of statesmen, schooled in America’s principles as well as in the prudential application of those principles in our time. It will require informed public argument and effective popular persuasion, for sure, but even more the revival of a strong political jurisprudence combined with a great deal of political skill and practical wisdom.
In the end, though, what is needed above all else is a renewed consensus about the meaning of the American enterprise, and this is not possible without reconnecting the noble ideas of the Declaration to the workings of the Constitution. Making these old texts lively and fresh, so that they become once again what Thomas Jefferson called “an expression of the American mind,” is the task of great books and great teachers that draw us into a conversation about the most important things. Such is The Founders’ Key, and such is its author. “A classroom is a very exciting place for one who has good students,” Arnn concludes. “There is the magical process of learning together, of discovery, and from that process comes a bond that lasts a lifetime. In the classic works, this experience is treated as one of the few highest things that human beings can do. That is because it can touch on the things that call us toward places beyond time or condition. People give their lives for causes; in the classroom one may discover which of them are good.”
– Mr. Spalding is the vice president for American studies at the Heritage Foundation, and the author of We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future.